Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Practical Course

Approval has been granted for my proposal for this new and very practical three-credit course at University College (Wash U), to be taught in Fall 2010. No course number has yet been assigned. Writers must do this work anyway, so why not with us?


This practical course guides writers who are ready to face the challenges of preparing their completed manuscripts for submission to publishers. Focusing on their individual manuscripts, students will learn the industry standards for presentation and formatting, perform market research, practice writing queries and synopses for editors and agents, and explore conventional and new approaches to publication and other forms of dissemination. Students will share and discuss their findings. Authors and editors of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and features will speak to the class about manuscript submission and acceptance. Manuscripts may consist of poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, and range from feature length to book-length, but they must be complete and ready for submission; this is not a workshop for developing works as yet unwritten or for furthering works in progress. The course encourages a businesslike and committed approach. Not for writers of technical, scholarly, or foreign-language manuscripts, or works consisting largely of illustrations.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Looking Out for #0

Friend just got a nonfiction-book contract with a good publisher. Her first. Before signing, she wanted me to see if the contract was fair. I said if not, she could negotiate. I found her contract pretty much standard-issue: "author gets 7% royalty of net sales,"--meaning "publisher gets 93 percent of net sales," and publishers know because we're writers and desperate we don't expect a lot better -- maybe 10%, or 12%, tops -- but --

There was NOTHING in the contract about an ADVANCE!

"What kind of advance have they offered you?" I asked.

What? Why, it hadn't even crossed her mind that her publishers should pay her anything but her 7% royalties.

I said, "You must ask for an advance. You will get little if anything in royalties. Nobody gets royalties now. The advance is the only money you're likely to see from this book, now or for a very long time."

How much should she ask for? I said, how about $3000? She was stunned. She could really ask a publisher to pay her a whole $3000 in exchange for an 80,000 word manuscript?

Are writers the only professionals who take a 93-7 split as normal? And what other professionals are so well conditioned to perpetual peonage that when they sell a manuscript, negotiating on a price for it doesn't even cross their minds?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Writers' Bios: An Editor's View

Editor of the literary mag River Styx for 15 years, poet Richard Newman (most recent book: Domestic Fugues) probably wouldn't mind being quoted on what he said when I asked him about bios yesterday. The bios in River Styx are almost uniformly three- or four-liners, and the editors keep them that way by trimming. Richard said, "The really famous poets have one or two sentences. Those bios will say ' Famous Poet is the author of 15 books of poetry,' and leave it at that. It's the nobodies who send us long bios that include every little fart. . ."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bio No-Nos

Make your bio clever or noble today, and cringe tomorrow. When writing a bio, ALWAYS play it conservative. Or hope your editors will advise you to use your creative powers, wit, and politics as fuel for your art – not your bio.

“XX is a socialist feminist who believes the Amerikan capitalist system is…”

“XX recommends the chili.” (thanks, Gaye Gambell-Peterson!)

“XX is the mother of five-year-old twin girls, Beth and Amy, and two-year-old Laurie…”

“Once I believed that poetry was something to distract my human companion, so I could knock pens off her desk and swish my tail under her nose...I write for felines everywhere! And I write in form because the anarchic spirit of all cats is an explosive force that needs something powerful to contain it.”

“XX thanks Our Lord Jesus Christ…”

“XX’s memoir in this issue is part of a just-released 10-CD boxed set of interviews with three generations of family, with a companion volume of exciting vintage photographs. . .”

“XX was born.”

“XX in fifth grade won a prize for a composition, and ever since…”

“XX wonders why you are reading this.”

“Every day, XX fires up his Apple IIe and…”

“Vote now for XX’s poem by texting 90095”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bios and Street Cred

The coin of the literary realm is not money but status. Status, however, correlates with money. Every literary writer wants to be published in hardback by the ritziest, best-known publishers, secure the fattest prizes and grants, and get paying gigs (readings or teaching) at prestigious venues. Thus, the writer’s bio recipe for intermediate and advanced writers, ingredients listed in order of importance:

1. Publications. Books first, then periodicals, the most prestigious listed first. Chapbooks count. If you won a chapbook contest, double points; triple points if a famous writer judged the contest, and do mention his or her name. List forthcoming books, but only if you have a contract. To say you're shopping around for an agent for your first novel is lame. Self-published books count, but always include the name of the press. Here’s how I credit myself: Fierce Consent and Other Poems (Wingspan, 2005). Omit the press and folks will think you're hiding, like, "Lightning Source" or "Xlibris" because they embarrass you.

2. Prizes and honors. Do not include those given locally unless bestowed by educational institutions.

3. Jobs related to the literary world, such as being a writer-in-residence, or editor of something, or a teacher in an ESL program. You lose status by listing other types of jobs.

4. Degrees, writing-related only. Top-level writers such as George Saunders may get mileage out of having graduated from the Colorado School of Mines. You will not.

If you have the above, they go into your writer’s bio in that order. Skip those you don’t have and don’t make stuff up. At the intermediate level your bio is scrutinized by people who know scrutiny! If you haven’t got good publications, work at getting them. If an editor asks for a “three-line bio,” it is acceptable to give three lines of publications, because publication is currently the ultimate in street cred.

But note: I sense that because writers now can and often do publish their own works, “publications” are losing value. Gaining value are prizes and honors, because your friends and mother cannot bestow them.

So, writers: Go out and win some prizes today!

Next: Writer’s Bio No-nos

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Writer's Bio: The Three-Line Template

The default bio, the one most editors ask for and that you read at the back of literary journals, consists of three sentences:

Writer X is a ________________________________. He is a graduate of ___________________________. His work has appeared in _________________________, ____________, and __________________, and is forthcoming in ______________.

This is the basic bio, the little black dress of bios. And sometimes more may be called for. Maybe you are right to want to toot your own horn just a little more. So....coming up next.....the Bio with Significant Accessories.

Art & Craft of the Writer's Bio, Part I

Almost word-for-word true. Hardly published, he had quite an impressive writer’s bio:

. . .his novella* Ready to Rumble was a semi-finalist for the William Faulkner Southern Writers Prize*. His short story “Blankety-Blank” was published in The Eliot Review,* and his story “My Story” received an honorable mention* in the first annual* George F. Spelvin Competition.* His work was nominated* for the 2008 Lawrence Figbar Prize* and has been cited* by the Eastern Missouri Tri-County Alliance for Excellence in Sports Writing.* He recently completed an essay for Esquire*.

That’s all factual. But to amplify a little:

*Novella is unpublished.
*The prize has a grand name, but the contest was in fact run by Squat University’s book-arts class, seeking a manuscript to work with.
*”Eliot Review” is the impressive name of the undergraduate rag at his college, which published the story in 1986.
*Everyone knows that "honorable mention" can mean many things.
*Always look suspiciously at “first annual” – because most of the time, even though relatively few writers discover and enter “first annual” competitions, the administrators, learning how much work it is, never hold a second one.
*Always suspect honors bestowed by an entity you’ve never heard of.
*"Nominate" may be a great honor -- or it may mean nothing.
*The Figbar Prize is a competition run by his local writing guild, named in honor of one of its former members.
*”Cited” in what way? We hope not as a bad example.
*Sounds like a group with a very small membership…
*Yes, he wrote it for Esquire, but Esquire hasn’t seen it yet, and won’t print it when it does.

And you know, he's only doing what most of us writers do with "bios," only on a slightly more exaggerated scale....

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Book Cover

Here is the cover of Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis, Penultimate Press, my new book to be published soon. (I'm working on the galleys.) Thought you might like to see it. I'm in love with this book inside and out! ISBN is 978-0-9760675-4-2 $17.95. Well worth it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

2 Odious Things in Recent Poetry

The poetry one likes is so much a matter of personal taste. But in some recent books highly praised, recommended, etc., I saw some incredibly stupid lines. Example:

Who can see a stranger's wrist/ and not have regrets? (Immediate response: "Me, that's who!")

And You know what else? Caught myself doing this: TOO MANY POEMS today are written addressing "You," but they don't mean the reader. What's going on? I suspect poets have been shamed out of saying "I" -- too egotistical. "You" is a displacement. It may help camouflage the fact that "You" is too often the poet's mom, dad, boyfriend, or somebody else too unimportant to have any identity besides that of a vehicle for, or target of, the poem. I am trying to remind myself to have a very good reason not to use "he" or "she" or "Celia."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Wash. U. Summer Writers Institute 2010

Please let every writer know that applications will be available shortly for:

The15th annual Washington University Summer Writers Institute, in St. Louis June 14-25, 2010. Workshops will include fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and the Young Writers Institute (for high-school sophomores, juniors and seniors). See the Writers Institute website, or telephone (314) 935-6720.

Instructors for 2010 are: Poetry, Sally Van Doren

Fiction, Rebecca Rasmusssen

Creative Nonfiction, Kathleen Finneran

Young Writers Institute, Mathew Smith.

The keynote speaker will be poet and SLU professor Devin Johnston.

Read what Summer Writers Institute Alumni from past years have been publishing, winning, and so forth.

The Young Writers Institute is a workshop for high-school sophomores, juniors and seniors who write poetry or creative prose.

Adult and youth writers meet in group workshop sessions, held Mondays through Fridays in the mornings. In the afternoons accomplished writers and editors from Missouri and Illinois read from their work and discuss writing and publishing. Participants have weekends free for writing. Traditionally, Institute participants finish up the two weeks with an open-mike reading of their own work. Tuition this year is $845 noncredit or $1795 to earn three college credits. Is that a lot? I guarantee it won't get any cheaper! Maybe this is your year!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Which is More Important: Action or Results?

A beautifully simple rearrangement of reality from a seminar on "making a living from your self-published books," a St. Louis Publishers Association event attended 28 December:

Speaker, asking the audience: "Which is more important? Taking action or getting results?"

Audience: "Hmm, well, sort of -- results?"

Speaker: "No. It's taking action! Imagine two authors who want to sell their books. One tells himself, 'I'm making 10 cold calls today.' The other vows, 'By the end of today I will find three hot leads.' Then it's 2 p.m. The first author has made his calls (he hates cold calling, but he did it). He's free now to go to work on his next book. The second guy is sweating and stressed -- calling and calling he hasn't gotten even one of the hot leads he wanted! And gosh, his day won't end until he has three!"

Remember, said the speakers, you can control your actions -- but you can't control results!

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Hardest Thing

My first "freelance writing" teacher, a novelist, said: "The hardest thing about writing is placing your butt in the chair." Age 18 then, I'd never heard that and didn't understand.

Sitting down and writing -- to express myself, be somebody on paper -- that was an indulgence, a privilege; fun, and not a pain; sort of a bubble bath for the mind! I did it as often as I could.

Over the years I heard "how hard it was" repeated by teachers and then by fellow writers, until I accepted it. My first artificial difficulty! And I let it govern me, this First-World, fey statement of the grossly overprivileged: "The hardest thing about writing is sitting down to it." Much worse, I repeated this false "truism" to others, who should have jeered me! Who should have said, "Oh, really big life-threatening problem, that one!"