FRIDAY, APRIL 11, 6-10:30pm. It's Write-a-thon time! Save the date and get the details here. This is our premiere fundraising event of the year and a great way to show your support for the literary arts in Alaska, while working on your own contribution to the state's growing body of literature!
It was such a treat to attend last night's Reading & Craft Talk by Katey Schultz, and to learn what it is about Alaska that inspires her. She wrote half of her award-winning book Flashes of War here, and shared that the sense of being on the cusp of discovery exhilarates her. As a writer, you have to believe in possibility - that's what makes you feel brave. Here, the constant awareness of being connected to something bigger give her the courage to push forward and take risks.
There is still some space in her class tomorrow, "Flash Fiction in a Flash" - don't miss this chance to immerse yourself for a day in this fascinating genre. Click here for more information and to register. Katey is making other appearances in Alaska too: see below for details.
Early registration for this year's Tutka Bay Writers Retreat with poet and memoirist Carolyn Forché is open to 49 Writers members at the Kobuk level and above until Monday, Mar. 10, when we open general registration. We encourage eligible members to take advantage of this opportunity to secure your spot at a lower rate!
Our next Crosscurrents on-stage conversation on Wednesday, Mar. 12, 7pm at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center (W. 7th Avenue entrance) features local author Sherry Simpson (Dominion of Bears: Living with Wildlife in Alaska) and Healy writer Christine Byl (Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods).
They will talk about "Essaying Alaska: Beyond Images of the Last Frontier." Alaska is a complex state whose people and landscapes are rife with nuance. But writing about Alaska is full of potential pitfalls; we've all read the cliches, the simplifications, the overused tropes. Luckily, an essay is a complex, diverse form and Alaskan author Sherry Simpson (Dominion of Bears) wields it for all its power. Join this accomplished essayist in conversation with Christine Byl (Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods) as they discuss what's beyond the known perimeter of our initial hunches about place, wildness, animals, and how we make our selves on the page and in the world.
Other March classes and events at 49 Writers:
Wednesday, Mar. 12, 6-7pm, Sitka Library: Don Rearden Reading and book signing
Thursday, Mar. 13, 7-9pm, Coppa: Don Rearden Meet-the-Author event in Juneau for 49 Writers members.
Thursday, Mar. 13, 7-9pm, blue.hollomon gallery, Anchorage: Brendan Jones Meet-the-Author event for 49 Writers members.
Friday, Mar. 14, 4-6pm, Haines Library: Don Rearden reading and book signing
Saturday, Mar. 15, 1-4pm, Egan Library, UAS Juneau Campus: "Complex and Conflicted Characters" with Don Rearden
Coming in April:
Monday Apr. 7, 7pm, Loussac Library Wilda Marston Theatre: "Universal Border: From Tijuana to the World," a Crosscurrents events featuring Luis Alberto Urrea and Bryan Allen Fierro.
Thursday, Apr. 24, 7pm, Great Harvest Bread Co., Anchorage: "Self Publishing and Why," Reading & Craft Talk with Elise Patkotak.
Saturday, Apr. 26, 9am-12pm, 645 W. Third Avenue: "Digital Tools for the Creative Writer" with Larry Weiss. Click here for more information and to register.
Tonight, Friday, Mar. 7, 6pm, Gerrish Branch Public Library, Girdwood: Katey Schultz (Flashes of War) will give a reading and discussion.
Tonight, Friday, Mar. 7, 6:30pm, Juneau Downtown Library: Reading by visiting author J. Torres. Torres is an award-winning, Filipino-born Canadian comic book writer, who has written for DC, Marvel, and Archie Comics, in addition to his independent writing, and animation and television credits.
Tonight, Friday Mar. 7, 7pm, UAF Wood Center, The Midnight Sun Visiting Writers Series presents: Louise Mathias and Jeff Griffin. Please join us for what promises to be one of the most exciting events of the year! "(Louise) Mathias works to turn the weeds of language into exotic bouquets."--Dan Pinkerton. "Jeff Griffin scours the deserts of California and Nevada for artifacts—poems, photos, letters—discarded by lost souls who live in desolation. With Lost and, he arranges these sad, exhilarating, heavy voices into a stunning chorus, and he makes poetry out of pain. I’ve never read anything like Lost and. This is a wildly ingenious debut collection from an artist who has found a way to turn damaged lives into objects of wonder and beauty."—Don Waters, author, Desert Gothic.
Saturday, Mar. 8-Saturday, Mar. 15, Juneau Public Library: Bard-a-thon 2014 is a free community reading of the complete works of Shakespeare. Everyone is invited to participate by listening or reading aloud. Find the Bard-a-thon schedule at any of the Juneau libraries or check out their website or Facebook page for more information.
Tomorrow, Saturday Mar. 8, 3pm, Fireside Books in Palmer (in conjunction with Palmer’s festive “Second Saturday” events): Marybeth Holleman (The Heart of the Sound – An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost) and Mei Mei Evans (Oil and Water) will give a reading and sign books.
Sunday, Mar. 9, 2pm, Fireside Books in Palmer: Katey Schultz (Flashes of War) will give a reading and sign books.
Saturday, Mar. 22, 1-4pm, Barnes & Noble Anchorage: Marybeth Holleman (The Heart of the Sound – An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost) and Mei Mei Evans (Oil and Water) will give a reading and sign books.
Friday, Mar. 28, 7-9pm, APU Carr-Gottstein Building, CMH2Hill Boardroom: Meet some of Alaska's finest fiction writers and enjoy an opening talk by Martha Amore, APU's Spring 2014 Writer-in-Residence. Featured authors include Don Rearden, Mei Mei Evans, Deb Vanasse, Lee Goodman, and Kris Farmen. Publisher Vered Mares of BP&D House will also be available for questions.
Kim Heacox has another book coming in April that you won't want to miss! So far, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews have given it starred reviews. John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire is a biography of the famed Scottish naturalist and early advocate of wilderness preservation.
Congratulations to Kathleen Tarr, whose essay, “The Comeback Monk,” will be published in a forthcoming anthology by Fons Vitae Press. We Are Already One: Thomas Merton's Message of Hope is a volume of reflections by prominent spiritual teachers and Merton scholars to honor the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2015. Other contributors include such prominent religion writers as Parker Palmer, Thomas Moore, Joan Chittister, Cynthia Beaugeault, Richard Rohr, Matthew Fox, Huston Smith, and James Forest. The volume is being edited by preeminent Merton scholar, Jonathan Montaldo.
This week, I re-read the novel manuscript I’ve been working on for two years in what is my final significant revision before I send it out (fingers crossed) into the publishing world. I’ll probably sweep through it for typos and discontinuities, again, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’m equally blind to many of its strengths and weaknesses.
There are chapters toward the end that I’ve read, in full, perhaps five or seven times. There are the parts in the middle I’ve read ten to twenty times. And there are parts in the beginning I’ve read well over a hundred times. The book’s first third is likely to be the most problematic: memorized beyond recognition, calcified almost beyond re-molding. Though I did manage to recently write a new prologue and cut about a third from chapter one, which had become as overfamiliar as my own face in the mirror. That was difficult, but liberating. Like getting a new haircut after years of the same old style. (Wait, my ears have freckles?) The more we re-read our own manuscripts, the blinder we become, and the more wedded to certain chapters, dialogues, images, sentences—those very “darlings” we are told we should be ready to kill. Instead of being provisional—as all writing should be, as long as possible—certain pieces come to seem essential, part of the novel’s very DNA. They rarely are.
Reading good literature is the most important preparation for becoming a writer, but the one thing reading does not prepare us for at all is understanding that every book could have been written endless different ways, many of them quite successfully. We have trouble imagining Anna Karenina without that first line about all happy families being alike, or Pride and Predudice without that first line about a “truth universally acknowledged,” but that’s only because we don’t know what other openings Tolstoy and Jane Austen were pondering. Famous, beloved books give us an erroneously Calvinist view of literature: that it’s predetermined. The act of writing teaches us something more exciting: that there are parallel universes out there, in which even great books could have been created with different choices of POV, setting, chronology. (Did you know Fitzgerald first planned to set Gatsby in the late 1800s?)
Whenever you’re writing the opening of a new work, it feels horribly shaky—not real at all. You wish for that fated, comfortable feeling: that the characters are behaving just as they should be, that the novel could begin no other way. But I’m starting to think that the mark of an experienced writer is not her ability to banish those shaky feelings, but to live at relative peace with them for as long as possible. To extend that provisional/makeshift state of mind for months, even years, and in extreme cases, even past the point of publication.
Consider the case of Louise Erdrich. In 2010, she told the Paris Review that she was rewriting an earlier published novel, The Antelope Wife. She now considers the ending "too self-consciously poetic, maybe sentimental." She says, "I wouldn’t end it that way now. I am engaged these days in rewriting The Antelope Wife substantially—I always had a feeling it began well and got hijacked.” (Wouldn't it be incredible to hear our favorite authors lecture about what parts of their already-published books they would change now, if they could? )
How can we fight the blinders and retain a conditional perspective about our ongoing drafts? Here’s a list of possibilities, including many tricks I try while revising any novel.
Set aside the manuscript for several months before another complete re-read, hopefully one that can be done continuously, in one to three days. (Seem obvious? I've met aspiring novelists who have never read their own manuscripts, start to finish.)
Read on a different device (Kindle instead of laptop, for example—this is one of my favorite tricks).
Do a complete printout if you’ve been reading only on screens (I get one printed double-sided and bound at my local copy shop). Or, if you have no fear of carpel tunnel syndrome (and this I have never done): retype the entire thing into a clean draft.
Read in a different place: on a trip instead of at home, in a café or on a couch instead of at one’s usual work desk.
Change the font or format. Colum McCann puts his manuscript into tiny font, forcing himself to squint and wonder what each sentence is doing there, exactly. I re-format manuscripts to look more like published book pages, to judge the pacing better. Sometimes I’ll read the first five or ten pages of several unfamiliar new novels (thanks, free Kindle samples) in rapid succession then turn to my opening, tricking my brain into thinking I’m reading something authored by someone else.
Perhaps the sneakiest trick of all is to send the book away to a friend or peer. The moment that it’s out of your hands, you may realize exactly what’s wrong with any manuscript. (The emails fly: “Never mind that draft; I’ll send another!”)
As for getting solid, craft-oriented advice from the beta-reader? Sometimes you will, but not always. Less experienced readers may be more inclined to polish and focus on small changes rather than consider macro-level transformation, like a radical reorientation of point of view, a complete re-engineering of structure, or the complete elimination of characters and episodes. (Yes, big changes hurt.)
It takes a special reader, mentor, or editor to understand that a manuscript is only one version, perhaps a barely recognizable version, of what a final book could end up being. The desire to see things as they appear now—and not as they might one day be—is the dilemma that confounds us all.
Do you have your own trick for fighting the blinders and maintaining a provisional mindset toward multiple drafts and ongoing revisions? Share here.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers and teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency creative writing program. She is also a book coach with a special interest in revision, narrative structure, and the lifelong development of the writer. Contact her at email@example.com for more info on her book coaching services.
The trope I heard over and over again this past weekend in Seattle, at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference – fifteen thousand writers under one roof, can you imagine? – was “it’s so nice to be back with my tribe.” Fair enough. You’ve slaved away for the rest of the year in relative silence and solitude, wrestling with your memoir, perfecting that villanelle, and now, finally, you come together with so many others fighting the same battle. For this writer, this conference was more a discovery of a tribe, rather than a return to one. It’s a tribe I began to suspect existed when I first picked up Nancy Lord’s Fishcamp shortly after the turn of the millennium. I read the slim volume on a 400-acre cattle farm in Kentucky, and immediately decided I needed to return to Alaska. Whoever says books don’t make things happen is just plain wrong. So it was nothing less than thrilling to kick off the conference by joining Nancy for dinner the Wednesday before the conference. To speak of her novel, which she’s working on now, as well as about the dearth of fiction in Alaska. Seriously, what’s up with that? The question was partially answered for me a couple evenings later by Robert Hass, who shared a panel with Alaska writer Eva Saulitis and Gary Snyder. More about her sharp and beautiful essay in a moment – but Hass spoke about how the West Coast has yet to be imagined. This seems especially pertinent to Alaska. One thinks of Eowyn Ivey’s book The Snow Child, and of course Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves, David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island, and Don Rearden’s The Raven’s Gift, and Mei Mei Evans’ novel Oil and Water, which I look forward to reading. And of course to Deb Vanasse’s upcoming Cold Spell, and John Straley’s pantheon of mysteries, along with his new book Cold Storage, Alaska, which was just reviewed in The New York Times, and has been receiving a bunch of attention. And I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of others – but compared to just about every state with the exception, perhaps, of Delaware, there’s really not a lot. Can you imagine the list of say, books about New York City, or even Montana? So why don’t more people write fiction about Alaska?
For my money, Alaska writers are impelled to spend so much time de-mythologizing the state from Outside conceptions. It’s exhausting, like playing that whack-a-mole game at the county fair. Just when you think you’ve explained that there are no igloos in Sitka, someone asks whether you voted for Sarah Palin. Not to mention that reality, as people love to say, is so much more interesting than fiction. This applies in particular to Alaska. As the other saying goes, you can’t make up this s—. So why try? I attended mostly Alaska panels, and had the pleasure of finally meeting the wonderful Linda Ketchum, at 49 Writers, as well as Deb Vanasse, who has been so helpful and encouraging with these blogs. Former Alaska State Writer Laureate Peggy Schumaker moderated panels that included Erin Coughlin Hollowell, whose book of poems Pause, Traveler sits now beside me. Circus World Museums, Corn Palaces, evocative poems interweaving travel and love. Among other great readers I also got to hear Nicole Stellon O’Donnell, who I first ran across in Sitka – her book, Steam Laundry, is nestled onto my bookshelf on the tugboat. I worry about the saltwater warping it, but somehow a wee warp seems appropriate for a book with such a title. Peggy also moderated that panel with Gary Snyder, Eva Saulitis, and Robert Hass I mentioned before. I admit to having one burning question for the Q&A. Though I wasn’t called on, it was a question I thought long and hard about: Was Gary Snyder wearing a Filson vest? It sure looked like it to me. In seriousness, I thought Eva’s essay, which she read following Hass’ poems, entrancing. A careful, funny meditation on the role of imagination and creativity when it comes to science, and studying orcas. She was asking a lot of the audience: after a day of panels, to think through such difficult matters. But the fluidity of her prose, and the passion behind her argument – that wonder and science go hand-in-hand – came across beautifully. If there’s one book that I cannot wait to get to it’s Tom Kizzia’s Pilgrim’s Wilderness. When I say that my upcoming novel is about Alaska, this seems to be the first question people ask: “Have you read Pilgrim’s Wilderness?” When I say no, not yet, they look at me like I’m nuts. The book, someone mentioned, is now the top-seller at the bookstore in Homer, overtaking Harry Potter. But until I get it in my hands, I’m busy reading The Storms of Denali, a high-octane tale by Nicholas O’Connell, who I also got to meet on Friday. If you’re looking for a good story, something you’ll have trouble putting down, check it out. I’m already halfway through. Finally, leaving early Sunday, sure that I was departing from this circus world of writing, there was Don Rearden, waiting for the light rail. The two of us did our earnest best to discuss the state of fiction in Alaska cogently on Sunday at 8 a.m., after a weekend of more silliness and late nights than I’ve experienced in a long, long time. Would we be at the next one, in Minneapolis, in 2015? I think we were both up in the air. But one thing was certain: Seattle 2015 was pretty darn cool, at least for this guy. It truly did feel like finding my tribe. Since I posted/moped on about the trials and tribulations of my own manuscript in this blog, I’ll mention that I arrived back in Oakland to an email from my editor saying that my book, The Alaskan Laundry, is slated to be released in Fall 2015. While disappointing at first – it was supposed to be Spring 15 – it is also flattering, to be released with the heavyweights. It will mean more work, to bend people’s ears among all the fall releases, but we’re up for it. In the meantime I look forward to hopping on the 7 a.m. flight from Oakland up to Anchorage on March 13th, and meeting 49 Writers members that same day at 7 p.m. at the Blue Hollomon Gallery – please come if you can! I very much forward to meeting more of the tribe in Anchorage. And teaching the workshop on Saturday, March 15, on the first twenty pages for submission to an agent. I’ll see folks soon!
Daryl Farmer I’m in Seattle joining the hordes as we ride the escalator to the top floor of the Washington State Convention Center. This is AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual Conference and Book Fair. The conference is a writer and book lover extravaganza: panels, speakers, readings, social events, literary journals and books, books, books. I have been told there will be somewhere around 15,000 people this year, the most ever. As I move through the rows and rows of exhibitor tables (over 650 in all), I peruse new issues of favorite journals, and greet familiar faces, many I haven’t seen since last year’s conference. The word that gets bandied around a lot is “overwhelming.” This is not a bad thing. What the Christmas holiday is to my gathering family, AWP is to my professional community. So many and so much that I love all together, and only three days to take it all in. It can be exhilarating and exhausting. What I thought about mostly as I roamed the aisles was how important writing community is for me. How much being surrounded by books and authors makes me want to push myself forward. Makes me not only want to write, but to write something that matters. This is my tenth year attending the conference. My first, I was a graduate student at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. Several of us were assigned to work at the Prairie Schooner (the UNL literary journal)table. Our tendency was to hover around the table, even beyond our shifts, trying to look as though we belonged, trying not to falter behind the fear that we might not. When I first moved to Alaska, and was living in the village of Nondalton, I used to read a book a week. I fell in love with the books, and the authors. I considered their work heroic, and I tried to emulate it as best I could. Some nights I would take long walks through the snow along the lakeshore and try to imagine what it would be to write my own books. The whole world of publishing was a big romantic mystery to me. I have since met many of the authors I read at that time. Some have become friends. The romance has softened only slightly, and my admiration for the work has grown. Almost all are as good of people as I imagined they’d be. When I first started attending AWP, the joy was in seeing and meeting “big name” writers. But it is less about that now. Last night I went out with a group of friends, all fellow grad students from UNL. To study creative writing is a blind leap into a murky pool. A risk with no promises. We have all published now, and all have university jobs scattered from Arkansas to Michigan to San Francisco to here in Alaska. Though it embarrasses me some to use it, the word love is not too strong a word for how I feel about them. My second biggest highlight was tonight, also a night out for dinner, this time with a group of current students and recent graduates from the UAF MFA creative writing program where I teach. As I look around the table I see for them the futures I once hoped for my grad student friends and myself. I sometimes cynically fear the end of all this. In dark moments I think I hear the death-knell ring for creative writing and the humanities. But I do not feel that way tonight. Tonight I believe that the human need for art, for writing, for poetry, for story is too great. And in a community that fosters them, there is a wealth that cannot be measured; a past, a future, a depth. That I have inserted myself here and that I am a part of this, humbles me. And tomorrow I will write and I will write and I will write. How about you fellow Alaskan AWPers: what were some of your best moments at the conference? Daryl Farmer’s first book Bicycling beyond the Divide received a Barnes and Noble Discover Award. His recentwork has appeared in Grist, The Whitefish Review, The Potomac Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Fourth River. He is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where he teaches creative nonfiction writing.
This brief video is something I've used on my Flashes of War book tour to illustrate how stories often began for me, as a civilian writer writing about American military and civilian characters in the Middle East. At first, many folks were skeptical about how I did what I did, let alone why I did it or what place I had writing about this subject. Later, in reviews, veterans and literary criticsreceived the work well. I've been very grateful to feel understood and to let the stories in the book speak for themselves. I’m excited to present in Anchorage coming up at 7 pm on Thursday, March 6th for the 49 Writers Reading & Craft Talk Series at Great Harvest Bread Company. I’ll be discussing some of these techniques for writing the book, along with the parallels I found between my creative process and the inspiring Alaskan landscape. I wrote over half of the book during various trips to Alaska, and completed final revisions of the entire manuscript in Sitka while in residence for The Island Institute.
By combining research and imagination, I was able to ground myself in enough facts to feel certain my fiction was believable and realistic. This freed me to imagine characters, images, and scenarios that were fictionalized across what felt to me like a very real (and often literally mappable and locatable) landscape. Sometimes, it was simply the power of a profound image that stopped me in my tracks and raised so many questions (What would it feel like to hand out bottles of water to thirsty children and know it would never be enough? How do soldiers go to the bathroom in the middle of a combat zone?) I simply had to imagine my way toward a narrative answer. Story is how I make sense of the world, after all, and there were a lot of things about the wars that didn't make sense to me. I had to write my way toward stories I could believe in until I was satisfied. Other times, I'd stumble across a quote that haunted me ("Since my brother was killed, I cannot taste my tea. Since my brother was killed, I cannot taste anything." Or, "America's not at war; America's at the mall.") and eventually I'd create a character who embodied a hybrid of some of those emotions I felt coming from that quote. For a sample, enjoy this radio feature with Alaska's favorite radio celebrity, Camille Conte. Ten minutes into Hour 2 of the show, Camille discusses my love for Alaska and inspiration for the work, as well as details about my upcoming trip graciously sponsored by 49 Writers.
Thursday was Alaska day at AWP with a series of panel discussions and readings featuring Alaskan authors and publishers. Whether or not you agree that Alaska is currently in the midst of a “Literary Rennaissance” (sort of implies there was a dark ages) there’s no question that Alaska writing is hot right now. Publishing Local in the Last Frontier, hosted by VP&D House publisher Vered Mares, featured discussion about small press publishing along with author readings from Kris Farmen, Buffy McKay, and Martha Amore of Weathered Edge. In just four years of publishing, VP&D House has published nine titles in multiple genres, supporting and promoting Alaskan authors. Mares feels it’s important to establish a partnership and shared vision with her writers. Small presses can give writers a real advantage and focus on the quality of the work. A supportive local publisher ultimately might work harder for you and help you establish a strong local market for your work. Kris Farmen, Martha Amore, and Buffy McKay each gave their perspective on working directly with Mares through the entire process from editing, design, and marketing. While Mares, who acts as editor as well as publisher, wanted each of the writers to maintain their voice, to begin the book process they discussed themes and read and critiqued each others first drafts. The success of Weathered Edgehas sparked interest in publishing another novella collection. Keep your eye on this uniquely Alaskan small press. True North: Alaska Literary Nonfiction, featured readings and a panel discussion by Alaskan authors Christine Byl, Nancy Lord, Sherry Simpson, Ernestine Hayes, and Tom Kizzia. Nature is a big part of what Alaskan’s write about, and each writer’s work featured a strong sense of place. Panelists compared the current fascination with Alaska, (evidenced in part by a slew of reality TV shows with Alaska as the central character), to the strong growth of nonfiction writing coming in the state. This presents a paradox for Alaskan nonfiction writers as they draw upon established ideas about Alaska while also attempting to counter them with real life narratives. Alaskan writing isn’t just a regional literature that only belongs in Alaska, but has universal interest. I rounded out my afternoon with Alaska Voices: A Reading by Alaska Literary Series Authors, which included Sara Loewen reading from her memoir Gaining Daylight, Mei Mei Evans reading from her novel Oil & Water, Holly Huges from her poetry collection Sailing by Ravens, and John Morgan reading from his book length poem River of Light. The packed room sat rapt through Loewen’s childhood in Old Harbor and the bittersweet memories of her childhood friend named December, Morgan’s raft trip down the Copper River with the Indian mystic poet Kabir as his spiritual guide, Evan’s fictional retelling of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and Hughes skillful navigation through Alaskan waters. The literary series is part of University of Alaska Press and was spearheaded by former Alaska Writer Laureate Peggy Shumaker, who is also the series editor. Made me proud to be among the writer’s from the 49th state. Way to represent, Alaskans!
Buffy McKay, Martha Amore, and Vered Mares at the Cirque Booth, AWPIt's the end of day one at AWP and I'm enjoying a delicious glass of Cabernet in the lobby, trying to figure out how I'm going to intelligently discuss the conference. To just tell you that the Cab is delicious is simply a "direct abstract statement", which is a fancy way to say telling versus showing. I learned that in Creating Emotional Depth: Tools and Inspiration from Various Genres. It's often the least effective method of conveying emotion, but it does have its place. I'll also tell you this: I'm exhausted, happy, and inspired. I only attended two sessions Thursday, mainly because of the book fair. Rows upon rows of exhibits, small presses, larger presses, MFA programs, books piled high. I’d barely walk past one display when another beckoned, freebie pens, candy, bookmarks, flyers, even a haiku poem written just for me. (It’s got a cuss word in it so I’m not gonna repeat it here.) Getting Your Foot in The Door, Alternatives to Traditional Children's Book Contracts was a practical panel discussion on the many alternative routes to working and getting published as a writer. There are several sessions at this conference about getting your work published in both new and traditional forms, but it’s not often that you hear practical advice on the different ways that you can actually be employed writing. Each of the authors on the panel has published traditional print books, and several got their start through alternative channels. Alexandra Diaz discussed writing books on commission, a popular format for serialized children’s fiction wherein a book packager will create an outline of their idea that includes characters, setting, and a plot structure and then hires a writer to flesh it all out into a book. This type of writing may be frowned upon as hack work, but Diaz says that it helped to fill in the gaps and she did have the flexibility to be creative with the story and add her own ideas. Another panel member, Kekla Magoon, got her start as a writer working for school and library publication companies producing nonfiction middle school texts. She joined the Editorial Freelancers Association to get job postings. Eventually she moved out of that work, published her own novels and even works as a ghostwriter. Children’s writer and former teacher Mindy Hardwick discussed the ins and outs of Digital Publishing an e-book. Digital publishing can be a successful format for genre novels and series, first time authors, books with a small audience, and novellas. She recommends asking yourself the following questions: 1. What is the right way to publish this story? 2. How will this path help your career right now? 3. Who is your audience and where are they? And 4. What is your goal for your story? All the writers on the panel recommend having writing samples ready to submit, published or not. In some cases, samples were so good, publishers asked for whole stories which led to independent book deals. Annie Proulx delivered her keynote speech last night. She began with the basic question of why do writers write? Her written speech started with the very beginnings of writing, simple lists or marks made as inventory for goods at a market, and then progressed through the ages from the printing press to today’s e-book revolution. She recounted many writers and their works, reminded us not to sell out to capitalist interests, pointed out the irony that while American readers were in decline, the number of writers seemed to be increasing, and provided no easy answers. At one point she checked the time and attempted to shorten her speech but the crowd implored her to go on. Friday will be Alaskans at AWP day for me, with several events featuring writers from the north.
Sun poked through the clouds Wednesday afternoon when my plane touched down in Seattle. I met my friend Erica in the SeaTac airport baggage claim, and we rode the Skytrain to the Westlake exit. From there, we walked a few blocks to the Sheraton Hotel. So many writers have converged on downtown Seattle, I heard the numbers 10,000-12,000 tossed around, that the waiters at the Sheraton hotel where passing around complimentary drinks while the throng waited in line to check. Writers, writers everywhere. Our new friend Rikki in line behind us likened the packed line and the cheerful crowd to a “the Tuareg camel market, only with writers instead of camels.” I’ve never even heard of the Tuareg camel market, but somehow that description seemed apt. Let the metaphors and similes begin! Registration was a snap at the Washington State Convention center, with larger crowds expected to clog the lines come Thursday. Our canvas totes contain a planner with a staggering list of sessions and the program, a fat 225-page mini-phonebook. Take note: Lose your name badge, and you’ll be out $50 if you want another one. By this time, we’re ready for dinner. We strolled down to Japonessa, a sushi restaurant with a Latin flavor. If you go, try the Mexican Ninja roll, a spicy taste treat. The Seattle Crunch roll, according to Kristine, was like a sushi donut with its tempura shrimp center and creamy sauce. Definitely recommend this place for excellent, fast service and fresh delicious food.
Okay, well, it’s late and like many of the writers here in the lobby of the hotel, heads bent over their planners and pens in hand, I’ve got to go over the schedule for tomorrow, the first full day AWP Conference, Seattle.
Right about now, many of you are either en route or getting settled and psyched for finding your place among the 10,000 or so writers who’ll be attending the 2014 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. This year’s AWP Conference is in Seattle, a city that enjoys a symbiotic relationship with Alaska that dates back to gold rush days. (One of my favorite remnants of that relationship: Alaska residents are exempt from Washington’s state sales tax—just show your ID before your purchase is rung up.) You could nearly fill your schedule with panels that feature Alaska’s writers; for more on that, check out Linda’s post from last week. Over the next few days, Lynn DeFilippo, our February featured author, will be live-blogging the conference If you couldn’t make this year’s fun, or if you’re there but want to compare virtual notes, be sure to check in with her posts. And if you missed it last week, you’ll want to also check out her post with tips for writers attending a conference.
As many of us gear up for the 2014 AWP Conference this week, it's a good time to talk publishers. Among the vast halls of booths and tables, you'll find plenty of fine small publishers. One of them might just be the best home for your book.
Many years ago, my first novel came out from Lodestar, an imprint of Dutton, a subsidiary of Penguin. Even then, before it merged with Random House, Penguin was one of the Big Boys. The perfect place to land your first publishing contract. Or not. I loved my editor, but Big Boy Publisher dumped her and her imprint shortly after my novel came out. They failed to put my book in the proper catalog. They could have cared less about marketing it in Alaska, where the story was set, and where we get upwards of a million book-buying visitors a year. A few years later, a regional press made an offer on another one of my books. I was leery. It seemed like a step down. But the publisher assured me the marketing would be good and the sales would be strong and the book would stay in print. He was right. Not only is that book—and three others I sold to the same small press—still in print, but they’ve found five times the readers (and generated proportionately that much more in royalties) than my two books that came out with the Big Boys. More and more, I look to small presses (including my own) not as a last resort but as my first choice. Here, six reasons why:
In general, small presses aren’t chasing “sure thing” celebrity deals. They’ll take more risks both in what they publish and the terms they offer. I placed my forthcoming novel Cold Spell with a small press because they let me keep all except English print rights. That means I’ll produce and market my own digital editions, which I’m convinced will result in more print sales for them.
While free to innovate, small presses tend to be backward-thinking in a way I appreciate: They pay a lot more attention to what’s on the pages of the books they produce than what’s on the pages of their balance sheets. Does that make publishing with them more precarious than with the big boys? Maybe. But I’d rather cast my lot with a small group that cares a great deal about good books than with a large group controlled by corporate concerns that they can’t override.
A small press works like a team. They know and promote their books. After hearing from so many on the staff of the press that’s handling my book, I wouldn’t be surprised to get an email from the custodian saying that he, too, loves my novel.
Though a small press may be as understaffed as a large one, in general I’ve found them more responsive. With the Big Boys, it’s easy to feel shuffled around like you do sometimes when you’re buying a car—like it’s a game in which you’re the pawn being nudged from one person to the next in what ends up being a long way of saying sorry, our hands are tied.
The pressure’s off. Small presses don’t set authors up to fail by setting bars that keep changing and in the end are impossible to reach. Midlist authors—one whose books sell steadily but don’t bust the charts—are just fine with them. And guess what? Books stay in print, so authors sell more than they would with a Big Boy who remainders them sooner rather than later.
Small presses are more agile, adjusting more readily to new paradigms, as with the growing trend of readers connecting directly with authors.
All well and good, you may say, but I’ll bet she’d jump at a Big Boy deal if one fell in her lap: more money, more marketing, more bragging rights. Consider, yes. Jump, no.
I’d weigh everything I’ve said here against the money and the marketing and whatever short-lived fun I’d have saying a particular book was picked up by a Big Boy, and then I’d choose the path was best for that title. A version of this post also appeared at www.selfmadewriter.blogspot.com.
In my family, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation of going into a bookstore “real quick,” only to disappear so long that a family member has to come in after to me. When I was younger, I was usually found sitting cross-legged on the floor in the horror section, having found a new all-consuming book and already on page twenty-five or thirty because I just couldn’t stop reading for long enough to buy the book and walk back out to the car. These days, my boyfriend usually finds me leaning against the bookshelves in the literature or memoir sections. He normally shows up around page ten—I think my parents might have warned him. A magical first page can make the world around us dissolve completely away. They drop us into a scene, introduce us to important characters and the setting, and intrigue us enough to want to keep reading. Perhaps most importantly, they use fresh language—but just a hint! A good first page reveals a scenario we can relate with in some way but helps us to look at it from a different angle, whether it’s through a description of someone’s smoky cloud of hair or the detail that the narrator is not just standing on a mountain ridge but actually stands taller than the trees. All the while, the first page—like the rest of the manuscript—should be easy to read and, above all, authentic. Since my childhood, I’ve been lost in many, many first pages and not just in the bookstore anymore. I’ve been an acquisitions editor at two publishing companies, the publisher of Ink-Filled Page literary journal, the director of Sledgehammer Writing Contest (www.sledgehammercontest.com), and a judge for multiple other writing contests. Of course, I’ve had some unfortunate experiences of reading first pages that I couldn’t put down soon enough. But the ones I remember most are the ones that wrapped me up in their magic so thoroughly that I missed my lightrail stop and had to get on the return train to backtrack. I’m happy to say that since I moved to Alaska two years ago, I haven’t yet forgotten to get off the plane at the appropriate stop along the milk run, but I’ve come close! One of the elements I love most about my life as a freelance editor now is that I get to help authors polish their first pages and the materials necessary to place them in front of agents and publishers who will appreciate them. In my fiction intensive workshop in Juneau on March 3, we’ll examine what makes first pages magical and how we can incorporate that into our own writing. Then we’ll apply these same principles to the task of crafting query letters, synopses, and pitches. We’ll have time for in-class writing and critiquing, so bring your materials as well as a laptop or paper and pen. But most importantly, bring your imagination and openness to get lost in the magic of the written word!
Ali McCart is the founder and executive director of Indigo, an Oregon-based firm of editors, designers, and publication consultants. For the past ten years, she's been reviewing query letters, judging writing contests, and editing manuscripts for publishers and independent authors across the country. She writes and edits from her home in Metlakatla, Alaska, occasionally taking breaks to hike, photograph, and fish.