Book Review: Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller

Always Happy Hour: StoriesAlways Happy Hour: Stories by Mary Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mary Miller’s wit sparkles in these stories like a stiff drink with a healthy dash of bitters. They are dry, acerbic, and full of bitter irony. Consider the title, taken from a line on one of the later stories in the collection: it is “always happy hour,” yet no one seems happy in these stories. Or if they are, their happiness is fleeting, yet all of Miller’s characters are searching for this elusive spirit. We read these stories, not for the plot — spoiler alert, not much happens — but for Miller’s exquisite character studies, her detailed sense of place, and her subtle exploration of relationships. Miller’s narrators and female main characters are women, divorced or unmarried, most of whom are with or looking for boyfriends who are either divorced or unmarried. They are aware their relationships are imperfect and may not last. They may be dissatisfied with their current partner or they may be so satisfied they are sure they’ll do something to make their partner leave. We see the compromises they are willing to make for love, even as they struggle with commitment; we see them negotiate ex-wives and their boyfriends’ children; we see them struggle with family and friends who seem to have it all, at least if you believe their status updates. It is in the unguarded line of dialogue or the narrator’s reflections where Miller allows a realization, where we recognize ourselves in her flawed and human characters for whom a happy ending seems always just out of reach.

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Mary Miller will read at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium on October 20.

Book Review: Daniel Wallace, Extraordinary Adventures

Extraordinary AdventuresExtraordinary Adventures by Daniel Wallace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel Wallace has given us another thoroughly enjoyable read. His characters are easy to invest in. Nothing that extraordinary happens in their lives, at least not until Edsel Bronfman receives an offer for a free weekend at a time share in Destin, Florida. Then his life does take a few fantastic turns. In this latest novel, the tall tales from Big Fish have been brought down to a human level, yet the choices and adventures Bronfman faces are no less dramatic. Wallace still questions whether the invented reality or the mundane events of life are more real. This is an unassuming tale, much like its unassuming and ordinary main characters, yet it has pathos and depth, showing that still waters run deep and that even a mild-mannered clerk from Birmingham, Alabama, can experience something extraordinary. And speaking of Birmingham, this novel is well worth the read for its loving portrayal of Wallace’s hometown.

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Daniel Wallace will appear at The Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, Oct. 19-21, at Mississippi University for Women. the symposium is free and open to the public.

Book Review: Stripper in Wonderland

Stripper in Wonderland: PoemsStripper in Wonderland: Poems by Harriell, Derrick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you think the cover has energy, then hold onto your hat. These poems leap off the page with vibrant language and daring subjects. Harriell is willing to take on race and sex, falling in love and becoming a parent, living the wild life and settling down. And the speakers of these poems do not always come across as the perfect heroes. Harriell gets us to question ourselves as much as we question society. No one is off the hook in these poems and no one is irredeemable. It is a bawdy, brawling, brash celebration of life.

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More Advice for Poets

This is a follow-up post to the one I made recently about Poetry Submissions. This week, I placed two poems in Valley Voices, and on the recommendation of editor John Zheng, I sent 3 haiku to Asahi Haikuist Network who took them for upcoming issues in October and next May.

What I learned from this (or was reminded of) is that it is good to form friendships and connections with other editors. Without John’s suggestion, I might not have found Asahi Haikuist Network, which I’m now glad to be able to read and to publish in. Haiku isn’t the main style of poetry that I write, but I suspect that reading more will inspire me to write more. I have a series of haiku that I worked on for my 4th manuscript and may continue to add to. Most were published in Poetry South when John was the editor, but these newer ones hadn’t found a home until now (and I hadn’t sent them out until now).

The other lesson I discovered about submitting poetry is to put your best poems first. That may seem obvious, but in reading submissions I am often surprised by the number of poets who don’t do that — or maybe they think they are doing it, and I just don’t like Poem 1 as much as Poem 4. You do your best and you should try to put the best poem for the magazine you’re submitting to first — the order may change depending on where you’re submitting.

Often in a submission, I treat it like a mini-collection. Most journals want 3-5 poems, so that’s less than a cycle, but there’s still probably a logic to the poems you send out together. I hope a journal might pick up more than one, but I still feel the submission is stronger if I send related poems. Now and then, though, especially for a magazine I’m not as familiar with, I will send a fairly random group of poems. Still, I want the tone to be about the same (humorous or deep, for instance). Thematically, the poems may be different, but something should connect them.

I want an editor to like the group of poems I’ve sent and even to consider accepting all of them. I know the reality is that an editor will then choose the poem or maybe 2 poems they like the best, but giving a good total impression will help sway the decision in the favor of the 1-2 poems they like best.

Having one of those poems first in the submission file is imperative. A reader may not make it past Poem 1, and if they do, their opinion of the poet will be colored by the poem they read first, so the subsequent ones may not get as close attention if Poem 1 doesn’t strike a chord. I know that’s true for me when I’m reading. It’s only human nature and is influenced by the sheer bulk of submissions any reader for a magazine is likely to encounter.

Making a decision about the oder of poems in a submission is part of taking the proper care to submit work that is polished, proofread, and carefully revised. It’s part of the process that an editor will appreciate. And if all the poems in a submission packet are of roughly equal quality (I know as the writer it can be hard to make those determinations), then each poem should build on the previous one and lead into the next. Consider your submission as a whole and not as individual pieces of paper that you’ve thrown out into the wind.

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.