Lessons Learned at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference: Never Underestimate the Power of a Literary Journal

Some years ago I had my first piece of fiction published in Snake Nation Review, a literary journal published by a Georgia arts organization with a readership of about 6,000. I’ve since had pieces published in Vermont Literary Review, Clockhouse Review and others with readerships that size or less. Nobody I know has ever heard of any of these. When I go to book expos at writing conferences, I don’t see any representatives from the journals I’ve been published in. The publications are too small and funding too low for the organizations to fly someone to a conference. Lately I’ve had second thoughts about even mentioning them in my author bio when I submit work.

However, when I attended the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in CNF55 Literary JournalPittsburgh last weekend, I learned that there’s power in getting published in literary journals.

Lee Gutkind, known as the “Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” moderated a panel about getting published. He said that editors and agents actually read literary journals. He said Creative Nonfiction literary journal will publish a piece and then sometimes an agent will contact the journal to find out how to contact the writer, wondering if the writer is interesting in writing a book. I was surprised. I had no idea that editors and agents looked at literary journals. I thought the only people who looked at or read literary journals were the writers who got published in them.

It was also mentioned that for writers aspiring to get an academic position, getting published in literary journals can be helpful.

Why Get an Agent?

I’ve known a number of writers who’ve written books and self-published them and others who worked directly with a small press to get their book published. In these instances, the individuals didn’t bother with literary agents. At the Emily LooseCreative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh recently, Emily Loose, an independent literary agent who formerly was a senior acquisitions editor at three of the big five general trade publishing houses, Crown Publishers of Random House, the Penguin Press of Penguin Books, and Free Press of Simon and Schuster, talked about the benefits of a writer working with an agent. Of course, I expected her to speak with this point of view, but after thinking about what she said, I began to think more seriously about an agent’s worth to people like me, who are aspiring to get their first book published.

She said that there are many things that a writer can’t represent him or herself well on, for example, understanding the clauses in contracts. If a writer is missing a deadline, the agent can help the writer stay on track. She said she had a writer who went to his attic for three months to finish a book, barely saw his family the entire time and made the deadline. His book has won awards. Along the way, she found out that there was a competing book coming out, so she bumped up his deadline by three months to beat the press date of the other book .

Torie Bosch, the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University, mentioned that agents can be helpful if the writer is talented, but very difficult, the agent can help to smooth things over.

Loose mentioned that an agent’s take is 15 percent. This sounds reasonable to me based on what you get in return.

To Blog or Not to Blog: What I Learned at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

I spent the weekend in Pittsburgh reconnecting with a friend of mine and while I was there we attended the Saturday portion of the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference. At the registration table they told me that about 175 people attend from most major cities as well as a high concentration of people from the Pittsburgh area. I’ve been a subscriber to the organization’s literary magazine for CNF Registrationyears and have submitted work that unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) hasn’t been accepted for publication.

Be that as it may, I was pleased to finally meet the people who produce the literary magazines and blogs that have been a part of my life for many years.

During the morning session on how to get published, agents, authors, editors and freelance writers discussed the value of a writer having a blog. I found much of what was said useful even though I’m writing fiction. Much of the CNF Audienceadvice is transferable. Here are remarks from Jason Bittel, writer for the Species Watch column of Earthwire, Kristina Marusic, editorial assistant for Creative Nonfiction magazine and a coordinator for the annual writers’ conference, and Emily Loose, an independent literary agent, who in the past worked as an acquisitions editor for some of the top New York publishing houses. Lee Gutkind, “The Godfather of creative nonfiction” moderated.

Jason: Definitely yes. The best thing for you when you are pitching your book project is to blog. Strut your stuff.

Kristina: Having a blog is a great way to prove you can craft a compelling story. If you don’t have lots of clips, or publications, your blog can show what you can do. It’s also a great way to build a community and talk to other writers.

Emily: A blog is not time away from your work. It’s synergistic. The publishing industry wants you to make a brand for yourself. We think about the author’s brand constantly as we’re going about getting works published.

Lee: It’s not just your writing that you’re showing off in a blog, you are shamelessly showing off what you know. You are branding yourself and showing your special knowledge and skills. You’re not just a great writer, you have great evidence of all kinds of things.

So there you have it. A blog can definitely be worth your time as a writer. Hopefully this blog will offer dividends when I’m ready to shop my novel around for an agent. I’ll share more from the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in upcoming posts.

Publishing success found in the “spam” file

Lisa Allen BookBecause of technical problems, one of Lisa Allen’s email addresses does not forward to her Gmail account. After many phone calls and calling the host company for her website, the writer/photographer was able to do a temporary fix on her account. The inbox was packed with spam, but she was reluctant to do a “check all” and delete … just in case. She discovered an acceptance email from Rockport Publishers.

The book, “1000 FOOD ART & STYLING IDEAS” is a curated collection of photos, organized in categories such as color, global, indulge, chill and aerial, the chapter where you will find Lisa’s contribution. Artists were not paid for accepted submissions, but are offered a discount should they want to purchase the book directly from the publisher. However, a comprehensive index of the photographers and their contact information is included in the book. So you can be certain Lisa will be checking that web mail account more frequently!

Moral of the story? Establish a routine for checking extra email accounts! If you don’t mind bundling all of your correspondence into a single account, arrange for your author or artist website email to be forwarded to an account you visit daily.

How Writers Can Make the Most of National Reading Month

March is National Reading Month, when we celebrate the joy of reading. Schools all over the country are planning literacy-related activities to highlight reading in fun and unusual ways. Writers can celebrate the observance by reading to schoolchildren. Not only is this a meaningful avenue for volunteering, it provides some benefit to the writer. Here’s how you can make the most of it.

  • You’ll get to practice reading out loud: If you haven’t done a public reading in a while, reading a storybook to children will be a great warm up to reading your work before an audience.
  • You’ll get to practice public speaking: You can tell the kids about your love of reading and writing and your successes and challenges of getting published.
  • You’ll get new material for social networking posts and tweets: Reading to kids is an adventure. The conversations you’ll have with them during your reading could be interesting to your fans and followers.
  • You’ll attract new readers: The kids will likely go home and tell their parents that a “real author” came to their school that day. The adults might decide to Google you, find your web site or blog and start following you.

So let’s celebration National Reading Month. Let’s get reading and see where it takes us.

 

Looking to throw a literary party? Let Boston NWU show you how

Book PartyIf you’re thinking about hosting a book party for your organization, but don’t know where to start, let Boston National Writers Union guide you along. Each January, NWU books space for member authors to display and sell the books they’ve had published during the past year. This coming January the party will be held at the Cambridge Family YMCA and will feature William Martin, historical fiction writer and author of ten novels, a brief reading by six NWU authors of new books and a silent auction in which massages and vacation home rentals may be up for grabs.

Of course, a party wouldn’t be complete without refreshments. The event will be catered by a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant.

The book party is open to the public and should help members build an audience within the organization and in general.

The book party is one of the most popular events from NWU. Why not make it a program your organization can sponsor?

How to make your fantasy book tour a reality

Hair Kingdom head and shoulders

As a writer who hopes to one day get her novel published, I find myself fantasizing about my first book signing. I’ll be stationed at a table at one of the popular independent bookstores in town with a long line of avid readers clutching copies of my book as if they are precious cargo, awaiting my signature and some witty note I’ll include.

As my hand starts to cramp from signing my name 40, 50, 60 times, my publicist will pull me aside to tell me it’s time to head to my next event 45 miles down the road where more of my readers are waiting. In this fantasy, I’m at the beginning of my author tour, which will last a year and include not only cities along the Eastern Seaboard but major cities across the country.

Hair Kingdom Gift TableBut I don’t have to live in the fantasy to enjoy some measure of reality, in order to conduct a book signing or get the practice of doing a public reading. And neither do you. All you need is to have one story published in one publication online or in print to become a celebrated writer.

Recently The Hair Kingdom, the salon in the Roxbury section of Boston where I’m a client, hosted a Saturday afternoon brunch featuring several female entrepreneurs, an up-and-coming professional singer, and me. While we dined on wine, cheese, and some hearty chicken soup served right out of a slow cooker, to tie in with the title of the anthology I’m published in—Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dating Game, I read an excerpt from my essay, “Short Distance Romance.” Then I did a signing. Despite the fact that I have one story in an anthology and not an entire book, the guests at the brunch were excited to meet me and thrilled to spend the afternoon with an author. I made a point to tuck a post card with my blog address into every book I signed. The event was a great way to build an audience and encourage me to keep writing.

 

Is National Novel Writing Month is big fat waste of time?

“Ready to write a novel? You’ve come to the right place.” So says the NaNo WriMowebsite for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNo WriMo, as it is affectionately called. NaNo WriMo challenges people to write 50,000 words of a novel during the 30 days of November. But if you’re a novice writer and think that you’ll come up with 50,000 words of publishable prose, you’ll be in for a big disappointment.

I was sitting in my Query Lab class at Grub Street Writing Center in Boston a few months ago, getting instruction from a top New York literary agent on how to fine tune the query letter I had written in my effort to get some attention for my manuscript, when, with a weary look on her face, the agent said, “I dread getting NaNo WriMo manuscripts.”

Started 16 years ago, NaNo WriMo is said to empower diverse voices in the quest for creativity and publishing success. It also makes literary agents, like the one teaching my class, cringe. At the end of November into December, agents know your manuscripts are coming. They’re already bracing themselves for slap dash work full of clichés, thin plots and plastic characters.

Studies show that NaNo WriMo writers often ignore the website’s official advice about revising work before submitting it to an editor or agent. NaNo WriMo writers take VERY rough drafts and submit them expecting a favorable response.

The reality is that getting the attention of an agent or editor is hard enough after a writer has gotten extensive feedback from readers, instructors, and other writers and has repeatedly revised the manuscript until it is polished.

I’ve heard very few success stories coming out of NaNo WriMo. Very few of these “writers” end up getting the NaNo WriMo version of a manuscript published.

So see NaNo WriMo for what it is: a way for aspiring writers to develop a routine and build a community with other writers., not a way to get published.

 

The literary version of American Idol comes to Boston

The panel of judges took their seats. The performers lined up for their turn at the microphone. The crowd quieted down in anticipation of the first audition. Old South Church in Boston’s Back Bay was the place to be yesterday for “Writer Idol,” one of the sessions held as part of the Boston Book Festival. Patterned after the popular TV show American Idol, but with a literary bent, writers were invited to submit the first 250 words of their unpublished manuscripts for the contest. Two authors took turns performing those pages and the panel of three judges—literary agents—raised their hands to get the performers to stop if they heard a line that would prompt them to stop reading. I submitted the first 250 words of my manuscript, but mine didn’t get to the top of the thick stack submitted and wasn’t read.

That was okay. The judges were brutally honest and I wasn’t sure how well I’d stand up to the criticism. However, I came away with great tips from the agents.

  • Agents love to discover news voices. Don’t be discouraged if you’re trying to pitch your first book.
  • How much room an agent has on his or her list for adding a new talent can weigh into how far the agent will read the manuscript.
  • Query widely. What might not be a good fit for one agent, will be a great find for another.
  • Agents have “the remote control from hell” in their hands. Find an opening that draws them in right away.
  • Don’t “info-dump.” Don’t cram lots of information into your first pages that can be told as the story goes on.

At the end of “Writer Idol,” a winner was chosen, one of the few writers whose work was read onstage without interruption by the judges. Her prize? One of the agents asked her to come up to the stage. She wanted to see the entire manuscript.

 

A Retreat Center Offers the Solitude a Writer Needs

My cat, Savannah, loves my manuscript. She loves to lie on it, bite the corners of the pages, claw the spiral binding. A few mornings ago, she backed up, sprang forward and pounced on it, ripping out a page. I’d had enough.

What Savannah doesn’t understand is that I love my manuscript too, possibly more than she does. I hope to one day see my manuscript published, taking its place on the shelf alongside other novels at your friendly neighborhood bookstore. In order to make that possibly happen, I need to have peace and quiet to work on revisions. So I ran away from home, but only for a weekend. I left Savannah with my husband. I blotted images from my mind of Savannah scaling the window screen like Spiderman as I backed the car out of the parking lot—a feeble attempt on her part to gain my sympathy and change my mind about leaving. I became gleeful as my home became tinier and tinier in my rearview mirror.

Retreat ManuscriptThe retreat center, where complete silence was required, was just what I needed to enter the world of my characters and stay there until I’d read through to the final page. That was one of the best ways to discover inconsistencies in the story, dialogue that didn’t seem to work, repeated phrases.

Retreat BedThe retreat center accommodations included a modest room with a twin bed, desk, and closet. Three hot meals were provided, lush grounds and walking trails for getting in touch with your thoughts. I got more done in two days than I would have in two weeks, going about my normal routine of work, the gym, household distractions, Savannah.

So writers, next time your birthday or a holiday rolls around you’ll know what to ask for, not one of those fancy metallic ball point pens you’ll end up losing in the couch cushion, not one of those blank books you’ll never get around to using, but a stay at a retreat center.