Risk and the Anti-Risk Poet

I’m a pretty cautious person by nature. I don’t drink unpasteurized juice. I save receipts. I really hate jaywalking. Basically, I’m not a leap-of-faith person. I’m a slow-shuffle-of-regularity kind of person. It’s never been my experience that gambles pay off, and I avoid them when I can.

These past few months have been uniquely challenging for me, then, in that they’ve given me more uncertainty than I typically tolerate at one time; in October, I sold my home in Seattle and moved with my husband to London, England, where his job had been transferred.

Of course, it’s a wonderful adventure to live in one of the world’s greatest cities, but the transition came with all the expected cross-cultural adjustments—setting up utilities via systems we (still) don’t understand, learning by trial and error what the hieroglyphics on the washing machine mean, trying to generate a little heat off radiators (does anyone understand radiators?!), figuring out how many stamps go on a letter, learning that there exists a television tax and we hadn’t paid it. But I marched grimly on through the various minutiae of making a new life in a new place, and once I felt like I had some understanding of how to get along here day by day, I found I that I really like it.

Yet there were the other tricky changes I didn’t know how to manage. I was leaving behind my wonderful friends and fellow writers in the Northwest; what would I do for literary community in my new city? Would my American publishing and editing experience mean anything here? Who would be my support system when I hit those all-too-regular low points in the writing life? I took more a shamble of woe than a leap of faith on all of these fronts.

I’m happy to report, however, that the risk-taking of an international move paid off here as well: this month marks my addition to the Eyewear Publishing staff, where I serve as the new American Editor. It turns out that it’s not such a bad thing to be an American writer and publisher after all! I’m thrilled that I have a chance not only to contribute to the ongoing success of such a great London small press, but that I’ll also have the chance to learn about publishing on this side of the Atlantic and build, bit by bit, that community that’s so important to me.

I’m still not a risk-taker at heart, and I don’t imagine I’ll be, you know, eating raw eggs or stepping out into oncoming traffic anytime soon. But it’s nice, for once, to take a little leap and find solid ground beneath me.

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So, Who Are You?

(A pep talk for poets with books coming out this fall)

Whenever I get to speak at writers’ conferences, no matter whether I’m talking about spondees and anapests or book blogging and social media, I notice that new poets are always enthusiastic to know more about the business of getting their work into the world. I may have just wrapped up a talk on the villanelle form and opened the floor for questions when somebody wants to know: Where can I send my poems? How do I get a book manuscript in front of publisher? Once I’m published, how do I get my new book of poetry into stores, or into reviewers’ hands? 

I love these questions, no matter how off-topic they they are. I love to see writers believe in their work enough to want to hustle and get that work into the world.

I’ve also noticed a funny thing that happens a few months after a poet signs a contract for a new book. Those “how” questions often turn into “I don’t” statements. I don’t want to use social media. I don’t have the time to send the book out for review. I don’t have enough support from my publisher. I don’t like marketing. 

I’ve always been surprised by the shift in tone that I see in writers as they come so close to achieving something they’ve dreamed about for years. Perhaps it’s because, in the face of marketing realities, authors finally realize that there remains so very much work—work without a guaranteed result—still ahead.

Yes, many of your marketing and PR efforts will feel futile. You won’t get immediate results by sending out pitch letters, or rise to foolproof fame and fortune by mailing out the first handful of galleys. It will take the same kind of diligence and fortitude as it took you to send out your batches of poems to journals for all of those years. It’ll take the same determination that it took to keep believing in those poems after dozens of rejection slips. The game, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t change as soon as you sign a book contract. Work is the one constant of the writing life.

It’s easy to let discouragement take hold, but what’s nearly as easy–and far more satisfying–is making a simple marketing plan. Sticking to that plan. Putting in a designated number of hours per week to execute that plan. No, you don’t have to do everything under the sun. But you do have to do something to honor the work you’ve put in over the years, and to honor the work your publisher is doing on your behalf.

So, who are you, poet? Are you the writer who still believes in your words enough to put in the work? Or the writer who finds it easier to come up with reasons not to believe in your own efforts? And wouldn’t you rather be the former? I thought so.

Why I Can’t Wait for the 2015 PNWA Conference

Given how much I love doling out unsolicited advice, just imagine how pleased I am to hold forth when someone actually asks me to do so! I’m looking forward to this month’s Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association conference in Seatac, and excitedly putting the finishing touches on my talk on what prose writers can learn from poetry.

1. This is a conference geared toward professional development, not just inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong; I value being inspired, but inspiration is both free for the taking and all around us. Just crack open a national newspaper or eavesdrop in the local coffee shop. Information on developing your professional life, however, is harder to come by. This conference is a great opportunity to hear solid advice from people with real know-how.

2. Poetry has a prime spot this year.

With a poetry open mic after Thursday’s keynote and four—count ‘em, four!—sessions on poetry on Saturday, PNWA’s making poetry a central part of its conference programming in 2015.

3. The lineup of speakers is squeal-worthy.

Andre Dubus III, keynote speaker. Need I say more? Wait, you want more? How about Bill Kenower? Bob Dugoni? An autograph party where you can meet and greet and fan out over 60 different authors?

4. The conference is the right size. 

Sure, I love a 10,000-strong event like AWP each year, but you really can’t beat a conference of a few hundred likeminded writers. That’s plenty of people to generate a great vibe, but not so many that you can’t make real and lasting connections with other individuals.

See you there, Northwest writers!

 

Finish That Manuscript

It’s finally summer, and with summer comes a cavalcade of writers making resolutions to finish their darned manuscripts. Maybe it’s partly because writers in academia finally have a little time away from grading in the precious summer months, because the gorgeous weather gets those endorphins pumping, or simply because nobody wants to spend another cold and miserable fall staring at the same project they stared at all through the last cold and miserable fall. Maybe it’s the memory of too many summers where we didn’t accomplish much more than having a number of excellent piña coladas (hey, I’m not judging), and we’re feeling a tad guilty. Whatever the reason, it seems to me that “finish the book” is even more a rallying cry among writers in the summer months than it is in around New Year’s.

There are plenty of good reasons to keep slogging away during the summer months, even if the piña coladas are calling your name. When it comes to submissions—particularly submissions of full-length poetry collections—deadlines are headed this way. Quite a few major contests set their deadlines in September. Other Big Deal book contests open up in the fall; if you wrap work on your book by late August, you’re ready to hit two rounds of competitions. (If that doesn’t sound all that appealing to you, just consider the number of contests a typical poet needs to enter before landing a book contract. Hitting two contest seasons at the same time is actually a brilliant move.)

I’m in manuscript-finishing mode myself, putting in what I hope are the final few drafts of the novel I’ve been working on over the past two years. These are the grim drafts—the ones during which I use every color of highlighter I’ve ever owned to mark up causal relationships, stimulus/response transactions, logical inconsistencies, and every other technical drudgery that exists in fiction writing. I’m looking forward to the last draft—the one in which I’ll get to fine-tune, polish, and shine. But first, I’ve got to get through the re-crafting mire. Luckily for me, I’ve got my trusty writing partner holding me accountable for my own deadlines and helping me find the problems I’ve gone to bleary-eyed with the process to see in my own work.

But let’s say you don’t have a writing partner or a critique group that’s ready and willing to handle a full-book revision with you. How are you supposed to get through the process, stay focused, and resist the siren song of the piña colada? This very problem was something that Jeannine Gailey and I talked about earlier this spring, and we decided—can you see where this is going?—that we wanted to offer poets a place where they could gather together and work collaboratively on finishing their books before the onslaught of deadlines. You can learn more about the class we’re facilitating over at Gailey and Davio Writers’ Services, and even apply if you feel the poetry spirit move you.

Even if you’re not ready to sign up for a full class, consider picking up some great books to help you along. For the poets out there, Ordering the Storm is a must-read before you decide on a shape for your manuscript. Writing nonfiction? Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a master class on the personal essay. Finally, for you fiction folks, get yourself a copy of How to Write a Damn Good Novel (don’t worry—it’s not by that James Frey) for some great ideas on shaping your story for maximum drama.

 

 

Rounding it Up: AWP 2015

Like about 12,000 other writer-types, I’m back from a week in sunny (well, sort of sunny) Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I had the opportunity to spend some time in and around the creative writing community. Like any conference, this AWP had moments that ranged, for me, from fabulous to head-scratching, and today I’m rounding them up:

The Highlights

The opening night’s reception featured music by The Pink Tuxedos, a powerhouse group featuring Marilyn Nelson and Rita Dove, among others. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the living greats of American poetry sing “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God” to the tune of “La Bamba.”

Book fair booth 403, the home of Tahoma Literary Review for the duration of the conference. One of my favorite parts of any AWP conference is meeting my wonderful contributors in person, and this year, we had a bumper crop of fine writers who stop by to see us. Meeting these wonderful folks reminds me that it’s a huge privilege to get to edit a journal like TLR; I’m proud to call our contributors part of my literary community.

The Women Writing Darkness panel on Friday morning. As a woman who sure enjoys writing some dark material, I appreciate the fact that this group of writers spoke to a standing-room-only audience about topics that reached far beyond the played-out question of “gee, can we have unlikable characters?” I don’t think I’ve ever fallen in love with a writer’s work as quickly as I did with Sabina Murray’s. Let’s hear it for tough women writing the creepy and the dark, and telling the rest of us how to make it salable.

The greatest offsite reading of all time with Peter Gloviczki (Kicking Gravity), Devon Moore (Apology of a Girl Who is Told She is Going to Hell, which, while not out yet, does have a pretty slick press kit, if I may toot my own kit-making horn*), and Prartho Serano (Elephant Raga). I typically avoid offsite readings at the conference, mostly because they tend to be in smoky, loud, overcrowded bars where I get claustrophobic, sweaty, and generally crabby. But this reading was perfect—we spoke to a lovely book club in Minneapolis, got to sit in some fabulously cushy chairs while we did so, then enjoyed a great chat afterward with some wonderful writers including Tamara Linse. I’ll sign up for offsites like this one any time.

*I should mention here that I’ve got room in my end-of-April lineup for one more PR client. If you’re a poet or writer and need a press kit, I’m your woman.

 

The Lowlights

A weird guy in a salamander suit gave me a long, somewhat painful, undesired, full-body, totally squicky hug in the book fair. Assuming whomever was in the salamander suit must be someone I knew who was playing a bizarre joke, I asked, “uh, who’s in there?” “I could be anyone,” weird salamander said. Please imagine my grossed-out recoil. “So you go around touching strange women without asking?” I said. “Only you,” weird salamander said, then ran off. Talk about an unappealing, borderline illegal marketing move, creepy salamander guy. To whom it may concern, let’s nix masked men in the book fair next year.

Eating only one meal per day because I didn’t want to miss a moment of the conference. Okay, this one was totally worth it. Given the choice between important bodily nourishment and walking the book fair, staffing the booth, and hearing readings and panels, the latter three won each time.

The fact that my feet are roughly spherical from so many hours spent standing and walking on concrete surfaces. But hey, this was worth it, too. (She said as she iced her alarmingly swollen toes.) The AWP book fair is the greatest bookstore on earth for three days out of every year, and I wanted to see it all.

Overall, I enjoyed myself thoroughly, and am already looking forward to next year’s conference in L.A. But just because it was a great week for me doesn’t mean that everyone had a positive experience in Minneapolis; I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you each to take the time to read this piece at Side B Magazine; it’s a difficult article that recounts an incident that should never have taken place, whether at AWP or elsewhere.

While I was deeply disappointed in the reactions of the people who saw this member of our writing community in serious medical trouble and did nothing to assist, I’m not entirely surprised. After my own experience, in 2014, of being hit from behind and knocked to the ground by a strange man, then being offered no assistance, defense, or even a simple kind word from any of the onlookers who saw the unknown man clock me or saw me go flying, I can’t say I depend on the kindness of strangers, even in my writing community. That shouldn’t be the case. We can all, individually and collectively, do far better. And doing better isn’t asking the world of us; there is no excuse for ignoring a person in need of assistance. We do not step over bodies of people who are lying defenselessly before us—we offer help or call for help. This is what human beings do.

What I Wish I’d Known

…When I Published My First Book, Part 2

As I promised last month, I’m back with part 2 of the list of things I wish I’d known before publishing my first book.

But before I dive in, a little housekeeping: I’m moving this blog to a once-per-month format, partly because I don’t see how you could tolerate my holding forth more often than that, given the fact that I’m now a regular columnist for The Butter. (Like how casually I said that? That I’m now a Regular Fancy Writer? Really, I’m over the moon to get to write “The Waiting Room” for The Butter twice each month. I hope you’ll come over and check it out.) I’m also posting regularly at Gailey and Davio, with lots of goodies for poets and writers over there.

Okay? Okay.  Continue reading “What I Wish I’d Known”

What I Wish I’d Known

…When I Published My First Book, Part 1

It’s spring (at least it feels like it in Seattle. Sorry, everybody who’s still buried under snow drifts) and that means it’s also publishing time for much of the small press world. Late next month and in early April, a flood of lovely new titles will arrive from indie publishers, and a phalanx of first-time authors are going to look down at their beautiful new books and think, “what the heck do I do now?”

Something odd happens when books come out: writers panic. Even the writer who’s typically organized, charismatic, and generally on her game can be stunned into immobility by the sheer volume of stuff that needs to be done. The nature of all that stuff takes writers by surprise, too; if someone hasn’t, say, worked for a small press or a publicist before, the marketing tasks involved in launching a new title are going to feel alien and overwhelming.

There are quite a few “what I wish I’d known” resources floating around the internet—and routinely offered at conferences like AWP—but they generally amount (in my opinion) to a bunch of people saying “you’re going to have to do everything yourself” and nodding solemnly to one another without explaining what, exactly, you’re going to have do.  Continue reading “What I Wish I’d Known”