Poetry Submissions

It’s been a busy period, getting classes started, welcoming new students to our MFA program, and working on the schedule for next semester — yes as an administrator, I always have to be thinking ahead! Yet maybe the most fun part of the new academic year has been spent with poetry submissions, which I’m looking at from both sides now.

On the one hand, all summer in any spare moments I can find, I’ve been reading poetry submissions for Poetry South. This is our second issue of editing the magazine, and this time I vowed to take a more active role. With Issue 8, I let our Literary Magazine Production class take the lead in reading through the slush pile, and I weighed in more with the final decisions and with putting the magazine together. Once the class moved on to focus on our other literary magazine Ponder ReviewI took on the slush for Poetry South.

Last semester that was a trickle and was fairly manageable to do on my own, but as we put out a call for submissions and as our annual July 15 deadline loomed, I knew I would be overwhelmed, so I did call in reinforcements with 3 volunteers over the summer. We received about an additional 180 submissions. Reading them has been fun and challenging, and it has given me insights into my own submission process:

  1. I need to submit more and to more places. Editing a magazine drives home the old advice that every journal has way more submissions than they can possibly use. So you need to get your work out to many places. I still don’t like doing too many simultaneous submissions, but I have quite a few poems, so I need to keep them out there, and when a magazine has had them for awhile, I’d rather send those poems somewhere else and then withdraw from whoever accepts first.
  2. There’s a lot of pretty decent poetry out there. Some of it may be better than others, but what gets accepted often has more to do with what strikes an editor’s fancy than absolute quality. Maybe a poem works well with another poem that’s been accepted. Or maybe the editors don’t want two similar poems in the same issue. Judgements can be arbitrary and subjective (but when you’re accepted, it’s still a sure sign that your poem was the best).
  3. I will try to avoid submitting close to a deadline — I’m looking further out and trying to submit while there’s still a fair amount of time left. I know from my reading experience that the last poems in chronological order are likely to get less attention. On the other hand, I’m still looking for a few really good submissions, so it’s never too late. The bar may be higher, but a great poem will still get noticed.
  4. I will look for calls for submission in some of the same places I post them — Submittable, CRWROPPS, Duotrope, etc. I know when I do that many others will be submitting but the journals are actively seeking submissions. I also go back to some of my favorite journals and try to catch them when their submission periods are starting. I set reminders for myself if there’s a place I really want to target.
  5. I will keep submitting even if submissions keep getting returned. I know how overwhelmed journal editors are (and Poetry South is a small magazine with many fewer submissions than most). I can’t take it personally, though I will take any individualized note about a submission personally. If someone takes the time to do that, then I’m happy.

The nice thing about working with Kathleen, Xenia, and Tammie on Poetry South is that I don’t feel I have to catch everything. If I’m tired and therefore don’t pay close attention to a poem, one of them wi’ll let me know if they saw anything in it. If someone liked it, I’ll give it another look. If it didn’t speak to anyone, then we’re probably safe passing on it and letting another editor at another magazine take it. Nobody’s perfect, and if we miss a great poem, well, so be it.

Besides reading submissions, I’ve been sending poems out. I’m trying to target my submissions better (always) and trying to shoot for better placement in magazines with larger subscription bases and bigger reputations, though I’m also looking for good little magazines that maybe I haven’t heard of. I want to send to a mix of magazines so my odds of getting accepted are better, and yet the chance of getting in a top market is good.

And I wrote my publisher, Texas Review Press and sent them a book proposal for poetry collection #4, currently with the working title of Breathe and Other Poems. Let’s see if they bite…

Dispatch from the #MSBookfest

MS Book Festival with capitol dome
This past Saturday, I spent almost 10 hours outside on the capitol grounds in Jackson, Mississippi. Under normal circumstance, you might have to be crazy to do that in August, but this was no ordinary Saturday. It was the 3rd annual Mississippi Book Festival, and I was there in my third role.

The first year of the festival, I came down as a volunteer, and spent my morning in the Information tent, telling people where to go and how to get there: questions I quickly learned how to answer, even though I hadn’t been there myself. Fortunately, by afternoon, I was relieved from my post and went inside. I even managed to get into a few of the panels (attendance was high that first year, and you had to get in line early — attendance is still high, but there are more sessions in bigger rooms, which helps).

My second year, I was on the poetry panel, so I spent much of my time indoors waiting for my panel, reading, and listening to other panels. I did go outside to sign books and then to browse the bookstores and exhibitor booths.

This year, I opted to be an exhibitor myself, getting a booth for our low-residency MFA program. I also brought along brochures for our undergraduate concentration, the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, the Ephemera Prize for High School Writers, Poetry South, and Ponder Review. I even brought my books and a brochure for A Writer’s Craft.

One thing I learned was that if you arrive at 7am and stay outdoors all day, it doesn’t seem as hot as it does when you come back from a midday break indoors and experience the heat full strength. The shade helped enormously, of course, as did the occasional downdraft of cooler air from one of the pop-up thunderstorms that went over, but didn’t drop much rain (thank goodness, though I had a tarp, just in case). And naturally, it’s good to bring plenty of water and dress appropriately for the weather. I kept my water bottle filled, and I wore a new quick dry, W Owls polo.

View from our table at MS Bookfest

It was also fun to meet the other exhibitors, and to talk to all the attendees who stopped by. It was great to meet prospective students, writers, high school students who were excited about the Ephemera prize, and W alumni who wanted to reminisce about the good old days.

Thanks to Carol Ruth Silver and Michael Farris Smith for stopping by, as well as to current MFA students Sally Lyon and Katrina Byrd. It was also great to see all the young kids who were enjoying the book festival: one barely old enough to read, but very excited to be there.

I gave away nearly all my brochures, and even ran out the one for the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. I passed out copies of Poetry South, along with bookmarks, calls for submissions, pens, stickers, and the ever popular W mints. Though I didn’t get to go inside to catch any readings (next year, I need some helpers), when I did go in for my break, I could tell the crowd seemed every bit as big as in years past, and every bit as satisfied with the event. And when I was outside at the table, I was entertained by live music, people watching,  butterflies, and a gorgeous day.

If you haven’t been to the Mississippi Book Festival, you owe it to yourself to go next year. If you’re a writer, you might get on a panel (or set up your own booth for self-published and small press authors). If you are with a literary or arts organization, then you might want to have your own exhibitor’s table. And if you’re in the general public, then you can just go and enjoy all the free readings and entertainment, and maybe even buy a book or two. There are also plenty of food trucks with po’boys, catfish, popsicles, and other summer delicacies.

It is billed as the “hottest book festival in the country,” but don’t let the fact that it’s in August hold you back — if my fellow exhibitors and I can handle staying outside all day in 90+ degrees with a heat index over 100, then you can handle trips to the outdoor tents sandwiched in between readings in the Capitol and neighboring venues.

The Life of a Blog Post

Today, I want to take a little trip down my own geek highway. Every now and then (maybe more often than I’m willing to admit), I check the stats on my blog. It’s one of the features I like about WordPress, by the way. I can see who’s reading what and sometimes that affects what categories I write about. But the thing I’ve noticed about my blog, and the thing I want to write about here, is what I’ve learned by digging down a bit deeper into my stats.

From the basic daily graph, I can tell that my most popular content has consistently remained the same, and I’ve even written about it in posts like” How to Drive Traffic to Your Blog: Be Useful.” Diving deeper into WordPress’s stats by clicking on the title of the post, I can also see how individual posts have performed over time.

By organizing the daily graph by weeks, months, or years, I can get a longer-term view of what posts have performed best. My most popular post ever by far is “How I fixed my DSL modem connection, no thanks to ATT support.” I wrote it in May 2013 and it garnered a modest 33 visits that month. Not bad for a tiny little blog lost somewhere in the outer reaches of the blogosphere. But by the end of the year, after steady growth in December it achieved 1,802 views and I was amazed. Clearly something had happened to get this post noticed: maybe a repost or link somewhere had led to higher search engine rankings or the fact that I gave detailed replies to people’s comments may have helped. Even more astounding, over 4 years later, the same post still garners around 4,000 views a month and averages 137 views per day.

This defies the conventional logic of how blogging works. According to Ted Murphy in an undated Convince and Convert article “New Study Reveals the Lifetime Value of a Blog Post,” the conventional wisdom had been that the life of a blog post peaked after only a few days. He cites studies that show the life of a post may be highest in the first days, but that there is significant traffic for the next 700 days, and the height of the peak and the thickness of the tail varies, depending on the content. Still, they predict that 99% of a post’s traffic will be spent within two years.

“How I fixed my DSL modem” clearly challenges this. The post’s best month so far was in October 2016, over 3 years after the post was written, and if annual trends continue, I am set to break this record sometime in 2017, since my monthly and daily averages continue to rise. I certainly never expected a post that I wrote, essentially as a rant against ATT and as a reminder to myself of the things I’d done to get my DSL modem to work, would ever gain this level of popularity. I didn’t plan it, but it has made me curious.

Okay, you might say, that’s one post. An outlier. And certainly, it is, as none of my other posts, even ones on related topics, have performed that well. But overall, I do see a similar trend. My second-most popular post, about how I fixed my Macbook’s trackpad, has seen similar growth. I wrote it in June 2015. It received 15 hits that month, 19 the next, and then it started a gradual growth. As of now, the best month has been May 2017, practically two years after the post was written, and it is still garnering over 800 hits a month. It’s hard to tell whether that will last, whether there will be another spike, or whether the hits will start to taper off.

Other posts on non-technology topics have done the same. In 2013, I wrote a series of posts on Life with Canine Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia. The initial post peaked two years later in July of 2015, though it continues to get 20-30 hits a month. A related post on feeding your dog buttermilk, written in 2014, reached its current peak in March of 2017 with 523 views. Apparently, a lot of people are interested in buttermilk and whether it’s okay to give to dogs. Who knew…

Many of my posts on creative writing programs or poetry have had similar, steady growth, often going along with a modest amount of initial interest for awhile and then taking off a year or more into their life-cycles. The more people read and perhaps mention these sleepy little posts, the more attention they begin to garner, until it snowballs into respectable numbers. (I won’t claim any post as viral, but some do all right.)

This pattern is borne out by a study written in ConfluentForms, Content Strategy, Life Cycles, & types of Evergreen Content by David Kutcher in 2013.  Kutcher describes how the lifespan of longer content (longer than a Facebook post, Tweet, or Tumblr) can tend to grow over time and build an audience. He describes strategies to foster this, such as revisiting old content and updating older posts — I wonder if responding to comments may have a similar effect. I haven’t tried to get my posts to be “evergreen,” but I have tried to notice what makes them perform well.

What I’ve learned is that life of a blog post may much longer than you think. I’ve watched as posts I’ve written, that I thought would never take off, eventually became my most popular posts, outperforming my highest expectations and lasting much longer than I would have ever dreamed when I wrote them. You can’t always predict what those posts will be, but if you treat your topics with care, write cogently and communicate well, then there’s always a chance that your writing will reach its audience. And if that does happen to that rant or that nerdy little foray into a subject you thought no one else in the world could care about, you’ll be glad your post is well written if you’ve taken the care to do that initially, once thousands of people have visited your site.

How A Writer’s Craft Came to Be.

img_0354Today, I received copies of my introductory 4-genre creative writing textbook, A Writer’s Craft, hot off the presses in both hardback and paperback. So it seemed like a good time to reflect back on how I got to this point.

When I began the project, I wasn’t planning on publishing a textbook; in fact, the initial writing that eventually became the book were the notes I created for my creative writing class. First, I wrote notes to fill in the gaps in the textbooks I was using or to complement, and at times even argue with, the way that information was presented in each book.

Eventually, after using three or four different texts and finding none that really met my need, and after thinking about how much material of my own I brought to the table, I decided it was time to leave a textbook behind and work from my own notes. Still, I wanted to give students something: something to read before class so they would be prepared, something to study from for their tests, something to take with them after the class was over. I realized I didn’t want to abandon a textbook altogether; I wanted to create my own. But I wasn’t seriously thinking about publishing one. Maybe in the back of my mind, I thought it could happen, if it turned out to be useful.

So I sat down with my notes and thought about the order that I really wanted to present my material in. I thought about the things from different textbooks that weren’t in the one I was using. I thought about the things in my notes that I had added over the years, some of which I wasn’t able to cover with the book I had just been using, some of which I had found a way to slip in. I thought about what I wouldn’t want to do that these authors did.

And then I started writing, trying as much as possible to take my own path and not to be too heavily influenced by others. If one textbook used a term that no one else did, I tried to avoid it. Naturally, standard literary terms like simile or point of view weren’t at issue, but I tried to give my own take on all the material presented, then I cross-checked to make sure I wasn’t borrowing from others.

These notes, I posted in the online course shell (first in Blackboard and then in Canvas) for my class in a few formats: pdf, epub, mobi, and as part of the discussion area. Students began using them (I’m not sure which format was most popular, though I suspect pdf was, since everyone has Adobe Reader), and the class went pretty well.

Because it wasn’t a flop — not too much of a surprise, since I’ve been teaching for over 20 years — and because I often hear people complaining about textbooks, especially the cost, I sent a copy of the finished notes to a couple of friends to teach creative writing with one question: do you think there would be a demand for a book like this? Their answer was a resounding yes. Of course, they are friends, but I did feel they would have told me if they thought it wouldn’t be well received.

So the next time I taught the course, I revised my notes based on the previous year’s experiences. I took my students’ comments into consideration and tried to add more on creative nonfiction and drama, for instance, and I fixed a few things that didn’t work as well as I wanted them to. Then, at AWP I approached a friend of a friend who edits a series of books on creative writing pedagogy. I didn’t think he would be able to publish a textbook, but I thought he might have some ideas. He agreed to read the manuscript, and ultimately recommended it to Palgrave.

There were a few missed connections along the way — emails that went astray, queries about whether there had been a response, copies of the manuscript that disappeared into the ether (not my only copy, just ones I sent out), but eventually Palgrave said they were interested in seeing a full book proposal, and since they had already reviewed the manuscript, it wouldn’t be necessary to resubmit it.

I had already filled out some book proposals for a couple of other textbook publishers (who didn’t bite), so I already had some ideas on the market for intro creative writing textbooks and how mine was different. It didn’t take too long to put everything in Palgrave’s format and fill in the gaps where they asked for information I hadn’t thought of already.

Pretty soon, they accepted the proposal and then sent the manuscript out for peer review. Their reviewers gave comments, I responded, and we negotiated how much revision would be necessary for the final draft. Essentially it boiled down to making the manuscript more accessible for an international market (since Palgrave is based in the UK and also markets to Australia) and adding in a few fairly minor things. I also proposed adding another chapter and an appendix to account for a few issues that were raised. They sent me a contract. I signed it, and then had about 3 months to write the revisions.

That was intense, but I managed to do it, adding things like the glossary and list of references, and preparing to add an index once the actual pages were ready. The final draft went to a company in India for proofreading and final editing, so the next 3-4 months were spent responding to their suggested changes, negotiating punctuation (English or American rules, and how to apply them), and working some on the design once we got to the stage of doing final proofs on the pdfs.

One issue that came up was how to format the writing exercises at the end of each chapter. We settled on using a numbered list to make it clear where one exercise begins and ends, and also to make them easier to assign for instructors. I had the idea to use the nib image from the cover, miniaturized and in black, as a marker at the beginning of the exercise sections. It was a nice way to pull that detail in and tie the book together, and it separated the text of each chapter from the end matter. Palgrave did a great job of implementing that idea — and the cover design, which one of their artists hand sketched, is gorgeous. I also love the way they brought that design onto the back cover.

back coverSince then, I’ve been waiting for my books to arrive, working on the companion website, and trying to generate some interest.

As I look back on it, I realize it took a ton of work to get to this point — mine, friends’ (thank you for reading and giving me comments!), Palgrave’s, and the production company’s. It hardly seems possible from this vantage point, yet over the four years since I started this project, I’ve taken it one step at a time, and each step didn’t seem so daunting as I did it. Of course, in the meantime, I also published a book of poems, kept busy starting a low-residency MFA program, and taught my other classes at Mississippi University for Women! It’s been a wild ride, and I’m happy to start the next phase with books in hand.

Fun with ATT Support

Since I know a few people follow my ongoing saga with ATT on this blog, I thought I’d chronicle the latest. Yesterday our U-verse phone service went out, though we still had internet service (the other day my wife was having poor internet service, so we rebooted the U-verse router and after awhile got both internet and phone back up and running, but maybe it’s connected). At first, we had a dial tone, but when I tried to dial a number, I only got static, no ring. So I went into the Status page for the U-verse modem and restarted the phone service. It said it restarted successfully, but it also said that it was “registering.” And it said that for over 24 hours (even after I’d contacted support). But at this point when I tried to dial out, I got a busy signal.

Since we still had internet, I went to att.com and tried to get support. Their support portal took me to the Troubleshoot and Resolve tool, which made me go through all the steps, like making sure my phone was plugged in. I answered appropriately and eventually got to a point where it seemed to be testing my phone connection, then it told me I needed a new modem and asked if I wanted them to ship me one for free (with U-verse, you rent your modem/gateway for about $7 a month—a good thing, since we went through several “crappy modems” (that’s what the tech guy called them) before getting one that worked for a couple of years. Now it apparently bit the dust.

I said “yes,” answered a couple more questions, and when it came time to get the shipment details, the support program crashed and I lost any info I had on it. So, I thought I’d ordered a new gateway/modem and had no idea how long it would take to arrive. I didn’t want to restart the modem because I didn’t want to risk losing DSL, so we were without a phone line for over 24 hours.

That brings us to this afternoon. As I was beginning this post, the modem arrived. Actually, before that, I was able to log in to ATT and this time saw there was a message telling me the modem had shipped and I could install my new equipment. That was great, but there was still no tracking number, so I had no idea when it would arrive until FedEx came knocking at my door.

In the box was a new gateway, about twice the size of our old one (a bit of an issue for the space we have it in, but I’ll deal), and a very basic setup guide. Basically, it said to remove our old cables and put them in the same ports on the new gateway. I did that, and it didn’t take too long — would have taken less time, but I decided to replace one cable that looked suspicious, which meant rerouting at the back of my cabinet.

I powered up the new gateway and waited while it got booted up and made its connection, which can take up to 15 minutes initially. Eventually the phone light turned green, so I tried to make a call, and it worked. Then, once broadband was up, I logged into the new wifi and tried to restore my login information, following the instructions.

Unfortunately, ATT didn’t have a backup of our old login credentials, but I decided to try chatting with an agent to see if they could restore them from my records. I gave her our old router’s network name and the old password, and she sent it to the new one. That worked. Now all of our devices can still login to the wifi network without changing every login and password.

So was the new user experience better or worse than before? On the one hand, it was a little frustrating to never have contact with a human being until I chatted with the customer service about restoring our wifi info. On the other hand, I avoided long wait times on hold with ATT, and I got my problem resolved in a little over 24 hours. Besides waiting for shipment, installing the new equipment only took about an hour, maybe a little more, but since part of that time was messing with the wiring, it really wasn’t too bad.

Now all that I have left to do is take the old router to the UPS store and let them ship it back to ATT at no charge. If that goes okay, I’ll be happy enough. And if ATT would rather ship out a new modem/gateway overtime something is broken, rather than sending out a technician, which may be cheaper for them, then I can live with that. The only problem would be if the new equipment didn’t really fix the problem. Then it would feel like a waste of time. And if I had lost internet connectivity instead of our phone service, then I would have still been calling a support number, if I could find it! So my feelings are mixed, but ultimately, if it works, I won’t complain. So far, so good. The new gateway even has more capabilities, like U-verse TV, which we don’t want and isn’t available in our area, but if that changes and we change our minds, it might be nice to have that functionality.

Making My Own Template and Theme in Powerpoint

TemplateOne of my tasks this summer has been to get a number of Powerpoint presentations ready to go on the companion website for my new book, A Writer’s Craft. Since I was planning to edit them for general consumption and since I wanted to give them a more consistent look, I decided to come up with my own design based on the book cover. This proved easier than I thought, once I delved into Help a little bit, but Microsoft’s explanations were a little murky, so I thought I’d explain what I did in case it can help others.

Note: These instructions are for Microsoft Office 2016 for Mac. On Windows or other versions, you can probably do the same things, but they may work a little differently.

To create a template was fairly easy. I started with a blank Powerpoint presentation and then added images and formatted text on the Master pages. To get there, you choose Master and then Slide Master from the View menu, or as I discovered after the fact, click the View tab on the menubar and then click Slide Master.

I made separate designs for the title page and subsequent pages, but you could place your design on the main master page at the very top. I did format my text there, so it would all match no matter which master page I chose to work with. I picked my text colors, font, and sizes on the main master, then added images to the title master and other page masters. Since I could copy and paste the images, I went ahead and put them on all the different page masters, even though I don’t use them all. Now I have a complete template set up with my design in case I decide to use those layouts in the future.

To create the images above, I opened the book cover image in Photoshop and selected part of the cover, cropping out the rest. I saved that image as a TIF file (though jpeg ought to work well, too), and then I took a slice of the image and copied and pasted into a new window to create the line. I was fortunate that my cover image is hand-sketched, so copying and pasting the pen strokes looked fine — you couldn’t see lines where I had pasted the image on top or beside of other images, which I needed to do to make the line longer than the original image. I took the line image and made it higher with copy and paste, then used the elliptical selection tool to create the sloped shape. Going back into Powerpoint, I placed and resized these images to create my design.

That couldn’t be much easier, as long as you have an image you can work with, but the next step was a little harder to figure out. I saved my file as a template, which was great if I wanted to create new presentations, but to work with existing presentations meant figuring out how to get this design into them. That took a little more digging in Help, but eventually, I realized I needed to work with a theme instead of a template.

The next step was to save my template’s theme, and that’s where Help was a little murky, but eventually did yield the answer. You have to leave the Slide Master view, then on the Design tab, you can save your theme. But how to get there isn’t immediately apparent. Help mentions a down arrow to click, but you have to hover the mouse over your themes to see this arrow.


If you click on it, you will see a bunch of themes, and at the bottom, you find the options to “Browse for Themes” or “Save Current Theme.” I clicked on that, and then I was able to go into my existing Powerpoint, go to the Design tab, and click on the theme I wanted. My presentation now had the images and text as I had created them in the template/theme, and I could adjust it and edit to work well with the new layout.

As you can see from the image above, I created a few themes. A couple are just alternates I was playing with, but two are for different sized presentations. Back on the Design tab, you can choose your presentation size. My originals were 4×3 for traditional monitors and projectors, but Powerpoint wanted me to use 16×9 for widescreen, which is its default. So I created a template for each size, saved both themes, and then made two versions of each presentation. First I got everything the way I wanted it in the original 4×3 size, then after saving it, I changed the presentation size to 16×9 and then chose the right sized theme: otherwise my images got distorted with the change of size, so I needed to recreate them for the wider format on a new template and then save that theme.

Creating the new size template was just a matter of deleting the images that were distorted, then replacing them with the same image from the file, so they retained their original dimensions. Then I resized, if necessary, to make them fit in the new layout. I didn’t have to create new images, in other words, just place them into the new design from the original files.

This made changing the look of my presentations relatively simple. Once I had my template and theme, I could apply it, and for the most part, everything worked. I could fix the things that didn’t look right in the new design, and edit anything else I needed to change before sending these off to my publisher.

Now I have all new presentations to go along with my textbook. They are edited to be for a general audience — I removed some specific instructions I use in my classes and kept the more general description of content. And they are available in two sizes for standard and widescreen monitors and projectors. It all took less than a day, and the hardest part was the editing.

Book Review: Heirlooms by Rachel Hall

Heirlooms: StoriesHeirlooms: Stories by Rachel Hall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I’ve known Rachel Hall since we were at Knox College together, so these stories would have been a joy to read no matter what, just for her voice and wry humor and the memories they evoke. Though that friendship is what prompted me to buy and read Heirlooms, I can sincerely say this is a great book, and one I would highly recommend to anyone, especially if you’re interested in World War II (especially the Holocaust, the resistance, and collaboration in France) and how it is remembered (or misremembered). Issues of immigration, race, and discrimination in the U.S. are also folded into the stories as time progresses. It is no wonder that Marge Piercy selected Heirlooms for the C. S. Sharar Chandra Prize. These stories are tightly crafted with economical language and image that nonetheless pack an enormous emotional punch. They are deeply philosophical without being ponderous. They explore the past and our tempestuous relationship with it, clouded with guilt, understandable revisionism, and attempts at retrieval of the stories that have been lost. Individually, each story is poignant. When taken together as a collection, the stories speak to one another and build deeper themes that will reward multiple readings. Characters appear and reappear in new contexts, giving the reader multiple perspectives on their stories as we follow the main characters through four generations.

View all my reviews