Jun 19, 2015

Literary Citizenship: Point and Counterpoint

Please note: The Writing Life Blog is taking a few weeks off and will return to twice weekly updates on Tuesday, July 14th. Why? Novel deadline...

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One afternoon during this year's Writers Retreat, author Patricia Ann McNair led a round table discussion on literary citizenship. This broad subject can pertain to anything from ways to tactfully promote and endorse the work of others in public forums, to ways to support individual writers in their unpublished endeavors at the desk. In the spirit of summary, I thought I'd share a few finer points from the discussion:

If you're in a book club, suggest a friend's book that you know and/or organize a "meet the author" event with several book clubs and have the author Skype in or meet folks in person. Keep in mind that this is often "unpaid work" the author offers, so make the time worthwhile by having a good crowd, offering a meal, preparing the group with background on the author, or tapping into the group members' skill sets (ex. if someone in the book club works for a newspaper, see if they can get the author's book reviewed or listed in an article somehow). This takes time and if you're in a book club but pressed for time, there's still one simple thing you can do: remind each member of your book club to write Amazon and Goodreads reviews of the work. This helps tremendously!

If you buy used books, especially via Amazon, then consider that you can balance the karmic scales (buying books is good, and Amazon is practical, but authors get no money from used book sales) by writing a review of the book on Amazon and Goodreads in the very least. This helps "pay it forward" in more ways than you can imagine.

Share what you are reading with others in clever ways, such as posting a fave sentence as a status update on Facebook, using the "I just bought this book" icon when you make online purchases (which often links your activity purchase to your social media accounts, spreading the word), or Tweeting "at" the author with a thanks or a fan note. This can make someone's day, expose the author to an audience she or she may otherwise never have reached, and--above all else--uplift the "social media chatter" from pet pics and complains to something more inspiring, such as a beautiful sentence from a  character.

Read the book in public places, with the cover visible and a smile of literary satisfaction painted across your face. :-)

Buy books as gifts and buy from multiple places. Not everyone can afford first edition hardbacks in new condition, and that's fine. But when you do purchase, review those books and vary where you make purchases--some online, some from indy booksellers, and some from the author him/herself if that is also an option. If you already have a copy of your fave book and you see the author at an event, so what? Buy another copy. Chances are good that within the next few months, you'll find a holiday or occasion to give this book to someone as a gift and brighten their day.

Ask for the book at your local library, even just by calling them on the phone and asking them if they can get it in stock so you can check it out. Whether or not you end up actually checking it out is beside the point (because hopefully you already have your own copy), but just know that if every library in the country stocked 1 copy of an author's book, that book would be listed as a "bestseller." No joke.

Attend events for free and bring a friend or date with you, when possible. These events are hard on authors. They're delightful and helpful, too, but they're unpaid work and writers are often spending money out-of-pocket just to get to an event. Even if you can't afford to buy a copy of the book, you can be a warm body in the room, you can ask 1 question, and you can bring a friend. All of this is free, enjoyable, and absolutely in the spirit of literary citizenship.

Jun 16, 2015

Revising the Novel: An Excerpt

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I had the distinct honor of reading alongside award-winning novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff last night. Although Flashes of War was for sale on the book table, I knew instinctively that this year it was time to read something different. At this retreat in particular, the audience members are receptive to new or in progress work. In fact, in many ways they leap at the chance to hear such work because they, too, are each heavily involved in creating new work. It felt right to meet them halfway and offer my own drafts. After days of minor worry and then an afternoon of trepidation and last-minute revising and rehearsing, I settled on reading Chapter 8 from the novel. Although I felt nervous at the podium and told the audience as much, once I got going with the momentum of the piece, the nervousness dissipated. Walking back to the cabin afterwards, it occurred to me that the novel felt suddenly real--like a living thing readying to meet the world. I'll share the opening paragraphs here: 

Excerpt from STILL COME HOME, a novel-in-progress, Chapter 8:

It’s another fetid sunset—this one orange, molten—and Nathan watches from the high perch of a security tower, sunlight seeping across the city as if from a wound. A small headache balls at the base of his skull. Block by block, the city fades into shadows. Airborne particles of sand catch the sun’s rays, mother nature’s tracer fire. Within minutes, the horizon appears lit by a throbbing Armageddon. Four tours and it has come to this: the night before Spartan’s last mission outside the wire. Nathan has gotten them this far, though previous tours came splattered with explosions that reduced his fellow soldiers to bits: a leg, a torso. One time, a gunner’s nose and ear blown right off his face from the force of a blast. Mr. Potato Head, Nathan remembers thinking, I need Mr. Potato Head and his bucket of parts.
That’s how the mind works in such moments. Twisted, private humor, like a teen jerking off in his parents’ bed. A curious sickness that makes Nathan shrink in shame and feel charged with life all at once. The nose went one direction. The ear went the other. The memory almost makes him laugh out loud. Before he knew it, he had applied well-aimed, direct pressure to the wounds, then Doc took over. Next, he wiped his hands on his DCU’s and high-tailed it to the two insurgents his men cuffed. He could have killed them, but of course he didn’t—the two of them kneeling at his boots with bags over their heads, one just having shat himself and the other wailing some tinny, syllabic prayer.
Nathan moves from the tower, the clap of his boots echoing down the stairs. His own feet walking. His own breath quick across his lips. For quite some time, he has experienced himself as if from outside of himself, an entertaining little mindfuck, though the jury’s still out on whether this renders him more effective against the enemy. In either case, there’s no time to find out. He crosses the courtyard, returns a few salutes to new recruits in line outside the phone center, and flashes for a moment on his wife Tenley. He really ought to call. Then it’s onward toward the staging area and there, at the end of a long row of concrete bunkhouses, Nathan spies Spartan gathered around their Humvees for a mission debrief before chow.
They haven’t noticed him yet. He can’t even hear himself approach; bunkhouse air conditioners humming like spacecraft, as if this whole tour has been an alien invasion. Exhaust swirls in Nathan’s face and he walks down the corridor, flashing between slanted bunkhouse shadows and angled light. It could be Kansas. It could be Oz. It could all be about to blow away. Laughter breaks through the pasty air and Nathan recognizes First Sergeant Pilchuck’s snare-drum bray, a natural leader and the platoon is better for it. Pilchuck. Upchuck. Everybody calls him Yak. Around Yak, nine more Spartans wrestle and juke like Olympians before their next heat. Nathan is determined to get his men through this final mission, the weeks of paperwork, then homeward bound. The smell of diesel fumes hits him and his throat tightens, the human body so needy, so easily rattled. It’s all a wonder as he steps through the last patch of shade into the bright, final seconds of daylight unreeling from that goddamn-ever-racing-sun.

Jun 12, 2015

Interlochen Writers Retreat

What a line-up!
Just twenty-four hours from now, I get to fly to one of my favorite, creative places on the planet: Interlochen Center for the Arts. Readers of The Writing Life will know I've been there many times before, in various capacities. The notable facts about this upcoming journey are that I'm in my 5th year as Artistic Director for the annual Writers Retreat and am very proud to say that we are booked full to capacity at 48 participants, with waiting lists for every class--for the first time in 10 years. After a lot of digging around and brainstorming this winter, paired with productive phone conferences with the delightful Director of Interlochen College of Creative Arts, we were able to tweak marketing and programming needs in all the right ways. I'm overjoyed that this program is full, because in my (biased but humble) opinion, it offers several unique features writers attending other conferences will be hard-pressed to find.

If you're in the area, several events at this retreat are actually free and open to the public. These are inspiring, thorough, and worth the drive. All events take place in the Writing House on the campus of Interlochen Center for the ArtsFree entry, free parking, with book sales and signings to follow. Please consider joining me for:




  • A public reading by award-winning authors Mary Kay Zuravleff and Katey Schultz. Mary Kay will read from her latest novel, Man Alive!, and Katey will read for the first time from her novel-in-progress. Join us at 7:30pm on Monday, June 15.
  • A public reading by authors John Mauk and Holly Wren Spaulding. John will likely read new, award-winning fiction following the release of his first book, and Holly will read from her incredible selection of poems in PilgrimJoin us at 7:30pm on Tuesday, June 16.
  • A public reading and celebration for author Anne-Marie Oomen, whose fifth book released in April to great success. She will read from Love Sex & 4-H and will not disappoint. Join us at 4:15pm on Wednesday, Jun 17.
Another reason I'm so excited for this event, despite the fact that I hate leaving my newlywed husband behind for 8 days, is that it represents the friendliest, most grateful group of literary folks I have ever encountered. Time and again, the writing community that gathers in Michigan (largely through National Writers Series and Michigan Writers) and at this Writers Retreat in general, wins on all accounts when it comes to friendliness. And I'm not talking about the kind of "self-licking ice cream cone" friendliness that feels like a pat on the back for a sentence well-written. I'm talking about genuinely kind people who want to show up, try hard, do the work, and make connections with well-meaning people while they're at it. Second, the retreat is generative. No one shows up with their "perfect" novel, shoving it under noses, searching for an agent. There are other places for that. Here, writers with in-progress projects or first-time blank pages show up for craft talks, prompts, and new writing all in the spirit of discovery. A writer three drafts into her novel may come away with keen insights about her protagonist, thanks to a writing exercise or break-through insight during a craft talk. A beginner with loose ideas for a memoir may discover a powerful theme in his work, remember something from childhood long-ago thought lost, and even learn about a new literary magazine open to submissions. The possibilities are many and the feeling in the air all week long reflects this.

I can't wait to arrive...

[Curious for more? Interlochen has added a special "5th day" to the Retreat called a Practicum, which focuses on publishing. It's only $35 for the day and there are spaces available. Info here.]

Jun 9, 2015

New Short Story Published: Excerpt

Wallowa Mountains, Oregon
I'm delighted to share this news and link with you today, via the very fine literary publication, Consequence Magazine. From the notes on their website, Consequence is an "international literary magazine published annually, focusing on the culture and consequences of war." Their editor reached out to me a while back, seeking new work. I was delighted to share my short story "What the Water Teaches" with her, and although I wrote it before Flashes of War, to me it represents one of my more heartfelt explorations of writing about place.

I set the story in an imaginary county in Eastern Oregon, inspired by Wallowa County (a place near and dear to my heart). I wrote the story in Oregon during the spring of 2011 while in residence with Fishtrap, splitting time between the tiny towns of Joseph and Imnaha, chasing a love that had died, eating lots of Arrowhead Chocolates, accruing rejections for Flashes of War by the dozens, and growing firm in my belief that--no matter what else came my way--I would be perfectly content to write stories for the rest of my life. I hiked, ran, and pedaled daily through the slopes around Hell's Canyon and the high peaks surrounding Wallowa Lake. I leaned on friends for inspiration and advice. And I kept writing. It was one of the quietest, freest, deeply introspective periods of my life (second only to working on Flashes of War in Alaska). I was lucky to have it.

I have three or four stories from before Flashes of War that include scenes during the Vietnam War. "What the Water Teaches" is one of them. The inclusion of the Vietnam War helped my story align with Consequence's mission, but what strikes me most about the experience I had writing this story is that it enabled me to truly experiment with landscape. Little did I know that my main character's connection to that Wallowa-inspired Oregon landscape would come into play many years, scenes, and pages later in the story when he makes it to Vietnam. More than anything, I felt that this narrator's relationship to the land was what was going to save him, even halfway across the world in an entirely different ecosystem. Read to the end of the story, and you'll find out whether or not it did...

Use this link for the free excerpt, and this link to purchase the full issue. (I'm in this issue with some really heavy hitters, folks--it's well worth the $10--and I'm honored to be in their company.)