Category Archives: writing

The value of memoir

Favorit typewriter

(Photograph courtesy of Florian Klauer)

Sherrey Meyer gets extra credit for calling it what it is: “Healing life’s hurts through writing.” Her genre is memoir, and her website is a wonderful resource for writers who are working on their life stories.

Celebrity memoirs will find publishers. And a truly talented writer can entertain readers by recounting even an ordinary existence. But to be perfectly honest, when memoir writers contact me about representation because they believe publishers might be interested in their manuscripts, usually they haven’t dealt with three major areas of concern:

  1. Their author platforms
  2. Commercial appeal—that is, having written something of significant interest to a large number of readers
  3. Legal liabilities, including libel, copyright infringement, privacy rights violations, and breach of another’s right of publicity

Sometimes writers can be too emotionally invested in the creative process to recognize that the value of putting their thoughts on paper has been mostly therapeutic. Sherrey Meyer is showing them that memoir writing is worthwhile when shared with just a handful of readers. Turning the finished work into a commercial product is by no means necessary.

Others with generous advice for memoirists

Two sharp criticisms of contemporary memoir

Hyper-motivated, sales-obsessed, brand-conscious novelists are nothing new

Shrewdly self-promoting authors may seem like a new phenomenon, but only because we now have instant access to the details of many of our favorite authors’ lives and work habits, even their thoughts.

In past centuries, famous authors’ working and private lives wouldn’t have been exposed, dissected, and discussed in such excruciatingly minute, factual detail until and unless their biographies or letters were published, perhaps posthumously. Today, we can read online not only the daily diaries of bestselling celebrity novelists but the blow-by-blow accounts of many, if not most, aspiring authors—an exponentially larger group. It’s not exactly like watching a biopic. It’s more like observing the making of a documentary about the making of a reality television series. Hmmm…

These days, it’s easy for new writers to get a fairly accurate perspective of the challenging business of earning a living as a book author.

Back in 2007, when transparency was still just a buzzword, Eric Konigsberg profiled crime novelist Harlan Coben for the Atlantic, describing him as someone who “approaches being a novelist the way a businessman or a lawyer—or for that matter an athlete—approaches his craft: as a series of finite and solvable problems.” Konigsberg noticed:

The roots of Coben’s work ethic seem to lie not in perfectionism, or in a relationship with an inner muse, but in his determination to rise to the top of the heap. “When I was just starting out, I hated signing in local malls, because no one was there,” he says. “It made me write so hard. I didn’t want to be there anymore. The same thing at Bouchercon”—a convention for crime novelists, their publishers, and their fans. “All the writers there were so bitter. I didn’t like being in that boat. I would just go home and write”—he curled his fists and appeared to press down, almost as though he had an imaginary jackhammer in front of him—“so much harder and harder.”

Writing for pay can turn a creative hobby or therapeutic outlet into an endeavor that bears no resemblance to a cherished daydream involving nothing more than a quiet woodland cabin furnished with desk, reading lamp, sheaves of paper, and a quill pen (or a Remington, depending on your genre). Old fantasies die painfully, but think about it. What profession doesn’t seem ridiculously alluring and glamorous when fictionalized? We can thank all those successful novelists and screenwriters for our misconceptions about real jobs that entail demanding, often dreadfully tedious work.

Konigsburg’s article is candid, revealing, and worth reading. If you’re unfamiliar with Coben, this video offers a glimpse. He’s represented, if you’re even more curious, by Lisa Erbach Vance of the Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency.

Should authors seek agents for their book-length collections of short stories?

I’ll bet you thought there could be a yes or no answer to this question. Reality is much more complicated and ever changing.

It’s possible, but rare, for a creative writer to be so talented that, even though his or her first book is a collection of short stories, an agent would find it logical and worthwhile to begin working with the person in anticipation of future, more commercially viable, creative output. By “commercially viable,” I mean desired by big trade book publishers. In almost six years of agenting, I’ve encountered only one such writer, and I asked the person to get back in touch with me when a novel-in-progress is completed. However, there are quite a few literary agents in the U.S. who happily take bigger risks than I do. Every agency is different, as a look at each of our websites will reveal.

Almost every time I receive a query from a short-story writer looking for an agent, the letter I’ve copied and pasted below is the basic form of my response. Of course, my form reply doesn’t cover everything I’m looking for in a client, which is what the guidelines on my website are intended to convey to writers.

My form response is designed to encourage novice writers of short stories to begin learning about the business aspects of a professional writer’s career. Some eventually will decide that they don’t want their writing to be more than a hobby, because turning it into work isn’t pleasurable for them. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, except when hobbyists are unfortunately misguided into believing they’re entitled to demand that literary agents invest time and money to assist them as a courtesy, pro bono. Most writers are smart enough to catch on to business realities very quickly. There are many terrific publishing options for hobbyists.

My agency’s form reply to queries from short-story writers

It’s nice of you to contact me about representation. Please note that detailed query guidelines are posted on my website.

For an author of short fiction, accumulated writing credits are an important part of a query. Major book publishers in the U.S. typically prefer to acquire book-length collections of short stories only if the authors already have had a considerable number of the stories published in reputable literary magazines or anthologies. If you’re not sure which literary journals are the most prestigious, then you can find out where some prizewinning short stories first appeared by taking a look at these books, which should be available at your local library:

Pushcart Prize

Best American Short Stories & Best American Nonrequired Reading

The O. Henry Prize Stories

More of these types of anthologies are listed at:

Treated & Released

You can learn about submitting your work to literary journals and magazines by reading:

Poets & Writers

The Writer‘s Guide to Publishing in Literary Magazines and Entering Contests
by Ayelet Tsabari

The Review Review

I wish you the best of luck with your writing career.

isolated pen

© Geotrac | Dreamstime Stock Photos

For writers who have succeeded at having short stories published individually, a few agencies actively call for submissions of book-length collections of short stories. As of October 2014, two of them are the Renée Zuckerbot Literary Agency and the Waverly Place Literary Agency. An agent’s submission guidelines are subject to change at any time, so please alert me if I fail to notice when the current information about these agencies becomes obsolete. If I see it’s no longer true, I’ll cross it out.

There is hope that ebook publishing will permit a short-story renaissance. In all honesty, it’s more likely that the ease of self-publishing ebooks and POD books, coupled with the increased numbers of free online literary journals, will make many more short stories available to readers at little or no cost, and then the supply will outpace the demand from readers. At the same time, it’s interesting to note that more online literary journals are paying their contributors a modest amount, perhaps to attract better stories to publish, because they have lots of competition for submissions these days.

Dynamic, isn’t it?

Please feel free to share in the comments section the links to or names of any literary agents asking to see short-story collections. I hope this information is helpful.

Creative writing workshops and journals for physicians

physician

(Image courtesy of Penny Mathews)

The list of physicians who’ve sidelined as creative writers is extensive. The existence of the World Union of Physician Writers is a testament to the long tradition. Among the active writing groups, Pegasus Physicians meet regularly on the Stanford University campus and a creative writers’ group invites new members at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix. You can find the SEAK Physician and Lawyer Fiction Writers Group on LinkedIn.

A few workshops for physicians who write

Arts, Humanities, and Medicine Program at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics

Columbia University Medical Center’s Program in Narrative Medicine

Doctors Who…

The Examined Life Conference hosted by the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine

Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine

Literature + Medicine hosted at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas

Medicine Unboxed

Narrative Medicine

SEAK’s How to Earn Money as a Physician Writer

Seven Doctors Project (7DP)

The Storytelling Workshops collaboration between Massey College, Ars Medica, and the University of Toronto Health, Arts, and Humanities Program

Taos Writing & Wellness Retreat for Health Professionals presented by the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center Office of Continuing Education and The Permanente Journal, Kaiser Permanente

The Writing and Publishing CME course at Harvard Medical School

The Yale Internal Medicine Residency Writers’ Workshop for Yale residents

Journals that publish creative writing about the medical professions

Of course, any literary journal can publish the creative work of a physician, but the publications listed here specialize in the topics of illness, healing, and the medical professions.

AJN: American Journal of Nursing
Abaton – Des Moines University
Ars Medica
The Barefoot Review
Bellevue Literary Review – New York University Langone Medical Center
Blood and Thunder – University of Oklahoma College of Medicine
CHEST Journal
Connective Tissue – University of Texas Health Science Center of San Antonio’s School of Medicine
Dermanities – Online Journal of Community and Person-Centered Dermatology
The Examined Life Journal – University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine
The Healing Muse – SUNY Upstate Medical University’s Center for Bioethics & Humanities
Hektoen International
Hospital Drive – University of Virginia School of Medicine
The Human Touch – Anschutz Medical Campus at the University of Colorado
The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine – Columbia University
JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association
Journal of Medical Humanities
Journal of Poetry Therapy
Journal of Progressive Human Services
Leaflet – The Permanente Journal, Kaiser Permanente
Lifelines – Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College
Medical Literary Messenger
Narrateur – Hofstra North Shore—Long Island Jewish Health System School of Medicine, Hofstra University
Narratio Medicina
Oasis – Wake Forest School of Medicine
The Perch – Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health
The Pharos – Alpha Omega Alpha
Plexus – University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine
Poems in the Waiting Room
proto – Massachusetts General Hospital
Pulse: Voices from the Heart of Medicine – Department of Family and Social Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Survivor’s Review
Third Space – Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine
Wild Onions – Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine and Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine

Learn more

Creative Writing for Surgeons by Carol EH Scott-Conner, MD, PhD

Still can’t stop talking about it: Get Known Before the Book Deal

Day 19: I sincerely wish I could stop talking about it. I wish writers who send me queries had read Christina Katz’s Get Known Before the Book Deal and implemented the strategies she outlines in the book. I wish I didn’t need to tell so many prospective clients to back up and learn exactly what publishers and readers expect of them in 2014. I wish I were a fairy godmother with the power to transmit knowledge, skills, and business sense with the flick of a glitter-spangled wand. I’m weary of repeating myself. I’m whining today.

GET KNOWN BEFORE THE BOOK DEAL by Christina KatzHowever, there is good news! There’s an upside of my frustration, which I assure you is shared by at least a few other agents, as well as book editors and publishers, not to mention successful authors who frequently are asked how they got so lucky. The bright side is that the unbelievably small percentage of writers who apply—that is, put into practice rather than just reading—Christina Katz’s advice can achieve an enormous advantage over the larger number of writers who don’t.

Think about that. Did you just feel the power shifting?

Christina doesn’t promise instant results, and she doesn’t say it’s easy when it’s not. No one ever truly masters self-promotion in a turbulent market, and the mere attempt takes a lot of time. More hard work is exactly what average writers or wannabes will not confront. They believe they should be finished with the work part when they put the last words on the last pages of their manuscripts. They’re ready for the cake, punch, and applause precisely when the going really gets tough. C’mon. Take advantage of their mistakes.

Writers need to exploit every possible asset in order to stand out among thousands of contenders and to get their books noticed among the incredible quantity of titles now frictionlessly available to readers. Those readers easily can choose similar content in other media, often at less expense. Writers who are aware of their competition, respect readers, perfect their manuscripts, consider their art a career, and demonstrate their ability to engage their intended audience, well…

We know who they are.

Full disclosure

Christina Katz is my friend, but I recommend her book because the advice in it is so good. Chuck Sambuchino wrote a similar manual called Create Your Writer Platform, but then I must admit that Chuck’s a friend, too. There’s also Amanda Luedeke’s ebook, The Extroverted Writer: An Author’s Guide to Marketing and Building a Platform. I’ve met Amanda. I like and respect her. She’s a dynamo. Several other books cover this very topic, and some of these resources are likely to be available at the nearest library. By the way, my old neighbor Bob Robertson-Boyd developed the WorldCat interface that shows the closest library where a copy of a particular book can be borrowed.

Musical accompaniment

Believe it or not, I do have a heart. It gets crumpled a lot, to the tune of “The Laugh of Recognition.” Over the Rhine are some of my favorite musicians.

BookADay-The Borough Press

An old favourite: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

Day 14: I wonder if the folks at the Borough Press who promoted this month of prompts about memorable books have noticed that people tend to like favorable opinions more than unfavorable ones. Favorite is today’s broad category, but old doesn’t narrow it down much for those of us who are old. From many possibilities, I chose a book that I cherish but others consider old and outdated in spite of the fact that Oxford University Press went to the trouble of publishing a facsimile edition in 2010: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by Henry Watson Fowler. It’s a publisher’s job to know that plenty of us love our Fowlers.

A Dictionary of Modern English UsageBarton Swaim wrote a good review of the new edition of the book for The New Criterion. I can’t help but think that only a person with a name like Barton Swaim should have an opinion about Fowler, but then Swaim is a native South Carolinian who lives in Columbia, less than 100 miles from me. Until I moved to this state, no one had ever before greeted me in passing by saying, “Top o’ the mornin’ to ye.” All sorts of traditions have been preserved around here over the centuries.

Swaim’s review includes a few excerpts. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is designed to help you to decide rather than to tell you how to write. If you were to try to scan an entry to alleviate some confusion about how to use a particular word, you’d be thwarted by something similar to this, which is about 5% of Fowler’s full discussion of “who and whom”:

…the thing to aim at is the establishment of ‘that’ as the universal defining relative, with ‘which’ and ‘who(m)’ as the non-defining for things and persons respectively. That consummation will not be brought about just yet; but we contribute our little towards it every time we write “The greatest poet ‘that’ ever lived,” or “The man ‘that’ I found confronting me,” instead of using ‘who’ and ‘whom.’ Failing the use of ‘that’ as the only defining relative, it is particularly important to see that ‘who’ defining shall not have a comma before it, and ‘who’ non-defining shall.

The section goes on to provide an example with wrong commas, which I won’t include because to my great dismay this new blog theme forces block quotes into all italics. Maddening. Oops, an unfavorable opinion. Sorry. More importantly, Fowler’s examples are instructive and often humorous, and deciphering his explanations is a big part of the fun.

BookADay-The Borough Press

Have more than one copy: A Writer’s Reference

A Writer's ReferenceDay 8: A Writer’s Reference is the abridged edition of Diana Hacker’s The Bedford Handbook. Roughly the size of an old-fashioned address book with a plastic comb binding, its best feature is the convenient, easy-to-use design. Nancy Sommers is the lead co-author of the newer editions.

My copies—one for home and one for the office—are antiques, and I’ve given and frequently recommended the compact handbook. Everyone seems to appreciate A Writer’s Reference‘s many examples, some illustrated with correction marks. Lately, there are ebook editions, as well as a website, Writer’s Help, which expands on the content in A Writer’s Reference and is touted for its search and social features.

You might question whether A Writer’s Reference is worth the steep price, now that few people fret about grammar, punctuation, or word choice. I suppose an answer can be found in Taylor Mali‘s poem “The The Impotence of Proofreading.” You’ve seen the video of his reading, but here it is again, from the Bowery Poetry Club in 2005.

The Diana Hacker TYCA Outstanding Programs in English Awards, which is sponsored by the Two-Year College English Association (TYCA) of the National Council of Teachers of English and the books’ publisher, Bedford/St. Martin’s, is accepting program nominations online until November 10, 2014.

BookADay-The Borough Press