When I was beginning to write The Talking Drum, I knew that I wanted the fictional bookstore, where much of the action takes place, to be located in a Victorian home. I love Victorian houses—Italianate and Queen Anne—their tall windows and wraparound porches, pitched rooves, the detailed ornamentation, multiple floors, the ones that are boldly painted with contrasting trim and the more subdued.
I didn’t have to look far to find my architectural model. I thought back on the home I lived in the year I came to Boston in 2003. It was a grand Victorian in the Dorchester section of the city. It was a 5-bedroom house with high ceilings and sweeping staircases. The master bedroom had a sitting room. The backyard was well manicured and landscaped with seasonal flowers and plants.
When my character, Sydney, runs her hand up the bannister of her new home, it is the bannister at the house in Dorchester that inspires me. When bookstore customers gather in the backyard to hear The Fierce Warriors perform, I am using the backyard of my former home. When Sydney sequesters herself in the master bedroom upstairs after a falling out with her husband, Malachi, it is the bedroom that I rented in that home that informs the look of the fictional room.
One of my fantasies it to own a Victorian house. It probably will never happen, but I can at least enjoy ownership of a Victorian and all of the architectural elements that I love vicariously through my characters Sydney and Malachi.
It is my pleasure to introduce Liz Atwood, a “triple threat” in the world of words. Liz and I have been friends for years, actually decades. We first met when we were newspaper reporters in our 20s for the Richmond News Leader in Richmond, Virginia. She first told me about her book project a few years ago and I’m delighted to announce that The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison: America’s First Female Foreign Intelligence Agent will be available from Naval Institute Press September 15th and is available for pre-order now.
Here’s more about Liz:
Liz Atwood is a former reporter and editor at the Baltimore Sun, where she first learned about Marguerite Harrison, the Baltimore socialite and Sun reporter who worked as a double agent in the 1920s.
A few years ago, Liz decided to find out all she could about this fascinating woman. She read her military files at the National Archives in College Park and traveled to Moscow, Russia, to see Harrison’s prison records at the archives of the Federal Security Bureau. She pored over Harrison’s writings and interviewed one of her granddaughters who had vivid recollections of the woman she called “Granny.”
The result is the first published biography of Harrison’s life. Although other authors had written articles and chapters about Harrison that relied heavily on her memoirs, Atwood discovered that Harrison was not always truthful in reporting the extent and nature of her work for the U.S. Military Intelligence Division and the State Department. Harrison’s story is one that is more complicated and more important than she previously revealed.
Atwood grew up in Luray, Virginia, and received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from West Virginia University. She earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Virginia and a PhD in public communications from the University of Maryland.
She is an associate professor of journalism at Hood College in Frederick, Md., where her research focuses on how journalists contribute to political and social change.
What was your writing process like? Did you have any rituals or favorite workspaces?
I had a fairly short time to write this book. I was on sabbatical for one semester in the spring of 2018. I also had heard that another author was working on a biography of Harrison and I really wanted to be first. As a former journalist, I’m used to writing on deadline, so I set myself a goal of writing a 30-page chapter every week. I usually started around 9 in the morning and wrote until afternoon. I wrote most of the book at a desk in my bedroom, although I proofread pages wherever I happened to be—on the patio, at my father’s house and at the beach. I don’t have any particular rituals, except forcing myself to sit down and write, even if what I put down is not very good. I like to get my ideas on paper and then go back and rearrange and refine.
Did you always want to be a writer? If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
Yes. I’ve been writing stories since I was in second grade and this passion was behind my decision to study journalism and work as a newspaper reporter. If I weren’t a writer, I’d be teacher. I’m lucky that now I can be both.
What motivated you to write this book?
When I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical at my college, I decided I wanted to use that time to write the best story I knew that had never been written. That was the story of Marguerite Harrison. I had heard about her when I was reporter and editor at the Baltimore Sun and saw her photograph outside a conference room door. When I started to look at what had been written about her, I found book chapters and articles and an unpublished doctoral dissertation, but no published biography. In addition, previous authors had relied heavily on Harrison’s memoirs, and I discovered she was not always truthful, or at least not forthcoming.
How did you first learn about Marguerite Harrison?
I probably first heard about her in conversations with other reporters and editors at the Sun, but as I noted above, I really became aware of her name and what she had done when I saw her photograph and a brief description of her work outside a conference room door at the newspaper office.
Did you learn anything about Marguerite Harrison that surprised you?
The most surprising thing for me was how important she was as a trailblazer in the foreign intelligence service. Women have always been spies, even in this country, but our government was reluctant to send women overseas for fear they would fall in love with their targets or not give accurate information on military matters. Harrison was a talented linguist who knew Europe well. She persuaded the Army’s Military Intelligence Division to hire her at the end of World War I.
She later described herself as a newspaper reporter who dabbled in espionage. Her accounts make her seem almost foolish. But she was actually quite shrewd and sophisticated. The top men in Military Intelligence trusted her with some of the nation’s most sensitive missions and she spied for our government for several years beyond what she admitted to in her books.
Did you learn anything about the world of espionage that surprised you?
I had no idea how complicated it is. While I was researching this book, I also read John le Carré spy novels for insights. The intelligence services operate on a need-to-know basis. Harrison’s files are filled with letters from government officials wondering if she can be trusted or if she was a Communist spy. So while she was working for one office in the Army or State Department, those in other offices didn’t necessarily know about it.
What was your research process like?
I started reading her extensive files at the National Archives that describe her mission and reports on her two imprisonments in Russia. I then went to Moscow, Russia, to review her prison files. At the same time, I was scrutinizing her memoirs and newspaper articles. When I started to compare her accounts with the official records, I realized she often did not reveal the complete picture of her work. For example, she wrote that she had no idea that traveling to Russia in 1920 would be risky. That’s absurd. There were at least a half dozen Americans held in Russian prisons at the time and the Bolsheviks had broken up at least two American spy rings. It was a risky mission and she and her commanders knew it.
Why do you think Harrison had never been the subject of a published book-length biography?
I think many authors were fooled by the superficial story line: spoiled and headstrong Baltimore socialite, bored and grieving after her husband dies, decides to become a newspaper reporter and then a spy. She comes off as a woman who flits from one thing to the next. But she actually was rather ruthless and calculating. She knew how to be what she called “charming” and she played her seeming naiveté to her advantage.
Describe your path to getting a publisher, difficult, easy, something in between?
I first tried to find an agent. I wanted to sell the book to a trade publication rather than an academic press because I thought the story had popular appeal. Also, the academic publishers tend to price their books very high and that discourages sales. I tried for almost a year to find an agent, but without luck. Then I started to look at the academic presses. Johns Hopkins University declined the book, but an editor there suggested Naval Institute Press, which published Tom Clancy’s first novel, The Hunt for Red October. The editors at Naval Institute Press were enthusiastic about this project from the start and I was very glad they agreed to work with me.
What do you want people to think about as they’re reading or after they’ve read the book?
I want readers to appreciate that Marguerite Harrison played an important role in the creation of our intelligence services. Most women spies had previously relied on exchanging sex for secrets. Most famous, of course, was German spy Mata Hari. Harrison used her brains, not her body to gather information. She was not always nice and she was a terrible mother. But she set an important precedent. By the time of World War II, thousands of American women were working for the foreign intelligence service and of course today a woman is in charge of the CIA.
What’s next for you, another book project?
Yes, I’m working on a book about journalists who have died in America as a result of their work. I was moved to do this after the Annapolis Capital Gazette shooting in 2018. I knew one of the victims. This is going to be my love letter to journalism. Not all of the victims are heroes, but America should know that despite our guarantees of freedom of the press, nearly 70 journalists have been killed in this country because of their work.
I had the pleasure of meeting Angie Chatman in Taos, New Mexico, the summer of 2018 when we were both fellows of the Kimbilio Fellowship program for fiction writers of the African Diaspora. Fellows come from all over the country and some from outside of the U.S. Angie and I discovered that we both lived in the Boston area and have kept in touch ever since. Angie is frequent contributor to Business Insider, and her articles, essays, and short fiction have been anthologized in prominent print and online journals. She is also an extraordinary storyteller and has performed stories for The MOTH, StoryCollider, MassMouth, Tell-All Boston, and the television series Stories from the Stage (WGBH). I’ve watched her tell stories and have been riveted.
LB: Have you always wanted to be a storyteller? When did this interest begin?
AC: No, I didn’t plan on telling stories on stage in front of an audience. That’s scary, nerve wracking and embarrassing. I’m a writer; I tell stories on paper. However, my friend, Robin, saw an advertisement to learn how to tell and pitch stories. I was beginning my career as a freelance writer and I knew I could use some additional training on pitching. We went to the class. Robin and I both pitched and were asked to tell for the Holiday episode of WGBH’s Stories from the Stage. The energy in the room was palpable and such a rush. I can see why actors, comedians, and performers love being on stage.
LB: How has the fever pitch of the Black Lives Matter movement this year affected avenues for you to do storytelling?
AC: Because of BLM, storytelling outlets want to get with the program and ride the publicity wave. Having been in the news business you understand how that works. So instead of having one or two people of color on the stage, there are now shows where all of the tellers identify as black.
LB: How has BLM movement this year opened up additional opportunities for you to tell stories about race, injustice, and other socially relevant topics.
AC: In addition to being able to be on the program, nearly all of the themes are centered on social injustice towards black and brown folks. Storytelling is an industry albeit a small one; the producers are responding to market pressure. I’m hoping that this will change this industry in some way. Previously, it had been my experience that producers – who are typically white – shied away from these topics. I don’t really blame them, most of the audiences are white and white people thought racism was over once we elected a black President.
LB: What is your favorite story to tell and why?
AC: That’s like asking what’s my favorite book. I love all my stories – and all my books. After all, my stories are about my experiences. Even the painful ones are useful to revisit now and then to remind myself of lessons learned.
LB: Do storytelling and your writing complement each other? If so, how so?
AC: Oh heck yeah. Telling and writing are two sides of the story coin. Both have magical powers, which engage the imagination of an audience. Both set a scene, develop characters, introduce an inciting incident, and land the ending. The only difference is a storyteller shows what happens by using vocal tone and modulation, body movement and gestures. All a writer has are marks on paper.
LB: Why is storytelling important?
AC: At their core stories are about love, heartache, growing up, risk, and failure, everything and anything about the human experience. Every story connects us because stories, especially the good ones, remind us of our shared humanity. That is why storytelling is so important and is a timeless artform.
LB: For someone who wants to become a storyteller, where do they begin?
AC: Since I got into storytelling after taking a class, I’m biased. That’s what I recommend. However, there are story slams all over Boston, the greater New England area, and around the country where you throw your name in a hat and hope you get picked. You can start there as well.
Angie Chatman is a writer, editor, and storyteller. She lives in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston with her husband, children, and rescue dog, Lizzie. Angie earned her MFA in creative writing from Queens University in Charlotte and an MBA from MIT. She teaches at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. Follow her on twitter and find out more about her on her website.
I first heard that assertion from my broadcast journalism professors and class advisors, and then later from workshop presenters at national industry conferences. The statement was an undercurrent that gradually grew into a drumbeat for us who toiled as young reporters at stations in small town America. We were encouraged by our colleagues and mentors to keep our resumes and news clips up to date in anticipation of moving every year or so to an incrementally larger and better paying news market. The goal was to reach our “destination station” with its requisite prestige, prime time newscast slot, and comfortable salary as quickly as possible, especially if we were women.
The cautionary tales were all around us. When I was hired by my first station in Champaign, Illinois, there were murmurs around the newsroom that the female anchor of our evening newscast was involved in tense negotiations with management over her contract. For years she’d had her multiyear contract renewed without a problem, I was told. This time around management wanted to give her only a one-year extension. In the TV news business, it’s common knowledge that a one-year contract extension is a station’s way of hurrying you out the door so that you can be replaced with someone younger and/or cheaper. The news anchor was in her mid-30s at the time. Many of us in the newsroom had no doubt that in the eyes of management she had aged out, this in spite of the fact that her male counterpart on the anchor desk was at least 15 years her senior and continued to be offered multiyear contracts.
At another station, the female morning news anchor, in her late 40s to early 50s could not convince management to move her to the evening newscast, the more coveted time slot. She started looking elsewhere. We knew this because calls came into the newsroom from other station managers wanting to check her references. She was eventually let go during a station reorganization.
At my last station, before I decided to quit television journalism to pursue work at a nonprofit, tense moments ensued when the evening anchor returned from maternity leave to resume her duties that had been handled during her absence by a much younger female. For weeks following the more senior woman’s return, she would ignore her co-worker’s overtures for conversation and exchanges of pleasantries. I saw this episode as an illustration of the fears women in broadcasting feel of easily being replaced. Years later, in an unrelated development, several of the on-air women sued the station for age discrimination.
During my 10 years in television I came to know that the TV newsroom was a pressure cooker for a multitude of reasons, and for women, age is one of the biggest. It’s like a ticking clock that begins to resemble a time bomb as the years pass.
Now with that chapter of my life behind me but always near my consciousness, I can’t help but contrast that experience with my entering the world of publishing as an author. I have seen the attention the literary world gives to young authors, the lists of contests, grants, and awards highlighting and touting the accomplishments of writers in the early years of their adult life. I’ve skimmed the headlines—Buzzfeed’s “20 under 40 Debut Writers You Need to be Reading,” Bustle’s “25 Books Written by Women under 25,” Goodreads’ “Authors Under 30,” and Poets & Writers’ “30 Below” contest and many others.
A 2010 survey conducted by fantasy novelist Jim C. Hines in which he found that the average age for novelists to make their publishing debuts was 36 to 37 is often sited when aspiring authors are looking for a benchmark.
But to my relief, I have not seen signs of favoritism of youth and ageism in the literary world when it comes to aspiring authors of a mature age—over the age of 40—pursuing book publication.
The list of well-known women whose first books were published when they were over 40 is lengthy. Annie Proulx, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Isak Dinesen, Elizabeth Strout, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Maya Angelou are in that group. And this year the literary world welcomed a number of mature debut female authors to its ranks who I’ve had the pleasure of either meeting through our literary endeavors or becoming acquainted with through corresponding with them as a fellow debut author of a mature age.
Vivian Gibson: The memoir by the 70-year-old author, The Last Children of Mill Creek, ranked number 4 on Publisher’s Weekly’s Bestseller’s list for the week of May 16, 2020. Gibson began writing short stories about her childhood memories of Mill Creek, an African American neighborhood in Saint Louis that was destroyed in 1959 to build a highway, after retiring at age 66.
Dr. Bettye Kearse: A retired pediatrics specialist in her late 70s is the author of The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family. Kearse traced her family’s history from the antebellum South to present-day California and Boston and investigates long-standing claims that she and her relatives are descended from U.S. President James Madison.
Dr. Rita Woods: The physician and medical director who always felt a pull toward writing is the author of Remembrance, a complex novel about loss and survival told across 200 years by four women, united by the color of their skin and the supernatural powers they command.
In a recent interview Ruth Greenstein, publisher at independent Turtle Point Press, described discovering and working with younger writers who are gifted as “an unparalleled thrill” and a “kind of honeymoon.” But she added that when the work of an author is exceptional, age is not an important factor. “What counts is passion, energy, originality. I find that older writers tend to have more to say—more wisdom that’s worth hearing and remembering,” she added.
Greenstein’s interview was published on Bloom, a literary site devoted to highlighting, profiling, reviewing, and interviewing authors whose first major work was published when they were age 40 or older. The fact that this website exists is an indication of the literary world’s embrace of the mature writer. Bloom is also a community of artists and readers who believe that “late” is a relative term. I couldn’t agree more.
@TheDebutanteBall @ InannaPub #diversebooks #diverselit I am thrilled to report that I have been chosen for The Debutante Ball, a group blog for authors making their debut in the literary world. The blog is in its 12th season and celebrates 5 up-and-coming authors. Former Debs include bestsellers in the genres of women’s fiction, mystery, literary fiction, nonfiction, young adult, and more. I’ll be blogging every week during the 2019-2020 season on a variety of literary topics, interviewing authors and hosting book giveaways as well as sharing exciting details about my big “dance” toward the publication of my novel, The Talking Drum, which is forthcoming from Inanna Publications in May 2020. The Debutante Ball was established in 2007. Check us out here.
Many of us who love to read and love to write have bemoaned the loss of brick and mortar bookstores over the past several years—the chain stores as well as the independents. We’ve wondered if our society will lose interest in reading and if the online booksellers are speeding up the demise of bookstores. We writers have wondered if we’ll have a decent-sized audience who will read our work. My fears were calmed recently while I was on a business trip. To get to my destination, I had to connect at Philadelphia International Airport. Killing time between flights I happened upon what is called the Philadelphia Book Exchange, a welcoming little cove with benches and chairs and a slot for dropping off books for others to read and selecting books that you’d like to read. It’s located at Terminal A-East. The airport also has a virtual library, which lets visitors access the Free Library of Philadelphia’s electronic collection of e-books. It’s located in the D/E Connector.
And also during my trip I was delighted to see that my Uber driver had placed some delightful readings in the seat pocket behind the driver’s seat. It’s encouraging to see new avenues for inspiring reading.If you’ve seen libraries, bookstores, or book exchanges pop up in unusual or untraditional places, let me know. I’d love to hear about it.
June 8, 2019, marks the first Women’s Fiction Day. Sponsored by the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, the occasion is in celebration of women’s fiction authors, novels, publishers, booksellers, and most importantly, readers who appreciate women’s fiction and the power of a great story. As a fiction writer myself, I am very pleased by this news. Women’s fiction includes layered stories in which the plot is driven by the main character’s emotional journey. The stories can be contemporary or historical, and may have magical, mystery, thriller, romance, or other elements.
June 8th was chosen because it’s a celebratory month and many people enjoy summer reading. Summer signals a time to slow down, relax, visit a local library or bookstore, and discover new novels to experience during this beautiful season – and throughout the entire year.
Ways to Celebrate Women’s Fiction Day:
• Visit http://www.womensfictionwriters.org and subscribe to the free Read On! Newsletter where we’ll keep you up-to-date on new women’s fiction authors and titles. • Visit the WFWA shelf on Goodreads to find hundreds of titles.
• Visit your local library and/or bookstore to discover new authors and novels. • Follow WFWA on Twitter @WF_Writers or Instagram womensfictionwriters
• On social media, #bookstagram your favorite book and include a photo or stack
• Host or attend a women’s fiction book club event.
The Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) was founded in 2013 and is now the premier organization for women’s fiction. The organization fosters an online community of inclusion and opportunity, and provides resources, professional development, networking, and support for aspiring, debut, and published women’s fiction authors, as well as industry professionals.
Reading African American literature is a great way to celebrate Black History Month. In recognition of this observance, I offer my list of top 10 books (in no particular order) by authors of the African diaspora (people of African origin living outside of the continent).
Naylor won critical and popular acclaim for her first published novel. In later years it became a television miniseries. In The Women of Brewster Place and subsequent novels, Naylor gave intense and vivid depiction of many social issues, including poverty, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and social stratification of African Americans.
Hurston was an anthropologist and influential author of African American literature. Of Hurston’s four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God is her most popular work.
This young adult novel–which is now a major motion picture– felt so real to me that at times I had to put it down and let the book cool off for a day or two before continuing. The Hate U Give debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list and remained there for 50 weeks. Thomas’ goal through her fiction, is to shed light on issues that many African Americans face.
This emotionally searing work is written as a letter to Coates’ teenage son about the feeling, symbolism, and realities associated with being African American in the United States. Coates is an author, journalist, and comic book writer who gained broad attention during his time as a national correspondent at The Atlantic.
My favorite writer, Hughes was a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist and was best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. This collection of his short stories showcases Hughes’ literary skill and artistic ability.
The works of novelist, playwright, and social critic James Baldwin explored the intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions. The novel, Another Country, published in 1962, portrays themes taboo in their day, including bisexuality, interracial couples, and extramarital affairs.
Nigerian author Adichie won the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award for this novel taught in many university classrooms, that traces the life of a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to the U.S. to attend university.
This Haitian-American novelist and short story writer has won numerous awards and is gifted at using many different forms of storytelling. Claire of the Sea Light shows a town scarred by violence and corruption and social disparities but also filled with hopes and dreams.
The works of playwright August Wilson included a series of plays, known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes for drama. Each work is set in a different decade and depicts comic and tragic aspects of the African American experiences. Fences, which became a major motion picture starring Denzel Washington, is but one of August’s exceptional works.
As I strolled through the streets of Monaco, on a recent working vacation to Europe, I was impressed with the number of tourists that crowded the tiny city-state-country-microstate along the Mediterranean coastline. Some rode by on packed double-decker tour buses. Others flipped through racks of scenic postcards and sized up Grand Prix T-shirts at the ubiquitous souvenir shops. I joined the crowd at noon on the grounds of the royal palace for the changing of the guard and shared sidewalk space with others to ogle the display windows of the luxurious boutiques. When I got to the square at Monte-Carlo, I was annoyed with myself that my camera was in my pocket as a Maserati rode past. As I peeked into the Monte-Carlo Casino from the grand stairs (you have to pay to get in, be a high roller, and properly attired) I began to ask myself: “What has given Monte-Carlo such an important position in popular culture. Of course, memories of the glamorous Prince Rainier III and his wife, Princess Grace are part of it, but a larger influence, in my opinion, has been that of Ian Fleming. The spy novelist described the casino extensively in his first James Bond book, Casino Royale, published in 1953. The casino also appeared in Never Say Never Again and GoldenEye. Add to that the movie adaptations and a marketing bonanza was born. As I watched well-coiffed, wealthy patrons glide up to the entrance, a framed publicity poster of actor Daniel Craig in the role of Bond came into view near the casino entrance.
During the Paris portion of my adventure and tour, novelist Victor Hugo’s name was highlighted as we approached the famed Notre-Dame Cathedral. Known for its flying buttresses, gargoyles, and colorful rose windows, it suffered desecration in the 1790s during the French Revolution. Soon after publication of Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1831, popular interest in the building revived. The cathedral continues to play a large role in the landscape of The City of Light and in people’s imaginations.
The popularity of both Monte-Carlo and Notre-Dame illustrate the ability of novelists to play a role in keeping venues in the international spotlight decades and sometimes more than a century after their work has been published.
Among the many things authors must do before their book comes out in print is to pose for publicity shots. My debut novel is scheduled for publication 14 months from now—September 2019. That may seem far away, but the publisher needs my photos by May 2019 for the editing phase. So, I figured I’d take my pictures now—July 2018—because spring in New England doesn’t even begin to look like spring until June of any given year.
I had photographer extraordinaire, Adrienne Albrecht take photos of me on the grounds of the office park where we work. In addition to the author bio that will appear at the back of my novel, I’ll most likely use the photos for my website, newsletters I’ll send to subscribers, flyers I’ll have printed promoting my author appearances and workshops I might teach. I’ll also likely use the photos for any guest blog posts I may do or short stories or essays I might get published.
Color counts: Wear the color that looks best on you. (My personal favorite is electric blue)
Hide your blemishes: Photos freeze you in time.
Choose a smile and practice it: Good idea. But my smile is chronically lopsided. I have no way of correcting it. It’s become my trademark.
Sit or stand straight: A good photographer will coach you on that and point out when you’re slouching.
Bring a few more outfits than you’ll need: I brought several and found that some of the colors I thought would make me dazzle really didn’t. I’m glad I brought several choices.
And above all, the most important pointer is to have fun: We did. Adrienne and I had a fabulous time taking photos. When I checked my watch, we’d been at it an hour and half but it hadn’t seemed that long. We were having such a great time.
I got word today that the DrumConnection, New England’s premier hand-drumming school, based in Arlington, Massachusetts, will soon be shutting its doors. The DrumConnection offers excellent djembe and dunun instruction in private classes, workshops, and performances. The DrumConnection also sponsors trips to Guinea, West Africa, for study with master drummers. The retail store sells an array of drums, drum kits, cymbals, and accessories. I consider my relationship with the DrumConnection unique. I took classes there and attended workshops not to become proficient at drumming, but to breathe life into the characters of my novel.
The classes helped me shape the personality of one of my main characters, a drummer from Senegal. The Talking Drum is set for publication by a feminist press in the fall of 2019. Observing the personality of master drummer Mamady Keita as he worked with all of us to perfect our hand-drumming technique during a drumming workshop held at Medford City Hall chambers several years ago, helped me flesh out the personality of my fictional drummer. Spending time in classes practicing for hours the correct way to perform the slap, tone, bass technique on the djembe helped me describe, through another one of my characters who had never played the drums before, how the instrument felt against her palms. I don’t know why director Alan Tauber is shutting down The DrumConnection. Most likely economics are playing a role. He’s having a big going out of business sale, slashing the prices on his drums. But even though the brick and mortar store will soon be gone, I’m sure that the community that the DrumConnection has cultivated over the years will continue on in the drumming circles, trips abroad, and other avenues. I hope that my fictional characters can be part of the legacy reminding people of the importance of the DrumConnection and African drumming’s important place in the artistic world.
I marvel at this woman’s accomplishments, considering all of the societal challenges she must have faced. Dubbed the “Bronze Muse” in honor of her skills as both a writer and lecturer, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is regarded as one of the most extraordinarily accomplished African American women of the nineteenth century. She was, for example, a respected poet whose ten volumes of verse sold well enough to provide her with a modest income. In 1859, she became the first black woman to publish a short story. And her only novel, Iola Leroy; or Shadows Uplifted (1892), was the first book by a black writer to depict the life of African Americans in the Reconstruction-era South. (Many colleges and universities across the United States still feature it as part of their women’s studies and black literature courses.) But it was as a lecturer that Harper had her greatest impact, beginning in the antebellum period as an antislavery activist and ending up as a crusader for women’s rights and moral reform.
Harper was born of free parents in September of 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland. She was raised there by an aunt and uncle after being orphaned at an early age. She attended a private school run by her uncle until she was 13, when she went to work as a housekeeper for a family that owned a bookstore. Harper’s employer encouraged her to spend her free time reading and writing, and before long the young woman was composing her first poems and essays. Her first book, Forest Leaves (also known as Autumn Leaves), a compilation of poetry and prose, was published about 1845.
After leaving Maryland in 1850, Harper taught school for a while in Ohio and Pennsylvania. It was in Pennsylvania that she became active in the Underground Railroad. She also launched her career as an antislavery lecturer during this period, traveling extensively throughout New England, New York, Ohio, and eastern Canada to speak as often as three or four times a day. On May 13, 1857, for example, she addressed the New York Antislavery Society. In an excerpt of what is believed to be the only surviving example of one of Harper’s antislavery lectures, as quoted from Outspoken Women: Speeches by American Women Reformers, 1635-1935, Harper called for an end to slavery: “A hundred thousand newborn babes are annually added to the victims of slavery; twenty thousand lives are annually sacrificed on the plantations of the South. Such a sight should send a thrill of horror through the nerves of civilization and impel the heart of humanity to lofty deeds. So it might, if men had not found out a fearful alchemy by which this blood can be transformed into gold. Instead of listening to the cry of agony, they listen to the ring of dollars and stoop down to pick up the coin.”
The 1850s proved to be a productive time for Harper, and in addition to her public speaking engagements, she also published several volumes of poetry. In much of her writing, Harper argued for social change and in support of her beliefs. One of her most critically acclaimed works, the abolitionist poem “Bury Me in a Free Land,” was published in 1854 in her popular book Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. This collection saw print in over 20 editions. “Mrs. Harper’s verse is frankly propagandist, a metrical extension of her life dedicated to the welfare of others,” commented Joan R. Sherman in Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century. “She believed in art for humanity’s sake.”
Several other writers and I, who contributed essays to the anthology, Black Lives Have Always Mattered, published by 2Leaf Press, were recently invited to appear on the Boston Neighborhood Network, a public access television station. The mission of BNN is to inform and empower those who live, work and study in Boston through distinct and diverse community media programming, education and services.
We writers were part of a panel discussion for the program, “Willie’s Web,” hosted by Willie Pleasant. Normally, before making a television appearance, I am nervous. In fact, there have been instances when I couldn’t sleep the night before. But before the BNN appearance, I was relaxed. Maybe it was because I met Willie a few weeks earlier at a book party and she put me at ease. Or it could have been because I convinced myself of the misconception that community access was nothing to feel anxious about because very few people watch.
Here are six things I learned from appearing on public access television:
There was no pressure to be perfect. BNN is a learning tool for the community. Residents who volunteer are instructed on how to produce and direct television programming. They are provided with workshops and multimedia training. The production team is not scolded for small mistakes, which helps engender a relaxing atmosphere on the set.
Effective training ground. If you’re unsure if you’d feel comfortable appearing on television, you can find out through appearing on public access television without concern that a massive audience is watching.
Plenty of leveraging opportunities. Making an appearance on public access TV can bring a writer to the attention of commercial stations. Writers wanting to pitch themselves to other outlets will have a copy of the show they can share with news directors and assignment editors at other stations. Appearing on public access can also bring a writer to the attention of people in the local community who might like to invite the writer for a public talk or community event.
Generous amount of time for the interview. Willie’s Web was an hour-long program, which allowed plenty of time for all of us to talk about our writing. Most commercial stations wouldn’t be able to program that amount of time for a panel of authors.
Station is small but mighty. Once the show aired live, it was scheduled to re-air the following week. Then it would be designated a video on demand, which the public would have access to indefinitely.
Hyper local. Public access stations have a very loyal fan base who love grassroots, unvarnished programming. You may not have a lot of people watching your appearance, but the ones who watch will really care.
As I look forward to my novel being published in 2019, I think about the book party I’ll have—where I’ll host it, how I’ll get people to attend, ways to keep people invested in the party long enough for them to buy a copy of the book, possibly recommend it to others, and write a 5-star review for Amazon. I’ve concluded that the best ideas for approaching a book party come from attending the book parties of others. That’s what I had in mind when I recently attended the book launch of Janie Brodman, the author of Sex Rules: Astonishing Sexual Practices and Gender Roles around the World.Here are some of the tactics I learned:
Inform people of your book launch the old fashioned way.
Months before Janice’s book was published, she came to a Writer’s Night Out event I attended that was sponsored by the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union. She talked excitedly about her book, told us about her upcoming book party and exchanged business cards with us. At least two National Writers Union members (including me) attended.
Tap into your already existing network and fan base
Janice holds a PhD from a Harvard and taught at the Harvard Kennedy School and has been a PhD advisor at MIT. She hosted her book launch at the Harvard Coop, the campus store for the Harvard and MIT communities, a convenient location for her Harvard and MIT colleagues.
Choose a target-rich venue
The Harvard Coop is at a major intersection and within feet of a subway station. It not only gets high foot traffic from students, but the general public. Thirty minutes before the book party, a manager announced the event over the intercom. Then 15 minutes later he announced it again. Of the 75 people who made the trip to the third floor for the event, a number were most likely customers who happened to be in the store and heard the announcement.
Bread and Circus
Janice had a Harvard University jazz trio perform as the guests made their way to their folding chairs. I saw at least two senior citizens getting their groove on, doing a two-step to the music. For snacks, Janie supplied cheese and crackers, seltzer water and cookies.
Before she gave her reading, Janice came around to each and every one of us and thanked us for attending.
Employ soft-sell marketing
After she took questions, she told us that her agent told her to ask everyone to give the book a 5-star review on Amazon. That way, the request seemed to come from her demanding agent, and not her.
As I left the book party, I looked back at Janice. She has a line of about 25 people waiting to purchase her book and get her autograph, and I had some wonderful ideas tucked away for when it’s my turn.
Ever since moving to the Boston area 14 years ago, I’ve been a fan of Porter Square Books. An independent bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that supports independent presses, small book associations, and little-known authors, Porter Square Books has hosted a number of author readings and panel discussions that have drawn my interest. Whenever I attend an event there, I’m thrilled to sit in the audience and listen to authors give a reading or expound on their writing method. I’m practically giddy when I get to speak one-on-one with the author and get the author to autograph a copy of the book for me.
Now I’ve gotten a taste of how the author feels.
Recently, three other writers and I gave a reading at Porter Square Books, co-sponsored by the National Writers Union Boston Chapter. We are all contributors to an anthology called Black Lives Have Always Mattered: A Collection of Essays, Poems, and Personal Narratives. I was concerned that very few people would come out to hear us since we are little-known writers. But through the publicity provided by the publisher, 2Leaf Press, and each of us presenters promoting the event through word-of-mouth, email, and social media, we got a decent turnout.
My husband says about 50 people showed up. The most heartwarming moment was afterwards when individuals came up to us with copies of the anthology they had just purchased. People actually stood in line to get my autograph on the book. They had big smiles on their faces. It was surreal.
Imagine growing up in a household in which you didn’t have to do chores. No washing the dishes. No taking out the trash. No cleaning up after Fido. But the one thing your parents did require you to do was to read books. And not just to read them, but read them aloud and record what you read on cassette tapes. That was one of the childhood reminiscences that Owen King shared with an audience of hundreds in the sanctuary of Newton Baptist Church in Newton, Massachusetts. Sitting next to him on stage, his dad, Stephen King, the award-winning horror novelist, added some details.
“Yes. I employed him to read books on tape throughout high school, probably paid him 9, 10 dollars each.”
“He introduced me to things I would never have read,” Owen added.
Father and son made an appearance at the church as part of their book tour to promote their collaboration, the novel, Sleeping Beauties, 721-pages of fright: the story of what might happen if women disappeared from the world of men. I built biceps carrying a copy of the book home.
Cultivating an appreciation of reading through small monetary rewards is a thread that runs throughout the family’s history. Stephen told the audience that when he was growing up in Stratford, Connecticut, his mother would read to his brother and him whatever she was reading: Agatha Christie, Perry Mason books, Great Expectations, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
He said when his mother read him a scene in which the evil Mr. Hyde runs over a child in the street, realizes what he’s done and then runs over her again, crushing her bones, he was hooked.
“I said ‘Ooh!’ I want to do that,” he said to the laughter of the audience. His mother began paying him 25 cents a story as an incentive to keep writing. Most of his stories back then centered on animals. “That was my first pay check,” he said. “Every writer starts with a little bit of talent,” he added, “and hopefully you’ll find someone who will be supportive.” The elder King was supportive of his son’s writing efforts. Owen King has had a story collection and novel published. Stephen King says he didn’t hesitate in agreeing to write this latest work when his son suggested it. “My dad can’t go to a ball game and be at the urinal without someone sidling up to him and saying, ‘Hey! King! I’ve got an idea for a novel.’ “ said Owen, “So I knew I had to be serious about this idea.” The event was sponsored by Newtonville Books.
I know nothing about professional football. I don’t understand how the game is played, never watch it on TV, except by default if I happen to attend a Super Bowl Game, and can count on one hand the current players whose names I recognize–this includes Tom Brady, quarterback for my hometown team. But I can now add Devon Kennard to the list. Kennard is a linebacker for the New York Giants. He was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. (Don’t ask me what that means.) He is also an avid reader. He conducted a book reading contest this summer that, according to the New York Times, has morphed into a dynamic book club. Kennard assigned the books The Alchemist and To Kill a Mockingbird. He re-read the books along with his online followers and came up with a list of questions that he thought would generate discussion. He was on target. He got a lot of response to his online book club and robust conversation ensued. “I didn’t want to be supergeneric,” The Times quotes him as saying. “I didn’t want people to just look up SparkNotes for answers. I wanted to actually have them be able to relate it to their own lives and what it means to them.” Kennard responds to the fans of his book club. He sends autographed memorabilia to those who give deep, insightful responses to questions. What one fan said he appreciated even more than the signed t-shirt and photo was that Kennard prompted him to re-read the Harper Lee classic.
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
This quote is from a 1929 essay by pioneering English writer Virginia Woolf. It is seen as a feminist text and an argument for both a literal and figurative space for women writers in a field traditionally dominated by men.
Recently women in general have been embracing the idea of having a space of their own, not necessarily to write, but to get away from the housework, the kids, the spouse–a sanctuary, a vacation spot right in their own backyard.
According to a recent Boston Globe article, “A place of her own? Enter the ‘she shed,’ ” women of means are building sheds in their backyards replete with skylights and French doors and window boxes. Lowe’s Home Improvement Store is pushing she sheds on its website, books have been published on the topic, and there are shows on the FYI and HGTV channels about these tiny oases.
I’m happy for these women. If I had the money, I’d build a ‘she shed,’ a place where I could have some alone time, away from the housework and other distractions. A more realistic possibility for me is moving to a bigger place where I can have a den or additional bedroom that I can turn into my writing room. I’d install bookcases, bring back my best buddies–all of my Barbie dolls and other collectible dolls my husband insisted I put away when we got married– make myself a pot of hot tea, and do some writing.
I became aware of the term “food desert,” some years ago when an effort got underway among some city council members in my hometown to bring a supermarket to a section of town that didn’t have one. A food desert exists when nutritious food is difficult to obtain due to availability, affordability, distance, or limited places to shop in a given area.
I have now learned of a new term—“book desert”—and am glad that the problem is being addressed. In order to bring more books to what they’re calling “book deserts,” the National Book Foundation, the US Departments of Housing & Urban Development and Education, the Urban Libraries Council, and the Campaign for Grade Level Reading are distributing over 270,000 books to public housing authorities throughout the country.
The Book Rich Environment Initiative will bring books to thirty-six different public housing authorities, including New York City Housing Authority, whose chair and CEO Shola Olatoye said, “Books are essential for children developing reading and writing skills that will last a lifetime. This collaborative effort will bring 50,000 new books into NYCHA homes and have an immeasurable impact on young residents who we know will fall in love with reading, one book at a time.”
Penguin Random House joined the initiative as lead publishing partner and promised 200,000 books, and Hachette Book Group and Macmillan Publishers have also made large commitments.
“This initiative is unique in its multi-organizational, collaborative approach to connecting young people with books and other literary experiences,” said Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. “National government agencies, non-profit organizations, local partners, and the publishing community have all leveraged their unique resources to create a model that’s far reaching, but also responsive to each local community’s needs. That’s what makes Book Rich Environments impactful.”
I say “Bravo!” to the National Book Foundation, the US Departments of Housing & Urban Development and Education, the Urban Libraries Council, and the Campaign for Grade Level Reading for launching this effort.
I got the news in an email while my husband and I were driving back to The States from the Montreal Jazz festival in early July. A women’s press had accepted my manuscript. I was giddy. I started the manuscript in 2008 and completed the first draft in 2010. I’ve been sending it out to literary agents and some small presses ever since.
Going through the experience of trying to get a manuscript published has led me to believe that writing and submitting a novel for publication is one of the most humbling experiences a person can endure. The rejection over and over again can be soul killing. I thought about giving up along the way but didn’t. I’m glad I stuck with it.
So it’s official. I’ve signed the book contract. This has been my dream since childhood and I’m finally fulfilling it. The publication date is scheduled for 2019. Now the work begins of preparing the manuscript for publication–working with the press on revisions and edits so that the finished product is as enjoyable as possible for you, the reader. Every so often I’ll provide you with updates on what’s going on in this journey toward publication.
In November of 1917, a group of women booksellers gathered at Sherwood’s Bookstore in New York City to form an organization of women active in all aspects of the book world. Having been shut out of the all-male American
Booksellers Association and the Booksellers’ League, the women connected, educated, and advocated for themselves, and the Women’s National Book Association was born. I’ve been a member of both the Washington, D.C. and Boston chapters.
One of the signature programs of our Centennial is the awarding of the WNBA
Second Century Prize, a $5,000 grant to an organization that supports the power of reading, past, present, and into the future. The one-time cash award will be given to the Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization that promotes reading for all ages, but especially children, by building free book exchanges.
Under the guidance of Second Century Prize co-chairs Mary Grey James and Susan Larson, nominations for the prize came from WNBA chapters throughout the country. A committee chose Little Free Library (LFL) based on its
grassroots organization, which has impacted thousands of readers of all ages and backgrounds. LFL embodies the goals of the Women’s National Book Association by promoting literacy and the love of reading.
Little Free Library was founded in Hudson, Wisconsin, by Todd Bol to honor his mother, a school teacher. In just eight years the organization has become an international movement of mini-libraries sharing the message of “give
one, take one.” LFL has over 50,000 libraries in 70+ countries with millions of books exchanged annually.
No longer known only for its charming small libraries placed in front yards and public spaces, it continuously develops new initiatives. The WNBA particularly applauds the LFL’s new Kids, Community, and Cops program,
which helps police departments set up book exchanges in their precincts —a commitment that resonates with the WNBA’s own National Reading Group Month program.
“This means so much,” said Todd Bol, creator and executive director of Little Free Library. “Little Free Library is about 90 percent women, so it really is a women’s movement, supporting friends and family and community.”
About the WNBA The WNBA is a 501c(3) organization that aims to connect, educate, advocate, and lead in the book world and broader literary community. We do this through networking and professional development, as well as public
programs including the WNBA Pannell Award, which promotes bookstores that excel in connecting kids with books; the WNBA Award, which honors visionary bookwomen, from Eleanor Roosevelt and Doris Kearns Goodwin to Ann Patchett and Amy King; and National Reading Group Month, which celebrates the joy of shared reading.
Alternating Current, a boutique independent press, is dedicated to publishing and promoting literature that challenges readers. The press publishes diverse voices and all that is electric in the literary world. This year the press inaugurated the 2017 Still I Rise Micro-grant for Black and African American Women and Women-identified Writers. Out of 117 applicants, I was chosen a finalist from the writing sample I submitted. The judges said that they were thrilled with the quality of the work. Each time I gain a recognition such as this one, I’m encouraged to continue writing in spite of rejections I receive, to continue telling stories that I hope will resonate with the reader on some level.
The first thing I did when I received my shipment of the anthology BLACK LIVES HAVE ALWAYS MATTERED: A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS, POEMS, AND PERSONAL NARRATIVES, was flip to page 109 to see my essay in print. The second thing I did was scan the table of contents, pick a couple of titles that sounded interesting, and sit down and read. I was riveted. I am proud to be part of this book that includes the work of so many great writers and thrilled to add my voice to the ongoing conversation about race in America.
The anthology, published by 2Leaf Press, covers an array of “hot-button” issues.
2Leaf Press is an imprint of the Intercultural Alliance of Artists & Scholars, Inc. (IAAS), a NY-based non-profit organization that is owned and operated by African Americans and Latinos who promote multicultural diversity. BLACK LIVES HAVE ALWAYS MATTERED is the second book of 2Leaf Press’ series, 2LP EXPLORATIONS IN DIVERSITY. The first book of the series, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE WHITE IN AMERICA? Was published in 2016, and the third book, THE BEIGING OF AMERICA is forthcoming. The purpose of the series is to examine diversity, race and racism in America. It is hoped that these books of personal stories and experiences, honestly expressed perspectives, and viewpoints will help open a much needed dialogue about race.
The bookstore as we know it is on its deathbed. That’s what I’ve been hearing for the past decade or so. Financial pressure and competition from online retailers, including Amazon (which has made a surprising pivot with plans for a growing constellation of bookstores) have led to the shutdown of Waldenbooks, Borders, some Barnes and Noble bookstores as well as many independent shops.
But the bookstore itself isn’t dying, just the business model. Proprietors who are trying creative approaches are finding that the bookstore is not only alive and well but thriving. I visited one example with my friend, Lisa Allen, on a recent Saturday—Tres Gatos, Boston’s first, full-service combo restaurant/ bookstore/music store. It’s in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, a hip, artsy, intellectually vibrant neighborhood. Tres Gatos uses a hybrid business model, a full-service restaurant in the front, music store—featuring classic vinyl—and bookstore in the back. Lisa and I feasted on tapas, gambas all I prebre, freshwater farmed shrimp sautéed in a rich and complex sauce, and sweet potato pancakes topped with whipped fennel chili butter. Then we headed to the music and bookstore. Store manager Phil Wilcox told us that he orders book, including bestsellers, from the second biggest book distributor in the country and gets inventory every three or four days. He receives vinyl inventory every four or five days and says turnover is good for both books and music. The businesses help each other. Customers who come in looking for classic albums will peruse the shelves of books. When the restaurant business gets light during the cold weather months, the book business picks up. Before I left Tres Gatos, Wilcox had sold me a CD, “Senegal 70,” West African Latin jazz urban orchestra music that I can’t imagine I could have found elsewhere.
If Tres Gatos offers any indication, the future of books in a retail environment looks good if niche marketing is put to use effectively.
I have been writing personal essays for the past 10 years or so and have suffered through rejections, but have had quite a few successes. Most of what I’ve written has eventually gotten published. Based on my experiences I’ve come up with a list of common mistakes writers should avoid when trying to get a personal essay published.
Not changing your strategy when an essay is rejected
I wrote an essay about how I met my husband, who sat quietly three pews behind me in church for years until he got the nerve to approach me, and thought it was the perfect piece for the “Modern Love” column in The New York Times. About a month after submitting it, I got the standard rejection e-mail. (At the time, I didn’t know that “Modern Love” receives thousands of submissions a year. Only 52 are published.) I shortened the essay and sent it to Chicken Soup for the Soul and it was accepted. Later, an inspirational literary journal, Finding Mr. Right, published the essay too. I’m glad I didn’t give up after The New York Times rejection.
Starting too slowly
It seems practical to start an essay in chronological order, or to set the scene through exposition, but that might not be the most interesting approach. Consider beginning the essay in the middle of the story with action or compelling dialogue. Here’s an example:
“I wish all the black people would go back to Africa.”
With those words, my idyllic world was shattered. My innocence was lost.
If you play it safe and keep your essay on the surface, you may not be giving your reader something to grab onto, something he or she can identify with. When I wrote my essay, “Praying on the Job,” which was published in an inspirational anthology called The Book of HopeI went into some detail about how my husband’s job loss affected not only our financial situation, but our marriage. It was painful to dig deep, but also cathartic, and something readers could relate to.
Writing a diary entry
A personal essay is more than a running log of what’s transpired in your life during a certain period of time. That won’t keep the reader’s interest. You also don’t want to use the essay format as an opportunity to vent. Be sure to provide a universal truth, so that the reader is given something to reflect on.
Taking a trip to nowhere
A good essay, like a piece of good fiction, takes the reader on a journey. You, the writer are in a different place by the end of your essay. In “Trust Yourself,” which I had published in The Northwestern Magazine, I began as an insecure Sunday school teacher to first and second graders, but through a friendship with one of my little students, I developed confidence that the kids were benefiting from my being their teacher.
You may have a lot to say, but you may want to bite off only a chunk at a time. A personal essay is not a biography. It is not all encompassing, covering decades of your life. It is actually a snapshot in time. Choose focused events to make a larger point.
Thinking that you don’t need feedback
I have my sister read over just about every essay I write. If there is something unclear or confusing, she lets me know. Feedback is critical. After I’ve written an essay and revised it more than a dozen times, there could be problems with it that I just can’t see anymore because I’m too close to what I’ve written.
By avoiding these and other pitfalls, you could be further on your way to producing essays you be proud of while at the same time, increasing your rate of publishing acceptance.
The Poetry Fox has been making the rounds of literary festivals, conference, and art shows. Give him a word and in a jiffy, he’ll write a poem, stamp it, sign it, read it, and then give it to you.
I don’t know his motivation, but he is getting the general public interested in the literary world. There is something refreshing about street poetry, where poets create works on the spot. Could writers take a cue from The Poetry Fox and create snappy short stories on the spot for the public?
The editors at Chicken Soup for the Soul have informed me that they have just started a series of inspirational podcasts to promote their books. Chicken Soup for the Soul’s publisher, Amy Newmark, will discuss a different Chicken Soup for the Soul book each day and highlight one story that appears in that book.
My essay, “Short Distance Romance,” which was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dating Game has been chosen to play a role. My story is on the website now under “Wow Wednesday,” and will continue to be available on the Podbean app—which is available for free from the app store—once it airs. It was neat hearing Ms. Newmark talk about me and my story. The podcasts are six or seven minutes long and provide entertaining stories as well as great advice and easy-to-implement tips for improving your life.
For writers, podcasting is fast becoming another medium for storytelling and bringing attention to published works. It can drive traffic to your website. There is tremendous power in being in a listener’s ear as well as before their eyes with the written word. It is also a way to introduce your writing to people who aren’t avid readers. They can listen to you while they’re driving, exercising, doing housework. They can listen to you while they’re multitasking.
We’ve all heard that creating videos is important for writers to grow their online presence—book trailers and author interviews are examples. For writers who don’t feel comfortable on camera, podcasting can be the right avenue. I understand that podcasting equipment is affordable and simple to use. The newer line of USB microphones and software are inexpensive.
Podcasting does require content production and a commitment of time in order to be successful. For writers, it could be worth pursuing.
The winners of the Pulitzer Prize were announced this week. The prize for poetry goes to Tyehimba Jess for the book, Olio. The book is described as astoundingly innovative, combining poems, songs, historical facts, fiction, interviews and tables to create a chorus of compelling voices — all singing praises for the countless African American performers whose contributions to minstrel shows of the late 1800s have been largely undocumented.
The book was published by a small poetry press in Seattle–Wave Books, surprising to many on the book publishing industry. Small presses, or independent presses, as they are often called, make up about half of the book publishing industry market. Many focus on fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Since the profit margin can be thin, small presses can be narrowly focused and driven by other motivations, including reaching niches that mainstream publishers ignore.
Small presses are a potential outlet for novelists and writers of other genres to get published, but they are often overlooked in favor of the big publishers. Writers don’t support small presses as much as they should by purchasing the literature they produce. That’s a shame. I had the opportunity to talk with dozens of editors and publishers at small presses while at the AWP Conference Bookfair in February and seek out publishing opportunities with them.
NewPages.com, a website of literary news and information, has an extensive list of small presses and calls for submission worth checking out.
Here is the description of the anthology on Amazon.com. “In this priceless collection of true stories experienced by everyday people, readers get to share in the angst, the grief, the frustration, and fears of the writers. This collection of 31 stories proves there is always hope no matter how negative our situation might be. Sometimes just knowing someone else has walked your path opens the doors and windows so new ideas and solutions can flow. This book can bring comfort, inspiration and guidance to those suffering from life’s challenges. These stories can help make walking such paths the adventures they can be.”
Last week I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, better known as AWP. It is the largest literary conference in North America. This year it was held at the convention center in Washington, D.C., and hosted 550 events, 2,000 presenters and more than 800 presses, literary journals, and literary organizations from around the world at the book fair.
This was my third time attending the conference. I learn new things each time. Here are 5 things I learned this year.
It’s a good idea to put your photo on your business card.
During a panel discussion titled, “Agents and Editors and Publishers, Oh My! Demistifying the Business Side of Writing and Publishing,” an agent pointed out that she meets hundreds of eager writers at conferences who hand her business cards, but when she gets back home, she may not be able to match the business card with the person she met. A photo business card will likely jog her memory.
It makes sense to smuggle your own food into the conference.
At a food stand set up in the center of the book expo in the convention center, I paid $10.00 for a medium-sized bowl of pineapple chicken and another $5.00 for a large bottle of diet coke. Talk about sticker shock! I got smart quickly. Since I was staying with my sister, who lives in the D.C. area, I was able to raid her refrigerator and pack a ham and cheese sandwich, some fruit, snacks and my own beverage. This cost me nothing and sis was happy that I helped to empty out her fridge.
If you didn’t win the writing contest you entered, you can always apply again.
I’ve applied for several first-time author contests. None have named me the winner so far. Several of those independent presses and associations that sponsor the contests were represented by the publishers and editors at the AWP Book Fair. They told me to feel free to apply again because they use different judges every contest cycle. One press also told me that sometimes people apply the following year and win.
If you’re not paying attention, you could miss a hidden treasure.
I was walking through the book fair near the back of the room where a small African American publisher I had talked to earlier in the day was located. The publisher remembered me and beckoned me over. He pointed to a man dressed in black, seated at the exhibit table, hunched over, checking his smart phone. It was the bestselling novelist and crime fiction writer, Walter Mosley. I’ve seen the movie starring Denzel Washington, based on his novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, and read one of his novels with members of my book club. It was thrilling to meet him. I asked him if he would take a picture with me and he said in his charming way, “Only if you’ll put your arm around me. Of course, I obliged.
If you’re looking for an independent press to publish your manuscript, the book fair is the place to be.
I was eager to see the books of an independent press I was considering sending my manuscript to. I was horrified when I saw that the books are designed in square dimensions, not rectangular dimensions like most books. Stopping by the table of another press, I was able to quiz the representative about their efforts to market their books. I was able to hold the books and see the quality of the paper, design, and binding. Coincidentally, one of the authors was at the table, autographing copies of his novel, when I walked up. He told me all about his publishing experience with that press. I was impressed with their operation and walked away pleased.
Next year’s conference will be in Tampa, Florida. I’m not sure yet if I’ll attend, but if I do, I’m sure there’ll be lots of tips to pick up there too!
I recently went to the Showcase Cinema to see Hidden Figures, the phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. In addition to the women’s empowerment theme that I was looking forward to, I was interested in seeing the setting because the story took place in the city where I went to college, Hampton, Virginia.
The movie featured actress Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson. Known as “human computers,” they were among the brightest minds of their generation.
They were teaching math in the segregated south when they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of expertise. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills. Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts. They were kept in the Langley Air Force Base all-black “West Computing” Group, and relegated to “colored only” bathrooms and couldn’t even pour themselves a cup of coffee from the same coffee pot, etc.. Yet, they had confidence and were assertive, playing critical roles in the space program.
I left the theater walking a little taller than when I entered and thinking about the challenges these women faced. The treatment they got from their peers and supervisors was sanctioned by society and the law. Since seeing the movie and reading the book, I’ve been sending out a revised version of my manuscript to literary agents. At times it’s discouraging. Not that I am in anyway comparing the magnitude of the challenges they faced with mine, but I do I ask myself, “what would Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary do?” They would surely persevere. They wouldn’t give up. They would push on past the rejections, until they got the novel published.
Ugh! The Christmas newsletters. You know what I’m talking about. They start arriving in mid-December, oozing with hubris and pretention about Biff’s missionary work with a just-discovered indigenous civilization in Belize, and six-year-old Kennedy’s corporate start-up whose shares are now being traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
But as writers we shouldn’t dread the annoying missives, but embrace them by putting our own twist on them. The Christmas newsletter doesn’t have to be a generic highlight reel of the past year’s accomplishments, but can focus on literary successes, serving as a marketing tool to raise our profile.
Starting with January, look back at your calendar of activities, your speaking engagements, publishing successes, book readings, seminars, workshops, conferences. Details of these can be fleshed out to create a newsletter that your fans will love reading. You can find useful tips online for writing a Christmas newsletter.
Email it or post it as an open letter on facebook, Linkedin, or other social networking sites to enhance your platform and build an audience with people new to your work. Doing this could make the holidays a little merrier and those Christmas newsletters that arrive in the mail a little more palatable.
The wife of the retired pastor came by my table and was surprised when I told her that I was selling the books for $10 apiece. She thought I’d charge much more.
But I didn’t want to sell them to make a profit. By selling them for the amount I had to pay to purchase them, I was able to keep the price reasonable and get my words of inspiration into the hands of more people. That was my primary interest, through my writing, giving hope to people who are facing challenges.
A secondary benefit was that participating as a vendor helped me build an audience. Even though I’ve been a member of that church for more than 12 years, at least half a dozen people walked up to me and expressed surprise, saying they didn’t know I was a writer. When I told them about my novel, several asked when it would be coming out. Whenever I do get it published, I’ll have a group of supporters ready to purchase it.
In addition, some of the shoppers told me about opportunities to be a vendor at other events, which could serve as a vehicle for getting a whole new audience interested in my work.
So, writers, the next time the holidays come around, look into becoming a vendor. It could raise your profile in ways you didn’t imagine.
I find it ironic that writers whose job it is to frighten their readers or at least make their pulses quicken with their plot twists and suspenseful moments sometimes find themselves facing the same emotional and physiological moments when dealing with crafting their mysteries and crime fiction.
While attending panel discussions at Mysterium: The Mystery Novel Conference, held recently on the campus of Wesleyan University, I was surprised to discover that some writers experience anxiety over technology. They are so afraid to deal with technology that they either avoid it by setting their novels in the pre-1985 era or they have whatever gadget the main character is using sabotaged by the end of the first page.
One crime novelist said that’s why it’s not unheard of for a main character who’s standing in an alley, looking down at a lifeless body to drop his or her cell phone in a puddle and then have the cell phone end up in a dumpster. “Because if you can Google everything,” she said, “the investigation can easily be solved.”
This got me wondering how mystery and thriller author Chris Knopf felt. He’s best known for his Sam Acquillo series. At the conference I attended his talk, titled “Writing Mysteries in the Age of Google.” He suggested that authors use technology in their stories as they would in real life. “If you’re going to be realistic, it has to be a seamless and a natural part of your story,” he said. “Don’t use a particular brand. Otherwise your books will only last a couple of years.” He said that Google is not something to be avoided, but embraced in degrees. “You have to deal with Google when the character is researching. I use Google for the basics and then I go talk to people. The same goes for my characters.” Knopf said that voicemail can be used as a device central to your plot. “I integrate voicemail into the story,” he said. “The dead man’s last words in a voicemail trigger the story.”
And I’m sure I’m not the only writer who thinks she can pick up hints on writing crime and law enforcement scenes from watching television. However, Knopf said, “Don’t rely on it. It doesn’t translate. I have a forensic analyst I consult. Everybody has to have a geek these days.”
And, of course, social media is too big to ignore, as are drones. “You don’t have to have a drone creep up to a house in a rural area,” he said. “New York can send a drone. They can be as tiny as a bug. They can fire weapons, shoot you with poison. There’s a lot of drama possible with drones.”
I’m not a mystery writer. I registered for Mysterium: The Mystery Novel Conference held at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, because two of my friends had planned to go—one who’s written a mystery novel and another who’s planning to work on one—and I wanted to spend time with them because I don’t see them very often. Their plans fell through and I thought about skipping it, but I had already paid the $100 registration.
Before the speakers arrived, I heard fascinating snippets of conversation from people around me in which they talked about the cozy mysteries they’ll have coming out in the fall, the deadlines they’re facing and the lure of procrastination.
During the keynote, conference host and novelist Amy Bloom (pictured left) interviewed award-winning detective novelist Laura Lippman.
Lippman talked about the importance of place in her novels. “I love books that have a strong sense of place,” she said. “Place to me is integral. I don’t understand stories where there is no place.”
Lippman’s “place” is Baltimore. She worked for a number of years at the Baltimore Sun, alongside her father, and talked about writing books that take place in Baltimore and the Baltimore suburbs.
She said she especially finds inspiration when writing stories that she sets in the suburbs. “I write dark stories there,” she said. “This reflects my thoughts about the suburbs.”
Mysterium is billed as a celebration of readers and writers, combining pleasure, instruction from writers, intellectual stimulation and great fun. This description is accurate. I thought I would feel out of place not only because I was alone, but because my writing focuses on general fiction, essays, and journalism—not mystery or crime writing. But once I took my seat at the keynote presentation, I felt at ease and the discussions were applicable to my own writing.
The New York Times website states that the editors of the “Modern Love” column feature, which appears in the Sunday edition of the newspaper are looking for deeply personal essays about contemporary relationships. Ideally, essays spring from some central dilemma the writer has faced in his or her life.
I thought an essay I wrote about a challenge my husband and I faced after we introduced a pet into our household would have wowed the editors enough to accept it for publication. However, I got a generic rejection e-mail this afternoon.
Initially, I felt disappointed. But then I reminded myself that the New York Times is the nation’s newspaper of record. The Sunday paper has a circulation of 1.4 million. The editors probably get hundreds of submissions to the “Modern Love” column every week, which makes the odds of getting published very low.
And then, of course there is the comforting cliché that when one door closes another opens. A few years ago, I sent a different essay to “Modern Love.” It was called short-distance-romance and got rejected, I turned around and sent it to Chicken Soup for the Soul and it got accepted. The essay has a much longer shelf life in Chicken Soul because it’s in a book, as opposed to being on a sheet of news print. So sometimes an initial rejection isn’t a bad thing.
So what has been your experience? Has an initial rejection led you to submit the same work to another outlet, leading to satisfaction with the placement?
Last week on this blog I posed a question to find out if people thought that self-publishing was a viable option for getting published and getting a decent level of interest from readers. It turns out that most people responding to my poll don’t feel that self-publishing has the stigma that it once did and that maintaining creative control is an important benefit of self-publishing.
What would make you decide to self-publish your novel
The desire to maintain editorial and artistic control
The idea that self-published books are now as respected as traditionally published books
The desire to get the book published on a quicker timetable
When I was invited to participate in yesterday’s Local Author Book Fair hosted by the Brookline Public Library in Brookline, Massachusetts, I had visions of readers standing in line, waiting to purchase copies of the anthologies that include my essays. Oh, how naïve I was! It didn’t turn out that way.
The weather was beautiful, sunny, in the mid 70s. We authors–about a half-dozen of us–set up our books on the tables we were assigned on the library lawn.
I sold just three books, benefiting from the generosity of members of my church. The one author whose table got lots of attention was Dr. Oneeka Williams, a surgeon, and creator of the Dr. Dee Dee Dynamo series of children’s books. It seems that on nice Saturday afternoons, a lot of young moms and dads like to bring the kids to the library. The Dee Dee Dynamo table was, therefore, in a target-rich environment.
As I introduced myself to the other exhibitors during the event, I began to realize that they all had one thing in common—they were all self-published. I’ve been hesitant to self-publish my novel. I figured that the reading world wouldn’t take me seriously. But after conversations with the two authors at the table next to me–Anjali Mitter Duva, author of Faint Promise of Rain, and Connie Hertzberg Mayo, author of The Island of Worthy Boys—I’m beginning to think about reconsidering.
The artwork for both of their books is gorgeous. I understand that the company that published them did arrange a book tour. And even though they’ve had to do just about all of the marketing for their novels, in the current traditional publishing climate authors have to do much of the promotion and marketing themselves anyway.
So what do you think? Is self-publishing worth considering?
Book readers live an average of two years longer that those who don’t read at all. That’s the finding of a study out of Yale University. Researchers examined the reading habits of 3,635 people over the age of 50 and found that the ones who read up to 3 ½ hours a week were 17 percent less likely to die over 12 years of follow up. This was even after variables, such as health, education, and income, were taken into account.
It’s not clear why there’s the “reading advantage,” but researchers suggest delving into novels promotes cognitive processes, such as empathy and emotional intelligence, which can boost longevity.
So the next time you give a book talk, speech, or book launch use the line, “Read my novel. It could add years to your life!” It could make your book sales increase dramatically.
Finding Mr. Right, an anthology featuring one of my essays, “Short Distance Romance,” is now available on the publisher’s website, as well as on amazon.com. It will be available on Kindle later in the year. Here’s the description of the book: Whether the quest for a soul mate is currently a work in progress or a happily done deal, this breezy beach read featuring the true stories of 20 accomplished authors will resonate with women of any age who have ever loved, lost and loved again.
I dream of a quiet place completely free from distraction where I can take nature walks, rest, and work on my novel, essays, and other writings. One day I’ll get there, when I can take the time off from work and cover the cost. Meanwhile, here’s a list of writing residencies you may find of interest. Pictured above is a photo from the Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont, one that I hope to attend in the future.
What do personality makeovers, church pews and Prince William have in common? Each of these elements figures into the true storylines of our top three essayists. First Place winner Karen Cole, Second Place winner Lisa Braxton, and Third Place winner Mehk Vijayaragavan took time for short interviews with the editors this week and their replies can be found at https://findingmrrightsite.wordpress.com/
I’ve been into fitness for a long time. Over the years I’ve taken aerobics—both conventional and step—kickbox karate, indoor cycling, earned my diploma in ice skating from the Bay State Skating School, and played tennis and racquetball. So when my co-workers encouraged me to try the Fitbit® wireless activity band, I didn’t hesitate.
The Fitbit is a high-performance wristband that gives automatic, continuous heart rate and activity tracking right on your wrist. You can see your heart rate all day and during workouts to get more accurate calorie burn, reach target workout intensity and maximize training time. It tracks steps, distance, floors climbed and sleep quality and syncs to a smartphone and computer so you can monitor your trends and get the motivation you need to push yourself further—every step, every beat, every day.
I have found that by merely wearing the Fitbit, I make more of an effort to reach my 10,000 steps a day, walking further at work to the copy machine and coffee break room. I now take the stairs when I could easily hop in the elevator.
If I had a Fitbit for writing, I could track my word count per day. Let’s say I established the goal of writing 750 words. I could check my Fitbit toward the end of the day and if I’m falling short of my goal, I could set aside time before going to bed to get my words in, similar to how I walk the corridors of my condo complex some late evenings to squeeze in more steps.
My co-workers and I participate in something called “Workweek Hustle.” We synchronize our Fitbits and participate in a contest to see who completes the most steps by the end of the week. The winner is bestowed a trophy (I’ve won it several times so far and have proudly pictured it here!). It’s a good-natured competition. No one takes it too seriously. (Did I mention that I’ve won it several times?) But it is a reminder that we are all in this together and if I want to surge ahead of my opponents and be the winner, then I need to push myself a little more.
In the “Fitbit for Writers” the Workweek Hustle would take the form of a writing group. A half dozen of us writers would sync our Fitbits, sharing our disappointments when our manuscripts are rejected, and cheering each other on when we have publishing successes. The “Fitbit for Writers” could encourage a friendly competition with my peers over daily word count, completion of stories, and number of manuscript submissions made to literary agents, literary presses, anthologies, and journals.
Fitbit has helped improve my workout routine and if the company decides to one day retool its product and create a writer’s version, it could help me get my unpublished manuscript on the bookstore shelves with the other novels. Meanwhile, I’m thinking that I need to push myself away from the computer and walk a couple of laps around the condo complex. My Fitbit is telling me that co-worker Karen is on my heels, only 450 steps behind me. And Amanda is about to pull into first place. We’ve been neck and neck for days. I’d better get to stepping!
At long last, my essay, “For Better, for Worse,” is being published. I say, “at long last,” because I submitted the essay to various publications for about two years and was giving up hope in finding a home for it when I heard from Whispering Angel Books.
Whispering Angel Books is dedicated to publishing uplifting and inspirational stories and poetry for its readers while donating a portion of its book sales to charities promoting physical, emotional and spiritual healing.
My essay, about finding out just after getting engaged that one of my kidneys was no longer functioning and how my then fiancé and now husband and I worked through the situation, is published in “Soul Survivors: From Trauma to Triumph,” a collection of inspiring personal essays and poems celebrating the resilience of the human spirit over pain, trauma and tragedy. A few weeks ago, the editor contacted me to show me a proof of my essay and check for accuracy my bio that will appear in the book.
The Whispering Angel website states about the collection: “These pieces, written by some of today’s most prolific writers, will touch your heart, soothe your soul, and restore your faith that you can overcome and survive life’s darkest moments, emerging with strength, courage, hope, tenacity and even beauty.” I feel honored that my essay is being included in this volume.
It took me longer than I anticipated to get the essay published, but I guess the waiting was important so that the essay could end up in the right home.
I’ve never had a book direct me to put it down and take care of an important matter before continuing to read. That is, until I came across What to Do Before Your Book Launch. The guidebook for traditionally published authors was written by M.J. Rose, an internationally bestselling author of dozens of novels and internationally bestselling novelist Randy Susan Meyers, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on a couple of occasions.
Seriously, I was reading the book and was told to put the book down THAT INSTANT and secure my domain name. I already had LisaBraxton.com—that’ the domain for this website—but I didn’t have “dot org” or the domain name that is the working title of my manuscript. I did what the book said, stopped what I was doing, and secured the other domain names.
The authors of What to Do outlined a number of other things writer need to take care of or at least be involved in because of changes going on in the publishing world.
They point out that 10,000 novels hit the shelves each year. The price of books has gone up 20%, while review space has declined 20-50%. Fewer magazines and television shows feature authors. Publishers can only support a very small percentage of the books they publish and more than half of debut authors never publish a second novel.
So what does an author do in light of these changes and shifts in the business of books and media? Take an active role in publicity and marketing of the book.
What to Do tells you how to build websites, gives pointers on taking a publicity shot and offers the pros and cons of blogging, producing a book trailer, and a newsletter.
What to Do Before Your Book Launch is a “must-read” for any writer looking to get a book published. It’s a quick read—only 88 pages—that can be referred to over and over again during the publication process.
When I was a journalist in both newspapers and television, I embraced “immersion journalism,” reporting on a story by participating in it, immersing myself in the situations and the people involved.
As a result, I once climbed into firefighter turnout gear and crawled around on my stomach in a “smoky” building to search for victims using a thermal imaging camera, floated around in an icy pond until first responders threw me a rope and pulled me out, rode around with a state trooper stopping motorists for DWI one New Year’s Eve, and strapped on roller skates and took a few whirls for a story about a roller rink that had been in a community since the 1930s and was closing down.
To avoid the drift that Sellers refers to and bring authenticity to my story, I recently borrowed from the library a copy of Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal, a cookbook written by restaurateur and Senegalese native Pierre Thiam. I was particularly interested in the recipe for Yassa Ginaar, grilled chicken with lime-onion sauce.
My unpublished novel features a Senegalese restaurant owner who makes delicious meals for the customers in the immigrant community where he lives. One of his specialties happens to be Yassa Ginaar. I thought it would be neat to prepare the recipe, just as my character would.
The recipe calls for juicing 10 limes and grating the zest from three of them. I never knew how hard it would be to peel limes. Their skin is very thin, far different from lemons. Also I had to cut up five onions, julienne style, something I had never done before. I also had to get my hands on a habenero pepper, a tiny pepper that I had never seen before in the supermarket, but apparently has been there for quite some time.
After rubbing in the ingredients into the chicken I had to let it marinade for a few hours. Once I had my husband try it. I could tell by the look on his face that something was wrong. The taste of lime was overpowering. I had miscalculated the proportions. The meal was a disaster. I tried to save it by soaking the food in cooked white rice (my husband’s idea) but the next day the dish was as sour as it was the first. However, the effort wasn’t a total loss. I gained an appreciation for what goes into Senegalese cooking, particularly in Yaasa Ginaar. I gained more of an appreciation for the restaurateur in my novel and the effort he takes to create savory meals or the public. I kept this in mind as I revised the scene in which he prepares this (usually) tasty dish.
On Thursday, May 5 at 7 p.m. five authors will have the opportunity to give short readings from their published works during “Author’s Night” at the Boston Public Library. The event, to be held in the library’s Commonwealth Salon, is being hosted by the Boston Chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. The event, which will showcase five members of the chapter, is free and open to the public.
Events like this, hosted across the country by writing centers, libraries, university creative writing programs, and writers unions and associations, give writers
A reason to step away momentarily from the isolation of the laptop
An avenue for introducing their work to the public
An opportunity to practice speaking before an audience
If you’re in the Boston area, and love the written word, check out the event May 5th. If you’re outside of Boston there’s bound to be a writing institution planning a similar kind of event.
I’m at the hair salon and a young woman walks in who has just returned from Hollywood. She says she had a tryout on American Idol and got on the show. However, she didn’t get as far as she had hoped.
As she’s waiting for the manicurist to start her appointment, the salon owner congratulates her and asks if she was disappointed. She says, “No. I learned a lot being on the show. Now I know where I need to improve.”
I liked the upbeat attitude of this young singer. She felt she’d had a victory in spite of not winning.
This same philosophy can be adopted by writers when getting feedback on their work. I recently joined a writing group that I found through meetup.com. The members include a screenwriter, horror fiction writer, poets, writers of period dramas, and bloggers.
Each week I get feedback from them on excerpts of my novel. As I check my email account on a regular basis for responses from publishers to my novel—which has included rejections or no response at all—I can feel good that the feedback I’m getting from the group will make the manuscript stronger and a more viable work for publication.
I’m not a comedian. I don’t write jokes and I’m not especially funny. Yet, on a recent weeknight I was onstage before an audience of 150 people at Laugh Boston, one of Boston’s most popular comedy clubs. With a level of confidence that surprised me, I stood in front of the mike under the bright lights. As I spoke, I heard a few titters here and there, then some chuckles, then clusters of people actually laughing out loud.
I’d won over my audience. My confidence was building. What’s great about Laugh Boston is that you don’t have to be a standup comedian to get onstage. You just have to have a story that fits the designated theme and know how to tell it.
The Moth storytelling is held at Laugh Boston once a month. There’s probably a The Moth storytelling near you. Events are held in major cities all over the country and also in London, Dublin, Melbourne, and Sydney. Here’s how it works. Ten audience members per event get to come onstage and tell a 5 minute story. Then audience members who volunteer to evaluate the presentations, judge them.
In an earlier blog post, I stated that I thought The Moth offered a great opportunity for writers to practice before an audience, a “dress rehearsal” for when they would do an author reading. But I also discovered that The Moth offers writers the opportunity to find out whether what they’ve written has audience appeal.
When I was called onstage I told a story I had written in essay form for an online class I’m taking with Creative Nonfiction, out of Pittsburgh. The story is about how our cat, Savannah, bit my husband, and we considered getting rid of her. The essay is just under 3,000 words. For The Moth, I boiled the story down, emphasizing the dramatic parts and then back-filling with explanation before bringing the story back to the presents and its dramatic conclusion.
From the audience response, I knew that my story was relatable. People became emotionally invested in it. So, if you’ve got an essay or piece of creative nonfiction you’ve written and want to test it on an audience, come up with a storytelling version and get onstage at The Moth.
I was scanning the inbox of my Hotmail account the other day, sped down the ‘subject’ lines of my emails and made an abrupt stop when I saw the words I’d been waiting months to see: “2016 Nicholas Schaffner Award.” My pulse quickened. My palms got clammy. I steeled myself.
Months earlier, I’d submitted my manuscript to the Schaffner Award for Music and Literature. The contest rules specify that the award would be given to the writer of an unpublished manuscript who submits a literary work in the English language–fiction, poetry, nonfiction–that deals with the subject of music. I thought my unpublished novel, which features an African drummer and has him performing in the story, would no doubt bubble to the top of the entries.
Last month, I got an electronic newsletter from the publisher, Tim Schaffner, stating that entries came in from 22 states in all genres–poetry, short fiction, novels, memoirs. “Due to the last-minute deluge of manuscripts, we will need to extend our award winner announcement until the end of February,” the newsletter read. Twenty-two states? I tried to do a quick calculation on how many entries that would be, how many manuscripts I’d have to beat out to win.
But then I got the email the other day. I thought it was a little early to hear from the contest again since the end of February was still weeks away. I soon found out why it was early. I took a deep breath and opened the email. It didn’t have the announcement of the winner of the contest. It had the names of the six finalists and MY NAME WAS NOT AMONG THEM!!!
After I read the email, my husband found me in bed, which is uncharacteristic for me since it was only about 6:30 p.m. After my 9 to 5 I’m usually off to the gym for boxing class or indoor cycling with a little treadmill action and free weights topped off with 10-minutes on the rowing machine.
My husband sat down next to me on the bed. Our cat, Savannah, hopped on the bed too and took a seat. We are her entertainment.
“I’m so sorry about this, Lisa. I know it’s disappointing,” Alex said. What can I do to help?”
I had an idea. I bolted upright. “I know,” I said. “You can read my manuscript again. Maybe there’s something in the writing that I missed. Maybe one of the characters needs to be tweaked.”
He said nothing. But I was fairly sure one of his eyelids was beginning to twitch. He read all 345 pages of my novel a few months ago. Maybe he wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of spending a few more weeks with my characters all over again. Maybe he was thinking about all of the heated “discussions” we’d had about the point of view I had chosen, the colloquialisms I employed, or the voice of the male characters.
“Maybe you can join a writer’s group,” he said finally. “That way you can talk to people who are going through the same things you’re going through. It’ll kind of be like a support group.”
So here I am at the main branch library waiting for the start of a writer’s group I found on meetup.com. I’ve gotten some support already. One member of the group emailed me the name of a book designed to help writers not give up hope in the face of rejection. I’ve never been part of a writing group. I’ll let you know what I think in an upcoming blog post.
I was thrilled when my essay was published in the “Reader’s Write” section of The Sun Magazine last year in the June issue. The topic was “doors.” I just found out that there’s a women’s project being organized by a local community theater group in Pennsylvania. The Sun magazine editors have asked for my permission to have my essay be among the ones included in the informal play audition to be held in a few weeks. This project provides not only acting roles for women but gives my essay exposure to a whole new audience. This is an unexpected, and welcomed benefit of getting my piece published.
He was sitting at one of those little two-seater tables, chatting with a friend in the lounge area of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center when I spotted him the other day—novelist and short story writer Andre Dubus, finalist for the National Book Award for House of Sand and Fog, which was later adapted for film and nominated for an Academy Award, Guggenheim Fellow, Oprah Book Club pick, and National Book Award finalist.
I instantly new it was him as I saw him out of the corner of my eye as I was passing by because of the hair. It’s distinctive: dark, soft waves with a swirl of grey at the center near the hairline that looked as if it could have been applied with a painter’s brush. He was sporting that rustic, Ralph Lauren look—the pointy cowboy boots, boot-cut jeans, open-collared shirt, dark, fitted blazer.
He stood up as I approached his table. I started to introduce myself, but I didn’t have to. “I know who you are.” He sounded ebullient. “You’re the novelist.”
“Yes, I am,” I replied, relieved that I didn’t have to explain myself.
He shook my hand. “Do I owe you an email?” he continued.
My mind raced back to the times I tried to get in touch with him, when I sent him updates about my manuscript. “Yes,” I said. “You probably do owe me a few emails, but that’s okay.”
I had been hanging around the convention center, waiting for a friend who was in the exhibit hall at the American Library Association mid-winter meeting. I had no idea that Dubus was one of the speakers. Before we parted, I handed him a copy of the Christmas Moments anthology that features one of my stories.
The first time I met him was about eight years ago when the nonprofit I work for invited him in for our organization-wide book club meeting. He read from House of Sand and Fog. At the time, I’d been writing short stories and hoped to write a novel. I told him so when he signed my copy of his book. He wished me luck and inscribed the book with “Good luck with your writing.”
Then, a few years later, I attended an author event at Newton Free Library to listen to him read from his memoir, Townie. Afterward, he seemed delighted when I told him that I’d completed my MFA in creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University and mentioned that he knew novelist Diane Les Bequets, one of my mentors who was running the program. He encouraged me to keep writing.
A couple of years later, not long after I’d gotten married and finished revising my novel, I showed up at Newtonville Books with my husband. I could feel the energy in the bookstore as Dubus’s fans awaited his arrival. They filled most of the seats but left a few up front. My husband and I didn’t have much choice but to sit there, front and center, with the lectern not much more than a foot away.
Dubus walked in and after he was introduced, opened a page in his story collection, Dirty Love. He adjusted his glasses, and as he was about to open his mouth to read the first line, he looked up at me and said, “I know you. We met before.”
Later, he signed my book and we had a nice chat.
Why do I keep bumping into Andre Dubus? Sometimes it’s by accident. A couple of times it was planned. When I’ve been around him I’ve wished that his stature as a novelist and memoirist could somehow rub off on me, opening doors for me in the world of publishing. But, the more realistic part of me simply enjoys the delightful and inspirational moments I’ve had with one of my favorite authors.
When my friend, Sue, asked me to join her buddies Rudy and Amy at THE MOTH story slam, held at Laugh Boston comedy venue this week, I didn’t hesitate. As a writer who tells stories, both fictional and true on the printed page, I was curious to see how stories are told in a story slam. Moth events are held in major cities around the country. There’s also THE MOTH radio hour at a station near you.
Here’s how it works. THE MOTH provides a theme for the evening’s event. When I attended, the theme was “dedication.” People sign up after they arrive to tell their stories. Only 10 are chosen per event. They are given 5 minutes to tell their story. If they go beyond 6 minutes, they must leave the stage. One of the organizers goes table-to-table asking people to volunteer as judges.
After we got our seats and ordered drinks, and the storytelling began, it didn’t take long for me to recognize the difference between telling a story and giving a reading. Storytelling is done without notes or pages of text so that we audience members could better connect with the speaker. The storytellers were animated, gesturing with their hands and arms, physically acting out portions of their stories. They changed pitch as they spoke, paused to let the audience laugh, and got emotional as they talked. They truly connected with the audience.
Participating in a story slam may not make for better writers, but could make writers, better speakers. So many writers just aren’t that comfortable in front of a microphone.
I picked up a few other tips. Wes Hazard, a local standup comedian, was picked to tell a story. His was about gastrointestinal problems that left him flat on his back in both a men’s and women’s bathroom in a comedy club venue. At the close of THE MOTH, there were clusters of people wanting to meet him and talk to him about his horrible experience. Wes was smart. He was armed with postcards with details of his upcoming comedy performances listed and his website. There’s no doubt that he used telling his story at THE MOTH to market his standup. Writers can use events like THE MOTH to increase their fan base and readership.
Sue, Amy, and I did our best to cheer on Rudy when he got on stage and told his story, which, in fact, captivated the audience. However, he didn’t get the top score from the judges. We couldn’t believe it. Some of THE MOTH staff told him as he left the stage that his story was the best. They didn’t agree with the judges. It reminds me of the responses I get from publications I send my stories to. I can get a bunch of rejections and then a publication will come along and the editor will say it’s just what she was looking for. It’s all so subjective.
I’ve been feeling a little down this holiday season. I spent the past year revising my unpublished novel, had a former co-worker who runs an editing service proofread and copyedit it and have been sending it out to agents. So far, I’ve gotten a few rejections, some advice for tweaking it, but no nibbles.
But I have to remind myself of the successes I’ve had this year. I was honored when the ladies of GBS-NCNW asked me to speak at their membership tea in September. I read “Short Distance Romance,” about how I met my husband in the most unlikely place. The story was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dating Game.
Not long after that, I got some good news from the Editor of The Northwestern, my alumni magazine, that they would publish my essay, “Trust Yourself,” about volunteering at my church and my friendship with one of my little first graders.
As the holiday season got underway, I got good news again. And again. And again. Writer’s Digest magazine gave me an honorable mention in its 84th annual writing competition. The mention was for an essay I wrote centering on a troubling medical diagnosis I received.
There was a time when I struggled to get short pieces published, but that’s beginning to change. I need to remind myself of this as I go through the process of seeking a literary agent to represent me.
Without fail, starting the day after Thanksgiving, until the end of the year I think of Mariah Carey. In fact, I can’t get her off my mind. It’s not because of her stunning five-octave voice or the ups and downs of her personal life. It’s because I can’t walk into a department store, supermarket, auto repair shop, or hair salon without hearing, All I Want for Christmas Is You. It becomes a continuous loop in my head that doesn’t come to a stop until New Year’s Day.
I do love the song. It’s one of my holiday favorites and because of it, I, along with thousands upon thousands of other people think of Mariah during the holiday season.
Good for Mariah.
Recording a holiday album is smart marketing for performers. It means that every holiday season, whether the artists have produced something during the year or not, the buying public will think of them. Keeping oneself in the minds of consumers is important for writers too. This holiday season, an essay I wrote, “Sunshine for Christmas,” was published in an anthology by Grace Publishing, More Christmas Moments. It’s a lovely collection of heartwarming stories. I am selling copies this year and plan to make them available at holiday craft fairs in the future.
Christmas stories, like Christmas songs, never get old. Getting published in anthologies that have a seasonal tie-in is a way that writers can maintain their profile with the public. Thanks for the tip, Mariah!
We are so excited that our Dinner with an Author Gala is just one week away, and even more excited that you’ll be there with us! The event is officially at capacity with 250 guests, and your gracious participation along with 26 other amazing authors is what will make it unique and so special.
Excitement was building for me as I read this email update on the Raising a Reader MA gala. I would be rubbing elbows with other authors, some with a major publishing house, others whose novels had been made into major motion pictures, Like Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice. When I arrived at the swank Newbury Hotel the following week, I was whisked to a reception area for cocktails and mingling. Photographers snapped our pictures and wait staff served us beverages of our choice along with creatively arranged hors d’oeuvres.
At the appointed time all of us authors took a group photo in front of the “step and repeat” like they do at the Oscars. While the photographer was setting up the shot, I reminded Lisa Genova that we had met years earlier when I was the president of the Women’s National Book Association Boston Chapter and she gave a reading at one of our events from Still Alice. She must have been in negotiations with Hollywood at the time because she mentioned that there was some “buzz” about her book but she wasn’t at liberty to get more specific.
By evening’s end, we had succeeded in helping to close the literacy opportunity gap among young children and their families in under-resourced communities across Massachusetts. More than $358,000 was raised!
I am new to the publishing world, my debut novel, The Talking Drum was published at the end of May, and I didn’t have a sense of the publishing landscape in terms of the value placed on works by black versus non-black authors. That is, until the arrival of the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe. The hashtag was created by the fantasy novelist L.L. McKinney to highlight the disparities.
I now know that black authors have been having these conversations for quite some time. The conversations picked up speed and drew more attention from the public in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests throughout the United States and other parts of the world regarding police brutality and racial injustice in general.
As an author who is African American, the threads of conversation under the hashtag drew my interest. I followed the tweets closely. Black and non-black authors disclosed the amounts paid for their book advances. The disparities were stunning.
I researched further and came across the Lee & Low Books Diversity Baseline Survey. Lee & Low is the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. Their 2019 survey—an update and expansion from the 2015 survey—captured information from a large segment of the publishing landscape with all Big 5 publishers participating, all major review journals, and academic presses and literary agencies.
The survey found that overall, the publishing industry is 76% white, 5% black, 6% Latinx, and 7% Asian. Editorial staffs are 85% white, 1% black, 2% Latinx, and 5% Asian. Marketing and publicity departments are 74% white, 4% black, 5% Latinx, and 8% Asian.
I was particularly interested in the findings about book reviewers, being a book reviewer myself and having had my book reviewed by upwards of 40 reviewers during my book launch. I know the impact reviews can have on book sales and publicity. The survey found that among book reviewers 80% are white, 4% black, 3% Latinx, and 4% Asian.
Needless to say, the people behind the books serve as gatekeepers, who can make a huge difference in determining which stories are amplified and which are shut out. If the people who work in publishing are not a diverse group, how can diverse voices truly be represented in its books? The survey found that 71 % of African American fiction is sold by indie and self-published authors. Sales figures show that these books are selling, there is a market for them, but the Big 5 publishers—Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan—largely ignore them.
It took me 10 years to get my novel published. I have no idea if biases or prejudice had anything to do with the length of my journey. Along the way I got great feedback from literary agents and editors who helped me make the novel better. When I finally got a contract, it was from a small press in Toronto, a women’s press that has the mission of publishing women of all backgrounds.
I wonder if I’ll face similar challenges with my second novel. If I acquire a literary agent, will the agent be unable to sell my book to a major publisher? Will I be shut out because of race?
In this era in which reading lists are popping up on the internet urging the public to read black authors, buy black books, and support black-owned and operated bookstores, there also needs to be an outcry over the lack of diversity in the publishing world and the pay disparities between black authors and white authors and between black authors and other authors of color. Unless the publishing industry is held accountable, improvements will not be made.
In light of where we are in the country right now, days after the George Floyd murder and the brutal attacks and killings of other innocent African American by the police and others, I’ve compiled a reading list for those who have been asking the question, “What can I do to help? What can I do to be part of the solution to resolving hatred and racial bias?”
One thing people can do is develop a better understanding of the Black Experience by reading about it.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Once in a great while a book comes along that changes the way we see the world and helps to fuel a nationwide social movement. The New Jim Crow is such a book. Praised by Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier as “brave and bold,” this book directly challenges the notion that the election of Barack Obama signals a new era of colorblindness. With dazzling candor, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” By targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control—relegating millions to a permanent second-class status—even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness. In the words of Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, this book is a “call to action.”
The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America’s Law Enforcement
During his 28-year career, Matthew Horace rose through the ranks from a police officer working the beat to a federal agent working criminal cases in some of the toughest communities in America to a highly decorated federal law enforcement executive managing high-profile investigations nationwide. Yet it was not until seven years into his service- when Horace found himself face down on the ground with a gun pointed at his head by a white fellow officer-that he fully understood the racism seething within America’s police departments.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
In this “vital, necessary, and beautiful book” (Michael Eric Dyson), antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo deftly illuminates the phenomenon of white fragility and “allows us to understand racism as a practice not restricted to ‘bad people’ (Claudia Rankine). Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. In this in-depth exploration, DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what we can do to engage more constructively.
Invisible People: Stories of Lives at the Margins
Every human being has an epic story. The late Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Alex Tizon told the epic stories of marginalized people—from lonely immigrants struggling to forge a new American identity to a high school custodian who penned a New Yorker short story. Edited by Tizon’s friend and former colleague Sam Howe Verhovek, Invisible People collects the best of Tizon’s rich, empathetic accounts—including “My Family’s Slave,” the Atlantic magazine cover story about the woman who raised him and his siblings under conditions that amounted to indentured servitude.
Activist and journalist Shaun King reflects on the events that made him one of the most prominent social justice leaders in the world and lays out a clear action plan for you to join the fight. As a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, Shaun King has become one of the most recognizable and powerful voices on the front lines of civil rights in our time. His commitment to reforming the justice system and making America a more equitable place has brought challenges and triumphs, soaring victories and crushing defeats. Throughout his wide-ranging activism, King’s commentary remains rooted in both exhaustive research and abundant passion.
No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America
When Darnell Moore was fourteen, three boys from his neighborhood tried to set him on fire. They cornered him while he was walking home from school, harassed him because they thought he was gay, and poured a jug of gasoline on him. He escaped, but just barely. It wasn’t the last time he would face death.
Three decades later, Moore is an award-winning writer, a leading Black Lives Matter activist, and an advocate for justice and liberation. In No Ashes in the Fire, he shares the journey taken by that scared, bullied teenager who not only survived, but found his calling.
Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism
For the reader who wants to learn more about black feminism, Ain’t I A Woman by bell hooks is considered one of the most important and comprehensive works on how sexism and misogyny specifically affects women of color.