Thursday, October 6, 2016

Workshopping From a Distance, or How to Get Feedback From Switzerland

Kevin Higgins
"Likely the most read living poet in Ireland"
                                                   --The Stinging Fly Magazine

One of the teaching methods I appreciated most the years I attended the Creative Writing Program at The University of Illinois Champaign, was the workshop approach. A group of student writers sat around a big table, facing each other, rather than the instructor, and after given ample time to read each others stories or poems, talked about them. We mentioned what worked for us, what did not work, suggested ways to improve and generally helped each other polish our work and improve our chosen craft.

In the entry level classes, we were at first a bit reserved, announcing often, "That was a great poem" but as we advanced, so did our comments. "I appreciated your consistent use of consonance in the first and second stanza's but the imagery weakened near the end." Or my favorite comment, "What is at risk here in this piece?" This phrase was a direct challenge, probing into the intent of the poem and the effort made, if any, by it's author.

Most of the time our instructors kept mum until the end of the session,  not wanting to influence the others, or they handed their suggestions and impressions to us in writing at the end of the class.  One creative writing professor never gave his opinion either verbally or in writing, but instead asked probing questions. No, not like the alien probes folks talk about at the Piggly Wiggly, but the kind that make you reflect on the effort made, such as, "Did anyone else want to know more about Matilda's motivation to kill her pet buffalo?"

Last May, I was thrilled to graduate from UIUC, but after working all summer on new stories, revising the old, crafting new poems and tweaking the old, I realized I still needed and missed Feedback.

I corrected this situation by signing up for an online poetry class a few weeks ago, facilitated by Kevin Higgins of Galway, Ireland. I  met him briefly last summer while studying at NUIG  (National University Ireland Galway) and attended a poetry reading hosted by him and others of  the Over The Edge Literary Organization. I was impressed then, as I am now, by Galway City's strong support of artists, writers and poets and not just the local folks who meet that criteria, but the worldwide community of such.

So, for the next ten weeks I am back in workshop mode. I will read and comment on the poems written by people from all over the globe, while they will read and comment on my work.  Some of my "classmates" are from as far away as Germany, South Africa, Indonesia, Australia, Switzerland and England. I am genuinely excited about the feedback I will receive, not only because it is a geographically diverse group, but also because the members are broadly different in their poem writing experience levels. Some are just staring out,sharing written work for the first time. others, like myself, have a few published works under their belts, while several are well published both in literary magazines and complete collections of poetry.

I won't share any specific poems of course or chat about individual members of the group, but at the end of the ten weeks I'll post about the experience in general.

Has anyone else participated in an on-line writing workshop? What was your experience? Any specific course recommendations for others?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Writer Self Promotion: Career Requirement, a Necessary Evil, or Just Plain Crass?

Image result for self promotion

I struggle with this aspect of writing, self promotion. Sister Mary Gerard made it clear to me in first grade at Our Lady of Lourdes, Chicago, that I was not her only student when she made amazing announcements like, "Miss O'Shaughnessy you are not my only student." She had a gift for stating the blatantly obvious.

My mother often followed suit by reminding me, "You're not an only child Madame Butterfly." Her point was this; just because the heels in my socks were in absentia, it did not mean I would get new ones before any of my five siblings.  I'm not sure though what she meant by the Madame Butterfly reference, but I'm only 57, still plenty of time for more exploratory therapy.

The moral of my story. Thou shalt not shine the spotlight in ones own direction.

Funny thing was, I never took this advice to heart. My freshman year of high school was spent stunt-falling out of my chair. Always good for a laugh, not so good for my lumbar vertebra. In college (the first time, I attended college many times over the decades, can you spell S-L-O-W ?) I gleaned attention via major rule breaking: underage drinking, poor class attendance, vehicular joy riding, and all around trouble making.

I had no issue back then with drawing the wrong kind of attention. Now, I'm older, quasi-wiser and staring a new career. So what kind of attention should a writer seek? When should it be done and how often? Can a writer have a successful career without blowing their own horn i.e. is it possible for the quality of their work to speak for itself? Or, is it expected that a writer will work as hard or harder than their publisher and/or agent in sharing news of recent work? And where does Social Media 2016 fit into the scheme? Is Facebook the gold standard now that blogging has become commonplace or should similar effort be directed via  Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, Swarm, Flickr, Meerkat etc, etc.?

The multitude of Social Media which is evolving daily, reminds me of the perfume industry of the 80's when "layering" was all the rage. It was deemed inadequate to buy only the perfume, as the marketing moguls pressured consumers to also purchase the same scent in cologne, after bath spritzer, powder, solid perfume, shampoo and lotion. Many women walked about in hugely toxic clouds of Channel Number 5 and Jean Nate rendering a passer-by nearly senseless. God help the relative who had to endure a close hug from Aunt Magnolia wrapped up tight in a stifling cloud of Tabu.

It was all, too much.

So when is Social Media too much when all you desire is to promote your recently published novel, your award winning fiction, your long-listed poem about dead raccoons in the road? I have absolutely no idea. I am still new to this writerly world and slogging my way through, one muddy step at a time.

 The dilemma of self promotion hit me personally this past month when I was notified my poem, "Waiting for the Coroner," was chosen for the Dermot Healy Poetry Award at the Five Glens Festival in Sligo, Irealnd.  I was very surprised as I am an emerging poet (note, I did not say young poet) with no other published poems. I was also thrilled, humbled, excited, and I'll say it again, thrilled. But, should I be advertising the fact?

Too late. I just did.

These are the pros of self promotion as I see it.
     1. Readers are made aware of your existence.

These are the cons of self promotion as I see them.
     1. Readers tire of your existence.

So what is an up and coming poet slash essayist slash short story writer to do? The irony of my asking about the value of self promotion while blogging about the issue (bloggers are the leaders of self-promoters) does not escape my beagle eye. I've always preferred dogs over birds.

Tell me what you think, to promote or not to promote, and to what degree. Specifically, which venues have worked for you and why and which do you find over the top and why?

While you are contemplating these issues please take a moment to share this post with everyone on earth you might know. Thanks a million.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Big Pile of Rejections and One Glimmer of Hope.

Shame on me. Too busy living to post on my writers blog, but if it makes you feel any better, I've been very busy on my other blog, The Poor Farm. Which begs the question, Are Bloggers, Writers?

Food for thought for another day. Todays post is an update on all the submission work I did in May, June and early July, as I promised you.  I believe  rejection sharing is as important as self promotion when things go well. It always helps me to know that others are going through the same hard work as I am.

During that three time month time I submitted work to thirty-two publications.Some were contest submission, others just regular submissions for magazine publications. Most were short stories, but there were also three creative non-fiction pieces and a few poetry submissions. In that same amount of time I've received five rejections, and one acceptance which I'll tell you about in a minute.

That leaves twenty-six pieces out there just floating around, in someones email, on their slush pile or maybe in a brief case being shuttled about a big city.  Some of these publications state clearly, "Don't call us we'll call you," while others promise to get back to you within three months. One sent me an email telling me they had too many submissions and mine wasn't even going to be read, while another simply placed a piece of paper in an envelope. At least it was obvious by the scrappettes irregular edges, it was cut by real human hands. I'm all for the personal touch.

None of them made fun of my work or called me names. I find that encouraging.

This morning though, I was gifted a glimmer of hope. I was notified that one of my poems, While the Coroner Waits,  has been shortlisted (in the top ten out of over 500 world-wide entries) in the Dermot Healy Poetry Contest. I've also been invited to the awards ceremony on August 27, where the winner will be announced at The Five Glens Festival in Manorhamilton on the North West Coast of Ireland.

Sadly, there is no way financially I can attend the ceremony unless any of you out there in blogland have an extra pair of tickets to Manorhamilton, which you won't be using. I can trade you a boat load of organic sausage and steaks for them. I'll even throw in several bars (100?) of homemade soap. Your choice of color.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What Condition My Revision is In

This is how I used to do it.

Write a story from beginning to end. Check it for gross grammar gufaws and spelling splunk, then submit to my instructor. After my story or poem or essay was critiqued in a workshop setting where everyone reads your work and makes comments, I would go back to my desk and edit, a few things. Sometimes I considered my classmates comments, but more often I took the lazy route and corrected only the problems I thought were issues.

My professors at UIUC told us the revisions should be "significant," yet how does one evaluate "significant"? I rationalized that my "significant" had to be significant enough. I had other classes you know, a husband, children, grandchildren, pigs that had to be fed for God's sake, thus my  second draft was often completed in less than "significant" ways. I submitted it on time and I received credit for following the assignment, but what did I gain?


I knew my work could be better. I knew I took the easy way out. I knew I had shorted myself.

So, with two years of classes behind me which included three poetry and four creative writing classes plus several other classes which required nonfiction essays,  I am not surprisingly, mildly appalled at some of my work. Granted a couple of pieces were brilliant, (the moon was high and bright those nights) but most were not my best work.

Now though, is my chance for serious revisions and I am delighted to tell you, I'm having a blast doing it. I saved the majority of my classmates comments and you know what? Some of those young folk were brilliant! Their comments were right on. Using phrases like, "this sounds forced" and "would a mother really say this?!" have made me laugh out loud. Much of my early work was forced and cliched and deserved the red pen, although they usually used black and once green.  They said or wrote positive things too, but it was the brave ones, the ones who called me out by pronouncing, "this makes no sense at all," who push me forward now.

Below is one of my stories and the section in italics was the memory a son had of his father. One of my classmates comments is on the left. he wrote, "I understand the sentiment here, but it feels too perfect, like a sepia toned photograph."

Sepia toned photograph. My classmate nailed it, the scene was entirely too sappy and at this point in my story, the father had not earned his sons fond memories of him. I ended up taking out the scene entirely and the story gained its own validity.

So, how do I revise now? I read a piece of my work, twice. The first time I just read, but the second time, I read it out loud. Our eyes can fool us into thinking we've written something well, but when read aloud, the bumpy parts are heard, like nails on a chalkboard. If I have them, I read through the comments made by others, but only once. I look for trends in the comments.Then, I set drafts, comments, everything,  out of reach, and  I rewrite the piece from scratch. This was a technique suggested by Professor John Rubins at UIUC. He said, "What is good will reappear, and what is bad will fall away."

Often my final draft is very different from my first draft, a result I have come to appreciate.

Try revising some of your work this way, and let me know your thoughts. Or,take a moment and tell me your revision process and why it works for you.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Mentor Wanted: No Benefits, No Salary, Lots of Gratitude.

I recently attended Publishers Row Literary Fest in Chicago, held every June, and although I always enjoyed it the other years I went, this time I came away feeling nauseous. My head was spinning Exorcist style with questions.

How did all these writers get published?

How many are still writing today?

Is their work any good?

Who decides?

The immensity of this literary world, filled with writers, agents, editors, publishers and cut rate book dealers is absolutely overwhelming to this emerging writer, Where do I begin? Pick one genre or expand into several? Focus on small local magazines or shoot for the stars? Submit only to publications that pay or be damn happy to have my name in print on a Farmers Market Brochure in exchange for free Kelp?

In nursing, when a new grad was hired she/he was assigned  a mentor, usually an older nurse with several years experience under her scrubs and a special relationship with the dietary crew so that she got the fresh cake made today and not the runny pudding made two day prior. While in school, for example, you learned which meds were best for pain control in the terminally ill, but this older, wiser,  nurse would teach you how to get Dr. I. M. Arrogant to give you the order for that narcotic when you wanted it, when the patient needed it,  rather than on his next rounds.  She guided you from air-headed theory into nuts and bolts practicum. She taught you the tricks for survival.

But I am without such a wizened leader in this new field I've chosen. While in school this last go round, sitting in classes taught by some amazing well-published and well-respected professors, I was too caught up in deadlines and MLA formatting to ask about aftercare.

So, I've developed a plan. I like plans and lists and tables. They serve as great procrastination tools, for while I am filling in grafts and putting my to-do list in alphabetical order,  I can avoid the obvious task that must be taken, to reach out and contact someone. Anyone.

I will start with my most recent professors at The University Of Illinois and extend my call for help to a couple more I met at National University Ireland Galway. I'll go from there and let you know how it evolves. If you have ideas on how to break down some of these barriers for new writers,  how to meet more people in the know,  please throw me a bone. If you are vegetarian,  just leave a comment.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Making the Contest Rounds

Generally speaking, the odds of winning a contest are not in my favor, but I've always liked the long shot. Like Hellen Keller once said, "“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

Who knew better than she about challenges? In comparison, certainly not me. (I?) Like I keep saying, creative writing major, not an English major. 

Comparing the entering of fiction/poetry/essay contests to the life of Helen Keller I'll admit, is cheeky. But, there all similarities. I am blind about these contest things,  suspicious of their authenticity, fearful of hidden agendas  and mostly concerned that I will be force fed a plate of cold eggs.  As there are thousands of journals to consider for submission of your work, there are also just as many contests which promise big bucks, instant fame, dream workshop and/or reading events, year long all-expense-paid residencies or at least, free copies of the journal that printed your entry.

How does an emerging writer sort through them? Which are valid and which are just a ruse for magazine subscription? Do I waste my time, their time, the worlds time or do I put all my money allocated into contest submission towards the lottery instead?

My primary source of contest availability is in each issue of Poets & Writers. They do all the hard work of vetting each contest and dedicate a portion of each issue to these competitions.When my issue arrives I pull out my black permanent marker, for drama, and mark off those that do not apply to me. Some limit entries to specific ages, geographical locations and specific themes. Some apply only to poetry collections or first novels. After a 30 minute read I've narrowed down my choices.

Entry fees vary. Usually the larger the prize the higher the entry fee, but not always. Most range between $10-$20 per submission. Some take Paypal, some credit cards and oddly enough, some will even take cash. Talk about a gamble! Most take online submissions but a few still want only hard copy. Some will notify you if you lose and others you will never ever hear from, unless of course you win. Because my first published poem was submitted to the IYEATS Poetry Contest, I also spend time checking out the contests overseas. If you are specifically interested in the contests offered in Ireland, England, Wales must check out the blog of Emerging Writer.  She does so much of the footwork for all of us other emerging writers and I am so grateful to her-whoever she is-for that!

  One last piece of advice I'll leave with you is a helpful article I found titled   How Not To Win a Poetry Contest. It was penned by Miriam Sagen who has read thousands of contest entries and won a few contests herself, over the years. Written as a guest post in 2011 for The Writers Digest Website, her article stresses the basics like FOLLOW DIRECTIONS when you are submitting, and READ THE WORK OF OTHER POETS, lots of them. Her advice is seriously lighthearted and so worth the few minutes it takes to read. 

Now, enter some contests. Let us all know how you do and as my Italian teacher would say before each exam, "In bocca al lupo!" which means literally, in the mouth of the wolf, and figuratively, Good Luck!


In May and June I entered fourteen contests and submitted seventeen regular submissions. I did not just send the same story out to all of them, but hand selected old stories and revised them or submitted new stories all together. Of those thirty one total submissions, I have recieved four rejections.Most state it takes two-three months before they will respond and about one forth of them said they don't respond at all if they cannot use your material. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Submit, Submit, Submit, and Repeat.

For the last month since graduation, I have been working my way through the submission maze, reading articles, checking other blogs, and learning more than my brain can retain. My goal? Submit one short story, poem or creative nonfiction piece every day for thirty days, then regroup and evaluate.

How am I doing so far? Not too shabby. I have submitted 23 items in 28 days. If I stay AIS* for at least four hours the next two days, I might make my goal. Which, by the way, is not a goal of multiple acceptances, but rather a learning goal. The more I submit, the more I will be rejected (this is not a sympathy ploy, this is writer reality) the more I am rejected, the more I will revise,the more I revise, the more I will write, The more I write, the more I will improve, the more I improve, the more I will submit and then, one day...I'll be published.

At this point I have enough material from my years at UIUC to reach this initial goal, but that may or may not prove beneficial. Much of my early material is pure crap as far as technique is concerned, but all had revision possibilities. The ideas were good, the execution, not so much. The work completed in my last semester however, is polished  and of higher quality, yet still has room for improvement. And in the midst of sorting through the older stuff and writing newer stories, I am also reading the work of many talented writers in multiple literary journals. This will give me a solid sense of what they in particular like to publish. It's not so much that I am molding my material to fit a particular journal but rather, finding the journal that fits my material's mold, which is in flux of course.

All of which begs the question, which came first? The chicken, the egg, or the literary journal editor who plans to scramble your eggs and  burn your chicken to a crisp? This is not a editorial slam.  All good chefs have to suffer a few burns.

Selecting the journals to receive my submissions has been a daunting task but, I found a great site by Clifford Garstang which decreased some of my newbie learning curve pain. He provides a detailed listing/ranking of hundreds of literary magazines (fiction, poetry and nonfiction)  complete with links for each. Be sure to read the section on how he does his rankings. I found his website so helpful that I donated to his efforts. He saved me weeks of internet searching.

 I also created a simple flow sheet, I am devoid of excel skills, where I can track the name of the journal, the type of submission, the title of the work sent, dates and other info I want in one place such as: editor names, addresses and specific journal "quirks." One for example, mentioned they never take simultaneous submissions, and if they even suspect you've mass mailed your piece to other journals, they will "destroy" your manuscript. Their small print probably reads, "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid."

Oddly enough, I'm working on a special short story for this journal alone. I appreciate quirkiness.

If you have a process for tracking submissions, selecting journals worthy of your work, and work worthy of particular journals, I'd love to hear from you.

* Ass in Seat