Sunday, October 3, 2010

New Blog!

Alright, folks, my "brief" hiatus was a bit longer than expected, but I'm back, and my new blog is up and running. My new website . . . isn't . . . yet. But it will be. Soon. I swear.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Brief Hiatus: The End of an Era

I’m going to take a brief hiatus from blogging—just maybe two or three weeks. I’m finishing up revisions on my book, finishing up the quarter for my summer class, and formulating plans to really market the book. In the midst of it all, I’m looking into and getting started on the application process for grad school programs—that’s right, my thoughts have turned once again to going back to school, but this time, maybe, for something a little different—but surely I’ll talk about that later. In the meantime, I need to take a very short break from blogging while I put together a new, even better, blog . . . and a website to go with it.

See, I decided a few years ago that whenever I got my first book published, I would create an author’s website. I believe that authors should have websites—I hate it when I read something amazing by someone I’ve never heard of and then go to look the writer up and can’t find any information about him or her online. But I also figured it would probably be unnecessary to worry about it until I actually got a book out there.

Well, the time has come.

So I’m working on putting together my website, and I decided that I should, first of all, condense and combine my current two blogs (I mean, really, do I need two blogs if both of them are just me talking about writing?). I also decided that, rather than having a blog that is primarily me being a spokesperson for MFA/MFYou, I would just create a sort of multi-purpose blog. It’ll be my author’s blog as well as my MFA/MFYou blog (which is really what this blog has been for some time now . . . I’m basically just making it official). I’ll post about my goals and what projects I’m currently working on; I’ll talk about writing issues; I’ll talk about the journal.

I’ll make an update on the old blog when the new blog is up and running. In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing. We shall meet again very, very soon.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Submissions, Submissions

I’ve been wanting to talk about some interesting trends that I’ve noticed about the submissions we receive at MFA/MFYou. Like I’ve said before, from a purely quality perspective, there doesn’t seem to be any difference between the work submitted from writers who have some sort of formal training verses those who haven’t. I still stand firmly by my belief that a large percentage of writers who are actually revising and submitting are sending out stuff that is of publishable quality.

What I have noticed, though, is that we get far, far, far more submissions from non-MFA writers than from MFA’s. This was actually kind of surprising to me at first. As someone who has been through an MFA program, where you’re constantly being asked whether you’re submitting, I suppose I just assumed that writers who have gone through these programs are submitting more—or at least as much­­—as writers who haven’t.

But then I remembered that a lot of MFA’s have a negative view of online journals. Some even have a negative view of non-paying journals (which just seems ignorant to me, since many good journals are non-paying or only pay a small honorarium; your payment is that your work is getting out there). I suspect that the reason for this marked difference in submission numbers has something to do with many MFA writers not wanting to publish online. I’ve talked before about why I think online journals are an important component to any writer’s career, so I won’t get into that here.

What I will say is that the result of these off-balance submission amounts is that we do end up receiving more good stuff from MFYou’s than from MFA’s. What? But she just said . . . I know. I know. For every issue the “seriously considering” pile from MFYou’s is stacked higher than the one from MFA’s, but the ratio (good to not-so-good) is about the same for each group.

I’ve also noticed that we get significantly more poetry submissions than fiction submissions, and I’m not even talking about the fact that each individual poetry submission includes up to three poems. Again, I wonder if our status as a small, online journal affects these submission rates, but it’s interesting to think that perhaps there is way more poetry getting sent around than fiction. I heard, for example, about a poetry book contest that had roughly nine-hundred entrants; compare that with the average four or five-hundred manuscripts that get submitted to the typical fiction book contest.

If journals receive fewer fiction submissions than poetry, I wonder if this has anything to do with the possibility that a lot of fiction writers are more concerned with writing novels than short stories. Or is it perhaps because poems are so much shorter—does it take less time to revise a ten line poem than it does to revise a twenty page prose piece? Or could it be that there are simply more poets out there than fiction writers? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting and unexpected submission trend, and something that might help poets feel a little better about rejections, as it likely follows that it’s probably easier to get a prose piece published than a poem (though I should add that it’s hard to get prose published, too).

So, just some interesting things that I’ve noticed about our submission rates. It’s difficult to draw any definitive conclusions since there are so many variables with these sorts of things, but I thought it would be interesting to pause and take a look at our submissions rates and what they might mean.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Always Room to Grow

Something that I’ve always guessed was true and now I can say from experience definitely is, is that the process of working with an editor to publish a book is extremely similar to the process of working with a thesis committee to get an MFA thesis ready to defend. When I was working on my thesis, I would have the head of my committee read a draft (or sometimes just an individual section) of my thesis; then we would meet and discuss her feedback; then I would go home again and bang out another draft, and the process would begin anew.

A basic unspoken rule at the heart of our meetings was that, as the writer of the piece, final say would always be up to me. Her suggestions were just suggestions and were meant to help me see things that I might not be able to see on my own. Her feedback was also meant to help me improve overall as a writer. The process was a lot of work, and I loved every second of it. And I definitely came out of it all a much better writer.

This is almost exactly what it’s like working with an actual editor to get a book ready for publication (with the exception, in my case, that my editor and I don’t live in the same state and so can’t meet in person to discuss feedback—instead, everything is done through email). To start with, my editor and I each read through the manuscript separately, paying attention to the fact that this would soon be a book, which we would be trying to market to an actual readership.

Then, we began an ongoing back and forth through email, during which she gives me feedback that I’m allowed to take or leave, and I ask her questions and bounce ideas off of her. Every day when I sit down to work on the book, I keep her feedback in mind as I work through new drafts of these stories. It’s been extremely fruitful so far, and I’m watching the book transform into something much tighter and more polished than it was when I entered it into the contest a couple of months ago.

But perhaps even more exciting than that: her feedback is helping me to become a better writer. I have this proclivity towards what she calls “prose hesitation,” (I love that term; it describes the problem perfectly), and she’s helping me to see that when I recognize and cut those hesitations, the prose shines through much stronger and brighter. This new knowledge will help me not only tighten the stories in this book, but it’s something that I can take with me to future writing projects.

Exactly like with my MFA thesis, I’m gaining more from this experience than just a ready to be published book. It’s a reassuring reminder that the learning process is not over when you start publishing books—that you continue learning and growing with every new piece that you write, every new editor that you work with. And whatever you’re working on right now always has the potential to be the best thing you’ve ever written.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


So I’ve been having a totally unexpected reaction to signing my first book contract: pure, unadulterated terror. For the first, oh I’d say, four or five days, I was riding a wave of absolute bliss, but once I got down to work with my editor, the fear began to set in. My deadline for having the final draft in the hands of the Editor-in-Chief is only two months away. I know I can do it—and, in fact, that I will—but I feel terrified that the stories won’t be as good as they could be and that any readers that I can actually convince to buy the book will read it and hate it and never want to read anything by me again.

I’ve spent more time in my life than I’d like to admit daydreaming about what it would feel like to get a book published, and the way it actually does feel never once entered into those fantasies. I think my fear comes, somewhat, from having read so many books in my life that I felt needed further revision, or that I felt had some strong elements and an equal number of weak ones. I don’t want readers to read my book and wonder, “How the hell did this win First Prize?”

Part of it, too, is that I’m addicted to revising. I’ve never looked at a story and felt absolutely, positively certain that the story is as good as it could be, that this is the final draft. It’s one of the main things I struggle with as a writer: how do you know when something is done? And yet in two months, I have to be sure about an entire book’s worth of stories. Even though about half of these stories have already been published in journals, I’ve revised most of them since their respective publications and probably would have continued to revise them forever, except that having them out there as a book feels very final to me. I could continue to revise them after the book comes out, I suppose, but there’d be no point. This is it. In two months, I’ll hand in the final draft of the manuscript, and, with the exception of proofreading, that draft will be the one that readers read for as long as the book is in print.

But now for the upside: I’ve decided to embrace the fear, to let it push me to really whip this book into shape. I’ve gotten some excellent feedback from the press’s fiction editor, and I’ve enlisted the help of a few friends to give me more. And then there’s my husband, who is diligently going through the entire book with me line-by-line, in spite of having read and given feedback on most of these stories before. I’ve put all of my other writing projects on hold for now and am focusing as much energy and attention as I can on trying to polish this book until it shines. And maybe this will be good for me: to be forced to call something officially finished. Maybe this is a leap that all writers must eventually take.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


This post to the MFA/MFYou Newsletter, which is usually full of my own rants and reflections on all things writerly, will actually be a genuine newsletter. First of all, Issue Four of MFA/MFYou is up on the website, and it’s a good one. The MFA/MFYou website has officially been up and running for about two years now, and sometime soon I plan to talk here a little bit about some of the trends I’ve noticed in our MFA versus non-MFA submissions.

However, I’d like to put it out there right now that our MFA/MFYou experiment has pretty definitively proven, from my perspective anyway, that whether a writer has gone through formal MFA training or not doesn’t make any significant difference in his or her writing abilities. This is certainly not to say that I’m no longer an advocate of the value of the MFA. I still fully believe that going through an MFA course of study is extremely beneficial. My point here is that there are other ways to achieve that training, and what might work for one writer might not be right for another. As long as a writer is really working at it—is studying the craft, taking revision seriously, and seeking and openly receiving feedback from trusted readers—that writer will, I believe, continue to improve and eventually get published.

Yes, that’s right. I said it. I don’t think natural talent counts for much. If you want to be a writer, it’s all about working at it and working some more and working yet more still. And then, when you think you’re finished, go back and work even more. I believe that most people—I suppose I should qualify that and say most people who are fairly intelligent, and who like to read and write, and who are actually willing to acknowledge that their first drafts aren’t golden—have the ability to become published writers. The real question is, which people are going to stick with it and put in all the work necessary to actually get there? Most of the people who fit into that first vast group will taper off somewhere on the road to the second, and those of us who are left are the ones who get to be “writers.”

And now some more news . . . I’M GETTING MY FIRST BOOK PUBLISHED!!!! My short story collection Peter Never Came was awarded first prize in the Autumn House Press Fiction Contest, and the book will be published by Autumn House next spring. This is a huge and important step in my career as a writer, and these next few months as I work with my editor ("my editor," how good it feels to write that!) to get the manuscript ready to print are going to be some of the most exciting of my life, I bet. I’m also already thinking ahead, trying to plan out how to get copies of this book in the hands of as many readers as possible. I’m well aware that getting a book published is really only the beginning of a huge marketing process—after all, it doesn’t really count for much if you publish a book that nobody buys.

In the coming months I’ll be able to bring some new experiences and perspectives to the table here in the old MFA/MFYou Newsletter, and I hope you’ll all stick around for the ride.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Self Publishing Part 2: A Calculated Risk

At the Columbus Writing Works Conference this year, one of the presenters was a novelist who had self published a handful of books and had finally landed a real publishing contract for her next book. She was doing a talk about marketing yourself, and she was urging writers to consider self publishing “a calculated risk.” She didn’t seem to have much faith in anyone’s chances of getting a real book deal for their first book, and felt that, as long as you’re willing to do all the legwork yourself, self publishing is a good way to get started as a writer.

Her lecture, for me, was the real low point of the conference, as I didn’t feel that she had a very firm grasp of the way the industry actually functions. Her history as a writer was strewn with what I would call mistakes (getting suckered in by a fake agent, for example, and publishing twice with Publish America). This would be fine if she was telling us about her own mistakes so that we might avoid making them for ourselves. The problem was that she didn’t seem to understand that these had been mistakes. In fact, she didn’t seem to understand that Publish America was a vanity press!

At any rate, she did successfully get me thinking about what benefits self publishing may offer the writer who doesn’t want to go the traditional route. Now first of all I think it’s important to make the distinction between the writer who can’t get his or her manuscript accepted by a real publisher and the writer who doesn’t want to publish with a traditional publishing house. If you can’t get a book accepted for publication, you should probably take that as a warning sign that there may be something wrong. The book might not be ready; it might not fit into the current market (which means, no matter how good it is, you’re going to have trouble selling it); or it might just not be any good. You need to realistically evaluate your manuscript and your goals as a writer before you even think about self publishing, in my opinion.

However, if you do decide that you’d like to take the “calculated risk” of self publishing, it is possible to make some money if you’re really able and willing to do some hard work. The lady at the conference, for example, did make a few hundred dollars a month from selling her self published books. In fact, Steve Almond’s account of the money he made from self publishing in the recent Poets and Writers article compared pretty closely with this random do-it-yourselfer’s financial gain from self publishing. The trick is that you have to get out there and really sell that book.

This lady did several readings, book store signings, etc per month. She actually retired from her full time job as an English professor to have more time to devote to really selling her books. She sets up tables at farmers markets. She does presentations at relevant museums (her books are historical in nature, but this might not work for everyone). She even does readings at cafes—she says that these places are usually willing to let you read if there is no cost to them and all you ask in return is that they let you sell your book. Her marketing savvy may well have contributed to her finally landing a book deal with a real publisher—publishers love writers who know how to get out there and market themselves. Many small presses these days even ask you to submit a marketing plan along with your query, so this sort of self publishing experience may look good to some publishers.

Some writers talk about self publishing as being more profitable than going the traditional route (unless you’re lucky enough to land a book deal with a major publisher, of course). As the writer, you see a very small percentage of the book sales if your book is published by someone else, but in self publishing the amount you take home for each individual sale is much higher. If you publish with a tiny publishing house, for example, and get say a $1000 advance, there’s a good chance that that’s all you’ll ever see. If you self publish that same book and really get out there and sell that thing, you could stand to make substantially more over time.

Now let’s not kid ourselves here. Self publishing is not considered reputable, it just isn’t. Virginia Woolf aside. However, if you’re willing to do all the work yourself and you don’t mind the stigma, self publishing may be right for you. It has opened doors for some writers (emphasis on the some) who really got out there and worked it and then turned the experience to their advantage, but please don’t forget that self publishing is not a free pass to a successful career. Proceed with caution, my friend. Make sure you calculate that risk.