Posts Tagged ‘publishing’

The Best Little MFA

It’s been four years since we started the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, and in that time, I think we’ve created the best MFA of it’s size around. Of course, I’m biased, and I’m grateful to the students and faculty of our program who have been so great to work with.

We’ve now graduated 15 MFAs (counting the five who’ve defended their these and will get their degrees in August), and we have an enrollment hovering around 40, which is right where we want to be. We started with three faculty, two of whom were part-time, and now have three full-time faculty, one who prefers to teach 2 classes and direct theses and so is still part-time for now, and several regular part-time faculty who teach one class per semester. This allows us to offer a wide variety of classes and serve the varied needs of our current students. And it allows us to have enough faculty to direct theses as students move from taking coursework to the thesis stage. We’ve seen theses in each of the genres we focus on in the program: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and now drama with our first playscript as thesis defended in June.

What makes me think of our program as the best, though, are our students. We have a great, diverse group who work well together. They are writing in different genres (and some writing genre fiction or young adult), yet they provide a supportive environment in our online classes and when they get together at residencies. The energy in the building (despite this year’s headaches with A/C issues) has been fantastic. Every night at a full resicency, we host readings, featuring a faculty member or guest writer, a thesis candidate, and two or three other students at the residency. Our thesis students give great readings, are confident, and show they are ready to move into their professional careers. But the shorter readings by other students are fabulous, too. Here students take risks, sometimes reading for the first time in public, and the work they present is polished and compelling. You’d have to be there to know what I mean — and you could be, since they’re open to the public and we often have guests from town or beyond.

Besides the readings, I know our students are killing it through there publications. Hardly a week goes by without at least one notice of an acceptance from a student or alumn. We’ve had an AWP Intro Journals prize winner and an honorable mention, and our writers are getting into some great publications. We already have one graduate with two books of a three book deal published, and a poet with a micro chapbook and good leads on a full-length collection. And I expect more good news soon, given the strength of the theses I’ve seen.

I try to keep up with the all these accomplishments on our Facebook group, then periodically I ask students and faculty to send me their publications (I’m afraid I will miss some things on Facebook and Twitter) and list them on our accomplishments page.

I know there are more established and more prestigeous programs out there, and many of them do great work by their grad students. But if you measure the value of a program by the dedication of the faculty to teaching and by the cameraderie of the students and the writing (and publications) that this fosters, then we have a lot to be proud of. We’ve accomplished a lot in the first four years, and we’re looking forward to an even better fifth year.

That said, how would we like to improve? For one, I’d love to attract an even more diverse student body. We’ve been fortunate enough to attract African American, Asian American, Latinx, and LGBTQ students (and faculty). We also have students from all over Mississippi, every US time zone except Alaska and Hawaii (so far), and even a student in Italy (for now). We have students from all kinds of backgrounds and religious and political persuasions, yet everyone tends to get along very well because the writing is what really matters. Together, we have formed a great community, and to me, that’s what makes us the best little low-res MFA out there.

A Fitting Finale to #AWP18

What a great experience this AWP was! And what a fine ending. This evening, I went to an inspiring poetry reading, presented by the Academy of American Poets, featuring Layli Long Soldier, Khaled Matawa, and Mark Doty. In contrast to last night, there was no tension in the room and the poems were allowed to be political. Long Soldier read her response to the apology to native peoples signed into law under Barack Obama, after a preface where she recounted how it had been written and signed, but not read aloud and without any native leaders present. Matawa read a new series of poems about the migration crisis from the Middle East and Africa, and Doty read poems about his neighborhood  in New York with many references to the political situation in the U.S. The poems were not strident, yet they beautifully expressed the complexity of our time.

The most fitting ending, though, was that as I was coming out of the reading, I happened to check my email and saw that Tar River Poetry had sent the page proofs for a poem that will appear in this spring’s issue.

So the conference began with a poem accepted and published at The Ekphrastic Review and ended with news of another publication. I know “Birdsongs” had been accepted, but hadn’t been notified yet which issue it would appear in, so this was excellent news.

Between these two bookends, AWP was another great experience. This year, we had several students from our low-res MFA program in attendance, including one alumna, Tammie Rice, who helped organize our book table and got us some great swag (thank you again Tammie!). I got to talk to a ton of people, including several contributors to Ponder Review and Poetry South, as well as several teachers interested in A Writer’s Craft and someone at New Pages who might blog about it. I handed out lots of flyers and even a few exam copies I had on hand. I also got to reconnect with writer friends and make new friends at the book fair, and we had a great time at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium panel, celebrating our 30th year. As always, it was incredibly busy, exhausting, and rewarding!

See you next year in Portland, where hopefully more great things will happen, though I doubt I’ll be able to match the experience of publishing a poem on the first and last day of the conference again!

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.

Publish Your Poetry Book (Without Getting Scammed)

Recently, I received an email from a local writer, asking for advice on how to publish a book of poems. I’ve never read her poetry, so I could only give general advice, and since I get this kind of question a lot, I thought I’d post my reply here.

Publishing a book of poetry can be a long and arduous process, so be patient and don’t give up! Poetry publishing in the U.S. is not extremely lucrative for publishers or for the poet, so it is hard to find a publisher who is willing to take on an unknown or little-known author. But there are are ways. There is a lot of competition and it can take awhile to get noticed. Here are a few ideas and resources that might help.

Before publishing a book, most poets publish in magazines. That gets your name out there and helps develop a readership. Publishers also look for evidence that other editors have approved of your writing when they evaluate your work (at least if the work isn’t submitted anonymously, which is sometimes a requirement). So seek out good literary magazines and send the individual poems to them before you start shopping the book manuscript around. Once poems are published in a book, they usually can’t be republished in a magazine, but poems published in a magazine often end up in a book. So you want magazine publication for a good number of your poems before they are accepted in a book.

Poets & Writers is one of the best resources for information on poetry magazines. I’ve also found that Lit Line, New Pages, and The Poetry Resource Page have good indexes of literary magazines with links to the magazine’s websites. Research many of them, read what they have online, and subscribe to some. This will help you get a sense of what is being published and where it is published. In a small way, you’ll also be supporting the industry you want to be a part of.

But you may already be doing this. Another thing to do that will help you know whether your writing is publishable (yet), is to join a writing group. If you have friends who read your writing now, that is great. If those friends also publish, even better. If you want to go to the next level, then consider attending a summer workshop or other writing seminar (or taking a class or going to an MFA program). There are many opportunities for week or month-long writer’s seminars or colonies. The sites I mentioned will have lists of these opportunities. Though it’s not required that you earn an MFA or go through a seminar to publish, it can be an invaluable experience, where you learn more about your craft, but also learn about the publishing process and make new writer friends, possibly even network.

Finally, to actually publishing your book. Many first poetry books these days are published through a contest. The entry fee helps fund the publication costs, and the reputation of the contest helps guarantee an audience for the published book. It’s nice to be able to say you won a prize (though frankly, publishing a book is prize enough for many of us!).

Just beware about the prizes that are out there. There are many legitimate ones and many scams. A legitimate first book prize will usually have an entry fee that is anywhere from $10 – $50 ($25 seems to be about the norm, though, so I’d look carefully at a much more expensive one). It will pay a prize and publish your book — often you get some copies as part of your prize. Many will publish more than just the first-place manuscript. You will enter with your whole book manuscript, and you often get a copy of the winning book or a subscription to a literary magazine along with your entry fee. A legitimate first book prize will also usually announce the name of the judge, and will follow guidelines aimed at keeping the judging legit (no friends or former students may submit, for instance). The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses has a code of ethics for contests. if a contest follows this, that is a very good sign.

Contests with no entry fee are often scams (the costs pile up later). Some are notorious for accepting anything sent to them, no matter how ridiculous (and people have tried to get rejected). There is no fee, but you are expected to purchase an expensive anthology, then flattered and offered an expensive conference and other perks that come at a price. If you’re not familiar with the source of the contest, do some searching to find out if it is legit before you send them your work.

You can also query publishers directly. You should know a lot about the publisher before you do this, though. Read their books to know whether your work is likely to be a good fit for their readers. If you feel you’re ready to go this route, then read their submission guidelines to be sure they will take ‘over the transom’ submissions. Usually you would send a sample from your manuscript, about 10 pages, along with a cover letter. If they’re interested, they’ll get back to you. If they aren’t, you’ll likely get a polite form letter. Don’t feel bad, though. Any press that will accept unsolicited manuscripts likely receives hundreds of query letters. Agents generally won’t work with an unpublished poet, either. Which is why contests are the first avenue for many writers.

Note that there are chapbook contests (for manuscripts of 24-48 pages, as a general rule), first book contests (48+ pages, though more than 80 is probably getting too long), and open book contests (open to any poet and not any poet who hasn’t published a book). There may be some other types of contest guidelines, but those are the most frequent. Obviously your chances are better in a first book competition, though that doesn’t mean you might not win an open competition. It’s all up to the judge, especially when the entries are anonymous, as they often are.

So how can you win a contest or get a publisher to notice your book? The obvious response would be to write really good poems! That may not always be enough, however. It is also important to craft a good book. The order of poems and structure of the book is integral to its success. Revising and polishing poems between submissions and reordering and rethinking the thematic structure of the book can lead to a stronger manuscript. Don’t just print them in the order that you wrote them, in other words. Look for recurring themes, emotions, ideas. Consider a structure that ties these together. Be willing to cut the poems (even published poems) that don’t fit the book — maybe they’ll make it into your next one!

As you read books of poetry, look for patterns the poet may have used to order the manuscript. Though it may not be obvious, I used a seasonal pattern in Time Capsules. Think about possible models or read about the process of composing a book. Though I haven’t read it, a good friend, poet Anna Leahy, has recommended Ordering the Storm by Susan Grimm for its thoughts on moving from manuscript to finished book. You might enjoy Anna’s conversation with three other poets about their first book experience, published on Bookslut.

Publishing a book can be a long, drawn-out process. If approached with the right attitude, it can be rewarding and not just frustrating. But it will be frustrating, more than likely, so do have a support group of friends who write and encourage each other. There is nothing better for your self-esteem when the rejections come back (and they will) than knowing that there are people you respect who respect your writing. If you don’t have a group like this yet, then seek one out. Good luck!