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.

What I learned during an afternoon with award-winning writer Jina Ortiz

I’ve been plugged into the writing community for years and have wondered if it’s worth my time, attending writing conferences, taking classes at Grub Street Creative Writing Center, and reading the trades magazines. I’ve spent hours scouring the “calls for submissions” in the back of Poets and Writers magazine and the online site NewPages.com, looking for places where I could submit my writing.

After spending an afternoon with writer and poet Jina Ortiz, I’ve come to All About Skina conclusion about the worth of my efforts. Jina is co-editor of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color, one of the most talked about anthologies. The volume features 27 stories by women of color whose short fiction has earned them a range of honors, from the Guggenheim Fellowship, to inclusion in The Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Anthologies.

All About Skin was given a favorable review in a recent issue of Ms. Magazine and a lengthy write-up in Poets and Writers.

I’ve known Jina for years and got her to agree to be the speaker at my book club meeting recently. I asked her about the submission process for the anthology. She said that she and co-editor Rochelle Spencer received more than 100 submissions, which they whittled down to 27. She said they sought stories from authors they knew, put out an open call through writing networks, including writing publications, and attended writing conferences, where they solicited work.

While being plugged into the writing network is time-consuming, I believe it is worth it. The writers whose stories appear in All About Skin now have another high-profile platform to showcase their work. The volume is being looked at by some universities to be included as a textbook.

 

Support local bookstores before it’s too late!

I was looking forward to reading my monthly e-newsletter from Bestsellers Café, Bestsellers Cafethe bookstore/coffee shop in Medford, Massachusetts. I always like to see what books they recommend and the listing of upcoming author and live music events. However, I was saddened to see that the latest email was a good-bye letter. Bestsellers Café will be closing down at the end of January because of “unfavorable terms of a lease agreement.” I am so sorry to hear this. Bestsellers Café showcases the work of rising authors and has a section devoted to books published by local authors and independent presses. A couple of months ago they invited me in to speak about the essay I got published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology. The manager gave me a lovely introduction before I gave my talk. Only a handful of copies of the book were sold, but I was invited to come back the next time I have something published.

Writers who are trying to get established depend on this country’s privately owned and independent bookstores like Bestsellers Café for support. You’d have to be a highly successful commercial author before Barnes and Noble would consider hosting an event for you. There’s nothing to be done about the closing of Bestsellers Café, but let it be a reminder to all of us of the importance of supporting locally owned bookstores. Because if we don’t, they will cease to exist.

My essay on ‘Cognoscenti’ is an example of the benefits of being published online

Cognoscenti LogoA few days ago one of my essays, “Processing ‘Go Back to Where You Came from When Where You Came From is Here,” was published on National Public Radio affiliate WBUR’s Cognoscenti ideas and opinions web page. A writer friend of mine in the National Writers Union Boston Chapter, Barbara Beckwith, had been suggesting for months that I contribute to the site–she’s been published there several times–but I had no interest because I prefer to see my work in a printed publication so it will have an indefinite shelf life. However, by publishing online I’ve been able to get immediate feedback from the public in the “comments” section of the web page and a few people have tweeted the link to my story.

I don’t have a copy of my essay in a bound publication, but it’s reached many more people.

 

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.

 

Comfort in the Company of Strangers

NWUI’m not the type of person who walks into a restaurant alone and sits down at a table with a group of strangers, but tonight, I made an exception. The occasion wasn’t one of those social networking-inspired group dinners in which unconnected people get together to make new friends. Nor was it a salon-style gathering where the affairs of the day are discussed.

It was the monthly meeting of the Boston chapter of the National Writers Union. I joined NWU a few months ago to make contacts. NWU provides many services, including consultations for writers about to sign a contract with a literary agent or publisher.

New to the organization, I figured I should attend some events to get acquainted with the membership. We met at Christopher’s, a casual dining restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A group of half a dozen writers at different stages of their careers sat around the table giving each other encouragement and tips on markets for getting work published. They welcomed me as soon as I arrived, interested to know what I was working on and enthusiastically discussing their own projects.

Every so often it’s good to step away from the laptop and meet with other writers who are going through similar experiences, dealing with rejection and trying to remain hopeful for publishing success.

 

My guest blog on Grub Street Daily has been posted

Every since I moved to the Boston area a little over 10 years ago, I’ve been affiliated with Grub Street, an innovative creative writing center. I’ve taken classes, participated in workshops, and attended author readings. Now I am a guest blogger. My first blog post on Grub Daily, Grub Street’s blog, was posted today. I’ve written about a group that’s provided me with encouragement over the years in my writing.