Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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.

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.

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.

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.