Dealing with Spam on WordPress

For a while now, I’ve been using the WordPress desktop app instead of the web interface. Mostly that’s gone well, but one serious flaw is in handling spam comments. I still get many spam comments filtered out (thank you Akismet), but it’s easy to forget about them. This morning, I happened to check, and found there were over 1,600 spam comments.

Using the app’s interface to deal with this many comments was simply impossible. You can only review 20 comments at a time using the “Bulk Edit” feature. I’m sorry, 20 isn’t bulk when facing 1,600! I could select 20 at a time, review, and then delete. But then I had to go to a new page, click on Bulk Edit again, review, delete, repeat. I tried changing my settings for how many comments to view (as suggested in Help), but that didn’t change the number displayed in “Bulk Edit.” I also tried selecting multiple pages of comments, but only the last page was deleted.

So finally, I went to WP Admin on the left-hand menu. This took me to the old web interface (which fortunately is working again in Safari, so maybe I can just return to it), where I was able to view Spam comments the old fashioned way. I could have reviewed every one and at least not had to choose “Bulk Edit” so many times to do it (since that’s the default view). But facing about 1500 messages to scroll through, most of which would be long and full of gibberish and links, I opted for the “Empty Spam” command at the bottom of the screen. Poof, they all disappeared.

My apologies to anyone whose actual comment might have been caught in this spam purge. In my experience, that’s very, very rare, so I doubt it happened. WordPress is usually very good about alerting me when there’s a real comment (or one that’s potentially real) and allowing me to decide wither to accept, reject, or mark as spam. And it’s very good at filtering out spam and leaving the real messages for me to approve. As long as I remember to go to WP Admin, spam will be much easier to deal with in the future, and I hope I don’t let it build up quite that much!

How to Survive #AWP20

Next month (March 4-8, to be exact), I’ll be heading to San Antonio for the annual AWP conference: that’s the Association of Writers and Writing Programs for anyone who doesn’t recognize the acronym. It’s three days of writerly bliss, overstimulation, anxiety, and information overload, when 10-15,000 writers descend on a city. After many years of going to AWP as a writer and program director, sometimes as a panelist, I’ve developed my own survival strategies. For those who’ve never been, I highly recommend reading about it and trying to get a sense of what you’re about to experience. AWP has an article by Paulette Perhach with 25 Tips that all make very good sense. I like that she links to a local poet, Pablo Miguel Martinez, who has advice on getting around San Antonio, and she mentions the First Timer’s Lounge. I plan to check out the transportation scene (esp. the best ways to get in from the airport), for instance. You can also get lots of advice from attendees who tweet with the conference hashtag #AWP20. Follow it throughout the conference to see what others are saying.

But the AWP is different for nearly everyone who goes. The best advice is probably to check out the schedule before you arrive and mark down some of the panels you really, really want to attend, then try to arrive early and hope you get a seat (some are in very large ballrooms and others are in smaller conference rooms, but some panels always end up with standing room only). Don’t plan to do everything, though. That would be impossible. And do have a plan B, so you can duck into a very interesting less well attended session if your first choice is super crowded.

I tend to spend a lot of my time in the Book Fair, so don’t forget to check out which tables and booths you want to see there. Many magazines and book publishers will be there, and it’s a great place to make connections or just to learn more about places you’d like your work to appear. Since we have a table for our low-residency MFA program and our two literary magazines Ponder Review and Poetry South, I hope you’ll stop by T2042 and pay us a visit! I’ll also be signing books at Texas Review Press on Thursday 4/5 at 3-4pm in their sponsor booth 1662.

To keep track of everything you want to do, download the AWP Events mobile app for your phone or tablet (or use the online event schedule on a laptop — unfortunately, they don’t talk to one another, so you should decide where you want your schedule to reside). Some folks do it the old-fashioned way and carry around the printed program. That’s great, but heavy, so I prefer the app.

Bring food! Yes, there’s plenty of food available for purchase in the convention center and surrounding restaurants, but lines can be long and you may not have time to stop for lunch, so having granola bars or other snacks to tide you through until you’re able to grab a bite can be a life saver. And if you’re desparate, cruise the book fair. There’s often someone with some form of calories to give away — candy, snacks, wine, etc.

You could keep going all day and much of the night — and you probably will  — but you may also need a break from the crowds. Go to some of the off-site events or slip away to a bookstore, coffee shop, or restaurant. Be sure to see some of San Antonio while you’re in town and don’t feel guilty when you do. It’s part of your survival plan!

Come prepared with business cards and with a short spiel about who you are as a writer. You may not need them, but it’s a whole lot easier to give out a card with your contact info than to write it down every time you meet someone, and it’s a lot easier to talk about yourself to an editor or a writer you admire if you’ve thought about what you’ll say in adavance. If you have a manuscript, it doesn’t hurt to have it ready to submit in case you make a good contact. And come prepared to bring back loads of information, too. You might pick up flyers from magazines and book publishers (etc.) or get information on other writing programs. You might collect sample copies of magazines or buy books (often at a discount, esp. on Saturday). Be ready to schlep all these things home with you, so save room in your suitcase!

But the main thing to remember is that AWP is a learning experience. It happens every year, and you can always go again, so don’t feel like you’re not successful if you don’t do everything you planned to do (that’s normal!), and don’t be afraid to do something completely different than you planned if a good opportunity arises (like a group going to an off-site event or a panel that just looks interesting and is nearby with empty chairs that you can sit in to rest your weary feet — you might learn something completely unanticipated). AWP is really only overwhelming if you think you have to do it all, and it’s only intimidating if you think you have to act like the ‘famous writers’ who probably don’t feel that famous after all. AWP is such a big, sprawling conference that it’s almost impossible to go and not get something good out of it. So relax, enjoy, and don’t take it too seriously! Connect with friends, meet new friends, explore San Antonio, get too little sleep, and then go home exhausted, a little overwhelmed, and inspired.

The MFA Writing Sample: How long?

Sometimes the best advice is the most practical advice, so with that in mind, I want to revisit the MFA Writing Sample to ask a question about optimal length. Those of us who teach undergraduate writers often make paper assignments that are 5-7 or 8-10 pages. In those cases, hitting the minimum is required, but to get a really good grade, you should strive for the maximum. If you’ve just been in college or if you remember those good old days, then you might think the MFA Writing sample works the same way. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t. That is to say, the minimum is still the minimum, but the maximum isn’t really the number you strive for.

In our low-residency MFA program, we ask applicants to send a sample of 10-30 pages. I’ve seen other programs list 10-20 or split it up and ask for 10-20 for poetry and 15-30 for prose (or something along those lines). We don’t distinguish poetry from prose because we accept poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama, so it could get confusing to list too many distinctions. Plus, some people write flash fiction and may have plenty of pieces with 10-15 pages. What we want, is for you to give us enough pages (10) so we can judge a sustained effort, and for you to have enough room to put forth your best effort without completely overwhelming the person reading your sample. We figure there are some stories that might run about 30 pages that we’d like to see in their entirety, but there aren’t many that are much longer that couldn’t be excised or excerpted and still give us a strong sense of the writer.

So how should you view the vast amount of space (10-30 pages) you have to work with? If you write short forms, you should definitely get to 10 pages, and you probably won’t go wrong to send us a few more, but poets and flash fiction writers shouldn’t feel like they have to reach 30 pages or even 20. 10-15 pages is a good range to shoot for if this includes more than 3 pieces (and poets may have 10-15 poems!), 15-25 pages is a good range to aim for with 2-3 pieces, and 20-30 pages is a good range for 1-2 pieces. You can send more — up to 30 pages, and I usually say a few extra pages, maybe up to 33, won’t kill you if you really need them.

And there’s the rub. How many pages do you really need. A single story that was thirty-three, maybe even thirty-four pages long might be fine. But remember, you’ve got to keep me reading through all of those pages. They had better be good! Could you cut a few of those pages and get below thirty? If you have two stories that together exceed thirty pages, you know I’m going to tell you to send me one of them, but not both. The only reason to send both is if they show very different things about you as a writer, but then I will thank you keep it under thirty pages. (Hint: you want me to thank you!)

Let’s say you’re a poet, though. You’ve hit your ten pages and could stop there. How many more poems should you send? That depends on how many more strong poems you have and whether they show the range of your poetry. Sending me more pages (beyond twelve or thirteen) probably won’t help unless they reveal something more about you than that you write a lot. Maybe the poems go together as a series or poem cycle: okay, you might send them all. Maybe some are published, but you also want to send me new poems that are in the direction you really want to go. That’s good. But don’t pad your writing sample with work that isn’t as important to you or as well-written. The extra pages won’t do you any favors. Just as in prose, you want to keep my attention. I might be tired or I might have read several other writing samples that day (or freshman comp papers).

If you’re somewhere in the middle, say at the 20 page mark and you’re deciding whether to include another short piece: should you? Again that depends. How much does it add to our understanding of you as a writer? We say that “more pages aren’t necessarily better” and we say “send us your best work.” We mean it. More pages won’t help your chances once you’ve given us enough. I usually suggest one to two pieces of prose or no more than four if they’re short or six if they’re really short. If you can’t convince me in that amont of writing, more won’t change my mind and may even make it worse: there’s more room for mistakes.

Now what about that novel excerpt? How many pages should you include? On the one hand, you could send us thirty pages from a novel, but I might thank you for sending twenty-five. How to decide? You should send us pages that show some portrayal of scene, some development of character, some dialogue, and possibly some action. I say possibly for the action because the action could be minimal. What I want to see are characters in conflict or tension. I want to see your prose and how you handle scenes. But I don’t need to see too much. One relatively self-contained excerpt from a novel is probably best or maybe two if both are fairly short. You don’t want to get bogged down in exposition or to have scenes that need a lot of explanation, so it can be a challenge.

This is why sending short fiction is usually better than sending a chapter of a novel. But if a novel chapter is really your best work, then that’s what you should send. Just because you can send thirty pages doesn’t mean you should, though. If you can say as much in twenty pages, then that will be sufficient. So look for an excerpt that is relatively self-contained, has a narrative arc, and presents characters (but does more than introduce characters), and is thirty pages or less.

How long is long enough? The answer is that it depends on what you send. How long is too long? As long as you can hold my interest, your writing sample isn’t too long. But if the pages are there only to show you have more pages, then your sample might be better without them. If you’re honest with yourself, you will know.

Solving Uverse Gateway Issues

One of my most popular technology posts has consistently been one I wrote about our ATT DSL modem back in the day before Uverse. We’ve been on that for a few years now, and I suspect many people have switched over, too, because traffic to that post has gone way down. It had a good life.

Fortunately, I haven’t had as many problems with Uverse as we had with the old modem yet. But lately we have had a few times where it dropped our connection suddenly. The fix has been to restart the gateway.

Usually when this happens, all my lights are green, though sometimes one might be flashing. I may have to record which one if it happens again. I begin getting errors on all my services that the certificate has expired (but what it means, I suspect, is that it can’t connect to email, etc.).

I have bookmarked the Uverse gateway’s status page in my browser, and since wifi is still operational, I can go there. That should be http://192.168.1.254, but check your gateway documentation if that doesn’t work for you. It may have a different default address. From here, I can confirm that the connection is down, and I can restart my services (Connection to ATT, WiFi, Phone). You can try restarting individual services, though that hasn’t worked well for me. What has worked to restore service is to click on “Restart Your System” and reboot the whole gateway.

This has happened to us twice in a week, so I hope it doesn’t mean the Gateway is going out. When we first switched over, ATT came out a couple of times and replaced our gateway. The service tech said they weren’t very good and they had a lot of problems, but once we got a decent one, it’s lasted a couple of years. Maybe it will be time for us to upgrade our service to fiber and maybe get a new gateway.

Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that, or at least that I don’t have more hassles to vent about. But if I do, I’ll be sure to write about them here!

My Poetry on Vimeo

Back in 2016, I had the good fortune to be part of the Mississippi Book Festival. I’m hoping to repeat that when my next book comes out (are you listening publishers?), but I noticed recently that the Book Festival put the panels on Vimeo. I knew this at the time, and I’m sure I even watched some of it and probably tweeted about it when the video was made available a few months after the reading, but I don’t believe I ever posted a link to it on this blog. So there you are. If you’d like to hear me read from Barrier Island Suite or to see my slightly younger self, here’s your chance.

You’ll also enjoy the other panelists: Bee Donley, Caroline Randall Williams,
James Kimbrell, and R. Flowers Rivera. Derrick Harriell was moderator.

MFA Writing Samples

May I just say that one of the tasks I most look forward to this time of year is reading the letters and writing samples from applicants to our low-residency MFA program? I know we won’t be able to accept everyone, but I open each file with a sense of promise and hope.

For those who are applying, I’m sure you send out your work with a fair amount of trepidation. You know that some programs are extremely competitive and your odds are slim, but you hope you make the cut. Other programs like ours may not be quite as overrun with applications (though one day we could be), yet you’re still worried about whether you’ll be deemed “good enough.” It’s easy to imagine the readers of your application materials as gatekeepers who will determine whether or not you should follow your dreams. I’m here to tell you not to think of us that way. Of course you should follow your dreams. It’s just a question of where you are on that journey and whether our MFA is the right next step.

When I open a writing sample, I want to be wowed. I want the writing to be crisp and professional, but even more than that, I want to get to know the writer who sent it. Almost without exception, I find someone who truly wants to be a writer and who may well have the potential to make it. My job isn’t to weed out those who aren’t writers from those who are; my job is to  judge to the best of my ability who is ready for, and who will be a good fit for, our program.

So I’m just as excited to read the writings of those who aren’t ready for our MFA as I am to read those who clearly are. If I accept you into our program, I’ll be asking you to devote a lot of your time and effort, not to mention a sizeable investment in tuition, to pursuing that dream with us. I want to be fair and honest, and I want everyone we admit to be ready to get as much out of that experience as possible. I don’t expect perfection, but I do want to see that you have some idea of what you’re getting yourself into. I want to know that we’ll be able to help you out along your path and that you have a pretty good sense of what that path might be.

We’re more than happy to read your writing sample and your letter before you apply and before you pay us our small application fee. I don’t want to take anything from you other than the opportunity to read your writing as we look for a good mix of writers to be our next entering class. So with our priority deadline coming up on March 1 and possibly room for more applications after that, I’m excited to have some excellent reading in the coming months!

New Bookshop Coming to the Net

Screen Shot 2020-01-20 at 8.49.30 AMI was excited to learn that this month, the new Bookshop.org will launch. Right now, you can get information, but this promises to soon be a site for independent bookstores to compete with Amazon that will offer authors, book reviewers, and bookstores affiliate status, paying 10% on books sold through affiliate links. A portion of sales also goes to affiliated bookstores, and books will be sold at a discount (maybe not as steep as Amazon’s, but not bad) through Ingram. What’s not to like.

Of course, bookstores can still sell books online through their own websites or through IndieBound.org. Both Bookshop and IndieBound are organized by the American Booksellers Association, who offers IndieCommerce and IndieLight e-commerce services to bookstores who want to set up online stores hosted through ABA.

The exciting thing for authors and book reviewers is that they will be able to direct link to a page for a book using an affiliate code. This isn’t possible on IndieBound because you first have to choose your bookstore before buying books. On Bookshop, the affiliate link will determine who gets a percentage of the sale and all fullfillment goes through Ingram, rather than through local bookstores. Processing should also be quicker. You will also be able to sign up to receive newsletters or other information from your local store (based on your zip code), thereby establishing a stronger relationship with local customers for the stores. And stores can set up minimalist web pages about themselves on the site. Customers should also have a user-friendly experience, including a mobile app (judging from the image of a phone on the site).

Everything is supposed to launch in January 2020, so I’m hopeful the site will be live soon. I’ve signed up for the Bookshop newsletter, so I should know as soon as it goes live and I can sign up as an affiliate and link my books to the site.