20 Minutes of Inspiration

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Karen Baker

New writer Karen Baker recently stumbled upon the Write Despite challenge. Wrestling with a short story she needed to get down on paper, Karen says 20 minutes a day have made all the difference.

Please welcome Karen Baker to Write Despite.

 

I found Write Despite through a very dear friend of mine, who gave me the delightful news that her daughter-in-law, Karen Guzman, was having her first novel published. When I was Googling around one day, I decided to look Karen up and I discovered the wonderful treasure tool, Write Despite. It was the perfect nudge for me because it featured the 20-minute challenge right there in the first line on the front page of the website.

I have to say that Write Despite has come along at just the right time for me. I have had a story going on in my mind for some time. It is with me all the time like an invisible friend. One day I finally started to write it down. I thought if I could get it out of me, then my mind would have some space to be calm, and start a new story. I always feel like I am trying to help this character, as if she is a real person. The story is about Angie, a middle-aged married woman who is very unhappy and has a few health issues that she is consumed with—so much so that they are interfering with all of her relationships. They aren’t even life threatening, but she relies heavily on her pain medication and has forgotten the joy of living.

When a “health nut” outsider arrives one day, a new spirit of fun begins as one very interesting fact about who she is and why she is there is revealed.

The 20-minute-a-day challenge has really made a huge difference in my dedication to writing, because it keeps it simple and fun.  The time is perfect because with the busy schedules that everyone seems to have, 20 minutes of writing is manageable and feels like a huge accomplishment. Why, after 20 minutes, it leaves me wanting to write a little more. It’s similar to the feeling of when you’re reading a really good book, and keep telling yourself you’re going to read just one more chapter before returning to the dishes.

Thanks to Karen and Cathy for making writing fun and for demonstrating the possibility that dreams can come true.

 

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Stubborn Streak

There is something to be said for that stubborn streak your parents always complained about. “Muleheaded” was, as I recall, my parents’ fave term. That trait has gotten me into more than a few fights and through plenty of standoffs with my kids, and into a fair amount of trouble.stubborn It’s also gotten me published a few times. Here’s the thing with stubbornness: You can fall back on it when you really, truly believe you’ve got a winner. I wrote a story I loved way back in 1993. Yes, I’m old, okay? Let’s move on. In its early days, it went through workshops, incarnations, edits, and reviews by trusted friends. It tentatively made its way into the world and got rejected plenty. Then it sat in a drawer for about a decade and a half until I rediscovered it one day and decided it was worth another try. Back to editing and begging friends to read it. And cutting! This story is still nearly 6,500 words, but it used to be a whopping 8,000, until a writer friend gently suggested “You have got to CUT some of this bullshit.” So I did. In the last four years I’ve sent it out pretty regularly to more than 50 different magazines and journals. This month…drumroll here… It worked! logoI’m a finalist in New Rives Press’s American Fiction series! (Yes, that’s my big ol’ face right there at the top—so embarrassing.) All the finalists get published in the latest issue, along with three top prize winners judged by…drumroll again… Elizabeth Strout. Elizabeth Strout! Pulitzer Prize winner! Olive Kitteridge creator! Reading MY story! I’m a wee bit excited about this one if you can’t tell. So my point is, stubbornness. And a real willingness to listen to what others have to say and make the hard changes you have to make. The American Fiction prize winners will be announced by late September. And I was thrilled to see the publication date is October…a mere three months away! Then I realized it is actually October…2015. Ah well. After 21 years, what’s one more? Write well everyone―keep submitting! ―Cathy

Summer Daze

summerHi all,

Sorry for the lateness in posting.Remember when summers used to mean long, lazy days with nothing to do but read, run, play, hang by the pool?

Yeah, we barely recall that either. And even if we did, it’s a far cry from what we’re doing now, right? Here at Write Despite, we’ve been a wee bit busy. Karen is working on securing final changes and cover art (fun!) for her novel, which comes out this fall. I’m submitting, submitting the same story again and again and drumming up a very slow start to a new short story. Oh, and using every ounce of my energy to ignore my novel rewrite number 580,026. Hopefully we’ll have more on both of those later.

In other news, we’d like to announce the winner of the Hannah Barnaby book! Writingfamily is the winner of Wonder Show and will be receiving her copy shortly. Thanks to everyone who chimed in with comments.typewriter outdoors

Hope you’ve all been able to write up a storm this summer despite the kids being home, the sun calling you outdoors and vacations giving you a well-deserved break from the routine. If you’re struggling to fit writing into your days, remember our mantra here at WD:

It’s only 20 minutes!

Yeah, we know. But still, write well everyone, and enjoy your summer!

–Cathy

Author Mark Lowery: A Novel is a Leap of Faith

Novelist Mark Lowery, a man of talent and faith, shares his journey to publication with us today. Mark’s debut novel, He Promisd Nvr 2 Leav Me, was published by Lion’s Roar Press, a new Ohio-based independent press. Please check it out and pick up copy.

Born in the Bronx, New York, Mark is an award-winning journalist. He’s reported and edited for national magazines and major newspapers, including Newsday, the Detroit Free Press, and The Plain Dealer. He lives near Cleveland, Ohio.

He PromisD Nvr 2 LeaV Me tells the story of Taran Johnson, a writer whose serene lifestyle is derailed when he tries to honor a pledge made years earlier. His past and present collide, taking him back to a town he’d tried to forget, reintroducing him to a people and a culture he no longer recognizes. Can his growing faith save him?

Please welcome Mark to Write Despite.

cover_pdfTell us about your “breakthrough” publication—that first publication that felt really significant to you.
Although not my first publication, March 2014’s release of He Promisd Nvr 2 Leav Me (Lion’s Roar Press) is the one that has felt most significant. My byline and work have appeared in many newspapers and magazines, but that always seemed more work than pleasure; a man has to eat. With the release of my debut novel, I’ve experienced a control over the writing that, up until now, had largely escaped me. It definitely is a catch-22: You decide the beginning, the middle, and the end, what’s important, and how it needs to be expressed. But many others have to believe in the vision to make the project a reality. A novel is a leap of faith that readers will follow you to the end.

How long had you been writing before you published a piece?

I’d been writing journalism pieces for about eight years before I had a first-person piece published in the Sunday magazine of Newsday. That was well received and led to some similar assignments. That gave me the confidence to begin sharing my short stories. The fiction work provided a voice that I craved. Taking nothing away from journalism, the fiction was more artistic and liberating for me.

What was your reaction upon learning your piece was accepted? Disbelief? Joy?

My first reaction was fear when Newsday gave the go-ahead for the first-person piece. I wasn’t sure what would be enough information and what would be too much. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to put myself out there like that, share my innermost feelings. It’s impossible to present your work without being vulnerable, inviting criticism. The great thing about fiction is that parts of you can be displayed in many characters. In a first-person piece, there is nowhere to hide.

How do you go about trying to place your work? How do you choose markets?

My process is the opposite of what it should be. I create the work and then look for a landing spot. I keep telling myself that a better way would be finding specific needs, then tailoring projects to fit those needs. But even if I did it the more logical way, placing the work would still require making the contacts that you need to make to get the work read. And read in a timely fashion. If only it were as simple as forwarding the work to an editor!

Any advice for writers still working for their “breakthroughs?”

The dedication in my novel reads: “To all who try and try again.” Years ago, I was part of a reading and writing group. I had those folks in mind when I came up with the dedication. We would meet, usually once every two weeks or so, and we’d critique each other’s work and share resources. This was useful for many reasons. First, it’s always good to take advantage of different sets or eyes and ears. Secondly, there was so much valuable information that we shared, ranging from agent information to outlets for our writing. We worked in various fields, but we all shared a love for writing. The group also provided the encouragement I needed to force myself to make time for writing because I knew at each meeting someone would ask: “What have you worked on since we last met?” It wasn’t so much about any specific breakthrough. Rather, it was about what are you doing to create a breakthrough?

mark lowery headshot

 

Agent Revisited

I recently sat in on a panel with Jeff Kleinman—again. He’s the agent from Folio Literary Management I wrote about last year. If you missed that post, here it is. He gives lots of great information for submitting novels to agents, especially literary fiction, and had a few new insights this year. But even what I got from the panel last year bears repeating.

 

mistakesOn Biggest Mistakes

Kleinman has four must-haves for writers who submit to his agency:

1) Premise – You MUST have a logline, even if you don’t use it in your submissions. You have to know it in your head because it will help you hone in on your book. Too many good writers don’t have a real sense of what their book is about. A logline, as he explains it, is much like the statement you see on a movie poster. For Splash it was: “Boy meets girl. She’s a fish.”

2) Characters – You get rejected mainly because agents DON’T FALL IN LOVE with anyone in your book. That means you didn’t do a good enough job of bringing your characters to life. Go deeper! Interview your character with crazy questions and keep asking him or her why.

3) Momentum – Make sure words serve to turn pages. Understand what your reader wants to know next.

4) VOICE. This can’t be stressed enough. In commercial fiction it’s what’s most important and it’s a huge problem for many writers. Ask yourself how you can focus and drill down to get something that’s distinctive. Establish voice in the first three to four sentences. There has to be an authority in the voice that the reader buys into.

Also, there’s this. People read for three things: Character, voice and plot. Kleinman suggested reading The Goldfinch as a great current example of all three. The painting in this book, he says, is the plot device that carries the story forward.

 

On Rejection Lettersrejection cartoon

If you’re getting:

All form rejections—Then your premise needs work. It doesn’t sound at all interesting.

“Minimal” rejections, as in “Hey, it’s not right for me”—Then your writing is stronger but you still don’t have a great premise.

Personalized rejections—Then clearly something is starting to work. They want to engage with you more. Now you’re likely done with your query letter—it’s probably good enough.

Requests for the first 50 pages—This is the basic minimal amount that gauges their interest in you and it means you have a strong premise. They’re willing to go further.

Requests for the full manuscript and they still reject it—Then it’s always, always CHARACTER. You didn’t engage the agent enough with your characters, especially the main one.

 

On Queries

query envelopeYour query letter should state:

– Why you’re writing to that particular agent.

– Who you are, and how you met the agent, if you did.

– Your contact info.

– What your book’s about—one to two sentences only. Your synopsis will provide the rest.

And hey, get this: He says not to sweat the synopsis too much: “We usually only ask for a synopsis to ensure you’ve written the whole thing.” We suspected as much, didn’t we?

 

Notable QuotesQuotation-Mark

 

“All agents can do is point out that you’re bleeding. We don’t necessarily know where you’re bleeding from. You have to know how to fix it.”

“Agents want to help you improve your book, but only when you’ve taken it as far as you can. Make sure it’s as ready as you can make it.”

 

Key Recommendation

Paperlet, an online writer community, not only allows readers to comment on and edit each other’s work, but actually helps you “build” your story by walking you through the basic structural steps. Check it out at www.paperlet.com.

Hope you find this stuff as useful as I did, everyone. Write well!

–Cathy

 

 

Rejections Revisited

C. Michael Curtis, a senior editor and longtime revered fiction editor at the Atlantic Monthly, published an essay called “Publishers and Publishing,” in On Writing Short Stories, a collection of essays, edited by Tom Bailey. It’s a pretty enlightening, amusing reflection on the fiction submissions he receives. Our fave part:

“Much of the writing that pours onto the desks of literary editors at both the serious-minded but commercial general magazines and the smallest, most fiercely independent quarterlies is inept, undeveloped, amateurish, crazed, obscene, unintelligible, or some combination of the above.”

Kinda makes you feel better about the stuff you submit, right?Syliva-Plath-on-Rejection

At least, that’s what we thought. I mean, we’ve received rejection letters with comments like “uninteresting” and “meandering” and “seems to have no larger point.”

But “crazed?” “Obscene?” Just what the hell are people doing out there?

Here are some other amusing rejections we ran across:

“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” (Written about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22—believed to have been given this title because it was the 22nd publisher, Simon and Schuster, who agreed to take it on.)

“The American public is not interested in China.” (Seriously, what could be interesting about Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth?)

“This will set publishing back 25 years.” (Wonder why? Anyone read Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park?)

“Good God, I can’t publish this.” (Said about William Faulkner’s Sanctuary.)

“An absurd story as romance, melodrama or record of New York high life.” (Gasp! Blasphemy uttered about F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.)

“Stick to teaching.” (Louisa May Alcott was urged to keep her day job after submitting Little Women.)

“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” (We get your point. But Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was still a masterpiece.)

“An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” (Maybe depressing and gory and violent, but William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was dull?)

“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” (Wonder what this visionary thinks of The Hunger Games. He rejected Carrie, by Stephen King)

“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.” (Give it up, Garth Stein. Even George Orwell’s Animal Farm can’t cut it.)

This is an awesome essay of Curtis’s by the way, and you can check it out here:

http://www.public.iastate.edu/~yikes/mag_editors_and_fiction.html

If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, let us recap a bit. He gives a great rundown of what editors are, and aren’t, looking for in submissions, including cover letters. He says only two things included in your letter might cause an editor to be more interested in your story than the average one:

  1. Citations of stories published elsewhere, particularly in periodicals of comparable size and reputation; and
  2. Mention of the fact that you’ve been enrolled in a reputable MFA program (or residence at Bread Loaf or Sewanee, etc.).

Other take-aways? Same as you’ve always heard:

  • Don’t recap your story—let it speak for itself.
  • Don’t talk about other magazines that have rejected it already.
  • Don’t single space.
  • Don’t send anything with typos or grammatical errors.
  • Don’t try to dazzle them with your wit or sound hostile or desperate.

In short, just make your writing as fab as possible, keep your cover letter simple and direct, and send it out.

Everywhere.submit button

Spray and pray, people. Spray and pray.

The Long and Short of It

Taking a break from the book for a while because … well, because I’m stuck. Discouraged. Not feeling it . But you don’t want to hear my problems. Neither does Karen. She told me to shut up and quit whining and go write a short story. Okay, she was much nicer than that, but I got the message.

A short story!!??

CalvinandHobbesStory03-e1331337028749

This may seem like no big deal to you, but I haven’t written a story in years. How sad is that? I’ve been so caught up in the novel thing that the idea of shorter fiction hasn’t even been on my radar. If you want to switch gears and get a new outlook and rev up the energy again, though, I guess you really should consider going back to the basics.

I plan to start by reading stories, of course. I used to read short fiction all the time. Best American Short Stories is always on my Christmas list (thank you in-laws for making sure this is under the tree each year), but I confess I haven’t read a whole one in years. I’ll look through them now, though, since I’m one of those people who pulls inspiration from others (okay steals, if you like—I’m not too proud to admit it).

Best American Cover

Any other suggestions for where to find great stories? Do you read literary journals? The New Yorker? Alice Munro anthologies?

Anyone want to write along with me?

When we’re done, here’s a GREAT listing of pubs to submit to:

http://www.newpages.com/literary-magazines/complete.htm

So switch it up, hunker down, carry on, write it short–or long. Whatever moves you. As always, just write.

Oh, and I saw an amazing quote the other day. I’m not much for such things, but this one stuck with me:

“Imagine what you would do if you knew you could not fail.”

I know, right?

—Cathy

Support Great Fiction and New Writers

Hi All,

Just a quick note to say that Fiction Attic Press is forming a partnership that will allow the press to expand and offer publishing opportunities to more writers. We just need 38 more subscribers to come on board in the next 12 days.

I’m proud to say that Fiction Attic is publishing my novel, Homing Instincts, in the fall. The publisher, Michelle Richmond, is wonderful, a true supporter of  literary fiction and those of us struggling to write it.

Please join Michelle and me in supporting Fiction Attic Press. Join our community. We’d love to have you!

http://www.beaconreader.com/projects/fiction-of-wit-and-substance

–Karen

Author Vanessa Hua’s breakthrough publication

Most writers remember their first publication: the magical acceptance letter (usually after a raft of rejections,) reading the galleys, seeing the finished thing alive in the world. We thought it would be fun to launch an occasional series featuring authors talking about their breakthroughs. Sometimes the story behind the story is the best part.

Please join us in welcoming Vanessa Hua to Write Despite.

Vanessa is a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing. An award-winning writer and journalist, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, ZYZZVA, Crab Orchard Review, New York Times, New Yorker, Salon, and elsewhere. A former staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, she has reported from China, South Korea, and Panama.  She blogs at threeunderone.blogspot.com and can be found at www.vanessahua.com

vanessa hua

Late in 2005, I won the Cream City Review fiction contest – my first short story in print.  When I received the e-mail, I stood up in the newsroom and shouted with joy and excitement, struck by the heady, dangerous feeling of affirmation.  I’d been judged worthy!   By then, I’d also reported from China, launched an award-winning campaign finance investigation, and had married.  When I won the contest, it felt all parts of my life were coming together – professionally, personally, and creatively.

I’d been writing fiction since I was a child, won writing contests in high school, and had studied creative writing at Stanford University. After graduation, I focused on my journalism career.  In my spare time, I wrote scenes, sketches, starts of stories that went nowhere.  When I re-read pieces I’d written in college, I felt conflicted: proud that the stories had merit, yet it felt like a stranger had penned them.  I didn’t remember how to write a story.

Eventually, I signed up for a fiction workshop where I produced the story that won the Cream City Review contest.  I’d learned about the journal after reading the publishing bio of another student in the class whose work I admired.  That success helped keep me going as I started writing more fiction, submitting to journals, taking workshops, joining writer’s groups, and going to writing conferences.  Of course, if you spend too much time chasing validation, you might succumb to the despair of rejection – and I’ve been rejected many times since then.  And you have to spend more hours writing than talking about writing.

In 2007, I decided I wanted to learn how to write a novel, and I headed to UC Riverside, where I earned my MFA.  Five years later, I had the pleasure of being asked to judge the Cream City Review fiction contest.  I hope that the prize helped encourage the winner in her career, too.

In deciding where to submit, I continue sending to places that publish writing I admire.  I also seek out paying journals, those with interesting business models, such as DailyLit, and strongly promote the work of their authors, such as At Length.  I also enter contests, such as The Atlantic’s student fiction prize, which I won in 2008.  Your chances might be slim, but if you don’t enter, you have no chance at all.

To buy Vanessa’s stories, go to

https://dailylit.com/book/262-line-please or

http://www.amazon.com/Deal-short-story-Atlantic-Archives-ebook/dp/B008873WK2/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1391965062&sr=1-2

Q&A with Author and Literary Journal Editor Scott Garson

 
Scott GarsonScott Garson is the author of IS THAT YOU, JOHN WAYNE?—a collection of stories—and AMERICAN GYMNOPEDIES, a book of microfictions. His fiction has won awards from Playboy, The Mary Roberts Rinehart Foundation and Dzanc Books, and he has work in or coming from
Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, Hobart, Conjunctions, New York Tyrant and others. He edits the Pushcart-Prize-winning journal of very short fiction, Wigleaf.

What was your first real publication and how did it come about?

If I tell you that, how can I keep it buried?

Kidding.

My first publication was back in the ’90s—in the ‘Before’ era, as I see it now. Before the internet. Before indie mags had more than local reach. Then, as now, we were all sending our stuff to the Paris Review and receiving form slips in return. If we wanted a more realistic chance, we had to get creative. I looked through the addresses in the back of the Best American Short Stories and saw an Illinois journal (now defunct) called Black Dirt. They accepted and published a story of mine called “Aloha.” It was okay. My Mom liked it, I think.

You’ve just published your second book, Is That You, John Wayne?, another amazing collection of short stories. What makes you gravitate to short fiction? Do you ever plan to write longer-—say, a novel?
John Wayne book

Well, I do! There are a couple of novel manuscripts in my past… Does that sound depressing? Novels are like short stories, I think: it takes a while to learn how to do it. But while apprentice short stories are easily enough forgotten, novels take longer. There’s such an investment. It’s like you’re not allowed to let them go.

I’ve let those manuscripts go. Goodbye to you, unpublished novels. Good luck!

As to the attraction of short fiction, that’s easy: I loved reading before I discovered short fiction, but I probably wouldn’t ever have thought to become a writer if it weren’t for reading short fiction. That’s to say, fiction seduced me via the short story. It’s where I first saw how sense, sentence and story could come together as a kind of magic. I wanted to do that, to make that kind of thing.

How long has Wigleaf existed? 

We just had our sixth birthday. Birthday #5 was fun because my wife, Becky, made Wigleaf a birthday cake. A real birthday cake for a virtual magazine. My kids approved because the magazine, unlike them, could not bring a mouth to the party.

Again, this is a journal dedicated to short-short fiction. Why and how did you create it and what were you trying to do differently from other literary journals?

I suppose I was getting a little dejected as a writer when I got the idea for Wigleaf. That might be too strong a word, but my excitement was for sure not at a high. This was in 2007, I guess. I was publishing stories fairly regularly, which should have been spiriting, but there wasn’t a lot of response, and if I got a contributor’s copy and didn’t particulary enjoy some of the other fiction, I was liable to feel that the whole process was kind of useless.

Around this time I sent out a short-short for the first time, a 500-word story called “Lucky.” It was accepted by a journal that published only work of that length, Jennifer and Adam Pieroni’s late great Quick Fiction. Maybe you know where this is going. Reading that contributor’s copy of Quick Fiction was a great and amazing experience. All the writers were doing such careful, interesting work. With each piece, it seemed like the whole sense of what a story could be was invented all over again.

Not long after that I taught myself basic html. Online lit mags and short-short fiction were both sort of new, as I saw it. I thought they were a good fit for each other. (Some other early online mags had paved the way here: SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, Hobart, Juked, and FRiGG, to name a few.)

What are you working on now?

Only a handful of people know this, so I guess it qualifies as a secret. Ready? I’m writing a novel for young readers which I’ll probably try to publish under a pseudonym. My two kids—ages 8 and 11—are responsible. They’ve challenged me to write something “not boring,” and my 8-year old has all sorts of advice for me as to how to do that (for example, “People like books that have chapters with titles.”). As a writing project, it’s certainly a switch-up. I’m enjoying it.

Any new publications forthcoming?

I have a draft of a short novel that I feel good about. Just now I can’t stand the idea of publishing it. A writer who’s got a book out is a writer whose mindlife is somewhat compromised…..  Maybe in another couple years.

Do you write every day?

In some seasons, yes. When I’m teaching, no. This semester, I write on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends.

Maybe when my kids are grown I’ll be able to write every day again. (Not that I’m looking forward to that… This is a good time!)

Advice for aspiring writers?

#1.  Read a lot.

There’s the duh advice.

#2.  Understand that for most readers, the pleasure of fiction is the pleasure of interiority. This is not saying too much, in the sense that there are so many different ways to take readers inside a life. But it’s a good thing to remember, all the same. Better that the mind of your fiction move from the inside out rather than vice versa.