Jan 30
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Checking Out the Contest Judge

Even if your work is top-of-the-line and everyone else says so, take time to consider, before entering a contest that asks a $20 or $25 fee (those add up), who the judge is. Most of the time the entity holding the competition is pleased to announce the names of its judge or judges, who are often well-known.

This is a great opportunity for you because the best way to gauge your work's chances of winning or placing in a contest likely to have 400 to 1200 contestants is to look up the work of the judge. If he writes "masculine" hunting and fishing stories he probably likes reading them, and if your story is about a sewing circle, the odds of its winning are not very good. Or if his poetry is super avant-garde and yours is traditional, you won't win no matter how good your submission is. When you and the judge share the same literary values your chances are much better.

Jan 19
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Being an Adjunct Is Not A Problem

I’m an adjunct professor. Always have been. A talented creative-writing professor, I enjoy what I do and helping students and writers, and won’t give it up. Adjuncts are now 75 percent of the university teaching workforce. Who are the rest? The Chronicle of Higher Education says 17 percent of faculty members have tenure, and 8 percent are tenure-eligible.

Dec 12
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Are You "Beginning to" "Find Yourself"?

When someone mentions the overuse of “beginning to” and “starting to” and “finding yourself” in prose writing, does your skin begin to redden? Do you find yourself thinking you should start to re-read your latest draft and begin to red-flag these common but unnecessary phrases?

First Draft: Todd was beginning to light his cigarette when he saw Anne beginning to cry.

Better: Todd was lighting his cigarette when he saw Anne crying.
Dec 07
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Trending: The Micro-Bookstore

stlbooksLet's scoop Publishers Weekly, which spoke with new indie bookshop owner Robin Theiss for an article about the phenomenon of micro-bookstores, intimate spaces with curated collections and personalized service. In a reversal of a longtime trend, Theiss, a book collector since age 13, moved her online store, stlbooks.com, to brick-and-mortar on November 21. STLBooks, at 100 W. Jefferson, Kirkwood, MO, near St. Louis, already has regular customers and neighborhood foot traffic thanking her for opening a bookstore. It's a cozy space devoted, Theiss said, to her interest in creative expression, so the store carries plenty of literature new and classic, books on art and design, books by local writers (she has read them all), and Theiss loves graphic novels and wishes they had been around when she was in art school in the '70s.

Nov 21
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Self-Publishing: Six Things You Really Need

Self-publishing? That is great news. Of course you want a professional-looking book you are proud to give or sell, and that others will take seriously. Below are the absolute must-haves that you will have to pay for if you want your book to be successful and stocked in libraries, bookstores, gift shops, and other places. These are investments in your book--and I guarantee you will not be sorry. If your self publisher offers these things ala carte, BUY the following:

1.An ISBN number. Without this unique number on your book, bookstores can't order your book and Amazon can't sell it. Cost about $100. If you choose a self-publishing company this cost is often included in the price. ISBN stands for "International Standard Book Number." You can see ISBNs on other books; they're beneath the bar code on the back cover. The bar code comes with the ISBN.

Nov 08
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How to Get Paid for Writing

Get a reputation as a writer who asks for payment, and you will get paid. Simple as that. Hard to do sometimes, because feelings can be involved. Women writers in particular cheat themselves because of feelings. Writing is a business and you have expertise and should be paid for it.

I hope that by now every writer asks to be paid for writing articles, requests an advance when negotiating a book contract, and at the very least prices his or her e-book at a princely 99 cents.
Sep 18
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"Publicity is King"

"In the end, publicity is king. Everything else is just smoke and mirrors. If selected as a Tate author, you'll enjoy extremely reduced rates with Key Marketing. Key is a top NY Times level publicity firm and you'll be at the very highest level of traditional publishing! Key Marketing will book your personal appearances, book signings, and media spots.

"Tate Publishing does not charge a fee for publishing and absorbs all the cost of production and distribution of a book (nearly $30,000 per title). However, we do require any author who signs with us to have full-time professional book marketing and publicist representation. You are simply required to pay a refundable retainer for this publicist. The retainer will be refunded to the author at the sale of the 1,000th copy of the book sold in distribution.  All of that information will be explained to you thoroughly if in fact your book is accepted for publication.

Key Marketing's Gold package: $5,500 for 3 months of national publicity. $20,000-$25,000 for one year's publicity; contract is renewable each year. Key's Silver Package: $4,170 for six weeks of regional publicity. Key's Bronze Package: $3,300 for one month of local publicity.

Sound yummy? Ready to sign? Maybe you don't know:
  • Tate accepts most books for publication.
  • No business can "absorb" $30K of expense without expecting a return; or it wouldn't be in business long, would it?
  • Key Marketing is an arm of Tate Publishing, located in Mustang, Oklahoma.
  • Key Marketing has four employees.
  • Tate will not itemize for you what their "$30K" expenses are.
  • Tate makes you buy all your own books for handselling and prices them high, such as $23.99 for a paperback.
  • It is next to impossible to sell 1,000 copies of a book by a first-timer through distribution. Even 250 is pretty much unattainable.
  • If you hire your own publicist instead of using Key Marketing, Tate won't publish your book.
  • You can book your own appearances and book signings for nothing.
  • Money should flow TOWARD the writer, not AWAY from the writer.
  • Publicity is not king. A really good book is king. Without a really good book, publicity is a waste.
See consumer complaints about Tate here. The website Preditors and Editors does not recommend it.
Sep 15
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Tips for Writing Dialogue

Writing dialogue presents a terrific challenge in that no two conversations are alike, even if the words are the same, and no two people are alike, and the words used are only half of it. Crafting good dialogue is part of the art of characterization. Eavesdrop on or watch any conversation you can. You will notice:

a. speech patterns, regional accents, vocabulary and slang, speech impediments, volume. Re "accents": One hint of an accent (incorrectly known as "dialect") goes a long, long way. Do not write at length using misspellings ("Ah cain't make head ner tail o' whatcha' all talkin' 'bout, brutha"); it's hard to read. Your reader will soon give up. Use such things as a spice, not a meal. Better: "I can't make head ner tail of what you're talking about, brother."

b. nonverbal portions of conversations: hand gestures, scratching an itch, punching fist in hand, eye-rolling, "air quotes," and so on.

c. About half the time, people don't talk back-and-forth as much as they talk "across" each other, impressionistically: Person A: "So, how's your husband these days?" Person B: "I can't believe how fast the laundry's piling up."

d. Note the proportions of time taken up by the speakers. Half and half, or does one person talk far more than the other?

e. nonverbal portions of oral communication, such as laughter, hooting, Bronx cheer, making the sound of vomiting,  yawning, "Eh?", "Huh?", whistles, and so on.

f. A huge percentage of conversation is "canned" or pre-fabricated phrases: "How are you?" "Fine, and you?" "I'm hangin' in there." Unless there is a reason to include those pre-fab greeting exchanges, don't put them in. Also frequently appearing in conversation are quotations, cliches and advice. Some people often say "It's a dog-eat-dog world," or "As my father always said," or "Garbage in, garbage out,"and so on.

g. People who are acquainted rarely address each other by name except as a strategy, often a selling strategy. Nervous writers do this to make sure the readers know who is speaking. Most of the time if dialogue is between two people we know who is speaking (the more so if their speech patterns are correctly differentiated). We do not say to a co-worker "Good morning, Susan. Say, Susan! What happened after I left last night?" "Marsha, you are just the person I wanted to talk to. You won't believe it, Marsha!" "Susan! Wait! There's a dead mouse beneath my desk! Susan, call maintenance!" "Oh my God, Marsha, I will call right now!"

h. People have pet words and phrases. Some always say "Okey-dokey." Some employ a word or phrase over and over, such as "bizarre," or "twee" or "inappropriate behavior."

Use dialogue only when it's important to do precisely that. Perfunctory or tangential exchanges can be deleted or rendered as indirect dialogue. "She told him she'd waited for the tow truck for an hour."

Okay, now you are educated!

Sep 08
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"Stress Management for Poets": Light Verse Advice

Stress Management for Poets

by Christopher Scribner

If words do not exactly rhyme

there at the end of every . . . uh . . . line,

and lilting, light alliteration

forces wit’s obliteration,

poets’ coffers will be less full,

and writing verse becomes more stressful.
When poets start to feel depressed,

how might that mood best be addressed?

A quick shift in meter is clearly what’s needed –

a palpable change, almost tactile;

But don’t truncate your trochees or squeeze your spondees,

and, for heaven’s sake, don’t tear a dactyl!

Use some light tripping feet; make your stanzas replete

with the happy, care-free anapestic;

if that makes you feel worse,
then try writing free verse

and ignore the whole stressed-and-unstressed shtick.

(This poem was first published in
LIGHT: A Quarterly of Light Verse, #25, 1999. Reprinted with author permission.)
Sep 04
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Earning an M.F.A. Online

Growth in online education is healthy for creative writers. When I say I teach in Lindenwood University's online Master of Fine Arts in Writing program (just named by Wordfocus.com as one of the top ten in the nation), I am often asked:

How do you teach online? We have a dedicated course site open only to enrolled students, and the syllabus, assignments, and workshop discussions are posted there.

Do you ever meet with your students in person? No. But the consolation is that online courses attract students from everywhere: Virginia, Mississippi, California. This wakes up the locals who write "Billikens" and "Lambert" expecting all readers to know that those are the St. Louis University sports teams and the St. Louis airport's name.

How does an online workshop work? Students post the current drafts of their projects, and the instructor and all other students post constructive comments and discuss those too. I also personally email each student to discuss issues specific to his or her work.

What do you teach? Advanced Creative Nonfiction, Personal Essay and Memoir, and Poetry Workshop. Other faculty teach fiction writing, prose poetry, narrative journalism, and more.

How good is online instruction? For creative writing, online instruction is excellent, because we communicate only in writing. We have textbooks and get into deep group discussions via a discussion board. You will be told honestly what's good about your writing and how you can improve. We keep it strictly polite and constructive but you will be annoyed by others' suggestions anyway, because part of becoming a professional writer is learning to accept that your writing can always be improved and others will and should always have suggestions for you. You will learn to welcome criticism.

Who should enroll? You can apply only if you have a bachelor's degree. The MFA is a graduate program. Absolute beginners will find earning the M.F.A. much harder than they think it is. You have to read a lot. We established "foundation courses" because students wanted to enroll to write great short stories or poems or screenplays before they had actually read any.

How good is an online M.F.A.?Lindenwood's online M.F.A. program is strictly monitored by an accrediting agency, our faculty is tops, and online courses require serious personal discipline; always good training for writers. You have to write a book to graduate. Because an online class is open 24/7, students don't have to excuse themselves because their niece's birthday party is on a class night. That said, an M.F.A. degree does not guarantee of a job or publication or even that your writing is good. It'll be much better, but you might need several more years of practice before you're a complete professional. You need also persistence and talent, which universities can't give you. Most M.F.A. in writing graduates do not become professional creative writers. But some do!

Aug 18
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Why You Wanna Use Good Grammar

"Is it correct now to write, 'If a writer writes, then they--'?"

"No. It should be 'If a writer writes, then he or she--'."

"That's awkward. And that's not the way we talk."

"True. But it's the way we write."

"What if I use the second person instead? Like, 'If you write, then you--'"

"That's okay. But writers using the second person because they aren't sure of the rules of the language--that's a problem."

"You know, the rules are changing more toward the way people talk. I'm not writing a college paper. It's a casual article for a newsletter."

"Then your work will be read by an editor. Don't give an editor any reason to put his or her hot little hands on it and start marking up your article. If you want your work published as you wrote it, use good grammar."
Jul 20
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With No Way Out, I Find a Way Out

My back was against the wall: a beautifully conceived project, unique but entirely do-able, and do-able only by me (among all the people on earth) except there wasn't the money.

Because of a technicality -- they had my letters of rec but had lost my application and proposal -- I didn't get the $1500 fellowship I thought was a sure thing. (No academic should ever count on "a sure thing.") "Apply again next year," they said. Except I don't wait until next year for anything anymore.

That same evening I put my proposal up on Indiegogo.com, a crowd-funding site that's like the better-known Kickstarter. Understand that I never do things like this. But I was so annoyed, it was so unfair, and -- most of all -- the project was so important and it wouldn't get done unless I did it. Within 12 hours I was fully funded. By campaign's end, thanks to some very kind and believing people, I'd raised $500 more than my goal. Of course Indiegogo takes 9 percent, and taxes on the funding are around 20-25 percent, but there was enough money for lodging for eight working days. That's how long I think it'll take me to page through 696 letters and 158 books in the Sylvia Plath archive at the University of Indiana-Bloomington.

What am I doing there? The archive was purchased from Aurelia Plath in 1977. Aurelia of course kept all of Sylvia's letters, and her personal library, art projects, and more from 1940 until Sylvia left the U.S. for good in 1959. Aurelia, a professor of business in the College of Practical Arts and Letters at Boston University, knew and taught Gregg shorthand, and wrote Gregg shorthand notes on the letters and their envelopes, and in the books. I first visited the archive last fall and saw these markings, which the archive called "unreadable," although they weren't to anybody like me, who had been forced to learn shorthand before it became obsolete. Despite the hundreds of scholars who have dug into this archive, no one had ever transcribed the shorthand. I believe Aurelia's remarks might reveal new facts and patterns.  So I was determined to go there and do this systematically.

There's a prayer that simply says "Make a way." A way was made because this one time I wasn't ashamed to ask for something I needed. I would have been more ashamed to give up.