Top 5 Things to Take from a Literary Conference (not just swag)

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Saturday, I attended Conversations and Connections, a one-day writer’s conference organized by literary magazine, Barrelhouse, chock full of practical lessons from published literary authors, editors, and publishers. Note: I said practical. (Leave your insta-agent-three-book-deal fantasies at the door.) Really, it was like transporting myself back to my MFA program for the day–complete with the insecurities and boxed wine! All right in my world.

  1. Advice: The first of three panels/workshops I attended featured a memoirist, a novelist, a nonfiction writer, and a poet who all engage with the past–and endure much historical research–for their writing. Some of the most helpful advice suggested writers utilize first-person accounts to better instruct our characters in how to engage with historical fact. There was also an interesting discussion exposing the differences between creative nonfiction and fiction when making meaning of historical events. In fiction, the research must become a part of the narrative arc; in nonfiction, the journey to understand can become another part of the story, a knew way of knowing.
  2. Beginnings: For my second session of the day, I attended a hands-on craft workshop on developing short story openings that grab a reader’s attention. Flash Fiction author, instructor, and editor Tommy Dean led us workshoppers using four prompts for four different story openings. All the prompts started with character/setting/conflict, then added another element to complicate the story start–like subverting the setting or flipping a normal, everyday activity. I am not a prompt person, relying instead on the ideas that fly at me and then stick–usually long about 4am–but even I came away with a few solid story starts, a real win.
  3. Connections: MFA programs are a wealth of information on the art and craft of writing. But then what? How do we get our work out there, and just where is there? Enter the literary journal editors with hands-on experience in the world of literary publishing for a 10-minute editing session, a la speed dating. I took a flash fiction piece of mine; however, I knew going in, I wanted to use that precious time to ask advice of the editor on the other side of the desk. My question was about chapbooks (short collections of poetry or stories). But the point is I used my 10 minutes to connect with someone I could learn from. Not to leave out my fellow conference attendees, time waiting in line for the editor session was a good chance to meet local writers (shout-out to Sonora!).
  4. Inspiration: With the growing popularity of spoken-word and oral storytelling heard on programs like The Moth Radio Hour, today’s creative writing readings are not the cure for insomnia they once were. The featured author readings at C&C did not disappoint. Going in, I knew of the work of only one of the authors, essayist Randon Billings Noble, who I connected with in an online critique group years ago (the writing world being both huge and small). I was delighted to be introduced to the poetry of Kyle Dargan and the fiction of Ivelisse Rodriguez and of Gabino Iglesias, who read their work with such passion–the highlight of my day and very inspiring.
  5. Books…and more books: Want to make an author (and their small press publisher) happy and earn your good literary citizen card? Buy the book. I came away with autographed copies of Billings Noble’s essay collection, Be With Me Always; Iglesias’ horror/crime novel Coyote Songs; Matthew Ferrance’s memoir, Appalachia North; and the poetry collection, Haint, from Cleveland native (yes, we are all over) Teri Ellen Cross Davis, who sat on the panel for the third of my three sessions, focused on publishing and offering great advice on connecting with the local literary community. (These last two authors, I plan to talk about more here on the blog!)

For writers across genres, and for bloggers alike–there’s a conference made for you. This one was a good fit for me, and I’ll be back next year.

Do you conference? What are your top tips? Have you read any of these books? How was your weekend? Comment below–I always love to hear from you… ~Rebecca

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My interview with author, poet, and publisher Larry Smith

When I first met Larry Smith in Ohio, he was sporting a Cleveland Browns cap–not an unusual fashion choice for a sports venue or bar, but we were at a literary conference. From this first impression, I could sense two things: the cap wasn’t ironical and Larry was my kind of literary people.

As it turns out, the Ohio-based author, poet, and director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing and I have much more in common than rooting for the home team. There’s an abiding sense of creative responsibility, a promise to tell our own stories, that comes with hailing from a place like ours. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Larry and I try to make good on that promise. Larry has definitely made good on his.

This National Poetry Month of April, Larry was also gracious enough to take the time to answer over email my questions–about the writing life and what it means to publish poems and stories rooted in place. “There is always some blurring of identity here,” says Larry, “between Larry Smith and Bottom Dog Press.”

Though much of my life is Bottom Dog Press, my life extends beyond that, and Bottom Dog Press is more than I am, too, it’s over 210 books and about 500 authors.

Let’s learn more…

Larry, how did growing up in the Rust Belt, specifically an Ohio mill town, affect your writing sensibilities and choices?

Well, this goes to the heart of it and of myself. You can’t take out of me the Ohio Valley and the working-class world I grew up in. I was nurtured on that life and those values of hard work and character, of family and neighborhood, of just accepting and caring for each other. I write from who I am, and though I worked as a college professor and live in a middle class neighborhood now, I am still that kid getting up to deliver morning papers and watch my father pack his lunch for work on the railroad.

Your education had a major impact on your life’s direction. In your memoir, you recall that your 6th grade Friday Poetry Day, under the direction of your teacher, Mrs. Merzi, was when you discovered poets, such as Dickinson, Frost, and Whitman–and yourself as a writer. Who have been some of your poetic inspirations?

As a working-class kid, it was a delight and an affirmation to read and share poems at that early age. Mrs. Merzi not only handed us poems to read but had us write and share our own. I’m still doing that in creating my own work and publishing that of others at the press, but also at our monthly Coffeehouse Reading Series in this area of Ohio with featured poets and open-mic sessions. It’s been going on for over 20 years.

Probably like most of your readers, I have grown as a writer and a person through my reading of fine poets, fiction writers, essayists, and memoirists. When I dropped math and decided I was an English major in college, I couldn’t believe I could make a living doing what I loved.

As a teacher, my early bulletin board held the slogan “Literature is Life.” I still believe that.

The list of writers who inspired me would fill a small book. To name a few: early on it was Robert Frost, E. A. Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Emily Dickinson, then Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (I’ve published biographies of both)–all of them poets of the people. From there, William Stafford, Denise Levertov (our peace poet), Paul Blackburn, James Wright (always), and Philip Levine, et. al., as well as great thinkers, like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

My own work appears in 8 books of poetry, most recent being Lake Winds: Poems and Thoreau’s Lost Journal, and Tu Fu Comes to America. In the latter, I write the hard and beautiful life of an immigrant poet struggling in Cleveland, Ohio. The working-class world never disappears, nor should we “escape” from it.

In your memoir, you talk about the time when you were newly married and starting a family as a busy time, but a time you weren’t writing. You say, “my life was writing me.” Can you offer any advice to young aspiring writers?

Oh, for me, all I can say is the writing comes in waves, and your job is to be on deck for the next poem or story. As a young parent, I wrote less, but there were always those early mornings or late hours when the lines would start coming and I could become a co-creator with the poem itself. Don’t fret, it cancels creativity, and write the next poem, not the next career. It takes a while learning that.

You lived through the Kent State massacre of 1970 and said the events “radicalized you in new and deeper ways.” Can you talk about how it affected your thinking and writing?

Ah, Kent State—I believe I write in my memoirs that it radicalized both my wife and me in deep ways. She was working at Robinson Memorial Hospital when the dead and wounded were taken there. We shared that and the frightful world of those days at Kent. While we had always been opposed to the Vietnam War, we renewed our commitment to resistance and peace.

When I was hired at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands College that same year, one of the first things I did in this rural community college was organize an outside peace demonstration. And at that point some of our speakers were veterans returning home and speaking out against the war. It was powerful and we were a clear part of it. My three year old daughter Laura was standing with us.

Can you tell us a little about your Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing, why you started it, and what your mission is?

In 1985, I was on the West Coast researching the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, going to the Bancroft Library at Berkley, perusing the diverse publications of that era in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I was also meeting some of the figures from then, including those writers around City Lights Books and Press. I began to see writing as not just literature but as immediate and relevant toward creating change. I came back with a determination to create a publication like that in Ohio. Poet David Shevin joined me in this venture, and I found support in fellow writers like Bob Fox, Joe Napora, Terry Hermsen, Jeanne Bryner, others.

We borrowed the term “Bottom Dog” from Edward Dahlberg’s novel about working-class and poverty in the Midwest. I had learned out West, not to pretend you were more than yourself. We were underdogs, and knowing that, we could keep our feet on the ground and find alternative ways of reaching others. We’ve focused on working-class, Appalachia, Laughing Buddha Series, but also just on deeply human voices in our Harmony Series. We serve the underserved.

Your press has survived for more than 34 years and 210 books. What’s next for Bottom Dog/Bird Dog? Any upcoming titles we should look out for?

Within the last year we published four very strong Ohio poets: Craig Paulenich’s Old Brown, Kathleen S. Burgess’s What Burden do Those Trains Bear Away, Charlene Fix’s Taking a Walk in My Animal Hat, and most recently, Jeff Gundy’s Without a Plea. It may be time for another book of my own, tentatively title “Pears.” The title comes from poet Charles Simic who once advised me, “When they ask for apples,/ give them pears.”

Writing as alternative, that has always inspired my life and work.

Thank you to Larry Smith for the insights and inspiration. May we all represent our places so well!

Find out more about Larry Smith…

Larry Smith grew up in the industrial Ohio River Valley and graduated from Muskingum College and Kent State University with a doctorate in literature. He taught at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands College for over 35 years and is the author of 8 books of poetry, 5 books of fiction, a book of memoirs, 2 literary biographies, and more. He’s written film scripts for “James Wright’s Ohio” and “Kenneth Patchen: An Art of Engagement” and is director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing in Ohio. He reviews for New York Journal of Books.

Images are credited to Larry Smith

Readers, writers, now, it’s your turn: Where do you read or write from? How does the history–or now–of your place inform what you say? How are you celebrating National Poetry Month? I’d love to hear from you!

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When a journal editor says no more death stories* **

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I submitted “Scooter Kid,” a story about conception (of a couple different kinds)–of creation, chaos, and control. (Spot the nod to Stockard Channing’s character in the 1993 movie, Six Degrees of Separation? Yeah, I’m still a little obsessed.)

Many thanks to Elizabeth Varel, Editor in Chief and Fiction Editor, and all the editors of Parhelion Literary Review for publishing my story in your lovely journal. Alongside my fiction, you’ll find a trove of thought-provoking prose, poetry, and art: right here.

Happy weekend. Happy reading. What’s on tap for you?

Thanks for stopping by!

~Rebecca

*Seriously though, submitting to literary journals? Check those submissions guidelines.

**OK, OK, all stories are death stories.

“Out there”…toward some semblance of literary citizenship

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Out where? Well, there, and there, and there.

I’m talking about getting the creative writing out there, into the great wide open–beyond the blog, and into news outlets, magazines, and journals–and so are a lot of other bloggers. So, I thought I might start a convo here, where we can collect some pros, cons, and lessons learned.

Sound good? I’ll start with a disclaimer. I am no expert. I have an MFA in Creative Writing under my belt (along with a lot of Xmas cheese); yet we rarely discussed in short fiction and novel-writing courses what to do with our pieces after we’d written them–past the Sisyphean process of write-edit-trash-revisit-rewrite-edit, that is. Really, a piece of writing may never be “finished,” but eventually, it’s good to let it go. How do you know if your writing might be ready to submit?

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Me-prep

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Around the house, there’s laundry prep and meal prep.

For the kids, there’s book report prep and school uniform prep (see above laundry prep), and don’t forget tomorrow’s lunch prep. If I’m really on the ball, there’ll be breakfast smoothie prep. But let’s not get too excited, kids.

That’s just today.

And that leaves out me. Yep, even pantsers require a bit of preparation.

For work, there’s interview prep and invoicing prep. For committee A, there’s spreadsheet prep; for B, there’s list prep. For this blog, there’s reading prep and photo credit prep.

For my creative writing, there’s research: that’s composition prep. There’s writing group meeting prep.

Then comes the age old litany of publication prep. In other words: revise, revise, revise before a piece has a shot at finding a home in a literary journal. And all that’s before submission prep.

The process of submitting to literary journals and magazines has changed in recent years. (I’ve talked here about how sites like Submittable are making it easier to submit your poetry and fiction.) Still, it remains a time-consuming–albeit formative–exercise to close in on the right journals to which to submit, to discover the dozen or two or three (out of the thousands) of journals and magazines that might work for your creative work: (i.e. your veritable guts on the page).

For my creative writing friends out there, here’s where the submission prep gets a little easier.

It’s called Literistic. From their website: “Every month, we collect an exhaustive list of deadlines for submissions to literary publications, contests and fellowships and send out an email.”

What sets Literistic apart, as far as I can see, is that, hailing from Canada, they collect deadlines for publications, etc., from the U.S., Canada, and the UK, so this may be helpful to some of my writerly friends across the pond.

That’s Literistic’s deal. And if you decide the deal’s for you and you subscribe to their list of literary deadlines using this link, I’ll get a little compensation.*

So, happy house-, kid-, creative-, or whatever other kind of prepping you’ve got going on, and Happy Monday!

This post was in repose to Lorna’s prompt for this week, Prep, over at her fabulous blog, Gin & Lemonade

 

*This is an affiliate link, but I only recommend services I like.

A note on perseverance in writing…and everything else

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This is not an inspirational blog.

By that, I mean you will find no images and taglines here that you could use to make into a poster for your conference room. No cute kittens of mine will ever tell you to “hang in there”–or anywhere. (That’s my kid, above; my arms hurt just looking at him.) If I were to make such a poster, it might say, “Bitch a lot, and hope for sympathy–or at least free coffee.”

Still, I am not totally, cynically immune to pep-talks, or at least subtle reminders that bitching gets us nowhere, usually not even heard. But perseverance can get us writers, bloggers, and do-ers of all kinds off the starting block (or whatever tired motivational metaphor you prefer).

Call it perseverance. Call it stick-to-itivness. Call it sisu, if you’re in with the Finns. Please just don’t call it grit. (Am I the only one sick of that word? People: meet thesaurus; thesaurus meet people.)

All that’s to say, sometimes one (me) has to stop bitching and start working, which for this story writer looks like: composing, revising, editing, more editing; and lastly, the dreaded submitting.

The tale of my most recent story submission goes like this. (Here’s hoping it’s mildly inspirational.)

It was a story that I had to tell. While I generally enjoy a football field-sized writerly distance from the characters I explore in my fiction, this one hit much closer to home. Call it cheap therapy, but my mom was battling breast cancer and I was a 12-hour Greyhound bus ride away and English major-angsty. What to do with all that anger at the plain meanness and stupidity of cancer for targeting the one person who “got” me?

I wrote about it. I framed my confusion into a story about going home to be with the fictional her at the end and about how a cancer death–the coagulating of so many errant cells–made the fictional me dream of growing another kind of ball of cells, which would turn into a kid (or kids, as it turned out) of my own.

Like much fiction, there was truth in this story (along with much artifice). And it felt good to get my truth on the page, and then into the ether, and maybe even under the nose of a literary journal editor–or 58 (yep, I just counted).

Fast-forward a dozen years or more, and a much-revised version of this story will see the light. I received the glorious email with “acceptance” in the subject line a week after logging three rejections of other stories.

Some stories come easily; some take just a couple revisions before I’ve deemed them to be editor-ready. Not this story of my mom and me and breasts and death as beautiful as birth.

My story of writerly perseverance, by the numbers: revision No. 15; story title No. 3; 1,200 additional words since first draft, written for English 666 (no joke); and 1 fewer mention of the show, Friends, and also 9-layer dip, since that first draft (phew).

You get the gist. The story grew with me, and I with it, but I didn’t let it go–just like my little guy up there on the rock wall. I could have, but I didn’t.

More to come on my story’s new home, journal information, and issue launch.

Want more writerly advice? I’ve got a category for that.

Want to follow me on FB? Twitter? Let’s persevere together in all the social fun…

 

 

 

 

Submit, submit, submit

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It’s that time again: submission season.

It’s the season when we writers polish up our prose and poems and novel MS synopses to send out into the world, fresh-faced and optimistic, imbued with loads of potential–in the hopes of being published. I wave to them and smile (a little smugly). “I’ve done good,” I tell myself.

And then proceed to shudder in fear.

Oh, wait.

Maybe that’s my kids. Yep, silly me. September is also back-to-school season, when I send my actual offspring out into the world, fresh-faced. I wave and smile…Well, you get it.

Here’s the thing.

Let’s not confuse our creative offspring with our actual offspring, our stories with our kids. Really, I’m talking to myself here. Is it just me? Am I the only one who’s ever uttered: “That manuscript is my baby.” (Note that I had not yet endured screaming twin infants when I said that.) No, I can’t be the only one. In fact, I’m pretty certain there’s a country song with that title.

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Blogging as Publishing: An Argument

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The old me is scoffing right now.

Blogging cannot be publishing, she says. (Pay no attention to the big blue “Publish…” button in the corner of the screen.)

Publishing is slow, arduous, rife with rejection, and even isolating. Publishing as a process is the painful price we pay for any kind of recognition, for standing–no matter how tenuous–among the literary community.

Blogging, on the other hand is quick-and-dirty and easy, without the arbiters of literary merit (read: editors), upon whose opinions has been built the entire modern canon of literature–fiction short and long, poetry, memoir and etc.–worth reading.

Writers as their own editors? Old me scoffs, twice.

Right? Not right?

And so there you have the schism of my train of thought as I prepare to sit on a Literary Festival panel next month to talk about–you guessed it–publishing from the writer’s perspective.

Old me is wondering if they will offer me half a chair to sit in. Maybe I’ll sit under, rather than at, the table with published authors and the like. Really, though I kid, the question remains:

Is blogging publishing?

To old me, the me that did an MFA when online literary journals were only just becoming a thing and, certainly, story and poetry submissions, were still printed and mailed (as were the rejection slips), publishing must be painful. Remember Friday nights in a library carrel with the Writer’s Market? There was no blogging anywhere on the publishing horizon then.

Literary publishing was–and largely still is–a slow process. Submitting our pieces has gotten a little quicker and easier, but the work behind it is still slow: we read, we research, we write, we read about writing, we revise, edit, revise and edit again.

The act of becoming the writer I want to be always will be a slow and arduous–even painful–process; blogging won’t undercut that.

Old me scoffs at the idea that I am the arbiter of my own work here on this blog, something of a mini-magazine. I am my own gatekeeper. I get to say what has literary merit and doesn’t (my own writing included); I review the books I like; I interview the authors I like; I can present a Rust Belt food pie chart and wax poetic about pierogies. Plus, I’d like to think this fiction writer (me) has started to find her essayist’s voice, because she (me again) was allowed the agency and space–this very blog–to do so.

I love editors (here’s looking at you, WordPress arbiters–really, you guys are great!). I love literary journals and print journals and thank my stars several editors and I have agreed that their journals and my stories would be perfect together.

But publishing doesn’t have to be defined so narrowly. Does it, old me?

So, here I go, about to hit “Publish”–because I can–to connect with as many as 713 of you, my followers. Not too shabby an audience, admits old me.

Because I haven’t said it in a while, thank you, fellow bloggers. Thank you for sharing in this awesome, insightful, global community of readers and writers and–yes–publishers.

Did my argument sway you? (I’ll let you know if it swayed old me.) Provided I have the floor (or table) for a minute or two to extol the virtues of blogging-as-publishing, what should I add?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My audio feature is live(!) and 4 things I learned for good story recording

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My story is set on a fire escape, which reminds me of scaffolding (utility) and a jungle gym (frivolity). And there’s the crux: between work and play, adulthood and childhood, responsibility and freedom, the communal and the individual.

It’s called “Recruit,” and the audio feature–me reading my story in all my Ohio-accented glory–is live at Flock Literary Journal.

From “Recruit”:

‘There is a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.’ I thought of our lake that couldn’t wash away the filth of this city. Of our river that burned so many years ago and still seemed to burn.

From Flock Literary Journal:

In “Recruit,” Rebecca Moon Ruark has us on the edge of our seats and knocks us over with sentences like the above. We’re excited to share with you this short story in audio, a glimpse of what’s to come in #Flock20!

If you’re looking for a little reading (or listening) this weekend, I’d love it if you checked out “Recruit.” Let me know what you think! And share it with a friend who likes stories.

What I learned along the process of recording my story:

  1. Audacity (free recording and editing software) is awesome.
  2. External microphones are best but my MacBook’s internal mic did the trick.
  3. Closets–all those hanging clothes absorb extra sound–make a good recording studio.
  4. Be authentic, even if you have a weird accent.

Not to mention all the writerly stuff I took away from this process. So, props go out to all the podcasters out there who make it sound so easy. And to the poets, who brave live audiences all the time.

Happy weekend and happy reading.

What’s on your literary plate?

 

 

 

 

Agent query letter purgatory

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…because “hell” seemed a little strong.

What’s up?

Months ago, I announced that it was time for me to dive into the process of seeking literary representation (an agent) for my WIP, a historical novel manuscript.

I was ready. However, my manuscript wasn’t…quite. (And you only get one chance to make a good impression–or any impression at all–on an agent.) So, revise revise revise, and I have come out the other side knowing that now is–really–the time.

I talked here before about the steps required to prepare for this journey. Step 1 is knowing what to “pack” for the publishing road ahead, with agent query letter as “passport.” Step 2 involves putting myself in an agent’s shoes. What might he/she want of me besides a manuscript? Step 3 will involve compiling a list of agent who might be a good fit (stay tuned…).

Today: I’m in query letter purgatory. It’s not hell, really. We writers write and we write about writing, and so to get to write about our own writing is kinda neat–if tasking, and requiring a good bit of objectivity. Some say the query letter is tougher to write than the novel (a bit of an exaggeration, but still valid): As in, boil down an 85,000-word story into a 150 word synopsis. Oh sure, no problem. It certainly can’t hurt to start with a fantastic first line (or “hook”).

And here’s another couple pieces that I’m using to spit-shine my agent query letter:

Successful Query Letter with Lots of Tips by Erin Beaty on Kathy Temean’s wonderful blog Writing and Illustrating

How to Polish Your Query Letter for a Professional Shine on the Writer’s Relief site

All you writers out there, ever written an agent query letter? How’d it go?

When I’m not working on my query letter, I’m reading novels I could use as comparisons to mine. Right now it’s Lilac Girls about the Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp, which isn’t a close enough fit, but I’m enjoying it.

What are you writing and reading this week? Like this publishing talk? There’s a category for that at the top of my site.