Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Ross Klavan’s (a) “Schmuck”

August 12, 2014

Ross Klavan, the charismatic voice of the creative writing program and one of our beloved screenwriting faculty members, was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and process for his novel, Schmuck with The Write Life blog.schmuck

Schmuck takes place in 1960’s New York, where Jerry Elkin and Ted Fox rule the radio airwaves. Between Elkin’s zany dialects and impressions and Fox’s golden, straight-man voice, they’ve got it down pat. But if listeners could hear between the lines, they’d notice an undertone of tension between the hit team. Jerry resents Ted for his dismissive attitude towards TV offers, and his ability to sweet-talk the ladies. Even his own son gets the girl, Sari Rosenbloom, an eighteen year old bombshell that Jerry can’t get off his mind.

Between seedy, well-connected mobsters, a head-swiveling femme fatale, and a son that just doesn’t get it, Jerry navigates this post-war, Jewish-infused, zany, larger-than-life landscape.

Schmuck was published by Greenpoint Press and is available through their website, which can be found by clicking here: http://www.greenpointpress.org/gb_book_schmuck.html

You can also purchase the book on Amazon and through Barnes & Noble.

Schmuck is loosely based on your father’s radio show. Why write something so close to home?

The most famous joke about show business is the one about the guy in the circus who sweeps up behind the elephant. You know which one I’m talking about. He walks behind the elephant with a broom, clearing all the elephant crap and cursing to himself about how much he hates his job. And when somebody says, “If you hate it so much why don’t you quit?” He says, “What?! And leave show business?!” I’ve lived all of my life connected to show business and I’m sort of the guy sweeping up behind the elephant…and also the guy writing about the guy who’s sweeping up. All writing and performing is obviously based in your self since you’ve got no other place to begin. I’m lucky that my own personal lunacy–mishegas as the holy men say–leans sharply toward a combo of the masochistic and exhibitionistic. That means that I can exploit my own experience and then beautifully alter, embellish, form, shape, structure and compose until it both seems real and strangely heightened, both at the same time. It’s either that, or I go back into analysis.

Does your artistic work take from your real life often, and is it hard to balance between what’s real and fictional?

My work almost always takes off from real life, at least to start out. As for the line between real and fictional—I don’t know, it’s not so solid for any of us, I think. I like to jump back and forth across that line or blend both sides or step aside and see what gets called up from the dregs. That’s an incredible pleasure. Dream experience—that’s real experience, too, just a different kind. And like I said before, I’ve spent all my life around show business and I like writing about show business—not major movie stars and big money deals, for some reason that’s a snooze for me. I like the other levels. Clowns and jokers and radio guys who live in a world of TV. Where people are desperate and striving like their life depended on it and not usually succeeding. The screenwriter who can’t sell anything and who ends up shot dead by his mistress and floating in her pool, to me that’s a better story than the big names who end up on the cover of “Vanity Fair.” It’s plays more in my imagination. For a while, when I was younger, I supported myself as a reporter doing grunt journalism and you were supposed to be accurate above almost anything else. Eventually, my mind started to develop hemorrhoids. Even if you’re not going to be in the arts, I highly recommend living by the imagination as long as you’re not walking off a cliff.

“Schmuck” has been said to blend zany humor with a deadly somber undertone. Was it hard to write in such opposition?

It’s much more difficult to live with that opposition, which many of us do. It’s sort of like, one minute it’s all “ha-ha-ha” and you recognize the Absurd…then, when you see how absurd it all is, you start to feel it’s all so sad there’s not enough tears in the world to cry, and then you start laughing again because you hear yourself thinking that and it all seems so ridiculous. I tried to give Jerry Elkin that quality—underneath it all, he knows that we’re all sharing a misshapen rock spinning around in space and nobody really knows what the hell is going on.

Jerry Elkin is loosely based on your father. Has your father read the book, and if so, what does he think of Jerry?

My father died ten years ago so he hasn’t read the book—at least, I don’t think he has. I like to imagine that if he’s out there in that Great Radio Station in the sky, that maybe he got a few laughs out of it. He had a pretty wicked sense of humor that stayed with him until the end.

Do you have a specific process that you use when you write, and does “Schmuck” differ from your usual process because of it’s roots in your own life?

A theater director once told me that he went into rehearsal with a specific goal in mind for each particular session and then, when he got there, it was time to go home even if rehearsal only took five minutes. For some reason, that’s how “Schmuck” was written. Every time I sat down to work, I had a specific problem to solve—not a number of pages—but a chapter or a scene or a sequence of scenes to finish. Just what felt right. When that was done, I headed for the couch, lay down and put the “New Yorker” over my face. I also kept a notebook of ideas and lines and things to look at or change when I hit the next draft. Every project has something of its own character. I usually start off with a process of free association, just riffing and coming up with scenes and ideas that light up, even if they seem to be totally unrelated. Then, if I haven’t completely cracked up, I start finding some kind of narrative line that connects what scenes I’m going to use.

What the most important thing that you want to convey to an audience when you write, and how do you try accomplish that?

That’s an incredibly tough question to answer so I’ll hide from it as best I can. One way of looking at it—only the book itself can answer that question, otherwise there wouldn’t be a reason to write it. Also, you don’t want to get between the reader and his or her experience of the book–a writer has no business being there, you should be off working on something else or taking a nap. Then, overall, I’m going for something that’s tremendously alive and vital, or I hope it is, anyway—I don’t have any grand theories that make sense and I’m not smart enough to have any mind-bending ideas. But I hope the reader comes away at least with a feeling of life and enjoyment—like they’ve been hit in the head with some kind of weird tuning fork. And in a book, I think, you do that by rhythm, tempo, structure and a certain kind of language.

Sari Rosenbloom has been compared to Daisy Buchanan. Was this an intentional inspiration, and how else does “Gatsby” fit into “Schmuck’s” world?

Oh, yeah, there’s a definite “Gatsby” thread running through the story. Partly, that’s because I wanted to convince my audience that I’d actually read at least one great book. Also, growing up, I spent all too much time not too far from the real Gatsby House—or what was supposedly the house Fitzgerald used–and I got a feel for the parvenu’s outlook. Then, at one point, I started to think of “Schmuck” as a sort of “Gatsby” that’s told through the eyes of Meyer Wolfsheim, the Jewish gangster character, the guy who fixed the 1919 World Series. Which, by the way, is not a bad trick if you can get away with it.

You’ve written scripts for Miramax, Paramount, and TNT. How does your script writing differ from your novel writing?

At the gross level—which may be our favorite—a script has more people involved and you get a lot more money. But aside from the practical–there’s a common level in all narrative writing, I think, from commercials to novels to feature films. You’re dealing with characters and stories and people and you’re trying not to bore anyone. I wrote the film “Tigerland” which starred Colin Farrell but I did the script off the first draft of a novel I’d written. I’d worked out the story already, so it was much easier than starting from zero. For prose fiction–a novel can rest more in its language, going directly into the reader’s psyche, a mind dart. A screenplay has to do that also but it has to unfold in the reader’s imagination as a film, so that even a character’s consciousness is there to be literally seen, heard and understood in a medium that’s going to be watched and that takes place in time, somewhat outside of the viewer’s control. At some point, even if it becomes second nature, you have to care about that when you write a screenplay. I love film—I’d have to say that film and a kind of molecular understanding of what it is to write a screenplay have only been of the greatest help in other kinds of writing, especially prose fiction. It teaches you to move a story, not to be precious with yourself, to make everything count.

Your wife, Mary Jones, is a painter. Does her artistic vision bleed into your work, and vice versa?

Mary’s a terrific artist and I’ve probably learned much more from her than she’s learned from me. Her courage and seriousness and willingness to take chances, her connection to her own work and her respect for it, her ability to let it change…that this is part of everything she does and that she wears it lightly, I’ve gained from all this now for a long time. When we first knew each other many years ago, I remember once she lost a lease on her studio and was looking around for a new place. I asked her why she didn’t just rent a cheap apartment, what difference does it make where you paint? And she said, “Because during those times when you’re not selling anything or you’re stuck or you feel like everyone hates your work, it’s important to have a place to go that reminds you who you really are.” Maybe writers have to have a version of that, too…and since we don’t need a lot of brushes or canvases, it can just be in the mind.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Ah ha! The old advice question. Sometimes I hear writers say that there’s more bullshit out there about writing than there is about sex…but actually, I think, a lot of the writing advice is pretty good. It’s just…what do you do with it once you hear it? How do you make it your own? Can you actually sit down and use it? Then there’s this—I think what most of us want when we go after advice about writing is for somebody else to do the real work for us. I’m not talking about specific craft questions. But we live in a world that’s got a large sign across the sky that says, WARNING: DON’T BE ALONE IN YOUR IMAGINATION! And effort, pain or frustration? Forget about it, they get chosen last for the team. But that’s exactly what writers have to do and where they have to go, hour after hour. Real problems with writing are solved by writing. Eventually. Maybe painfully and with much frustration. OK, on some days, more easily. On some days, it’s like a tight muscle opening. So the best advice is that, ultimately, there’s no advice—you have to do your own work, day after day. Abandon all hope! Nobody can do it for you. And if you’re having one of those days when you think everything you’ve done sucks, you don’t deserve to live and you’re wasting your time at the pad or the keyboard…well, after you’ve screamed into the pillow, try not to have too much to drink and then, take a look at your stuff and try to see very, very specifically, exactly what it is that’s turning the blade in you. Try to see exactly what it is that you don’t like. Because that, exactly, can be fixed. With a generality, you’re screwed.


 

Ross Klavan’s work spbossklavanans film, television, radio, print and live performance. His original screenplay for the film Tigerland was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, he recently finished an adaption of John Bowers’s “The Colony,” and he has written scripts for Miramax, Paramount and TNT, among others. The “conversation about writing” he moderated with Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer was televised and published as “Like Shaking Hands with God,” and his short stories have appeared in magazines and been produced by the BBC. An earlier novel, “Trax,” was published under a pseudonym. His play “How I Met My (Black) Wife (Again),” co-written with Ray Iannicelli, has been produced in New York City, and he has performed his work in numerous theaters and clubs. He has acted and done voice work in TV and radio commercials and has lent his voice to feature films including Casino, You Can Count On Me and Revolutionary Road and the new Amazon web series Alpha House, written by Gary Trudeau. He has worked as a newspaper and radio journalist in London and New York City. He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter, Mary Jones.

What are you Writing for?

July 21, 2014

Let me introduce you to Gaia. Gaia is a human clone or more aptly, a human garden. She is a twisted, mutilated version of woman with little conventional beauty to behold. Yet there’s a sense of strength in her structure and: the beat of her HEART, the bright BLOOD pumping through her veins and the light yellow aura that floats above her- are riveting. Gaia struggles, as so many main characters do, to find her place in the world.

scifiindiegathering

She is also the main character of my sci-fi script, GAIA, which took first place in The Indie Gathering’s sci-fi feature script contest, one of a couple dozen contests I entered over the past two months or so. The win is my first and a welcomed reprieve from the repeated thrashes of rejection from others.

Admittedly, the validity and usefulness of screenplay contests continues to be debated, especially for any contests other than the “Top 5.” Indeed, as I searched for contests, and weighed the benefits and costs of each, I struggled not to let the naysayers drag me down.

Site after site, person after person, nay after nay; these sounded much like this:

“contests that charge over $25 aren’t worth it”

“any other than the top 5 are a waste of time”

“contests are a waste of time… they won’t help you sell your screenplay”

“contests are good for the ego, but that’s all.”

Of course, some of these comments were by people who had not yet placed in any contest, but not all of them and some were directly from people working within the film industry. Regardless, the impact varied little.

With each nay, my enthusiasm waned, even after my win. That is, until I realized something so profound that when I told Confucius he said, “Do what?” Not really, actually he rolled his eyes and said, “Uh.. duh.” So what is this not-so profound realization?

In the screenwriting world (and in fact, most any artistic industries), a reverberating factor of success seems to be the ability to find like-minded people.

A win may or may not mean you write well, but it means that someone or several “someones” appreciated your writing. It doesn’t matter if they appreciated it because it was “good” writing, or because it was a “good” story or for some other reason. All that matters is that you made that connection. For that win, you “won” someone over, and each contest you enter increases your chance to connect.

Think of these contests as fishing. They take time, money and can be tiring. Sometimes you’ll get a nibble, sometimes a bite, but you won’t get anything if the fish in the lake don’t like your bait. Even the biggest worm won’t hook a fish if the fish in the lake prefer crickets. Thus, for me, these contests are my pole.

I use them to gauge the interest in my bait. What other route offers you so much direct access to such a large, diverse range of people. Whether the judges are members of the Hollywood elite or not, they are people you can connect with.

There are many reasons why cult followings are popular and movies that have them are ultimately successful. Not every success is based on the size of the catch. Sometimes it’s taste that counts.

And as I consider the value of screenwriting contests, I remind myself also that Indie films and the whole site of Kickstarter are all about funding based upon a connection. Not a network of who you know, but a connection of a shared vision and goal. And isn’t that why we write anyway; to connect with others?


Autumn pic

Autumn Whiltshire earned her Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She writes poetry, short stories and screenplays. Her thesis script, Gaia won first place in The Indie Gathering’s 2014 Sci-Fi Feature category.  You can follow Autumn at: http://autumnwhiltshire.wordpress.com/

I Submit to You by Michael J. Soloway

May 8, 2013

I Submit to You

By Michael J. Soloway

The Rule of Twenty-Five

Sheepshead Review. Serving House. Newfound. Northwind. Palooka. Thin Air magazine (4x). fwriction review. Utter magazine. Superstition Review. TINGE Magazine. The Boiler Journal. Passages North. Thomas J. Hrushka Memorial Nonfiction Prize (3x). Prick of the Spindle. The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. Hippocampus Magazine. Ploughshares—just to name a few.

lit magsIn all, I’ve received more than twenty-five rejections over the past thirteen months. They come in all shapes and sizes, with their own length and own voice. Like poems all titled, “Unfortunately…” Some offer compliments and encouragement; others simply cut you off at the knees and leave you feeling paralyzed with fear and insecurity. But a loss is a loss, whether it’s by thirty points or one.

Rejection is part of life, part of The Writing Life. But it’s also a word I associate with immaturity. After all, this isn’t one of those dreams where you’re late for a test without your No. 2 pencil; it isn’t high school. There is no prom to obsess over or folded notes to pass to potential dates—even though, at times, it may feel that way, as you ask yourself: Why not me? What’s wrong with me? I say: Nothing, especially if you haven’t even taken the plunge and submitted your work yet! And that doesn’t mean sending pages to your parents or friends or “one contest years ago.” Hilary Homzie, a children’s author at Hollins University, and a former mentor of mine, once told me: “You should always have twenty-five pieces of work in process at any one time.” Twenty-five? Yes, twenty-five. Five projects you’re writing; five you’re editing; five query letters you’re producing; five pieces you’re in the process of submitting; and five you’re waiting to hear back from an editor, agent, or publisher. Like sales, or any other business, it’s a numbers game—which simply means persistence is rewarded.

The Rebuff is Not Just For Cars

What’s the difference between a writer and an author? Have you ever turned this over in your mind? We call ourselves writers, but aren’t we already writers, all of us. Everyday, whether you’re writing or not, you are a writer; if you’re reading this then you most certainly are.

Perception and self-actualization is vital to growth and a continued formation of a positive identity. It’s time to start thinking of yourself as not only a writer, but an author as well. Whether you’ve published an essay or article or book or poem or blog or chapbook or a piece of haiku that began on a dinner napkin or if you haven’t published at all, give yourself permission to be an author. After all, we have Author pages on Facebook, not Writer pages. Be positive, then stay positive. Have your “Author’s Bio” ready. Know, deep down in your heart, that you’ll need it soon enough.

Along with my thirty aught rebuffs (a word I prefer over rejection, because it reminds me of polishing, that my work simply needs another run-through and that it’s not me that’s being rejected), I’ve also had successes this year as well—three essays and two memoir excerpts in seven different literary magazines over those same thirteen months. How have I done this? Quality work is only one ingredient to success. But courage and persistence is, by far, key to turning pages in an attic into pages into “print.” By rebuffing your work, and putting that first toe into what can sometimes be murky waters, you’ll be well on your way to becoming published—never immune to rejection, but an author ready to build upon success. After all, a translucent ocean does not reflect like the black sheen on the surface of a dark summer lake, it’s mystery reflecting your own image back at you, an identity that’s actually clear, if you stare long enough and catch the right amount of light.

Time is Relative (A Distant Cousin, Twice Removed) 

Excuses are never about time; they’re about energy.

clockTime, after all, is just a state of mind—we make time for what we want to make time for. “I can’t go to the gym, I don’t have time.” “I can’t cook dinner, I don’t have time.” “I can’t write a query letter, I don’t have time.” I have the same excuses: a full-time job, school, family, which includes a 21-month-old daughter. And I had the same self doubts you may have over your shoulder like a backpack—something to keep your work safe, but oh so heavy to lug around. I used to think one rejection meant my work was “no good.” Giving up is easy. But the only notion you should be giving up at this point is expectation.

A friend and peer, who many of you know from the Wilkes Creative Writing Program, Danielle Poupore’s, MFA (AKA, Danielle E. Curtis), essay, “Lilac Blossoms: A Dead Squirrel Story” was rebuffed fourteen times before being published in Split Lip magazine in March. Persistence, perseverance, and faith in your own words are your greatest tools. Use them to your advantage. Time is not the enemy. It’s simply a distant relative passing through town looking for a place to “crash” for the night. Learn to invite them in with open arms; embrace the time you do have, even if the only room you have left in your soul at the end of the day is a worn couch without pillows. There is pride and reward in effort.

It’s “Submittable” and More

Once you have a submittable story, set of stories, or script, depending on your genre, visit Poets & Writers website (www.pw.org). In the top navigation, find “Tools for Writers.” Underneath that you’ll see “Contests,” “Lit Mags,” and “Small Presses.” Once there, you can segment your search by Genre, Subgenre, Format, and Payment. And don’t get overwhelmed by your search results. There are 885 literary magazines that pop up without conducting an Advanced Search. But if I specify, “Creative Nonfiction” and “Autobiography/Memoir,” then my results are a much more manageable 133. Remember, this is a numbers game, but not a race. Concentrate on upcoming deadlines first, then make a commitment to submit a piece at least once a month. Follow the Rule of 25s, but unlike writing goals, submissions are not supposed to be part of a daily routine. I submitted my essays and excerpts sporadically over an entire year.

Most online magazines have made the transition to electronic submissions, which not only makes it easier to submit your work but also to track them through a system called “Submittable.” Once you make your first submission, and your account is set up, you can check the status of a piece any time of day. Be sure to read each publication’s submission guidelines carefully—word count limits, publication deadlines, and anything else that a specific journal prefers. There are still many “traditional” publications that will require a more detailed project description, query letter, or even a paper submission.

“Simultaneous Submissions” is your best friend. Find magazines that accept them and send, send, send. Just be sure to follow their instructions. If one of your pieces gets picked up, then notify the other magazines immediately so they can take your submission out of consideration—unless, of moneycourse, they permit reprints. I’ve had two essays “reprinted,” so look for those opportunities as well. And don’t forget about contests. Just be aware, most have submission fees. So, that option can get costly. On the flipside, contests offer monetary awards and oftentimes, major publication opportunities. Look for contests no more than $15 per entry. There are literally thousands, depending upon your genre.

Another word of advice—don’t expect payment, if your work is accepted. We all want to make a living at writing, but right now the focus should be on getting published, putting your name out there into the Universe, and forming a strong identity as an author. As of September, when my seventh piece is scheduled for publication, I will have earned exactly $45 from my yearlong submission/publishing efforts. So, if you’re looking for a mammoth payday, consider becoming an actuary or a nurse anesthetist.

Sticks and Stones

Rejection is not a 4-letter word, even though it may elicit a few when you get that response from an editor, agent, publication, or contest. Just remember, reject and accept have the same number of letters. The word you would rather hear is obvious, but one rejection does not an author make. They’re just sticks and stones. But the forest ahead doesn’t have to be so bleak. Turn any rebuff into feathers and leaves falling harmlessly at your feet and keep walking until you reach a clearing—every deep wood has one.

So, what am I really trying to say? Who do I think I am? Today, I hope I’m your drill sergeant, your platoon leader. I’m your inspiration, your mentor. I’m your best friend, your confidante. I’m that devil on your shoulder; I’m that saint.

Today, I’m an author. And so are you.

Being a writer is a complicated relationship. Don’t just look for The One. Find the many—you deserve to be an author for years to come.

So, what now you may ask? In the words of a wise mentor, teacher, writer, author, and friend, Kevin Oderman: “Onward.” I submit to you—there’s no place else to go.

***

Michael J. Soloway grew up eating oranges, catching lizards, and listening to the gasp of tennis ball cans being opened in south Florida. He received his Masters Degree in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and will earn his MFA in January 2014. In addition, Michael has served as Michael Solowaymanaging editor of more than a dozen nonprofit magazines and just finished his first memoir Share the Chameleon, about attempting to break his family’s cycle of abuse, as he becomes a father for the first time in his 40s. Brevity Magazine published Michael’s short essay, “Introducing Mother Nature,” in 2012. In addition, Split Lip magazine published his nonfiction essay, “Sticks and Stones,” about his grandmother’s slide into dementia, in March 2013. His work has also appeared in Red Fez, Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts, and Under the Gum Tree magazines. An excerpt from Share the Chameleon will appear in Split Lip magazine in September 2013.

An Interview with Patricia Harman

May 19, 2011

Patricia Harman is a mother.  She is a wife.  She is a midwife.  Now, she belongs to an elite group of writers who have written multiple memoirs.   After the success of her first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, a story of the babies she helped bring into the world, Harman felt a need to tell her own storyArms Wide Open, her newly released second memoir, is just that.

Arms Wide Open is Harman's second memoir

It is the story of how a young, hippie woman living on a self-sustainable commune, came to be an influential member of the medical community.  I reviewed Harman’s book for Hippocampus Magazine last month, and she was nice enough to grant me an interview shortly thereafter.  Here is our Q&A:

How different was the process of writing this book, compared to writing The Blue Cotton Gown?
My first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, didn’t start off as a memoir.  I just wanted to tell the stories of the amazing patients I met in the exam room of the OB/GYN practice I share with my husband.  Gradually, I realized I needed to tell more and I began to weave my narrative in with the patient’s.  I decided to write Arms Wide Open because readers asked me about references to living in a rural commune in the Blue Cotton GownAha! Thinks I.  That could be another book!  While The Blue Cotton Gown was written during the days that lived it, Arms Wide Open went back decades into my past.  I had the advantage of having some twenty or so journals hidden in a box in the closet, that I’d kept, but not opened, all these years.   

The first part of the book deals with your self-sustainable life in Minnesota, and the cabin in which you, Stacy, and Mica lived alone.   There were times I would almost cry for you, it sounded and felt so difficult.  Would you do it again?  What did it teach you?

I currently live in on three acres of land with a vegetable garden, woods, fruit trees, a view of the lake, and all the modern conveniences, but I do sometimes wish we lived more rurally.  Though subsisting without electricity, central heat, running water or a bathroom wasn’t fun at times, there was a simplicity and closeness to nature that I miss.   I think what I learned from those times is “Moderation in all things.”  We thought we could save the world being witnesses for a very pure life on the land, but we were so extreme it didn’t make sense to anyone.

Despite most of the book’s narrative happening at the tail end of the civil unrest of the 60’s and early 70’s, you manage to keep politics out of your story, for the most part.  Was this difficult for you?  Was that a choice you made consciously?  
In the first draft I was more political and I consciously took some of that out; not because I wanted to hide my true beliefs, but because I felt it would date the book.  When you finish a manuscript, you don’t know when it will be published.  I thought, for example, if I wrote about the presidential election of 2008, the book would seem past tense by 2011.   I did mention “the wars in the middle east” and how I felt about them, but that was a safe bet! Ten years from now, they will probably still be fighting.  I also made it clear we believe that war isn’t the solution to the division of the world’s precious resources.  I tried not to get on a soapbox and be preachy about the environment or to sound like I was giving a lecture.

In Arms Wide Open, you talk a lot about natural childbirth.  Do you still embrace that concept so strongly?  Why do you think there has been a return to those ideals as of late?

Harman during her "hippie" days

I embrace the idea of natural childbirth more strongly than ever.  I don’t think everyone has to have their baby at home, but as much as possible, I would want for women and their partners to experience birth as it was meant to be, a simple, transcendent experience.  Technology and medical malpractice lawyers have taken something precious away from us.  Birth should be a feminist issue again and I think that is starting, partly because the C/Section rate in the United States is so out of control.  33%.  That’s right.  1 out of 3 women now have their baby born by major abdominal surgery.  Not the way things should be…..Don’t get me started!

Since you are a politically minded person, I’d love to ask your opinion on healthcare.  Are we heading down the right road?  Is universal healthcare attainable?  And should it be?

The health care system in the US is in very bad shape.  This year the Health Insurance Industry has made record profits as patients postpone surgeries because they can’t afford their big deductibles.  Then there are the 46 million Americans with no health insurance at all. This, in the richest nation in the world.

We have a summer cottage in Canada and we get to know the locals up there and have learned so much about their national healthcare system.  We are definitely supporters of some kind of universal health insurance in the US.  It’s the strength of the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical companies that make reform difficult.  Their propaganda have the American public so terrified of change, that even if it would benefit them, people vote against it.

Little by little, I believe things will get better.  In the recent health care reform bill, just having young adults able to stay on their parent’s insurance plans until they are 26 is a help and there are other benefits to children.  They can’t be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions anymore.  The Children’s Health Insurance Program (Chip) was extended and all health insurance plans must now provide immunizations and other preventive care for kids.

Finally, you belong to a small group of writers who have written two or more memoirs, will you do it again?  Is there more you’d like to share with your fans? 

Patricia "Patsy" Harman

Currently, I decided to stop milking my own life for stories before readers get sick of me.  I’m working on a novel, set in the Great Depression in West Virginia.  The heroine is an inexperienced midwife, a former suffragette and union radical, on the run, hiding out in the mountains.  I imagine I will write about myself again, someday.  I still have all those journals in the box and have had adventures that astound even me.

**Arms Wide Open is available now on Amazon, or through your local independent bookseller.  For more on Patricia Harman, please visit her website.

Ten Ideas for Keepin’ it Real

May 12, 2011

Preparing for writing success demands common sense and self care

by Gale Martin

You’ve just completed your novel, your memoir, or your chapbook. You’ve gotten strong feedback from your beta-reader(s) or an outside evaluator through the Wilkes University Creative Writing program where you’ve received unprecedented access to the almighty gatekeepers—agents and editors. Maybe you attended a conference and pitched your book to an agent who requested a complete manuscript. Nothing can stop you now. Surely, you’ll have a publishing contract in hand within months, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. According to Putting Your Passion into Print, more than 150,000 books are conventionally published every year. That’s an incredibly large number of publishing opportunities compared to the number of screenplays actually made into feature length films every year. There’s plenty of room for good books—yours included.

Statistics such as ‘less than five percent of popular booksellers total sales are bestsellers’ provide reason enough to be optimistic that you may one day join the ranks of published authors. That is, if you don’t expect too much success too soon. That’s the fastest route to burnout. Expecting to be the next overnight writing sensation might be the single greatest handicap to the writing career you so desperately seek. Prepare instead for a long slog. Commit yourself and your faculties to writerly habits and a lifestyle that can sustain you and your writing career.

Keep writing.  After I wrote my first novel in 2005, I was so proud of the fact that I’d completed a work of fiction, I used to carry it around with me wherever I went. After a few months, a pair of tired arms, and only one nibble from an agent, I realized that completing a novel was only the beginning of my writerly journey. I began writing flash fiction, short stories, and humorous essays while I began plotting my next novel. One of the writers I follow on Twitter who is also a literary agent never sold his first book—the one he was certain would sell. But sold plenty after that. So, keep writing. It’s never good to pin your hopes to one manuscript.

The Raven's Bride by Lenore Hart

Not to mention that editors and agents want writers who are good for more than one book. One of the Wilkes’ faculty members Lenore Hart sold her latest book The Raven’s Bride before it was written. Her publisher was banking on Lenore’s reputation for producing another publishable novel.

Keep submitting other work elsewhere.  As long as you continue writing, you’ll not only be honing your craft, have work to submit to publications and contests. For most of us, rejections far outweigh acceptances. You have to submit a critical level of work before the odds start turning in your favor. Once they do, every acceptance is validation to stay the course and builds confidence which you’ll need for more rejections and the inevitable slog.

Set reasonable goals.  In recent craft classes at Wilkes, writer Lori A. May shared a framework for goal setting for a rich, focused writing career. Her model encourages writers to think in bigger chunks beyond the next story, the next month, the next acceptance. Set goals that will stretch you. But don’t doom yourself to failure either by comparing yourself to someone who’s achieved instant publishing success or setting irrational goals, such as, “Will have literary representation in one month.” Perhaps you won’t. I just interviewed a writer on my blog Scrivengale who has published four books but doesn’t have an agent. Make your goal instead, “Will query five agents every month.”

Volunteer to judge a contest. Reading others writers’ work with whom you’re not competing head to head, within your cohort or in the Wilkes program in general, can be eye-opening. It’s a productive way to learn from others’ mistakes and successes while being a good literary citizen.

Look for outlets to read your work. If none exist, create one. One of the great privileges published authors enjoy is the chance to read their work in public venues. In the Wilkes program, students are given several opportunities to do that. Once you’re out of the program, it’s one of the things you miss most.

Public Readings Provide Exposure

At least I did because I love reading my work. Not seeing anything available in her hometown, one of the students in my cohort Ally Bishop went out and created an outlet for writers in Central Pennsylvania to read their work—published and unpublished—readings in which I’ve taken part. I know other Wilkes students are following Ally’s example, approaching galleries, book shops, and coffee shops about offering literary readings.

Get a writing group together. Writing is an insular life. If you don’t have an editor to give you pause to think about your narrative arc, to redirect your work, you would probably benefit from participating in a writing group. I said a writing group, not a shredding group. I’ve been in a shredding group—an utter waste of time and potentially devastating. If you can find a handful of other writers committed to careful reading and constructive criticism, it helps fill the gap left between working with a faculty mentor or a professional editor and writing in solitude.

Explore other avenues of sharing your work, like Scribd. I just learned about www.scribd.com, a social publishing site, where tens of millions of people share original writings and documents. One young woman who wrote a memoir but couldn’t obtain any interest from a conventional publisher, shared her memoir in segments on Scribd, obtaining three thousand readers per post. Few bloggers can attract that volume of readership. It may be worth your time investigating.

Write something for sheer enjoyment. I’m not sure where I heard about this online writing community at The Write Idea, an international group of poets and prose writers, but for three years now I have participated in a nine-round fiction contest with some of the most generous, talented writers I’ve ever met. It is sheer fun to receive the prompts, chat them up on the site, and see how everyone fares following each round of judging. This contest is something I do just for the love of writing and as such, the sustenance it offers me is invaluable.

Create something for sheer enjoyment. I read Jane Friedman’s blog There Are No Rules  regularly, which is how I learned about Scribd. In one of her columns, Jane also mentioned a site called About.me, which allows writers and other creatives the chance to create a free splash page, in lieu of a full-blown website. It was a great exercise trying to encapsulate my writing experience and persona into a splash page and lots of fun doing so.

Strive for a more balanced life. Shortly after I finished the Wilkes program, I needed a month to thaw out, having combined my studies with demanding full-time jobs. Then I looked around my very untidy house, threw myself into some cleaning projects, and planned an anniversary celebration. I also recommitted myself to regular church attendance and singing in the choir, which meant rehearsing one night a week away from my *sigh* laptop, which I was certain was attached to my fingers. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the level of life balance I enjoyed before I began writing creatively, but the writing schedule a master’s or MFA program demands wasn’t going to sustain my marriage or a life well-lived. I simply had to make some changes.

To outsiders, it may appear that I’ve ratcheted down my expectations for my publishing career, but that’s not an accurate assessment of my approach to my post-Wilkes writing. I’m merely steeling myself for a long slog but fully intending to appreciate any smaller success along the way.

Gale Martin

Gale Martin has been writing creatively since 2005. Recent accolades include first-place in short fiction from the 2009 Writers-Editors International and Scratch writing competitions. She also received her first Pushcart Prize nomination in 2009 for a short story published in Greensilk Journal. Her work has appeared online and in print in various publications such as The Christian Science Monitor, Sirens Magazine, Duck & Herring Company’s Pocket Field Guide, and The Giggle Water Review and in several anthologies. She hosts a writing blog called “Scrivengale.”

She hosts an opera blog, “Operatoonity,” and is the accredited Metropolitan Opera reviewer for Bachtrack, an online site featuring classical performance. She lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which serves as a rich source of inspiration for her writing.

An Agent’s Take on Query Letters

May 2, 2011

So you’ve written your book.  You’ve crossed every T, dotted every i, (you don’t own a computer, I’m assuming?), and you’ve arced every character.    Now what?  The manuscript over which you have carefully toiled for the last year or two is ready to find a home.  First stop?  The dreaded query letter.  Whether you are heading to the small presses, or looking for an agent, almost every outlet for your book will require a query letter.  For some, this comes easy.  For others, it can be a task as arduous as writing the book itself.

I recently spoke with Sarah LaPolla, an agent with Curtis Brown in New York City.  Sarah is a generous agent who shares her insights with the writing community through her blog, Big Glass Cases.  On her blog she also publishes excerpts of manuscripts from new authors, allowing them some much-needed exposure.

Sarah LaPolla of Curtis Brown, LTD

Sarah is more than an agent, she is also a writer.  She received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School.  This gives her a unique bond with her clients, making her an approachable champion of the craft.  In our interview I asked Sarah about her thoughts on the do’s and don’ts of querying, and what projects she’s interested in right now.

Q:  What are two or three simple things you look for in a successful query?

Sarah:  To me, a query is written successfully if it a) says what the book is about in a few short, descriptive sentences and b) follows my guidelines, which means via email and pasting the first five pages into the body of the email.

Q:  How many queries do you receive in any given week, and do you read each one personally?

I receive anywhere from 150 to 200 queries a week via email. I do read each one personally and respond to each one. I hate the “form rejection,” but it’s a necessary evil and I always feel that someone would rather have acknowledgment, even if it’s a rejection, than be left in the dark.

Q:  Does humor have a place in a query letter? (Please don’t say no, please don’t say no…)

Of course! There’s a difference between being funny and being kitschy, but being funny can be a huge asset for your query. You want to show personality, especially if the project itself is funny. One thing that writers sometimes do is write the query in the voice of their main character, which I think they think is funny or clever, but it’s always just awkward to read. So, use your humor well! Don’t force it, but don’t be afraid to be yourself either.

Q:  Do agents like to see that pieces of the manuscript were published elsewhere?

I don’t think it’s necessary to say that in a query letter, unless the publication is a major one.

Q:  What’s the number one mistake you see in query letters?

Not including a title. If you don’t have a title, make one up just for query purposes. I think a lot of writers have the mentality that a publisher will change it anyway, so they just don’t include one. Sometimes the publisher will change a title, but not every time. Plus, not only do I want to call it something, but I like to see the author’s own creativity.

 Q:  How much does the market (in terms of what’s hot in stores right now) play into what you are willing to represent?

The market is certainly a factor. For example, I say all the time (online) that I am tired of vampires and part of that is a personal preference, but another part of that is that the market is just over them for now. I emphasize “for now” because all trends come and go. If I have enough of an interest in a project, even if it’s not “hot” right now, that wouldn’t stop me from taking it on. A good story is a good story. There’s always room for that.

Q:  What brought you into the world of agenting?

Sarah: My desire to work in publishing brought me to New York, and from there I trolled craigslist and mediabistro for internships until I found one at a small literary agency. It wasn’t where I thought I’d be, but it was definitely what I knew I wanted to continue. A friend I used to intern with told me about a job opening in the foreign rights department at Curtis Brown, so I applied and a little over two years later, they let me start developing my own list.  

Q:  In terms of new clients, what are your interests right now?

I really, really want to see a scary horror novel (preferably with ghosts, but it can be more traditional too!) for YA and a Tana French-like mystery for either YA or adult. A well-written science fiction for YA would be great too – like a new Ender’s Game

Q:  Finally, what is one book that changed your life?

"It made me fall in love with YA," Sarah says of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Wow. Actually, I want to think this is a hard question, but it’s really not for me. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I read it when I was 14 or 15, which was the year it came out. It was about a 15 year old who felt alienated, which is pretty much every 15 year old. But I absolutely fell in love with the main character and his friends. I wanted to be in their group, even though they were somessed up.  

  I’ve tried to read it every year since then, so I’ve read it many, many times. Every time I find something else to connect with, even if it’s not the teen angst anymore. It’s just a brilliant book. It made me fall in love with YA, and it actually introduced me to YA. I doubt my love of books would be as great without it, so who knows if I’d even work in this field if it was never published.

If you’d like to query Sarah, please visit the Curtis Brown website for the proper guidelines.   I also encourage you to visit her blog, where you will not only read some insider tips, but will find new and exciting voices, as well.  I want to thank Sarah for stopping by The Write Life and answering my questions.

We Want to Do His Work Justice

April 20, 2011

This week’s post is from author and Wilkes Faculty Member, Kaylie Jones.  Kaylie, daughter of American writer James Jones, has recently embarked on a journey to release her father’s manuscript From Here to Eternity, uncensored.  The way the great writer intended it to be.  In this personal reflection, Kaylie talks about her father’s vision for the book, and his incredible insight into the human condition.

Jamie, James Jones, and Kaylie

This is the table in the house our parents rented in Skiathos, Greece, where our dad told us the story of THE ILIAD for the first time.  He explained, to our great surprise, that Achilles was gay and Patrocles was his lover, and that was why Achilles got so angry when Patrocles was killed. I wrote about this in my memoir, LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME. My brother and I thought he was making it up.

Our father was 24 years old in 1943, when he decided he wasn’t going to fight anymore. He was disgusted and enraged by the army’s red-tape bureaucracyby the fact that when the wounded soldiers came home from the war, they were treated badly and without respect. He went AWOL several times, until they threw him in the stockade. When asked by an army psychiatrist why he was acting this way, he said he’d killed an emaciated Japanese soldier in hand-to-hand combat on Guadalcanal and he never intended to kill anyone ever again. If that made him crazy, then so be it. The army finally discharged him as unfit for duty in 1944, and gave him a pension. When FROM HERE TO ETERNITY was published in 1951, the army took his pension away, because they decided that anyone who could write a book couldn’t be all that crazy.

We have the letters he wrote to his editor at Scribner, Burroughs Mitchell, fighting and arguing to keep every f-word and c-word; every reference to homosexual sex; every scene of masturbation, in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY – and more often than not, he was overruled. What he cared about was depicting the reality of life in the pre-war army. The US Postal Service would not ship the book if it contained “prurient” language or scenes. His response to his editor was: “The things we change in this book for propriety’s sake will in five years, or ten years, come in someone else’s book anyway, that may not be as good as this one, and then we will kick ourselves for not having done it, and we will not have been first with this … and we will wonder why we thought we couldn’t do it. Writing has to keep evolving into deeper honesty, like everything else, and you cannot stand on past precedent or theory, and still evolve … You know there is nothing salacious in this book as well as I do. therefore, whatever changes you want made along that line will be made for propriety, and propriety is a very inconstant thing.”

My brother and I have wanted to publish an uncensored, unexpurgated version of the original manuscript for a long time, and Open Road Media‘s enthusiasm and energy for the project matched ours. Over the last few days this new edition has gotten a good deal of attention in the press — in The New York Times; on BBC News; and Perez Hilton‘s site.

My father believed that there has been and will be homosexual sex in the armed forces since armies have existed, which means, pretty much since men figured out how to band together and club each other on the head. He didn’t think it was a big deal and wanted people to be open and honest about it. He also believed that who a person likes to sleep with is hardly the point when you are lying in a foxhole with the enemy advancing upon you; what matters is if the person will stay cool and focused under fire. He didn’t see much progress in this area in his life time.

There are also sections of a novel of his that never was published, a first attempt, that we are going to release to the world. It is called TO THE END OF THE WAR. His scenes of the home front in 1943 are unlike anything else I’ve ever read. The soldiers, recovering from their wounds in a Memphis army hospital, are steeling themselves to be shipped back out overseas. They all know they’re being sent to England to prepare for the invasion of Normandy. They also know they don’t stand a chance of surviving this time. Some of their wounds are very serious, but the army doesn’t give them a break. And they are changed, psychically broken in some fundamental way. They can’t sleep at night, and would rather be back in the jungle with their old outfits, but their old outfits don’t exist anymore. They’ve kept track of everyone, and everyone is KIA, MIA, or transferred. The civilian population likes its heroes, just as long the heroes don’t act out, or talk too much, or need too much attention. So the soldiers learn to put on fronts, to wear the mask the world wants them to wear. My dad understood so much about human nature at such an early age, I can hardly believe it. There is only one writer I can think of who got this and took it a step further – Tim O’Brien, in THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. In his book, it’s the narrator who puts on the fronts, who lies, who tricks us, the readers, all in order to show us that there is no way in hell we, as civilians, will ever understand war.

Beyond National Poetry Month

April 11, 2011

In celebration of National Poetry Month, we bring you a thoughtful reflection by Brian Fanelli, poet and Wilkes University Creative Writing Alumni.

Beyond National Poetry Month
by: Brian Fanelli

It’s that time of year again. The temperatures are climbing. The snow is melting. Birds are chirping. And it’s April—National Poetry Month. This year, National Poetry Month has the support of one of the biggest celebrities in the world—Oprah. The current issue of her magazine, O, is guest-edited by Maria Shriver and features a lengthy section on poetry. The fact that a magazine as mainstream as O has caught on to National Poetry Month has sparked more public discourse regarding the relevance of National Poetry Month and whether or not the month does more harm than good for poetry. But what few people seem to be asking is how to get poetry into communities and schools beyond the month of April.

Started by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month aims to “widen the attention of individuals and the media—to the art of poetry, to living poets, to our complex poetic heritage, and to poetry books and journals of wide aesthetic, range, and concern,” according to the organization’s website, www.poets.org.

Poetry, O! Style

O’s special poetry issue caught the attention of New York Times writer David Orr, who in his article, “Oprah’s Adventures in Poetry,” pointed out some of the positive and negatives of a magazine as mainstream as O trying to make poetry cool and accessible to the general public, using quotes about poetry from celebrities such as Bono, James Franco, Mike Tyson, and Ashton Kutcher to do so.

First, Orr cracks that only a “snob or idiot” would complain if Oprah’s magic wand is waved his or her way. He also confesses that he tried to get his latest book about poetry, Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, covered in the special poetry issue.  Second, he does point out that the magazine runs an intelligent book section under the direction of former Publishers Weekly editor Sara Nelson, who employs some excellent critics, including Francine Prose. Furthermore, the special poetry issue does have its strengths, including a profile on W.S. Merwin, thus exposing him to a readership that may have never heard of him otherwise, despite the fact he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 and 2009.

However, Orr also points out some of the absurdities of the magazine’s attempt to seriously cover poetry. He criticizes some of the questions the magazine asks poets, including “where do poems come from,” and the answers that make it sound like poetry is “God’s own electric Kool-Aid acid test.” In addition, the magazine’s spotlight on poetry mostly includes poets already well-known, including Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Maya Angelou.

Orr also admits, and this can also be said for the attempt of National Poetry Month to make poetry mainstream, that “the chasm between the audience for poetry and the audience for O is vast, and not even the mighty Oprah can build a bridge from empty air.” Some attempts to make poetry cool can seem silly, including a section that features “eight rising poets” posing for spring fashion shoots.

Orr’s commentary about bringing poetry to the mainstream during one month out of the year isn’t totally new. Charles Bernstein, one of the pioneers of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E POETRY, railed against National Poetry Month in his essay “Against Natural Poetry Month and Such.” He wrote, “Promoting poetry as if it were an ‘easy listening station’ just reinforces the idea that poetry is culturally irrelevant and has done a disservice not only to poetry deemed too controversial or difficult to promote, but also to the poetry it puts forward in this way. ‘Accessibility’ has become a kind of moral imperative based on the condescending notion that readers are intellectually challenged, and mustn’t be presented with anything but safe poetry.”

It’s obvious how Bernstein would feel about O magazine getting poets to pose for photo spreads in $500 outfits.

Still, though, despite some of his criticisms, Orr does credit Oprah for at least trying to bring poetry to a wider readership. He again praises the profile of Merwin and the book list the magazine provides for anyone first getting into poetry. But what Orr, O, and even Bernstein fail to address is how to bring poetry to a larger audience beyond the month of April.

Some suggestions about bringing poetry to a wider readership were made by Dana Gioia in his essay “Can Poetry Matter?,” and a lot of the suggestions still work well today, including his idea that mixing poetry with other creative mediums, such as music or art, is one way to bring in new readers. His suggestion for poets to share a poem or two by another writer at a public reading is also a good idea and a way to expose audience members to other poets.

In today’s social media age, it’s easier to bring poetry to others. Why not post a line or two from a poet as a Facebook status or a Twitter update? Poets and poetry readers can also use those networking sites to promote readings and books by other poets. All it takes is a quick click of the mouse.

In addition, anyone talented at poetry should consider spreading his or her knowledge and love of the craft by getting out into the community, doing readings, residencies, and workshops. Community art spaces often welcome such events. It doesn’t take a magazine as big as O to bring poetry to a wider readership, nor should it only happen one month out of the year.

Brian Fanelli

Brian Fanelli is the author of the chapbook Front Man, a series of narrative poems about a fictitious front man of a punk rock band. His poetry has recently been published by Young American Poets, Indigo Rising Magazine, Boston Literary Magazine, WritingRaw.com, Chiron Review, and Word Riot. He finished his M.F.A. in creative writing from Wilkes University in 2010, and he currently teaches writing and literature at Keystone College. Visit him at www.brianfanelli.com.