“He uses too many adverbs,” is one of my workshop friend’s common complaints.
He goes through workshop manuscripts crossing out every adverb he sees. “No one gazes ‘longingly’” he says, “and no one is ‘very’ anything,” and by this he means people in stories shouldn’t be ‘very good’ or ‘very fast’ or ‘very important’, and even when I point out the last example in his list is an adjective, and not an adverb, he insists his point stands. Adverbs are the lazy writer’s tool, and adjectives are almost as bad.
“Extremely tall,” he says, is not a useful descriptive because ‘extremely’ doesn’t give the reader a cogent sense of what’s being described. “Very” is worse because it’s even less specific. No one knows what amount of time ‘very long’ is, but if a savvy writer were to type, “it reminded her of when she was in the waiting room during her father’s double bypass,” then this would be the sort of description readers could really grasp.
I’ve wanted to point out to my friend (who is a very good writer) that the problem he sees in workshop can’t be reduced to some simple rule. Writing is highly idiosyncratic, and writers need to use what they can to create whatever effect they need.
In the first two pages of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway uses the word ‘very’ twice. He does it ironically, but he does it, and Nabokov almost never fails to use adjectives in his character description, which leads me to believe rules are for suckers. This post is three hundred words and contains: highly, common, lazy, cogent, really, simple, savvy, and very and many of them are absolutely necessary for conveying meaning. Sometimes writing is hard and sometimes it’s very hard, but no rule is going to be perfect.
ABOUT SAUL:Saul Lemerond’s originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin. He’s currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His book Kayfabe and Other Stories is available on Amazon. He’s happy he’s finally moved south because his hands get really cold in the winter.
You’ve heard of a found poem, but what about a found poet? Meet Cubs the poet and his partner in crime who set up their meal trays, typewriters, and index cards in urban areas writing poems. In New Orleans, you’re never short on music or culture or booze or gumbo, but by happenstance on this day, we found word-artists at play, busy crafting metaphors at their tiny desks before then taping their finished products to the street posts, each poem for sale for $10. If you tell Cubs you’re a poet, he’ll insist you have a seat in his chair and type out a poem. He’ll feed you cashews and tell you about his dreams to take his street poem venture across the far seas. If you buy one of Cub’s poems, which have each been carefully typed on his vintage typewriter, he’ll highlight in yellow his favorite lines for you before signing his name (in the form of a cub-foot symbol) along with the date at the bottom of the poem. Thank you, Cubs and company, for bringing poems into the streets for the world to bump into. ~Christie
Craft of Literary features flash essays on craft, CW pedagogy, and publishing by emerging and established writers. For more information, click here.
I’m posting the Creative Writing Studies (a broad term covering issues of CW pedagogy, theory, and craft in regards to poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction) reading list I compiled for comprehensive examinations in my program. This list is in no way comprehensive; there are thousands of other articles and books that could be added. I chose, however, to focus on quality over quantity. Also, this is an on-going list, so I’ll be adding to it as the months pass. I am also open to suggestions if anyone notices a must-read book or article not on the list.
Reading List: Creative Writing Studies
Section I: Craft of Poetry/Poetics
Aristotle. Poetics and Rhetoric
Auden, W.H. “Writing.”
Bell, Marvin. “Noun/Object/Image.”
Bly, Robert. “Reflections on the Origins of Poetic Form.”
—. “Recognizing the Image as a Form of Intelligence.”
Edson, Russell. “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man: Some Subjective Ideas or Notions on the Care
& Feeding of Prose Poems.”
Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
Frost, Robert. “The Figure a Poem Makes.”
Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter and Poetic Form
Hall, Donald. “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird: The Psychic Origins of Poetic Form.”
—. “The Line.”
Heaney, Seamus. “Digging.”
—. “Feeling Into Words.”
Hirshfield, Jane. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry.
—.“Poetry as a Vessel of Remembrance.”
Larkin, Philip. “The Pleasure Principle.”
Levertov, Denise. “Work and Inspiration: Inviting the Muse.”
—. “Some Notes on Organic Form.”
Levis, Larry. “Eden and My Generation.”
—. “Some Notes on the Gazer Within.”
Loy, Mina. “Feminist Manifesto.”
McPherson, Sandra. “The Two-Tone Line, Blues Ideology, and the Scrap Quilt.”
—. “The Working Line.”
Moore, Marianne. “Humility, Concentration and Gusto.”
Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.”
—. “The Teacher’s Mission.”
—. “The Serious Artist.”
O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.”
Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook.
—. Rules of the Dance.
Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.”
Ortiz Cofer, Judith. “Tell it Slant: From Poetry to Prose and Back Again”
Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.”
Rilke. Rainier Maria. Letters to a Young Poet.
Ruefle, Mary. Maddness, Rack, and Honey.
Schmitz, Dennis. “Gorky Street: Syntax and Context.”
Simic, Charles. “Some Thoughts about the Line.”
—. “Images and ‘Images.’”
Stafford, William. “A Way of Writing.”
Vendler, Helen. The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry.
Yeats. W.B. “The Symbolism of Poetry.”
Young, David. “Language: The Poet as Master and Servant.”
Section II: Craft of Fiction/Narratology
Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of the Narrative.
Barth, John. “Can It Be Taught?”
Bell, Madison Smartt. Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form.
Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction.
DeMarinis, Rick. The Art and Craft of the Short Story.
Forester, E.M. Aspects of the Novel.
Gardner, John. The Craft of Fiction.
Herman, David, and James Phelan. Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates.
Hemley, Robin. Turning Life into Fiction.
James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.”
Kercheval, Jesse Lee. Building Fiction: How to Develop Plot and Structure.
McNally, John. Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction.
O’ Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.
Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer.
Van Cleave, Ryan G., and Todd James Pierce. Behind the Short Story: From First to Final Draft.
Section III: Craft of Creative Nonfiction
Cheney, Theodore A Rees. Writing Creative Nonfiction: Fiction Techniques for Crafting Great Nonfiction
Cohen, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction
Gutkind, Lee. Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know
—. “The Creative Nonfiction Police.” In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction.
—. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—from
Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between.
Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola. Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction.
Section: IV: Related Literary Theory
Baktin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author,” “The Rhetoric of the Image,” “Writers, Intellectuals,
Bloom, Harold. Anxiety of Influence.
Freud, Sigmund. “Creative Writers and Daydreaming”
Sartre, Jean Paul. What is Literature and Other Essays
Section V: Creative Writing Pedagogy & The Workshop
Bishop, Wendy. Released into Language: Options for Teaching Creative Writing.
—. “Teaching Undergraduate Creative Writing: Myths, Mentors, and Metaphors.”
Bishop, Wendy, and Hans Ostrom, eds. Colors of a Different Horse
Donnelly, Dianne, ed. Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?
Hal, Blythe. “The Writing Community: A New Model for the Creative Writing Classroom.”
Harris, Judith. “Re-Writing the Subject: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Creative Writing and Composition Pedagogy.”
Harper, Graeme. On Creative Writing.
—, ed. Teaching Creative Writing. New York: Continuum, 2006. Print.
Harper, Graeme, and Jeri Kroll, eds. Creative Writing Studies: Practice, Research and Pedagogy.
Hunley, Tom C. Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach.
Leahy, Anna, ed. Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project.
Light, Gregory. “From the Personal to the Public: Conceptions of Creative Writing in Higher Education.”
Mayers, Tim. “One Simple Word: From Creative Writing to Creative Writing Studies.”
—. (Re)Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing, and the Future of English.
Orr, Gregory, and Ellen Bryant Voigt. Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World
Vandermeulen, Carl. Negotiating the Personal in Creative Writing.
Zhao, Yan. Second Language Creative Writers.
Section VI: Writers on Writing, Reading, and Living
Ann Patchett’s “The Getaway Car”
Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life.
—. Living By Fiction.
I’m not someone who identifies with the hashtag #IAmCharlie. Does this make me a proponent of violent Islamic extremists? A denouncer of free speech and freedom of the press? Absolutely not. The attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo was senseless, cruel, and completely horrific. I do not nor will I ever support violence of any kind. Furthermore, I believe that censorship of any kind is a dangerous, slippery slope. All this being said, I do have a few nagging thoughts on the issue.
First of all – the hashtag – let me draw a comparison. In 2013, the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko created a viral frenzy on the web, prompting supporters to hashtag #IAmMargaretMary. Vojtko was an adjunct instructor at Duquesne University whose sudden death and lack of job security and medical benefits created a heated dialogue about the realities of adjunct instructors across the United States who, despite their credentials, often do not have job security, benefits, or a liveable wage. Margaret Mary Vojtko became a martyr for an already on-going debate in higher education, and for me personally as a college educator at the instructor level, this story hit home in a lot of ways. I proudly touted #IAmMargaretMary on my twitter because I felt this matter deeply echoed concerns of my own. For me, saying #I-Am-Margaret-Mary meant 1) I felt strongly about the issue of adjunct instructors in higher education 2) I am literally like Margaret Mary because I am also an instructor at a university.
However, there was always a logical problem with using this hashtag with the first person and copula verb because, metaphysically speaking, I was not literally Margaret Mary Vojtko. Like all hashtags, however, using #IAmMargaretMary created a dialogue over social media for people to voice their support and concerns. I personally felt that 1) the cause was a worthy one 2) that I had enough in common with Vojtko and 3) that I supported every angle of the debate enough to join in on this popularized hashtag.
However, for me, the same is not true of #IAmCharlie or #IAmCharlieHebdo. Why not simply #Charlie or #CharlieHebdo or #ISupportFreedomofthePress? Again, perhaps I’m a stickler for linguistic accuracy. I am not the publication Charlie Hebdo, so why use that phrasing? But, more meaningful to this debate is while I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish freely, I don’t support a lot of what they publish. In my mind, hashtagging #IAmCharlie, to some extent, carries with it that you not only support freedom of the press and the staff of Charlie Hebdo but there’s the denotation that you also support the content of the magazine, as well.
Not sure what they publish? Here’s a link to some of their content translated. It’s a truth widely acknowledged that many Muslims believe that it is forbidden to depict the Prophet Muhammad, so you can imagine how these images would anger some Muslim conservatives or extremists. But Islam isn’t the only religion mocked by this publication.
A few days ago, I posted the article “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo” by David Brooks on my Facebook page to much debate. But for me one part of Brooks’s article is absolutely true: “The first thing to say, I suppose, is that whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in…Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.”
It’s not like I can’t take a joke. Most people who know me know that I have a very crude sense of humor. I would be a complete hypocrite to laugh at the things I laugh at and then criticize Charlie Hebdo. And yet, I don’t in private or in public mock religions that aren’t my own. I also don’t make a living mocking sacredly held beliefs and institutions. For me, the bottom-line is this, while I believe the publication had a right to publish what they wanted to publish, if I had been on that staff (not that I would ever work for such a publication), I would have been wearing a bullet proof vest under my clothes for years. Should this be the case? Should artists and writers have to fear for their lives? Of course not. But we aren’t going to change the minds of militant Islamists or any religion’s extremists anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, saying or showing whatever you want to will carry with it the risk of offending someone, perhaps offending to the point of violence. They call it risky because risks are involved.
Which leads me to my next point… was it a good idea for Charlie Hebdo to publish yet another depiction of Muhammad on their most recent issue? Part of me says yes – as a way to show that writers or artists will not give into fear or intimidation. Part of me says yes, but part of me asks if this publication is worth the potential for more innocent lives to be lost. Two days ago, it was reported in the New York Times that tensions were heightening in Muslim groups around the world following the release of the most recent issue. Just hours ago, riots in Pakistan and Niger have left innocent people dead. So now, as a result of publishing the Prophet Muhammad on yet another cover, not only are the twelve staff members of the publication dead, but people are continuing to die. So tell me this… who is profiting from Charlie Hebdo’s political stand? What group of people profit when the issue spans multiple countries each with different laws regarding freedom of the press? Is it a global stand against terrorism? If so, I’d prefer Charlie Hebdo to not be leading the cause.
Even one of Charlie Hebdo’s co-founders seems to disagree with the magazine’s latest depiction of Prophet Mohammad. See more on that here.
Let me put it this way, if I thought global censorship and freedom of the press were truly at stake here, I’d pick up my large pencil-weapons and march into battle. But I don’t think this is the case. In fact, I think in some countries where freedom of the press is enjoyed that freedom is so free that anything (responsible and true or not) can be published, yet very little is happening to teach the masses how to interpret what they are exposed to – there are whole communities of people in the United States and in other countries who think that anything they see or read on the internet or television is truth… in the same way, perhaps, that extremists weren’t able to overlook the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as gross, tasteless satire.
By continuing to publish the images that created the problem, this publication (and those who support it) are waving a flag for artistic expression and freedom to speak and publish, but are they really doing anything to tangibly help anyone? All I see is that more people are dying. Are they doing anything to make the world safer or better or are they just calling the bluff of the bully on the playground? Art has long since been a medium for calling out prejudice and injustice, but in this case, art is a deadly weapon, and if Charlie Hebdo continues to publish Muhammad on or in their publication, more lives will likely be lost. If they choose this path and even more people die, then they are no better than the extremists who stormed into their office wielding guns.
In 2010, all of my New Year’s resolutions involved various kinds of corndogs I wanted to try. Kimchi corndog. S’more corndog. I believe resolution # 3b had to do with learning how to make a sauerkraut corndog. I came up with this list both as a joke and as a reaction to my failed resolutions of years past. I know I’m not alone in feeling that resolutions are sometimes a rocky way to start a new year. Sure, they are full of hope and good intentions, but in some ways, we set ourselves up for failure by coming up with resolutions too far outside of our normal habits. I want to lose 50lbs. I want to run a marathon. I want to find a husband. I, I, I. Me, Me, Me. How grossly self-fulfilling resolutions so often are. Perhaps, we should wish for others’ happiness. Perhaps, we should try something like this year I just want to keep striving in my job and stay healthy.
But there’s just something so hopeful and luminous about a New Year. My culture has taught me that I need to christen the New Year with a bunch of well wishes for myself. In so doing, I welcome the New Year like the wise men kneeling before the Christ child. Here, New Year, I say. Here, take my unrealistic goals for myself. I honor your newness. By March, I’ve failed at my resolutions so very hard. Who am I kidding: they usually don’t last a week. I then inevitably feel like a failure and at no point throughout the year do I try to pick back up. I mean, if you don’t start on the 1st of January and continue it every day, then it’s not legit, right?
I’m just going to go ahead and call bullshit on this kind of thinking – the kind that makes me feel like that if my goal isn’t executed perfectly in a predetermined amount of time then it’s over, done, a failure. I’m starting to feel like that no matter what goal we set for ourselves it should be coated with kindness and support for ourselves. It’s never too late to start on a goal, to pick it back up, to revise it.
Of course, the person I’m preaching to the most is myself because I’m at the start of a very important year. This year, I took a leave without pay from my job at LSU, and I am devoting myself to my PhD program at ULL, but more importantly, I hope to make writing a habit rather than a neglected hobby.
Going from not writing daily (sometimes not even weekly) to writing daily feels like the equivalent of trying to lose 50lbs before March. I know without a doubt that it’s not going to come easy. For as important as writing is to me, it’s hard. I get frustrated, overwhelmed, and discouraged every time I write or revise. There’s some delicate balance I need to learn this year – a balance of pushing myself to write daily even when it’s a struggle while also being kind to and supportive of myself.
Recently, I read Ann Patchett’s essay “The Getaway Car” and found it to be a very helpful read on the matter of creating habits out of hobbies. Granted, Patchett did sell her first book for a large sum of money and has been successful since. There are, perhaps, craft essays by writers whose path was a little more realistic.
Regardless, what all writers of any level of success have in common is that they all swear by the daily writing process. Writing daily, or at least writing regularly, on a schedule. Making writing a priority right up there with work, and students, and errands, and personal hygiene.
Now, I’m no sheep. I wouldn’t walk off the proverbial jagged cliff if Ann Patchett did first. I’m also not trying to follow anyone else’s exact path. That being said, if someone has excelled in a field that you aspire to also excel in, shouldn’t you listen to their advice? Or, in this case, most writers who excel give this same advice: writing daily. I can’t spend any more time not hearing this or not heeding it.
Also, I plan to keep a daily log of my writing activity. Last spring, I read Steinbeck’s Working Days, a journal of his writing of The Grapes of Wrath. In fact, this was the only required text in Craft of Fiction: one writer’s daily journal through a process of writing one of the great American novels. Steinbeck’s entries are short and often written in sentence fragments with character names abbreviated. He’s not trying to impress anyone in his writing journal. And yet, the collection of these short, daily snippets shows the expanse, the pursuit of the project. There are days he can’t get work done. There are days when he’s nervous and too hard on himself. There are days when he writes two chapters before dinner. His vision is clear throughout (again perhaps not the most realistic example), and he stays on track, continuously protective of his writing schedule.
I’m not going to call this a resolution. I’m resolved and all, but I’m not good with resolutions. This is a pursuit. A pursuit I know going in will be a struggle, and I will probably fail more than once. But I’m going to allow failure to be part of the process.
Dear John Barth, you’re a lucky man because you look like one of my oldest and dearest friends Alex Byrd… well, when he was bald, at least. In fact, the resemblance is so close that I think there may be some similar DNA up in there. Regardless, I’ve only read a few of your stories, Mr. Barth, but I want to thank you for your obsession with Metafiction. You see, I get it. How can one not look to the genre that’s perpetuating, facilitating all of one’s truths? Why must the genre be a mere definition and not a thing to be exalted on high or at least studied within the work itself?
Why study literature? Why major in English at all these days? These were questions that teachers, friends, and family asked me during my undergraduate studies ten years ago, but now, undergrads who love literature face an even harder decision; they feel they must choose in most cases whether to study what they love and face the prospect of few job opportunities and low wages or whether to pick a different major that will pay the bills. What this means of course is that the study of literature on the college level is in peril. In a faculty meeting last year at LSU, the department chair strongly encouraged the professors and instructors to look for strong students with aptitudes for reading and writing and convince those students to consider majoring in English. “We’re hemorrhaging English majors” is how the dilemma was put. Without students, there wouldn’t be a need for English departments or English professors. Therefore, a primary goal of the English professor in today’s world has got to be the preservation of the study of literature and writing and all fields and sub-fields therein. In order to preserve what we know to be a vital and relevant course of study, we must carefully consider how we approach our literature and writing curriculums.
How does the literature professor or instructor compete with today’s buzzing and ringing world? As Roger Kuin notes, “we should never forget that in today’s undergraduate teaching we are dealing with the vulnerable, the open, the intellectually virginal, the easily bewildered, the preoccupied, who have little background, little time, and little money. We should ask ourselves continually, what our goal is in teaching them the Renaissance. What do we want to accomplish” (qtd. in Showalter 25). In addition to clearly defining what we want to accomplish, we have to figure out how to accomplish it. A highly effective method of teaching canonical literature is to pair close reading with Prezi presentations, social media platforms, websites, movies, and memes. The traditional students in today’s college lecture halls have birth years just before the year 2000. They were born into a world already addicted to the Internet and social media. It’s no surprise then that pairing Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew with Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) might mean more to some students than the text alone. The possibilities for incorporating technology and popular culture into the literature classroom are endless, and we shouldn’t shy away from these opportunities or brush off them off as silly or extraneous.
When it comes to teaching theories, I believe in a combination of both subject-centered and student-centered methods. Without a structured emphasis on a “subject,” the class loses its focus and can begin to seem superfluous to the students. However, assuming that a course is focused on a subject and taught by a knowledgeable teacher, the focus should then be on the students and fostering whenever possible opportunities for hands-on, active learning that will lead to some kind of tangible skills applicable to life outside the classroom. Close reading is a very real skill, and we shouldn’t forget to emphasize to our literature students that learning to read well and analyze what is read is one of the most important, real-world applicable skills a student learns in college.
A staple of the literature classroom is the ever-dreaded student essay (dreaded by the students but sometimes the teachers, as well). A traditional model for assigning essays in many literature courses is a short paper before midterms and a longer, final paper near the end of the course. Though, another method is assigning short, weekly essays. Regardless of which model a teacher adapts, Paul Ramsden has a point when he says “there ought to be a definite educational justification for every activity, every piece of content, that is present in a course of study. Tradition and habit are not satisfactory educational reasons” (qtd. in Showalter 25). First and foremost, an essay shouldn’t be assigned if it’s not somehow beneficial practice for the student. Assigning essays as a form of “busy work” is a waste of time for both students and teachers alike. Furthermore, in the literature classroom, we can’t assume that our students have taken Composition I and II or that they know anything at all about writing an essay, which is why I think all literature courses would benefit from the instructor giving a tutorial on paper writing in order to prepare both undergraduate and graduate students for the kind of essay (both in terms of quality and genre) that the instructor expects of the students. This kind of preparation is especially effective when paired with useful and timely feedback, though timely isn’t always easy when there are 100 essays to grade.
But, are two longer papers really needed? Some instructors definitely think so. Don’t get me wrong: I think that it’s highly important for students to have experience reading, researching texts, and composing arguable, original essays, but the average English major is going to write dozens of these papers throughout his or her college career. Why not give our students assignments in which we ask them how would you teach this text or how would you have written this chapter differently, allowing the students an opportunity to explore their own pedagogical or creative interests. In graduate classes, why not allow more time for discussions on professionalism, like how to submit to journals and how to write a seminar paper? Why not workshop seminar papers in graduate classes instead of assuming that all graduate students have already learned the skills of scholarly academic writing?
Last and perhaps most importantly, the teaching of literature on the college level needs to be talked about, researched, workshopped, written on – how to teach literature needs to be taught, a topic discussed by Elaine Showalter in her book Teaching Literature. The instruction of college writing (Composition and Rhetoric) is well researched and continues to be researched. Graduate teaching assistants in English are taught how to instruct college writing in classes aptly called “Teaching College Writing,” but rarely if ever do we come across a class titled “Teaching Early American Literature” taught within an English Department. The idea has seemed to be that the student learns how to teach literature from taking numerous literature courses, but this does not always translate. If you’ve learned from a talented literature professor, you know that there’s a definite skill – something beyond mere passion alone – that makes these professors so effective in their teaching. Talent like this needs to be shared with and fostered in the next generation of professors and instructors. It is the responsibility of today’s tenured professors to teach graduate students and young instructors 1) how to effectively teach canonical and contemporary literature to today’s youth, 2) how to bring the world of technology into the classroom, 3) and how to preserve our field of study for generations to come.
What can we say to our students when they ask us why they should major in English or why they should sign up for a literature course? Maybe we should be candid and open in our response. Are there higher paying jobs or courses that require fewer essays? Yes. But there’s more to consider. There ARE job opportunities in English and literature. I know because I have one. In any field of study, there are jobs available for those who work hard and excel. Maybe too we should get back to the basics of the literature academic. In Literary Theory, Terry Eagleton writes, “English [is] not only a subject worth studying, but the supremely civilizing pursuit […] English [is] an arena in which the most fundamental questions of human existence – what it mean[s] to be a person, to engage in significant relationship with others, to live from the vital center of the most essential values – [are] thrown into vivid relief and made the object of the most intensive scrutiny” (qtd. in Showalter 22-23). Literature academics, we should tell our inquiring students, are not simply reading dusty books in their dark offices. They’re examining the greatest writing of the ages and life and culture, and since most universities don’t have Epistemology departments, studying literature is one of the closest ways of studying the meaning of… well … everything.
Showalter, Elaine. Teaching Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. Print.
Maggie Smith-Beehler is a freelance writer and editor, award-winning poet and author, and former college-level creative writing and composition instructor. With 14 years of professional writing experience and 10 years of editorial experience in educational and trade book publishing, she has worked for such publishers as the Junior Library Guild, Darby Creek Publishing, and McGraw-Hill.
Maggie, I very much appreciate you agreeing to answer some questions for PrettyRedShoes. Could you tell us a little bit about your work experience in the field of children’s book publishing?
I sort of fell into it, honestly. After earning my MFA in poetry from Ohio State, I took a teaching job as the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, and when that one-year position ended, I moved back home to Columbus. I wasn’t sure what I would do next. I ended up interviewing for an assistant editor position with Darby Creek Publishing, a boutique children’s book publisher. I got the job. The parent company of DCP also owned the Junior Library Guild, a children’s book subscription service for librarians. The JLG editorial offices were headquartered in New York—and still are—but as an editor for DCP, I also worked for JLG.
For Darby Creek, I worked closely with our brilliant editorial director to develop the books. I read and responded to the “slush” (unsolicited submissions from writers), requested revised proposals or samples from prospective authors, and worked one-on-one with prospective authors to develop viable projects, including editing manuscripts and coordinating revisions. I reviewed and approved page proofs. I was also glad to put my writing skills to good use there, crafting and editing cover and flap copy, catalog copy, and marketing materials.
For the Junior Library Guild, I read all of the trade books selected by the editors in New York (approximately 264 titles per year, in galley/pre-pub form) and wrote and edited promotional and descriptive copy on each title for print and the Web, including a summary for each book, catalog copy, and general marketing collateral. It meant a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and a crash course in publishing trends for grades pre-K through 12.
I stayed with the company for two years, working for both DCP and JLG, until taking a position as an editor for an educational publisher. That was almost 10 years ago. Since then I’ve worked in educational and academic publishing (as opposed to trade book publishing), first as an in-house editor and now as a freelance writer and editor.
What is the accepted format for submitting to a children’s book publisher? Should the writer submit a proposal or send the full story? Is there a certain format, and is sending a cover letter with a biography standard?
My best advice, and this applies to any submission of any genre for any publisher, is to do your research. Look at the company’s website. It likely lists guidelines, and if it does, you should follow them. If guidelines are not available, use your best judgment. For example, if the manuscript is brief (say, for a picture book), send the whole thing, along with a professional cover letter that tells the publisher a little bit about who you are and any previous publications or special credentials you may have. (If the book is a nonfiction book about primates, and you’re a zookeeper, you should certainly mention that.) If the manuscript is longer (say, with multiple chapters or sections), I would send a few chapters or sections, and be sure to explain the purpose and “arc” of the whole book in your cover letter. If the publisher is interested, you’ll be asked to submit the whole manuscript for review. (To this end: Edit your cover letter and manuscript. Then edit it again. Then have a friend edit it. You might have a fantastic idea, but typos and grammatical issues will send a signal that you’re not someone who should be taken seriously.)
When you go through a slush pile of submissions or proposals, what makes a certain children’s book stand out over all the others?
First of all, don’t underestimate the power of a clean, streamlined, well-written presentation. Go with a basic, readable font (Times is the go-to, but I prefer Garamond). No Comic Sans. Use black ink on standard 8.5 x 11 white paper. No binders. No plastic cover sheets. Nothing cutesy.
Make sure the bio tells enough but not too much. (The editor won’t care that you like to crochet or fix cars or that you’ve won the local chili cook-off ten years running.) Also, look out for clichés, both in your manuscript and in your description of it. Publishers are looking for the next thing, so if you describe your work in a way that feels stale, the editor reading the slush won’t have a difficult time placing it in the “no” pile.
Most of all, again, do your research. Read a lot of children’s books so that you have a sense of the market, because the publisher certainly does. I was always impressed when a writer would a) Assure me that no other book exists on the topic, or b) Mention that other books exist but then go on to detail some of the ways that this book is better, more comprehensive, more exciting, and so on. Publishers are always thinking about the competition for a book. There’s no sense in publishing something if the information (or plot, in the case of fiction) is already out there—unless this book can do something those books can’t.
Are there any common, fatal mistakes made by first time writers?
Yes. See my advice under #2 and #3 for how to avoid many of them.
I have read that a writer should submit their children’s book for consideration without illustrations. Is this true? If so, why is that?
In most cases, yes, this is true. The exception is the trained artist who’s written a picture book. If you’re a writer, however, and you’ve written manuscript for a picture book, submit the manuscript only. If you’re lucky enough to survive the slush, the publisher will choose the artist. (Just remember: You know your artistic ability. Does it measure up to your own favorite picture books? In the slush pile, a viable manuscript can be sunk if paired with poorly rendered drawings.)
Once a children’s book has been accepted for publication, does the writer get a say about the illustrations?
It depends on the publisher—and on the writer. You’d better believe that big-name writers have a lot of pull when it comes to the art in their books. But what about the rest of us? I’d like to believe that the majority of publishers are open to input and are respectful of an author’s wishes. However, when push comes to shove, the investment (and, therefore, the financial risk) is the publisher’s.
Here’s a piece of related advice: Do your best to maintain an honest, professional, respectful relationship with your publisher. I know you’re passionate about your book. It’s your baby, and you’ve spent a lot of time and effort on it. But if you’re lucky enough to have a book published, you’d like to have the shot at it again, and you certainly don’t want to come across as difficult to work with, stubborn, etc.
Are there any types of publishers that new writers should avoid?
Yes. They’re commonly called vanity presses. You should never (nevereverevereverever) have to pay to have a book published. Some presses may charge small reading fees to consider your work (though many will read unsolicited submissions for free), but no reputable publisher makes you pay to have your own work in print.
Are there any children’s book storylines that are considered cliché in the industry and therefore almost always rejected?
Although some plotlines have been done a million times—the coming of age story, the losing and regaining a friend or significant other story, the journey (both literal and metaphorical) story—as long as they are compelling, well-written, and brought to life, they’ll continue to be published. Why? Because there’s something about them that rings true, something that speaks to the universal human experience. And because, above all, we enjoy reading them.
Dear John Steinbeck, Happy 112th Birthday! It sucks that you’re no longer among the living. A cool cat named Kevin Armstrong favors you in your younger years, and he is keeping California in check for you! Also, Google (a search engine on this thing we call computers) has posted a really classy and literary tribute to you. Finally, thank you for your creative work and for keeping journals that would later be published and help young writers like me.
I’m currently working on an independent study at ULL that will extend into the summer, and one of the two classes I will concentrate on during the summer months is called Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and the Bloomsbury Group. In preparation for a heavy reading load, I have been on Amazon finding the required books at cheap prices and ordering them one and two at a time. Little did I know that serendipity would play a hand.
At first, I searched for a biography of Woolf, but there were several to choose from. Mostly, I just wanted a readable text that would give me an overview of her life. I was torn between three different texts when I noticed that one of three (Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris) was published on October 1st, 2011. Being that this was same day of the same year that Matt and I were married, I ordered a used copy of this text, taking the date coincidence as a small but useful sign.
When the biography came in the mail, I was very pleased by the book itself. Being a sucker for book art and bookbinding, I felt drawn to the book’s tight frame and the way that the heavy pages fell open with such ease. I had not intended to start this book for a few weeks, but I couldn’t help myself. I sat down on the armchair in my office and began reading the book just moments after receiving it in the mail.
Within a few paragraphs, I was struck by yet another coincidence. The book reported that Virginia Woolf was born on January 25th, 1882. Nothing of note there, except that I had received this book (a book I had only ordered because of a small “sign”) and began reading the book on January 25th, 2014, Woolf’s 132nd birthday.
At this point, I told Matt about this fun coincidence and went on reading the biography. I was very interested in Woolf’s life, and I felt happy to be the kind of person who finds meaning in the smallest details.
If the story ended here, there wouldn’t be a story – at least not one of note. Upon completing my reading list with my professor, Dr. Wilson, at ULL, I ordered yet another biography of Woolf from Amazon. This time, I ordered Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy by Jane Dunn. This biography focuses specifically on Woolf and her relationship with her sister Vanessa Bell, who was a famous painter and fellow member of the Bloomsbury Group. Choosing which of the 50 used copies of this text on Amazon I wanted to order was harder than usual. I wanted a hardback, but many of them were ranked “new,” and so despite the fact that they were in the “used” category, they still cost more than I wanted to spend. Even in the paperback section, many of the books were overpriced, or if they were cheap it seemed to be because the book was badly damaged. I took probably an hour picking out which copy to order from Amazon and chose one that was medium priced and seemed to be in good enough shape. It would ship from a thrift store in Washington state.
I received the book within just a few days. It arrived via USPS on an ordinary, magic-less day. I brought the package inside to our mail desk at the corner of our kitchen. Upon opening the package, I found the correct text I had ordered. I noted that it was even in better shape than I anticipated, so I prided myself on a good selection. Then, in thumbing through the book, I found a most surprising discovery. There, on the title page of the text was someone’s address sticker, one of the address stickers you often get in the mail for free, but this wasn’t just a random US address. In fact, I recognized the address immediately: 22 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, London, England.
For those of you who may not know, 22 Hyde Park Gate is the address of Woolf and Bell’s childhood home in London. It now serves as a museum/historical site, commemorating the famous writers and artists who lived there. The address itself was unmistakable, but I didn’t recognize the name: Jasmyne E. King-Leeder. Google wasn’t much help either but then the thought occurred to me that if there were still tenants in 22 Hyde Park Gate, surely there was something about this on the location’s website. I was correct. In fact, according to 22hydeparkgate.com, Ms. King-Leeder is the only current tenant who resides in the six flat historical home.
Effectually, the copy of this book I received (a copy I basically choose at random from several options on Amazon) was formerly the personal copy of the woman who now lives at 22 Hyde Park Gate, the home where Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell lived during their childhood.
How did this book end up in a thrift store in Washington? Why did Ms. King-Leeder choose to get rid of her copy in the first place, a copy with her personal address inside? I have many questions about this experience, though I’m sure that for many I’ll never get an answer.
There is one thing I know for sure, and that is that life is too ephemeral and meaningful to not indulge this kind of serendipity. I do not have a choice. I must write a letter to Ms. King-Leeder and try not to sound too crazy. I want to tell her about this experience and hope that she writes me back. I want to jump down this rabbit hole and fall as far as I can because… well, this could be just another story I share at cocktail parties, or it could, if I’m lucky, be the beginning of an adventure.
If you’re anything like me, you set up a Twitter account when it was just reaching popularity in 2008-2009. You followed the short list of your friends who had a Twitter account. Then, for funsies you followed a few starlets just to add to your following list and to be trendy (I’ve followed Ellen DeGeneres since day one). If any of this rings true for you, then you (bored and let down) may also have left your Twitter account stagnant for the next four years. This was certainly my Twitter story.
Just last year, I realized what millions of Americans already knew about this social medium. For some people, 3,000 of your closest friends are on Twitter, and for you, this is why Twitter matters. For the rest of us, finding a niche for your account is vital to its usefulness. For years, I already had a niche – writing. And when it dawned on me to devote my Twitter to all things (and people) writing and publishing, I realized something: Twitter is an indispensable medium for writers looking to get published.
Primary Account or Secondary Account: When it comes to devoting your Twitter to writing and publishing, you may not want to fill up your primary/personal account with all things writing. In which case, you may want to set up a secondary account. For me, my primary account had become sad, thin, and depressed. It was quite happy to be re-appropriated as a personal/professional account.
Deleting the Extraneous Crowd: The first step I took was to delete the organizations I had followed that posted ALL. THE. TIME. and did not matter to me in any way. I had only followed maybe 40 people and organizations originally, but that number included all branches of the Huffington Post. If you follow all branches of the Huffington Post, then that takes up your timeline by itself. My first step then was to delete all the obvious clutter.
Following Literary Magazines: I was shocked to find hundreds of Twitter accounts devoted to various literary magazines, both university sponsored journals and independent magazines. I began following all the journals I knew accepted poetry, particularly journals I admired and/or hoped to one day submit to / be published in. I made a decision very early on – a decision I’ve stuck with – to ONLY follow journals relevant to me as a writer: journals, magazines, online zines and publications that I either found stimulating to read or specifically that I hoped to submit to for publication. Let’s be real: there are thousands of magazines and journals out there. I want to be able to scroll through and actually see almost all of the timeline daily. If you follow thousands of nameless journals, it won’t have the same effect.
Why follow journals / magazines? Journals and magazines tweet when they are opening for submissions and when they are looking for a specific genre / specific themes. For example, the poetry magazine RATTLE publishes one themed issue a year. Sometimes, these themes are very broad themes like “love poems,” but sometimes a journal is looking for a very specific theme like “ghost poems written by Florida poets.” It just may happen that you have a ghost poem in your repertoire and that you are a Florida poet. As such, learning about a niche call for submissions like this one that applies to your work will exponentially increase your odds of getting published.
Following Book Publishers: Many of the reasons for following literary magazines and journals also hold true for following book publishers. When I began searching my favorite presses, I found all of them … and then hundreds more. As I write mostly poetry, I followed all poetry publishers whose names I already knew, including university presses with strong poetry divisions. Again, I made a conscious choice to stick with publishers who were (and still are) most relevant to me as a writer (though I also followed a few big names just to stay up-to-date with the big-daddy moneymakers: Random House, Harper Collins, etc.). Monthly, I’ll follow some new press that I just recently learned about, but overall, I’d rather keep my list manageable. Here again, book publishers tweet calls for submissions, book contests, new and recently published titles and a lot more.
Following Submittable & Duotrope: If you’re knee-deep in the publishing industry like me, then you know about Submittable and Duotrope. Both are very useful to follow on Twitter because they tweet when various literary magazines and publishers are opening/calling for submissions. However, they also tweet about publishers and magazines who currently do not have a twitter, so following both of these sites gives you an insider’s perspective on a wider range of publications. Also, Duotrope is a useful “writer’s resource,” but it costs money to join. Many writers find it useful for publishing, but by following Duotrope on Twitter, you receive some of its updates and useful information… for free.
Following Writers You Admire: I feel as though I don’t need to mention following fellow writers you personally know. I have several peers that I follow on Twitter and greatly enjoy reading their updates, successes, breakthroughs. But along with following writer friends, there is much joy in following your writing idols. As I was searching magazines and publishers, I received notifications like “do you want to follow Sherman Alexie, Joyce Carol Oates, Elizabeth Gilbert?” Why, yes I do. I clicked follow on all major writers whose names I came across (making a few exceptions for those whose work is just not my thing). Here in lies one of Twitters most cherished attributes: you can actually follow the big names, the celebrities you admire, and occasionally you can tweet them and have them tweet you back. There literally may be no better way (as of now) to keep up with people who inspire you. It was awesome to follow a writer like Major Jackson and have him follow me back.
The same is true of Facebook. I recently discovered one of my earliest writing idols on Facebook – the poet Merrit Malloy. I requested her Facebook friendship, and she kindly accepted. So now, I receive updates about her new work and see posts on her daily musings. What a small, intimate world social media has the power to create.
Creating Your Own Brand: All in all, I followed some 345 magazines, publishers, and writers and had a handful follow me back. So, then I had to confront my own media identity. When writers and writing organizations looked at my profile, what did they see? I wanted to have the opportunity to develop name recognition and have the chance to make contacts, so I checked the handle @christiecollins to see if it was available. Unfortunately, it was not, and I didn’t want to be @chriscoll181. This is a lesson in early name choices. In 2008, @christiecollins may have been available, but I didn’t understand then how important it was/is to claim your own name. Try to create a handle as close to your name as possible. (Also, even if you don’t want an author website right now, if “yourname.com” is available, BUY IT NOW and save it for later because it may not be available in a year. Chances are if “yourname.com” is available then it probably costs less than $10.00 a year to own. BUY IT NOW). I decided to stick with my original @prettyredshoes handle, which has since lead me back to my PrettyRedShoes blog, newly updated as a blog about creative writing. Develop a niche for your Twitter. Be professional and specific with your profile. Be consistent with your brand. And let Twitter work for you.