TIPS FROM THE MFA PIT, PART 16

One of my students referred to a book she read recently that referred to a once-common publishing term known as the “slush pile.”  Which led me on a discussion on open submissions and small publishing houses and how a new author can get their manuscript read without first having it vetted by an agent…

In your journal for this week you refer to William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade and his mention of the slush pile. In any event, the slush pile is a real thing, books (or screenplays) sent “over the transom” as they used to say, which means without an agent or a targeted call for submissions. Some of the smaller publishers—and even some bigger ones, though NONE of the Big Five—will still take unagented or open submissions, which can be considered the slush pile of today. Some editors love them, usually what’s referred to as the “baby editors,” former editorial assistants who work under a senior editor and are now building their own list, as they’re always on the look-out for the next big author or trend.

Young editors/agents are often the best to query as they’re more open to submission, and a good website to keep an eye on is Publishing…and Other Forms of Insanity, as their posts always highlight new agents looking for clients. The site also lists publishers of all genres who accept unagented submissions, and it’s really eye-opening how many publishing houses are really out there. So much emphasis is put on getting published by the Big Five, but in truth, your chances for publication are much better if you query a smaller house. Many turn out to be hidden (or unappreciated) gems as far as how they value their authors, and many are willing to take a chance on new ones. And don’t discount their influence either as far as getting discovered. One of my favorite stories is of a small-house author making is big named Nelson Johnson, author of Boardwalk Empire. He published a book with Plexus Publishing, a small house out of Medford, NJ, and he was just lucky enough to have it read by HBO showrunner  Terrance Winter, who eventually turned it into a hit series for HBO!

I guess the moral of this story is you never know where your fortunes lie, and if the opportunity arises, just take it. You never know who’s reading!

Pot Luck

Some watch for robins, some for crocuses, some even say marshmallow peeps, but for me the real harbinger of spring are potholes, I’m telling you, those pervasive little asphalt assailants never fail to creep up on us, around every bend and over every hillock, disguised like shimmering little macadam birdbaths until you hit one and bam! there goes the hub cap, spinning away like a frisbee.

I live fifteen miles from work, and on my way home last week I counted no less than 25 of the replicating little suckers. And that didn’t include the ever-widening fissures in the middle of the road, and the winter erosion of the softer shoulders, due to the dig and drag of the snow plows. And then there’s those inevitable frost heaves that pitch up and crack the roads, always on whatever side of the road I’m driving. Which, of course, quickly becomes your side when you swerve into my lane to avoid them.

But if all this isn’t bad enough, the cure isn’t much better. How many of you have driven smack into a fresh pancake of cold patch, that municipal quick-fix of asphalt the town boys tamp down with shovels and their own boots, to shut up the one irate taxpayer that doesn’t quit calling until it’s fixed. Ahh…the lovely ping-ping-ping of loose tar as it plies itself to the undercarriage of your car. You’ll be scrubbing that off until nigh on August. Soon those road patch patties will be as ubiquitous as dandelions, and just as hard to get rid of. Because if you’re betting on highway dollars on high to get them gone, you can just forget it. Cold patch is too much of a bargain.

For the meantime, take your comfort where you can get it. After the mild winter we’ve had here in Jersey, it could have been much worse. Besides, it’s only a matter of time until we’re burning our bare feet crossing it. And that, my dears, could only mean a day at the beach.

Hey! It’s time for Camp NaNoWriMo!

And I don’t mean the kiddie camp! I mean the one that’s mean for pseudo adults like us! Want to get that novel out from under you bed? Or to whip the one in shape that you’ve been to scared to set on the Query Trail? Or maybe just start with a brand new thang? Then Camp NaNoWriMo is for you! But don’t listen to me. This is from their site:

Camp NaNoWriMo is your next, great writing adventure! This month-long writing challenge takes place every April and July, and offers you the flexibility to try something new with your writing. The key differences between Camp NaNoWriMo and our November writing challenge are that during Camp, you can set your own word-count goal (you’re not locked into 50,000 words!), and you can officially tackle any kind of writing project, novel or not.

So get cracking!  There’s special interest groups like Camp Memoir and NanNoFinMo–finish that existing novel–you can learn more about by visiting their site. The weather is about to turn balmy, and there’s no better time than to sit by the fire pit, crack open the old laptop and start creating.

Happy Writing!

This is how I feel right now

I’m closing down on a draft right now, coming right up on the dark moment, and I’m eating and sleeping this one, and everything I do during the day seems secondary. Literally, it’s all I think about (and don’t you HATE when people misuse literally because if you’re saying or writing it you’re being “literal”?). Perhaps it’s just a coping mechanism, as coming off two years of COVID absorption that segued smack into the horror going on halfway around the world, this deep-dive allows me a perfect diversion into another reality. And you might ask yourself, is it naive or unrealistic or to write about situations so ignorant of our current events? Shouldn’t my writing be more reflective of the current state of affairs? Shouldn’t my characters ask each other if they’ve been boosted or if they’ve lately sent a contribution to an overseas aid agency? Shouldn’t they be sleeping with one eye opened at night?

I don’t know about you, but even though I take my writing very seriously, it is seriously my escape, and I’m of the belief that my readers will welcome a portal to another world, if only for a little while. Isn’t that why we write and read fiction after all?

TIPS FROM THE MFA PIT, PART 15

Hello again from the happy hallowed halls of academia! This trip my student and I were discussion the merits of  one of my favorite books, Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer,  Penguin/Random House’s copy chief, when of course, we riffs on other topics, one of them being having your work read aloud…

As not only a writer but an English/Writing instructor, Dreyer’s English was like a revelation to me. I love reading about the minutiae of language, books that open up prose to all its quirks and working mechanisms, much like a doctor would with a dissection of a body. His writing is easily understandable as well as humorous, and I had several “ah-ha” moments, parts that spoke to me about things I’ve done that or thought about.

One of those such moments that seemed to have hit you too was reading or having read your work aloud. I like to do that with dialogue, to see if the language has a natural flow, it if sound like something someone would actually say. People’s speech also has a rhythm, injecting pauses and emphasis, speak in shortened phrases and use words that wouldn’t be written down. Another perk to reading aloud, one that writers seem to have, is knowing almost instinctively when something just doesn’t “sound right.” I think you alluded to this in your critique that sometimes we don’t know exactly why something sounds wrong, we just know that it is. I suppose it’s a skill we can’t help developing from our constant manipulation of the language. But it doesn’t work with everything.

Such a “lay” and “lie.” I have a Post-it note on the bulletin board next to my desk containing the past, present, and future conjunctions it’s such a handicap for me! But even when we write it correctly, sometimes our listening ear will tell us “that’s not how real people speak.” Who says, “I will have lain in my bed until seven.” If you said that in your dialogue people would assume you’re writing a story about the 19th century!

Almost as jarring is when you first hear other people read your work aloud. There’s no better feeling in the world when you know you’ve nailed it and the reader or readers come away impressed. Conversely, there’s no worse feeling when you hear your own missteps spoken aloud. Either way, it’s enormously helpful to work with what’s called beta readers, to have other eyes on your writing. By the time we get into our third or fourth or however many drafts, we’re so close to the writing it’s hard to see where we still need work. Or also the spots where we need to stop ourselves from further tinkering. Yes, sometimes we DO get it just perfect!

In the end, it’s helpful to have a critique partner, someone we can trust to give us an honest opinion about our work, no holds barred. And it’s also helpful to remember when they are honest with us it’s always about the work and never about us personally.

Take care, and have a great week!

“Slava Ukraini!”

This goes way back but I encountered my first Ukrainians when I was in the first grade. I went to one of those little K-8th grade Catholic parish schools that were abundant in small cities like Trenton, NJ, where each ethnicity gathered in certain urban neighborhoods with the ethnic church as the religious and social center.  My parish was Slovak, as were the kids, but the nearby Ukrainian church didn’t have a parish school, so they sent all their kids to ours. The kids were all native-born, but their parents, and most likely their grandparents were from the the Ukraine. This was opposed to we Slovaks, we were third or even fourth generation Americans, and the most Slovak we knew was pierogi and kolbas and a few other words we knew meant to run away fast when the nuns yelled them at us. But the Ukrainian kids all knew the mother tongue–they ALL did, and they were fierce in retaining their heritage no matter how American they sounded or looked. They were proud to be Ukrainian and they let everyone know it.

I’ve been thinking of those kids lately, wondering how they got on and what they’re thinking at this particular time in history. All I know is even though those kids didn’t have their own school, that they had to blend into ours, they never lost lost their identity, and they always let us know exactly who they were, and we always respected them for it.  So no matter what the future brings, they will never let their identity be lost. They didn’t lose it in Trenton, and they sure as hell aren’t going to give it up in their homeland. Never. Ever ever ever.

TIPS FROM THE MFA PIT, PART 14

It’s a new year and a new semester, and with it a new edition of Tips From the MFA Pit. For those not familiar, I teach in an MFA program and what you’ll read here is actual sage advice gleaned from all my years of passing on…my sage advice. This it to a student taking a course in finding their process and individual aesthetic, which loosely interpreted, is finding your own voice and writing methods. The first assignment is an opening essay, to which I’d offered this…

In your opening essay, you stated that your “writing used to be as habitual as brushing my teeth.” This is so true of young writers, and they see it as practice that sets them apart from their peers, as something wonderous and inspirational and unique unto themselves. Sometimes this “calling” seems otherworldly to us, as we almost feel compelled to put down our thoughts into words. It’s exhilarating and we do it as often as we could, and it’s from there that we know—we just know—we were destined to be writers and write great things. The trick is, as we get older and are confronted with demands of adult life, is to keep that magic alive, as we are straddling two very different world.

 Part of that adult world is sending our work out for review, whether through the people we share it with, the classes we take, or through publication. What starts out primarily as something we do for ourselves morphs into messages we send out to the world, and from there we open ourselves up to scrutiny. This is never easy, as actually it’s quite a feat of bravery, to share this interior space with the world. But part of what makes writing so satisfying in the end is letting the outside into that interior world, and having them revel in it as much as you do is thrilling. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes the words don’t quite translate, sometimes the cerebral pictures we paint appear blurred. Of course, all writing is subjective, and everyone has their own opinions, but when too many of these opinions come out the same way, we’re forced to take another look. After all, we want to make sure our message is getting across, don’t we?

 That’s when we have to assure ourselves that it’s always about the work, it’s never about you. It’s hard, because that’s when that magical feeling we felt in your youth hits up against the hard reality of the reading world. Truth is we all need editors, no matter how successful we get, and there’s proof enough of that is some of the rambling texts of major authors with no-edit clauses in their contracts. From this point we may no longer see our writing as fun as it used to be. Suddenly it becomes work, and that’s when our writing process starts to alter.

This is the hardest part. This is when we may be afraid to face that blank page because we become afraid of the reaction our work will get. But to counter this, we have to split our writer self into the parts: the writer/creator, the editor, and the publicist. The writer/creator just writes, just pounds those words out onto the page, verbal vomit, so to speak, the world be damned. The editor takes those words and refines them, adds and detracts, hones and polished. Then the publicist gets it ready for the markets, eyes it not as a literary creation but a product. Later on, this last task is relegated to an agent, and it’s sometimes the cruelest task of all. But if your want to get our voice out in the world, it’s the most necessary. But it also can’t exist without the first two, the two which allow the third to exist.

Seriously Snark

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