Podcasts for writers

It’s been years since I’ve spent this much time on cardio machines at the gym. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve long been a compulsive exerciser. But in Houston, I ran outside all year round. And upstate New York? Not so much.

So this winter, to pass the time on the treadmill, I tried something new: podcasts. I’m kinda embarrassed to admit this, because podcasts are so yesterday’s technology. But I’ve always been more of a fan of the written word than audio.

Turns out there are quite a few podcasts out there for writers! Whatdoyaknow. If you’re a newbie like me, you can listen to most of these audio files right on the Web site or download it to your iPod through iTunes. In addition to listening to the latest ones, check out the archives.

Podcasts for writers:

  • The New York Times Book Review. Interviews with authors whose books are reviewed by The New York Times. Each podcast also includes an industry update and overview of bestseller lists. This is one of my faves. It’s also shorter than some of the other podcasts, so my child-like attention span lasts for the entire thing.
  • Writers on Writing (or Pen on Fire). Live interviews with writers, poets and literary agents. Hosted by author Barbara DeMarco-Barrett.
  • I Should Be Writing. Mostly about fiction, but motivational for all writers. By Mur Lafferty, who says she’s a wanna-be writer just like her listeners.
  • Writing Excuses. I’ve yet to try this one, but I’ve heard it’s quite popular, so wanted to include it here. Several contributors.

And, of course, there are lots of fabulous podcasts out there that aren’t writing specific. I like the New York Times’ Story of the Day and World Story of the Day (I can’t find links for these but you can subscribe through iTunes). Lots of people are super into National Public Radio’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and This American Life from Chicago Public Radio.

What are your favorite podcasts?

Stephen King’s On Writing

I just finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A memoir of the craft.

Since I started my travel memoir nearly a year ago, I’ve read quite a few books on writing. So far this is my favorite.

Why? Because King offers practical advice. Instead of emphasizing that writing is different for every writer, he tells us what works for him and what might work for us.

Full disclosure: I skipped the first third of King’s book, the part about his life, and went right to the sections on writing. I’d never read one of his books before — I’m not a horror fan — so I wasn’t much interested in learning about his life. But the writing parts were so well done and offered enough enticing glimpses into his personality that I may re-read from the beginning.

A few things I learned from King:

~ When you start writing, it’s okay not to know how the book will read when you finish. Start with an idea — a situation, King calls it — and uncover the story like a fossil. Symbolism in particular should not be plotted; if something is meant to be symbolic, he says, you’ll notice when you revise and polish till it shines.

“Once your basic story is on paper,” he writes, “you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions.”

While he’s talking primarily about fiction, this advice also can apply to nonfiction. I thought I knew how my travel memoir would turn out; after all, I experienced it. But ideas, themes and realizations have become clearer through the writing process.

~ Think about your story as a What If? What if a woman decided to backpack alone through Africa? What would happen? And since I’m writing nonfiction, what did happen?

~ 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10 percent. I love this formula partly because it reaffirms my own revision process, which has included cutting about ten percent of my first draft.

~ It can’t hurt to hear certain advice a second, third, fourth time. Don’t use adverbs. To write well, read a lot. Write every day. Description is a matter of how-to and how-much-to; don’t overdo it. Even though I’ve heard all this advice before, King’s explanations of why they apply, as well as his specific examples, were helpful.

(Want more? Read excerpts from the book here.)

I was also shocked to read advice that King attributed to novelist Elmore Leonard: Leave out the boring parts. These exact words came out of my mouth three months ago when I was talking with a writer at my Hambidge residency. I was trying to explain how I would cut word from the first draft of my too-long travel memoir, and when I said that, the phrase sounded awkward, not well-thought out. But the writer friend (or, more accurately, best-selling author friend) told me the following day that he’d thought a lot about those words, that they would change how he revised of his own book. Little did I know they’d already been said and attributed.

Any fans of On Writing out there? Care to share what you learned?

Best Posts of 2009 (or what I learned this year)

Since launching this blog in April, I’ve learned a lot.

I’ve come so far, in fact, that it’s almost embarrassing to read some of my initial posts, when I was confused about newbie details like when to query literary agents (when my memoir is done) and what’s an appropriate word count for my book (90,000 max).

But that’s why I created this blog, to document my learning process so you don’t make the same mistakes I have. When I write my next book, I’ll have this blog to remind me what works and what doesn’t.

To celebrate the end of this year, I’ve created a Best Posts of 2009 list. It includes some of my favorites, as well as posts that were popular with readers:

  • A kick in the butt. Advice from an author who said I should spend less time learning about publishing and more time writing.

Now I’d love to hear from you: What did you learn in 2009?

Mira’s List of grants, fellowships & residencies

I recently discovered a fabulous blog, Mira’s List, which helps writers, artists and other creative thinkers find grants, fellowships, residencies and more resources. Who’s the woman, I wondered, who compiled this valuable information for free and shared it with everyone lucky enough to stumble across her site?

Mira Bartok, of Mira's List

Mira Bartok, of Mira's List

Turns out she’s quite the interesting character. Mira Bartok has published her writing in anthologies and literary journals and is the author of more than 30 children’s books on world cultures. She recently sold her first full-length book for adults, an illustrated memoir entitled The Memory Palace. She’s also a visual artist who exhibits her work at museums and galleries throughout the United States and abroad, and she serves as a spokesperson for A Room of Her Own Foundation, a foundation for women writers.

I considered simply linking to Mira’s List and leaving it at that — her blog alone is a wealth of information. But then Mira agreed to an interview. So continue reading below, and you’ll learn not only more about what makes this artist tick, but also a few of the gems for writers she has come across in her research.

Thanks for joining us, Mira! It sounds like you’re a jack of many trades. What’s your day job?

The short answer is that I don’t have a day job. Over the last ten years I’ve been recovering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI), a result of a bad car accident, and after trying to teach part-time and do a variety of freelance writing that I used to do before the TBI, I ended up having to go on disability. About five years ago I won a lawsuit from the accident and that, plus some grants, thankfully provided me with enough to live on until now.

Fortunately, I just sold my book to Simon & Schuster! That should get me through the next two to three years if I’m careful. But I’m one of the millions out there without a pension plan, an IRA or 401 K, etc. etc. When I was younger, in my twenties and thirties, I made a living as a cultural specialist and educator in museums, and also taught the occasional university class. I also spent several years writing a children’s book series on different cultures to pay the bills. Oddly enough, I’ve made most of my living from either doing art or writing.

Why did you start Mira’s List?

I began Mira’s List as a blog late in the winter of 2009. But I had been sending announcements out to a list of people, about a hundred of them, for a year or so before that. What started as my nagging about ten good friends to apply for things turned into a longer list of their friends and their friends’ friends and eventually, I thought I would serve people better if the whole thing became a public forum. I believe in championing people and helping others to succeed and become more resourceful. I was helped a lot by various institutions during my recovery period so it is my little way of giving back.

What are a few of your favorite grants and fellowships for writers?

Wow. That’s hard to say. If we are talking about the Big Ones, then of course, getting a Guggenheim, a Radcliffe or an NEA would be high on the list! But there are also those smaller grants, the ones that are rather particular to certain kinds of people or art forms that don’t usually get much attention. The Xeric Foundation gives grants to comic book writers/artists and as far as I know, it might be the only institution of its kind. Oh, Creative Capital is fantastic. They do all kinds of things and are totally open to New Media and experimental work from all genres. Some people call it the gift that keeps on giving.

Another place that is great is the Haven Foundation, which was started by the writer Stephen King after, oddly enough, recovering from his own TBI. They give up to $25,000 a year for four years in a row to writers and others in the arts who have suffered an illness or some kind of financial disaster. I wish they were around when I was looking for help in 1999! Anyway, there are many, many little gems out there, and I hope they survive these hard times.

You’re an encyclopedia of knowledge! What about residencies for writers?

You know, when people are starting out looking for residencies, they first hear of MacDowell and Yaddo and think, gee, I’ll never get into those. I haven’t even published a book yet. Well, those places are amazing but there are also dozens of places all over the world that are interested in not only established writers and artists but emerging ones as well. And I have seen some really interesting environmental residencies popping up every year. Where people go and not only do their work but also collaborate with other artists on an environmental theme, or they do some kind of community project. Sitka Center for Art and Ecology is one environmental residency I’ve heard great things about. There are also some very intriguing cross-genre residencies, like the Binaural Residency Program in Portugal, which brings together sound artists, writers, musicians and others to create new media sound projects.

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Books on writing memoir

As a journalist in a newsroom, I never worried about how to write. I just did it. I put words on my computer screen to meet a deadline.

But memoir, in full-book form, is a different game. One of the ways I’ve adjusted is by reading books on the craft of writing. So during the last few months, I’ve asked writers and literary agents, through online forums, to recommend books on craft. They’ve repeated some of the same titles again and again. Several are specific to writing memoir, while others apply to any genre.

Here’s what’s on my reading list:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (Just picked this one up from the library.)

Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer

The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction: How to Write and Sell the Novel of True Events by Peter Rubie (I can recommend this one.)

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington

Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg.

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir by William Zinsser

The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing: How to Transform Memories into Meaningful Stories by Sharon Lipppincott

Can you add any books to this list?

Writers’ Roundup

Pieces of my book are starting to come together. I’m now plugging a few holes in Chapters Seven, Eight and Nine, and should soon be able to read straight through ’em.

A few links that helped focus my writer’s mind this week:

* A hilarious post on how to be a good local author. Note to self: Do not call neighborhood bookstore every week to ask how my book is selling.

* Jane Friedman of Writer’s Digest explains what it takes for a blog to become a book. “Consider how a book will offer an experience or a benefit that is unique or distinctive apart from the blog,” she advises.

* General but very helpful advice for authors on Seth Godin’s blog. “The best time to start promoting your book,” he writes, “is three years before it comes out.”

* How do prolific writers manage to write so much? Insight from the Writing Companion blog.

* A smorgasbord of 54 Tips for Writers, From Writers, including: “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” — Margaret Atwood

* A revision checklist from Nathan Bradford. Saving this for later. You might also check out his writing advice database.

*Advice for pulling off a great library event. Yet another promotional tool I’ll need later.

Have a great weekend!

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Get dressed? Hell no. I work from home.

Working at home is not turning out to be one of my strong suits. Aside from visiting the kitchen pantry every half hour, I’m easily distracted by everything from the mailman to the dust accumulating on my office windowsill.

So it seemed fitting when a friend forwarded me an article about how to stay focused, 10 Unconscious Cues to Create a Work-Life Balance. That is, until I read author Jonathan Fields’ first tip: Get dressed. He writes:

Yes, this is one of the biggest luxuries of working from home. It’s beautiful to be able to walk from the bedroom to the office in my PJs to turn on the computer, walk downstairs with bed hair to make coffee, and make it for a conference call before brushing my teeth. But it’s important to cue your body and mind to take off “home” and put on “work.” Then, when you get out of your work clothes, you might be better able to get out of your work mode, too.

Is he saying my all-fleece outfit isn’t cutting it? Or that I shouldn’t spend half my work hours wrapped up in a blanket? Puh-lease. Work-at-home writers, I know you’re with me on this one: Bras are overrated.

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Literary agent Rachelle Gardner addresses memoir

Memoir includes elements of both nonfiction and fiction, as I’ve discussed before on this blog. While literary agent Miss Snark calls it a pesky category buster, until today I was ready to call it the forgotten genre. Although literary agents seem eager to represent memoir, most don’t specifically address the genre or its submission guidelines online.

So when literary agent Rachelle Gardner called for questions on her Rants & Ramblings blog, I jumped right in with inquires about memoir. Today she answered them! I’ll paste part of her post here, but for her full answer and readers’ comments (which are quite helpful), check out the entire post on memoir guidelines.

Alexis Grant asked: Would you consider a post on memoir guidelines, since memoir falls somewhere between fiction and nonfiction in many ways? For my travel memoir, should I query when I have a proposal and several sample chapters, like nonfiction, or wait until the manuscript is complete, like fiction? What’s the usual word-count window for memoir? Are there any other areas—aside from reading like a novel—where I should follow fiction guidelines instead of nonfiction?

Great questions! I think memoir requires the most out of a writer, because it’s non-fiction, so platform matters. But it’s also story-driven and the writing is the most important aspect, so it requires the level of attention to the art and craft of writing that fiction does.

I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about whether to query with sample chapters or a complete manuscript. With a first-timer, I always prefer to read the whole thing before I make a decision whether to take it on. At the very least, I want to read three or four chapters, and perhaps rough versions or outlines of the remaining chapters.

I DO recommend finishing the manuscript before you query. Like with a first novel, you are going to discover so much in the writing process. I believe your book will morph and evolve throughout the writing, and so those first few chapters, though written, will not actually be complete until you’ve finished the book. A memoir is a work of art much more than the typical non-fiction book.

If you don’t read Rachelle’s blog, start now. It’s worth your time!

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My nonfiction novel

I know what you’re thinking: It’s an oxymoron. Novels are fiction.

But when it comes to narrative nonfiction, the genre of my book, labels aren’t that simple. My travel memoir tells a true story, but it’s meant to read like a novel.

That means I’ve got to work elements of fiction into my book, including dialogue, character development, conflict and literary techniques like the metaphor, which I haven’t used since college.

This isn’t easy for me. As a journalist, I’m used to writing short, true stories that are straight to the point, not subtly dramatic. I’m used to quoting scarcely. I’m used to keeping my voice and humor out of the story.

But for this memoir, I want my voice to shine through. To help me along, I’m reading Peter Rubie’s The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction (a book recommended by a literary agent on Twitter, which is where I seem to get all my good leads these days).

To tell you the truth, it has taken this long — four months of delving into my book — to figure out my own voice, my style, my writing humor. But now I’m finally getting it! My nonfiction novel is starting to come together.

Critiquing my critique group

If I can’t get into a writers’ colony, I figured, I’ll join a critique group.

I found one pretty quickly in my area, through the Hudson Valley Writers Guild. And they met at my local library! How convenient.

But when I showed up at a meeting for the first time, I felt slightly out of place; I was about 30 years younger than everyone else in the room. In some cases, 50 years younger.

What did I expect? I was in suburbia, attending a meeting in the middle of the day. Of course all the other writers were retired. What other writers in their late 20s would be crazy enough to move back to suburbia and live with their parents so they could afford to write full time?

Somehow we got into a conversation about advice their mothers used to give them when they were little: Never get in a car when you’re not wearing underwear. Because if you get in an accident, and paramedics have to treat you, everyone will know you left the house without your panties.

(Yes, this is my life. I’m a 28-year-old living in suburbia with my parents and attending daytime meetings with gray-haired women who talk about their underwear. This book had better be worth it.)

I ditched the group even though they were a welcoming bunch. Not because they were old, but because they wrote poetry and haiku, and critiquing that type of writing requires a different eye than nonfiction. Then earlier this week, I tried a second group, one for nonfiction writers. And bam! We connected. I was still the youngest participant, but I left the meeting with a solid critique of six pages of a chapter. I felt like I helped the other writers, too.

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