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.

AWCthemedetail

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

Welcome: A Writer’s Craft!

It’s been a long journey to this point, but today marks a turning point in my writing career. My introductory 4-genre creative writing textbook, A Writer’s Craft is now available. I don’t have my copies yet, but it’s on the Palgrave website and listed as In Stock for paperback, e-book, and hardback. Now, besides being a poet, I’m officially the author of a textbook. Who knows where this new phase of my career will lead? It’s exciting, to be sure.

Ginger Chick’n & Fig Stir-Fry

It’s been quite awhile since I posted any recipes to this blog. That’s in part because I’ve tried to make it more about writing, and maybe because I haven’t tried out many new meals — until tonight! And I apologize for not taking a picture, but I wasn’t 100% sure it would turn out good enough to blog about, but it did. And it looked as good as it tasted.

Here’s what led to the recipe: This summer we’re having a bumper crop of figs. We’ve already had our favorite Fresh Fig and Gorgonzola Pasta three times, and we’ve frozen figs to make it again later. So this morning, after picking another batch of fresh figs from the trees in our yard and putting some of them in the freezer, I wondered what to do with the rest. There were more than I wanted to just eat raw (though I did have some), and more will be ripening soon, so I figured I should cook with them and decided to give a stir-fry a try. It was delicious! (Try it if you have figs and don’t believe me — I dare you.)

You already know the main ingredients from the title, and really, I expect you couldn’t go too wrong no matter what else you throw in, but let me explain what I did.

Since we’re vegetarians, the protein base of this meal is called Quorn. They make two varieties: a ground beef substitute and a chicken substitute. To be honest, it’s been so long since I’ve eaten actual chicken, I don’t know whether it’s much like the real thing or not, but that doesn’t really matter. Quorn has a firmer texture than tofu, which makes it a good candidate for this dish. Tempeh or seitan might work well, too, and tofu would be all right but a little soft in texture, even if you get extra-firm. Ginger adds a little bite, and the figs add sweetness. The combination was great, especially with the other vegetables I threw in.

I always start a stir-fry with some onion and garlic in oil. In this case, I added a generous amount of diced ginger, at least a tablespoon, probably more for 1-2 servings. Then I added one small Thai eggplant (the long skinny kind), one small yellow squash, a small sweet pepper, and a couple of mushrooms. I let those fry in a wok for several minutes while my pasta water boiled.

Tonight, I used linguine because that’s what I had on hand, but it would be good with a sturdy rice noodle or bean thread or even asian egg noodle— anything as think as linguine or thicker ought to do well. Boil or soak until soft (follow the cooking directions).

To the stir-fry, I added curry powder, cayenne, and cumin as it was cooking, then added the Quorn Chick’n pieces. Since they’re pre-cooked, all they really need is some time to heat up (you store them in the freezer) and absorb the cooking juices. I also added soy sauce and a little bit of sugar to the mix.

Near the end of the stir-frying, I added one small tomato, chopped, and several quartered fresh figs (about as much volume as the tomato). Then I tossed in a few fresh basil leaves that I had cut into large pieces and a little Sriracha for good measure. Once the noodles were ready, I drained them and then tossed in the wok with the stir-fry to absorb the liquid.

The first bite was to die for — a little sweet, savory, and picante. The heat wasn’t too much (for me), so the basil stood out, especially when I got a bite with a good piece. The tomato and fig didn’t cook too much, so they didn’t lose their shape, and the Quorn gave it just the right texture.

As always with my recipes, it’s more about the principle than the exact ingredients. If you have other veggies on hand or if you prefer to cook with tempeh (its nutty flavor ought to pair well in this dish), then go for it! If you have more fresh figs than you know what to do with, then give this concept a try. It’s hard to go wrong with figs as long as you don’t overcook them. Next time I might try throwing in a little lemon or lime or even orange juice, just to give it a little citrus tang. Or a little cooking sherry to bring out the sweet side even more.

 

 

Low-Res or Fully Funded: an MFA Decision

I write a lot about MFA programs because I direct the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Mississippi University for Women. I mention this to let you know I am biased on this topic, but I’ve been thinking about the advice people often get about applying for MFA’s: don’t unless it’s fully funded.

On the surface, this seems like good advice. No one would advise you to go into a lot of debt for a degree that doesn’t promise a career with great earning potential, and creative writing is one of those fields where only a very few make it really big — the rest of us do okay, but not well enough to take on a ton of debt. So if you can get someone to pay for your education, why not?

That’s what this post is about. I agree with that advice, but I also think there are trade-offs you should consider. It would be great if someone is going to pay you to write and then give you a degree at the end. There are a few programs that can do that, but even most of the fully funded programs don’t hand out ‘free money.’ They do hand out money; it just isn’t exactly free.

Most programs that are fully funded expect their graduate students to work for that stipend. Usually you will be a graduate teaching assistant or research assistant. That’s great, if you’ll be gaining experience in the field you want to work in. (Do you want to teach at the college level? What are your chances of landing an academic job after graduation?) Often you will start teaching composition, sometimes you might have a literature survey (or lead a discussion section), and maybe you’ll get to teach creative writing at some point. Yes, that can all be good experience, but there are other ways to work your way through your degree.

If you consider that fully funded stipend a wage, then you’ll soon find that it’s not a huge salary. Of course, you do usually get a tuition waiver, which adds to the value of your stipend, and sometimes you are eligible for health insurance, which is another huge benefit to teaching. If you’re fresh out of your undergraduate degree and you don’t have a job, then a program that will give you a job that meshes well with your graduate degree and comes with built-in support from your department can be an excellent opportunity.

Low-residency programs, on the other hand, often don’t offer graduate assistantships. Students don’t live on campus, so it is more difficult for them to work at the university. That’s why many low-res programs aren’t fully funded, but that doesn’t mean they’re a bad deal. The low-res model is set up to allow you to work where you are while you are in school. If you already have a job, you can keep it, and odds are that you’ll earn more at a regular job than you would teaching (though a tuition waiver can make a big difference). Low-residency programs allow you stay where you are, so those with family obligations or other reasons why they don’t want to or aren’t able to move for their graduate degree can still get one.

Those who already are mid-career might be giving up a lot in order to take advantage of full funding at a full residency program. When considering offers or considering where to apply, compare the amount of aid and the cost of the degree against a low-res program where you can keep your current job.

What else should you think about when considering fully funded programs?

I would say you need to bear in mind that fully funded MFA programs will receive the most applications. Competition will be stiff, especially for the best scholarships or assistantships. It’s great if you get one, but your chances are slimmer, so it might be a good idea to widen your application pool to include some partially funded programs or programs without much funding if you think you can afford them.

When considering any program, think about the culture and the writers at that school. I wouldn’t say that a fully funded program is always going to be worse, but it might not be your best fit. If you only go to a program because of the money, you might end up unhappy. If you go to a school where you really fit in and a program that genuinely supports the writing you do, you’ll likely be happier. Finances should be a big part of your decision, but they shouldn’t be the only part, in other words.

The goal should be to get a good degree, work with good writers (teachers and other students), and not go into a ton of debt. Full funding is the most obvious way to achieve that, but a low-residency program (or a partially funded resident program) can do just as well. If you realize that for most fully funded programs you will work your way through school, then keeping your job in order to work your way through a low-residency program may seem like a good alternative.

For most fully funded programs, you will have to uproot yourself, move to another city and live there while pursuing your degree. That may be precisely the adventure you want or need to stimulate your writing. Or you may have work or family obligations — parents who need care, or a partner or spouse whose job isn’t portable, children whose school or family life would be uprooted in a move — that would make accepting a fully funded program’s offer difficult. A low-res program allows you to work from where you live and travel to your program’s campus for residency periods now and then.

Low-residency programs also have some advantages. Because you don’t need to move and because you don’t teach, low-residency students can find internships in their local area. They may explore fields like publishing, marketing, literacy programs, or other writing related careers. And they can learn about those careers where they are. Many writers don’t intend to go into academia, so getting experience outside academia during your MFA can be beneficial.

Which kind of program is right for you: low-res or fully funded? There is no one right answer for everyone. For many, the advice to only get an MFA if it is fully funded seems too limiting. Low residency programs allow you to be creative about how you will fund your MFA from where you live, combining work and university or private scholarships to pay the bills.