Why I Love Literary Citizenship

Much is being written lately on the topic of literary citizenship. Since this was the topic of my Master’s final research paper, I thought I’d go ahead and weigh in with my two cents. (I could write 50 pages, but I already did that. Let’s see if I can condense my thoughts here into a readable blog post!)

I just happened upon this term in the last couple of years–but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. You see, I’ve worked in publishing for thirty years and went back to school with the hopes of teaching at the college level. As I sat under Cathy Day, she (thankfully) talked to her students about what’s out there in the real world–how to join the literary world, how to get published, how to organize submissions, how to handle rejection, and how to find their “tribes” once they leave the cocoon of a university writing program–everything I already knew was extremely important for writers to understand.

I was thrilled that she talked about this because too often (I feel) creative writing programs focus only on craft without giving students the tools to know what to do with their writing. Yes, I get it. You have to first be a good writer, no, an excellent writer. That’s a given. Roxane Gay puts it this way:

You’re not going to become a better writer by focusing more on getting your writing published than writing work that merits publication. You won’t become a better writer by resenting the success of others or spending most of your time indulging in conspiracy theories about publishing. Yes, sometimes the game is rigged, but mostly it is not. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the wrong things when so much information about writers and what they’re doing or could be doing is readily available via social networks, blogs, and the like.

So of course, being great writers is step one, and I don’t advise that writers let themselves get distracted by the marketing side at the expense of their product. But, after thirty years in publishing, I come at this with a different perspective, and so I maintain that students should be taught what to do with their writing. How to research the literary magazines or the online sites or the commercial magazines or the book publishers that might be interested in their kind of writing. How to write query letters. How to approach an agent. How to create a book proposal. That’s all part of learning to write.

Because, in the end, while writing can indeed be an end in itself, most of us write because we want people to read what we wrote. We want to share it.

And I’m sure it’s my years in publishing talking, but I’ve sat on the other side of the table, needing to help authors understand the importance of marketing their own books.

I know, what a pain after doing all the work of actually writing the book to have to be burdened with actually doing the marketing, too. Isn’t the publisher supposed to do that? That’s the question Becky Tuch asks and precisely why she detests literary citizenship.

But I understand the business side of publishing; it is a business after all and, if it doesn’t make money, none of us gets published. And yes, all those big-name authors get all of the marketing dollars and the rest of us are left pretty much to fend for ourselves, but there’s a reason for that as well. There’s a statistic in Christian publishing that says 9 percent of the authors sell 80 percent of the books. That means that 9 percent of writers are pretty much carrying their publishing houses. So let them have the marketing dollars! In secular publishing, the number may be similar–and we can be sure that it is indeed the big names who get taken care of. Those authors help keep their companies open, which then allows them to take a chance on little ol’ me.

But here’s the deal–literary citizenship is not to be entered into because you want to sell your books. Instead, it’s about joining Renaissance Fairethe literary world because that’s who you are. Just as you might identify with those who join the worlds of ComiCon or Renaissance Faires because you have an affinity for comics and superheroes or feathered caps and falconry, so you join the world of Words and Books as a literary citizen because that’s who you are. You join with like-minded people to talk about what you love best.

The side effect of being “neighborly” in that world (by doing what many lit cit blog posts have discussed regarding ways to be literary citizens) is that when your article or book is published, you can naturally talk about it with those who care–and who will, in turn, talk about it with others. That’s where the “marketing” part actually begins to happen.

But literary citizenship doesn’t start there. It doesn’t start with “marketing” or “selling.” It’s not all about us. It’s not all about “gimme” as in “gimme your attention–me me me” as David Ebenbach describes in his article, Literary Citizenship Does Not Mean Gimme. Instead, it’s about joining a world of word lovers–reading, appreciating, talking about, and sharing one another’s work.

So let’s not hate literary citizenship, let’s embrace it because, in essence, it’s who we are. Let’s come together in this world of Words and Books enjoying what we love most and making sure it continues for all of us for a long, long time.

 

 

It’s National Grammar Day!

In honor of National Grammar Day, I am reposting my blog on this date from last year. Why? Because I’m busy grading papers for correct grammar–that’s why!

 

Today, March 4, is National Grammar Day.

Are you celebrating? Well, are you?

I am celebrating by finding other celebrants–people I want to add to my tribe because they care about this stuff as much as I do.

I have to confess to being a bit of a grammar geek–although not nearly at the level of Mignon Fogarty aka Grammar Girl. I know some things, but I may not know why I know them or the rule behind them. That comes from thirty years of proofreading, following publisher style sheets, painstakingly reading typeset pages and marking pdfs until my eyes blur.

I love my red pen.

Redpen

You see, I value perfection. (Oh my, I sure hope there aren’t any errors in this post when I’m finished . . . ). I’ve started grad school to learn more about teaching writing and discovered in my theory classes, much to my chagrin, that teaching grammar works against creativity and that college instructors try to steer clear in favor of the big picture, the creativity, the thought processes. I believe all of that is vital, of course. What’s the point of writing if you can’t make a clear argument or create a document that flows? But I also believe that the best argument in the world will get ignored if the writing is fraught with errors. Why do I want to take the time to read your article and consider your opinion if you can’t take the time to make sure to spell correctly and use proper punctuation?

It matters.

So I love National Grammar Day. (It’s on March 4th because apparently that’s the only date that forms a sentence, “March forth.”) I love when I find others in my tribe who care as much as I do about grammar and punctuation and a well-written sentence (they won’t be dangling any modifers in front of me, no sir!).

For one of my classes, I did a little research project. I hypothesized that writing instructors need to teach their students to proofread. We help them a lot at the contextual and sentence level in their writing, but we probably say, “And be sure to proofread your paper before turning it in,” without explaining what proofreading really involves. I think we do them a disservice. There is indeed a place for focusing on perfection. (More about this on Friday, March 8, National Proofreading Day . . . oh my, busy week!)

Take, for example, business writing. I start filling in for the instructor of a Writing for Business class this week for the rest of the semester (the regular instructor is out for shoulder surgery and rehab). I’m reading the textbooks and finding constant statements about the importance of perfection. In fact, one book quotes a website that keeps a collection of “cover letters from hell“–cringe-worthy letters sent to them by folks hoping for a job, like the person who wrote that he/she was an English major good at grammar–and then misspelled it as “grammer.” The website then states,

Elements of Style

A word to the wise: An error-free letter is now so freakin’ rare that the minimal care required to send a letter with zero defects, combined with a few crisply written simple declarative sentences, will, alone, guarantee a respectful reading of a resume. Maybe even secure an interview. Doesn’t anybody read Strunk and White in school any more? If you haven’t, get a copy of The Elements of Style, so you can follow it all your days.

Exactly.

Now all those theorists have a point. Do your writing and don’t worry a bit about your grammar. Get your ideas down. Tell your story. Make your point. Do the best writing you can do.

But before you send the query letter, turn in that article, or send in that manuscript, do me a favor.

Make sure it’s perfect.

Now realize that if you have your own little stylistic “tics” (you want to Capitalize Certain Words for Emphasis, or do random italics), then just let your proofreader know. You can be “incorrect” if it’s part of your style. Create a style sheet that tells your proofreader this is how you want it–then he/she will make sure that you’re consistent, along with looking for any errors you may have missed.

As citizens of the literary world, let’s protect our craft, always doing our best to deliver the best quality.

And if you feel that your proofreading skills leave something to be desired, hire a professional proofreader (or get someone you trust who really knows the craft) to go over everything before you submit the story or mail the letter. Believe it or not, there are people who thrive on helping your writing be perfect. In fact, even if you are good at it, it’s difficult to proofread your own work. It’s that whole “seeing the forest for the trees” thing.

(One little additional note: I’m talking at the professional level here. Please don’t refuse to drop me a note for fear of making errors. I truly do want to keep my friends. My point is that when we’re doing professional writing, we need to be professionals. The rest of the time, my red pen is safely in the drawer.)

So celebrate National Grammar Day with me! Grammar is the toolbox of our trade. Let’s keep those tools sharp!

Midwest Writers Workshop–Day 2

It’s the middle of day two of the Midwest Writers Workshop here in beautiful Muncie, Indiana.

Writers are scurrying from pitching an agent to a social media tutoring appointment to their next session from one of our amazing faculty to a manuscript makeover appointment to finding a bathroom to grabbing a snack to checking out the book table to heading to yet another session.

And that’s what it’s all about. Learning more about the craft that we all love.

We’re all here supporting one another as writers. Some with published books. Some with dreams of publishing. All with a passion for words.

That’s why I love it.

This place reeks with people who love words and writing. We’re all geeks sort of geeking out over words and how to put them together. This place reeks of geeks.

And it’s awesome.

There are lots of writers conferences, and I’m a strong proponent of all writers attending a conference for the continued training, support, and encouragement from other writers. I’m new on the planning committee for the Midwest Writers Workshop (we’re celebrating 40 years with this conference), and I’m amazed at how this team pulls together to make a great conference happen.

This year, Cathy Day and I worked together with some savvy Ball State students. Several of the students are acting as assistants for the five agents who are taking pitches, and the others are working in the social media lab giving one-on-one tutoring advice in the art of social media (websites, Twitter, Facebook pages, etc., etc.). Here’s a photo of our social media lab:

The social media lab with one-on-one tutoring about social media for writers
The social media lab with one-on-one tutoring about social media for writers

I’m sitting in the social media lab listening to the students talk about how great the attendees are, how they feel like they’ve both been able to teach something to their clients as well as learn something from them, and how they’re enjoying connecting with other writers. We’ve built in time for the students to attend a couple of workshop sessions as well.

We’re all in this writing life together.

And we’re having a perfectly awesome time.

You ought to think about attending next year!

5 Pledges of Literary Citizenship

In the grand tradition of “last lectures,” Cathy Day posted a note to her students on the Literary Citizenship blog at the end of her class this semester. It’s not really a final lecture since the class will be taught again for another group of fortunate students; the post is more of a wrap-up of everyone’s accomplishments.

And for me who got to sit in on the class this semester, it was a way to think about who I am in this literary world.

istockphoto
istockphoto

I took the challenge and revised my blog to focus on my literary life, and I invited you to join us on the journey as I learned what it meant to be a good literary citizen. Bottom line:

Be interested in what others are doing.

I was doing that, but not in a visible way. Now I “like” and comment on blogs. Now I follow Facebook pages of literary magazines and authors. Now I link to other people’s blogs. Now I’m finding people on Twitter who are as passionate about editing and proofreading and good grammar as I am. Now I write notes to authors I appreciate and thank them for inspiring me.

I learned to write about my passions. I decided to focus on areas of editing and grammar, with nods to all kinds of other topics (it is my blog after all). It was great to stake out a territory and then look around for folks already there and join them.

I learned some technical things like how to tag and categorize posts (yes, I CAN talk about things other than grammar) and how to better use Twitter. I learned about book reviewing.

And I’m finding my tribe.

As any great teacher will, Cathy challenges her students not to stop now that the class is over. This is about building a literary life, after all. At the end of her post on the Lit Cit blog, she challenged us with a few questions. I encourage you to think about them for yourself, but here are my pledges of citizenship in the literary world:

I pledge to continue to blog on a regular basis and to share with my readers great books, bloggers, articles, and ideas (yes, and even great grammar!). At times, I’ll write about what I’m doing, but that’s not the focus. It’s not all about me (that’s just true on so many levels. Wow . . . wouldn’t our world be a better place if we all adopted that mantra?).

I pledge to write a personal note to someone at least once a week to thank that person for his or her contribution to the literary world.

I pledge to keep finding, following, and connecting with folks in my tribe. And then I’ll talk about them so more people can know them.

I pledge to be continually interested in what other people are doing.

I pledge to talk about literary citizenship whenever and wherever I can. It’s that important.

Have you pledged citizenship?

14 Good Reminders about This Writing Life

One thing about being a graduate student in my 50s is being able to step back into a world that I left behind three decades ago–a world where learning flows around you like the snowflakes that circled around my house this morning. Just circling, spinning, delighting me even though it is March and high time for them to be on their way.

But I digress.

The In Print Festival–A Rousing Success

Being part of the university community means getting to take advantage of learning experiences there for the taking! Ball State InPrint writersjust held its annual In Print Festival–a festival of first books. The writers who come to speak and read are newly published. Fresh off that first experience, they’re eager to go on the road and talk about writing and publishing. They visit in classes. They stand around and talk after the readings. They happily sign books. Sure, maybe other schools bring in the big guns, but I love the fact that BSU supports these folks. And if the two times I’ve attended are any indication, these authors have so much to offer. Coming from a variety of backgrounds with different journeys to that first publication, they are quite an encouragement to up-and-coming writers. The writers this year were Eugene Cross, Marcus Wicker, Elena Passarello, and Sarah Wells.

And 14 Things the Students Learned

Cathy asked the students in her literary citizenship class to blog about what they learned about writing and publishing from these In Print authors. I’ve been around publishing for 30 years, so I was excited to see what the 14 students in the class discovered. I thought some of their insights might be helpful to you, so here follow 14 interesting things they learned (with accompanying links to their blogs should you want to read more–and you should):

(1) John writes that he wants to open his reading horizons more–to read other people’s work that interests and intrigues him because that will inform his writing and help him find his niche. Good advice for us all.

(2) Michael discovered (beyond some great writing and revising tips) that the writing community is like a family. It is. What a great thing for a new literary citizen to discover!

(3) Jackson brilliantly included book titles in his blog as part of the copy and described his experience, “Their answers to questions showed me something vital: That Abyss between us and Published Writers is not so vast, is a matter of words.” Deep. And good to know. Before we’re published, that goal seems like the other side of a huge abyss. It’s not.

(4) Austin likes to write in all lower case (saves time I’m sure) and describes his opportunity to speak with Eugene Cross, having also crossed paths with him at AWP. His take? “that’s what this is all about, as far as i’m concerned. writing good stories, smiling big, and, every once in a while, covering the tab.” That’s also good advice.

books(5) Rachael described inspiration from Eugene Cross’s book because it is a collection of stories. That can make a book, too! That’s encouraging to those of us who write more short form.

(6) Sarah discovered that “if you’re always drawn to the same topic, stop fighting it.” Just start writing. Eugene didn’t want to write about his hometown of Erie, PA. But when he stopped fighting it and realized that Erie was what he knew . . . well . . . you know what happened. Elena never thought she’d be writing about the human voice . . . but as a theater major with a great speaking and singing voice . . . well . . . it was a natural.

(7) Marv was involved in advertising this festival and, as part of the invitation, reminded people that going to such festivals is important for being literary citizens. We all need to support one another. I know I’m glad I attended!

(8) Kiley learned to bust out the red pen. “Marcus Wicker said that revision is all about time, distance, and being ruthless with your work. I feel like revision is the broken hammer in my writing toolbox, so I soak up any tips on it like a sponge.” Ah, a woman after my own heart.

(9) Lenny was inspired by the night of readings and writes that it “was a breath of fresh air to see three young writers from three different sections of literature that I can keep on my radar and follow their careers as they grow as writers.” Good way to be a literary citizen, Lenny!

(10) Lindsey had some insightful advice for me as an editor: “Editors should not just edit but also write while they edit. Editors who forget to take the time to write their own work aren’t going to be able to relate to authors or keep up with their story-telling skills. In this world, we have to be able to wear multiple hats at once.” She’s so right. I spent too many years editing and not writing. I need to up my game. Thanks for the encouragement, Lindsey. Editors out there, take note!

(11) Jay is the media/video guy in our class. He’s on a different track and he offers us a new perspective. He helps us writers think beyond advertising by posters to this newfangled thing called video . . . he’s good! We would do well to think about promotion in new ways.

(12) Mo reminds us to read a lot–especially literary journals. Find the ones we like and then submit to them. That’s how we figure out where to submit.

(13) Kayla encourages us to not be afraid of rejection. “Without rejection there can be no progress. And if that one publishing company or literary magazine rejects you, they’re probably not right for you. Go back, edit, revise, reread, resubmit.” Words we all need to hear because we all face rejection.

(14) Stephanie mentions how contests can be a good way to get our work published. This was a new world for me–discovered since grad school. You can check out some of the lit mag contests here.

There you have it . . . 14 good reminders for all of us.

It’s National Grammar Day!

Today, March 4, is National Grammar Day.

Are you celebrating? Well, are you?

I am celebrating by finding other celebrants–people I want to add to my tribe because they care about this stuff as much as I do.

I have to confess to being a bit of a grammar geek–although not nearly at the level of Mignon Fogarty aka Grammar Girl. I know some things, but I may not know why I know them or the rule behind them. That comes from thirty years of proofreading, following publisher style sheets, painstakingly reading typeset pages and marking pdfs until my eyes blur.

I love my red pen.

Redpen

You see, I value perfection. (Oh my, I sure hope there aren’t any errors in this post when I’m finished . . . ). I’ve started grad school to learn more about teaching writing and discovered in my theory classes, much to my chagrin, that teaching grammar works against creativity and that college instructors try to steer clear in favor of the big picture, the creativity, the thought processes. I believe all of that is vital, of course. What’s the point of writing if you can’t make a clear argument or create a document that flows? But I also believe that the best argument in the world will get ignored if the writing is fraught with errors. Why do I want to take the time to read your article and consider your opinion if you can’t take the time to make sure to spell correctly and use proper punctuation?

It matters.

So I love National Grammar Day. (It’s on March 4th because apparently that’s the only date that forms a sentence, “March forth.”) I love when I find others in my tribe who care as much as I do about grammar and punctuation and a well-written sentence (they won’t be dangling any modifers in front of me, no sir!).

For one of my classes, I did a little research project. I hypothesized that writing instructors need to teach their students to proofread. We help them a lot at the contextual and sentence level in their writing, but we probably say, “And be sure to proofread your paper before turning it in,” without explaining what proofreading really involves. I think we do them a disservice. There is indeed a place for focusing on perfection. (More about this on Friday, March 8, National Proofreading Day . . . oh my, busy week!)

Take, for example, business writing. I start filling in for the instructor of a Writing for Business class this week for the rest of the semester (the regular instructor is out for shoulder surgery and rehab). I’m reading the textbooks and finding constant statements about the importance of perfection. In fact, one book quotes a website that keeps a collection of “cover letters from hell“–cringe-worthy letters sent to them by folks hoping for a job, like the person who wrote that he/she was an English major good at grammar–and then misspelled it as “grammer.” The website then states,

Elements of Style

A word to the wise: An error-free letter is now so freakin’ rare that the minimal care required to send a letter with zero defects, combined with a few crisply written simple declarative sentences, will, alone, guarantee a respectful reading of a resume. Maybe even secure an interview. Doesn’t anybody read Strunk and White in school any more? If you haven’t, get a copy of The Elements of Style, so you can follow it all your days.

Exactly.

Now all those theorists have a point. Do your writing and don’t worry a bit about your grammar. Get your ideas down. Tell your story. Make your point. Do the best writing you can do.

But before you send the query letter, turn in that article, or send in that manuscript, do me a favor.

Make sure it’s perfect.

Now realize that if you have your own little stylistic “tics” (you want to Capitalize Certain Words for Emphasis, or do random italics), then just let your proofreader know. You can be “incorrect” if it’s part of your style. Create a style sheet that tells your proofreader this is how you want it–then he/she will make sure that you’re consistent, along with looking for any errors you may have missed.

As citizens of the literary world, let’s protect our craft, always doing our best to deliver the best quality.

And if you feel that your proofreading skills leave something to be desired, hire a professional proofreader (or get someone you trust who really knows the craft) to go over everything before you submit the story or mail the letter. Believe it or not, there are people who thrive on helping your writing be perfect. In fact, even if you are good at it, it’s difficult to proofread your own work. It’s that whole “seeing the forest for the trees” thing.

(One little additional note: I’m talking at the professional level here. Please don’t refuse to drop me a note for fear of making errors. I truly do want to keep my friends. My point is that when we’re doing professional writing, we need to be professionals. The rest of the time, my red pen is safely in the drawer.)

So celebrate National Grammar Day with me! Grammar is the toolbox of our trade. Let’s keep those tools sharp!

The Art of the Book Review

I just got off the phone with my friend, L. Marie, who recently created a blog, “Thoughts about writing and life.” I’m thrilled that she’s blogging! We chatted about Literary Citizenship and how she needs this online presence in order to impress the agents where she’s currently shopping her young adult fantasy book. She has an MFA and is a terrific writer—but she realized that she needed to get online and join the literary world. I talked to her all about what we’re doing in our class; we talked through WordPress and how to add hyperlinks and tags. She’s on a roll now!

She’s also an avid reader, so I encouraged her to do reviews of books (her current blog is a movie review that ties into her writing). And wouldn’t you know it, our Lit Cit class is talking about that very topic this week. Book reviews are extremely important–especially book reviews by book lovers and writers who understand the craft.

That’s you.Reading 2

Indeed, Robin Becker at Penn State has an entire class on book reviewing because “my own experience had led me to book reviewing. Years ago, just as my first book entered production, I asked a more experienced poet how to get my book reviewed. She replied, ‘Review other people’s work. That way, you participate in the conversation.'”

As citizens of the literary world, we should participate in the conversation about books by reviewing books and helping along other authors who are just getting started.

Sure, review the latest Stephen King if you want, but it will be a great help to another fledgling writer if you discover and love his or her book and write a well-crafted review. Post it on your blog, sell it to a magazine where it might fit, offer it to a newspaper in the town where the author will be doing a reading. Follow up with an interview and do the same thing.

But maybe, like me, you wonder how to craft a good book review. Well, here’s some help.

I’m new to this, so I come to the topic eager to learn. Our class website featured an interview with David Walton, author and prolific book reviewer, who offered his advice on writing book reviews. So I am passing along what I’m learning to you.

I love the pie chart included there; further detail about each category on that pie chart is here so that you understand what plot synopsis (35%), critical analysis (25%), showing off (20%), providing context (10%), and quoting from the text (10%) mean in the context of a book review.

Reading 1I also discovered that there is a lot of conversation happening in the literary world regarding book reviews. I think I’ve stayed away because I thought: (a) I’m not high profile enough to write in the New York Times book review column, (b) I don’t know how to write a review, and (c) I don’t even want to comment on Amazon because isn’t that just people who either like or dislike the author or the topic and really write nothing about the quality of the book? (Charles Baxter calls this “Owl Criticism”: I don’t like owls; this book is about owls; I don’t like this book.) Indeed, many publishers are vetting their book reviewers to make sure they’re legit.

Well meanwhile, over at Amazon, there’s been plenty of conversation about fake reviews, with Amazon actually pulling down many suspect ones. (For help in writing one of those short Amazon reviews, check out this post.)

So what does that mean for those of us just getting started?

First, read the book.

Second, understand the craft and study the book well enough to be able to see what the writer is doing as a writer.

Charles Baxter’s “Owl Criticism” post puts it this way, “A reviewer is entitled to any opinion at all, but he or she earns that opinion based on a description and a judicious citation of evidence. . . . Is it too much to ask of a reviewer that he should know what he’s talking about?” He goes on:

The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. This description is not the same as a plot summary, although a plot summary may figure into it. What a formal description does is to show what a book is about in relation to the form in which the subject matter has been shaped or located. In order to write such a review, let’s say of a novel, you have to have a basic idea of how novels are constructed; you have to have the technical knowledge that allows you to stand back from the book and to say how a book is put together. By these criteria, quite a few book reviews are worthless.

Los Angeles Times book critic, David Ulin, discusses the importance of well-crafted reviews:

Criticism matters — not because of how many people read it, or whether they agree or disagree with it, but because it is a way of engaging with literature. . . .

Books can stir this range of emotions also, which is why the act of criticism can be so hard. It’s not just about opinion but engagement, the sense of hope, of anticipation with which we come to a book, and the ideas, the feelings, with which we walk away from it, even, or especially, if they are not what we expect.

For me, this is how I know I’m doing my job: not by whether I like a book or don’t (whatever that means), but by what I learn. When I’m reading and writing well, books open up before me; often, they turn my preconceptions around. They make me think — not just about the flow of this text, but also about the flow of all texts: the different texts by this particular author, the different texts that I have read. I have, in other words, to confront myself, to figure out what I think, and then like all writers, to follow that line to its logical conclusion, for good or for ill.

For us writers, it’s a part of our craft to learn to write a good book review. It’s an art form. It keeps us reading. It allows us to learn from one another. It connects us in this literary world. It allows us to share good books with one another.

It helps us be good literary citizens.

Get Thee to a Writers Conference

It’s great for us to be able to connect virtually with so many writers–we can build our tribes with people literally all over the globe. But then . . . there’s something to be said for that personal touch, getting to talk and laugh with other writers face to face.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a local writers group that meets regularly, give those folks a big hug next time you’re together. Many writers are laboring away alone because they haven’t been able to locate a group with whom they can connect. Hey, if it was good enough for C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien to meet with others in a group called the Inklings and read one another’s work, it’s certainly good enough for us!

Many of our college students in writing programs are worried about what happens when they leave. Their college community and the folks in their major provide a positive and supportive group that disappears once the diplomas are handed out. What next? We want to help them understand that the writing world has many, many places where they can connect with other writers.

One of these is the writers conference.
Bright ideas
I’ve spoken at my share of conferences and am currently privileged to be on the board of an excellent midwest conference–appropriately named the Midwest Writers Workshop. Our conference is held for three days every July on the beautiful campus of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. This is our fortieth year!

As a new member on the board, I’ve so enjoyed watching my committee members in action. They work hard to bring in agents who are eager to hear pitches and faculty who can teach about a variety of genres. This year we’re expanding our social media training module to help writers do exactly what we’ve been talking about here–increasing their presence by building a website and using other social media. Some of our older attendees just need a little guiding hand to help them get over the hump and engage in the online world–and incredible Ball State students offer their expertise. This year we’re also including a time for writers of different genres to get together and read a few pages of their work to one another (again, a la Lewis and Tolkien). Many of our attendees go away having found new tribespeople, maybe even discovering folks in their own backyard with whom they can meet regularly for reading, critiquing, and encouragement.

At writers conferences, faculty teach about the craft of writing. I really want that message to come through in all of this social media talk: First you need to be a good writer–and you need to hear that from others besides yourself and your mom. If you need improvement, go to a conference where a faculty member is talking about how to pace your plot (if that’s your problem), or how to create strong characters, or how to build a scene, or how to write dialog. These folks come to these conferences to help the likes of you–of all of us. Take advantage of their expertise.Speech bubbles

Conferences are happening literally all over the country at all times of the year. You can probably find one within driving distance. Prices vary depending on what’s offered, how long they are, and who’s speaking, but you can surely find one that works in your budget (perhaps the Left Bank Writers Retreat this June in Paris? . . . ‘twould be magnifique! Twist my arm!). The Poets & Writers website offers this link about writers conferences, and then includes this link with listings for various upcoming conferences. Newpages.com includes a listing where you can browse writers conferences by state.

So set aside a little time and money for you to spend a few days honing your craft and meeting new friends.

As citizens of the literary world we should continue to learn, continue to improve, and continue to challenge one another to be better writers.

And that’s why thou must get thyself to a writers conference.

Being Connected

As writers in community, it stands to reason that we need to be able to find one another. Part of the beauty of the Web is that we are all connected—or can be.

Back in the old days—you may remember, before the Internet, before computers, back when an electric typewriter was an awesome invention—we didn’t have access to our favorite writers. If we wanted to write to them, we sent a note (yep, it had to be with a stamp and everything—if you read last week’s blog post, you’ll see that you can indeed still do that) and probably never heard back. Everything was done on hard copy and by mail; there just were no other options.????????????????

I am amazed now that I can write to one of my favorite authors, Philip Yancey, by way of a Facebook message and have him actually respond! I wrote him a “charming note” to thank him for his book, Disappointment with God, that I read during a dark time in my life—and what his advice had done for me. We had a chat about people we knew in common. He complimented how beautiful my granddaughter is (she’s my main photo on my FB page—and yes, she is quite beautiful). I felt honored to have had that moment of contact with him.

So my question to you is, are you visible? Can you be found by those folks who want to find you—and who you want to find you?

As citizens of the literary world, we should be connected to social media in ways that work for us so that we can be visible to other citizens.

First, you need to have a website. Many years ago, one of my favorite publishing friends, Terry Whalin, gave me this advice, “Linda, you have to have a web presence.” He noted that when agents or acquisitions editors receive query letters or proposals, the first thing they do is Google that person. They want to see what shows up and, of course, check out the person’s website.

Does that sound daunting to you? It needn’t be. And if you feel too un-tech-savvy, then call upon a younger friend, your kids, your grandkids. They’ll figure it out in a snap. Cathy Day’s post in our Literary Citizenship website talks about this very thing. You absolutely must have a website. You don’t have to spend money; starting out, just use one of the many sites that help you create a website for free or at minimal cost. Social media expert Jane Friedman offers advice on building your first website using WordPress. Chuck Sambuchino in his book Create Your Writer Platform (Writers Digest Books, 2012) discusses several types of social media and how to use them, but calls your website “the foundation.” Chuck says the elements of a good website include:

platform

(1) a landing or home page that welcomes people and links to other pages. It may include your latest news (“book released!”) or latest blog post.

(2) an “about me” page that tells who you are and what you do.

(3) a “my books” or “portfolio” or “my writing” page that tells about what you’re working on.

(4) “Contact me” information.
(Create Your Writer Platform, 102–103)

Realize that your website can be a unique as you. Take the time to think about what you want a potential agent, acquisitions editor, or even new tribesperson to see when they click on you. It’s the virtual equivalent of that first impression you get when you look someone in the eyes and shake his or her hand. You often can tell right away if this is someone to stay and chat with or someone to steer clear of.

So if you don’t have a website or if you’ve had one for years, I encourage you to think about or revisit your current website and ask yourself:

(1) What is my website saying about me?

(2) Do I have links to my Twitter or Facebook accounts? (Do this if you want, and only do it if you’re consistent across all social media. For younger people especially, if your FB account is full of goofy and perhaps less-than-professional photos and posts, don’t link to it—OR consider making your FB a bit more professional. You can still be real and friendly, but remove the photos or posts that don’t represent you well.)

(3) Do people have a way to get in touch with me? (If you don’t want to give out a personal email address, create a new one just for communications through the website.) Chuck Sambuchino even suggests that, when you put your email address out there, you type in the (at) and (dot) so you can’t get hacked with spam. For instance, mine is linda(at)lindataylorauthor(dot)com.

(4) Does my website include a recent photo of myself? (A photo makes you real. It allows for that virtual eye contact and handshake.)

(5) Is all of the information still up to date?

????????????????????????????????????????????If you’re like me, you might have a couple of personas. I have two different websites right now for my two different sides to my life. I have my “speaking at Christian events and writing Christian books” persona here, and I have my “adjunct professor/writing conference instructor” persona here. Then I have this blog. All were created at different times for different purposes. For now, I just link them together. I’m not sure I want to put everything on one website, but at some point I might.

Every day we’re milling around the room (the Internet) meeting each other (clicking on websites), having a quick chat (finding out what each other is about by reading web pages), and listening to what each other has to say (checking out portfolios and published works).

It’s vitally important that we be findable, visible, and real.

A Little Thank You

During the last weeks we’ve been building our tribes, looking at our bookshelves, finding out who inspires us.

Who did you discover? What is it about that person’s writing that does it for you?

You know what you need to do next?

You need to write a “charming note.”

The term comes from a book by Carolyn See called Making a Literary Life (Random House, 2007). She advises that every day, five days a week, you write a charming note to someone whose work you appreciate.

Literary lifeShe actually writes notes–you know, with stationery and an envelope and a stamp. Awhile back, I personally wanted to reignite the art of letter writing and I began to actually write letters to various and sundry friends. Alas, I didn’t get any back, although a few responded by email.

If you have some nice stationery gathering dust in a desk drawer somewhere, pull it out. Carolyn says in her book not to use anything floral or those notes with the Monet paintings on them, but personally, I think the very fact that you might actually write a note and mail it cancels out the flowers or Monet (although seriously, think about the impression you give by what the note looks like). She suggests getting some of your own stationery with your name professionally printed at the top–like those old-time calling cards. Not a bad idea. Of course you’re writing to them and it’s about them, but it can’t hurt to have your name on your correspondence in a classy way.

You don’t have any stationery, you say? Just some note cards with your last initial on them? That’s okay. Get started.

Seriously, it’s never been easier.

If you want to actually write a physical note to a physical address, you might be able to locate an address online, or at least a publisher’s address. You can always write to the author in “care of” a publishing house.

If you’re just not the “find a stamp” type, write your note by way of the person’s web site. Or find him or her on Facebook and write it there. Or Tweet it if you have to (it’ll have to be really short . . .).

Now, who was the last person who “wowed” you? You need to tell him or her. You need to write a charming note.

Carolyn See suggests this to her students: “Why not divide the note into three paragraphs of three lines each–the first one about their work that you like so much, the second saying who you are and why the work touched you, the third suggesting politely that you’re looking forward to the next thing they’re going to write?” (45).

And don’t be embarrassed. Think about it. How do you feel when someone takes the time to thank you–for anything? Sure, if you write to Stephen King to tell him how On Writing changed your life, you may never hear from him. But write to Alice Hoffman who published a wonderful essay about the “permission to write” titled “Introduction: Storyteller” in the Winter 2011-12 issue of Ploughshares magazine and chances are you might hear back from her. Then check out her novels and children’s books. You might make a new friend, a new person to add to your tribe because she inspired you.

Write to someone who is unknown and just starting out, and imagine how much it will mean to that person!

As citizens of the literary world, we should show our appreciation for others’ work by letting them know, and then letting others know.

Do that by blogging about it and sharing links, by talking about it, by buying the books or subscribing to the journals and . . .

. . . by writing “charming notes.”????????????????????????

If five times a week is daunting, then just do it once a week. Surely at least once a week you read something you like. It doesn’t have to rock your world–maybe it just made you think, or inspired you, or gave you a new idea.

Be willing to cross genres. If you’re a nonfiction writer, read fiction, poetry, flash. Gaze at some photographs in that literary magazine. It’s okay to write the poet and thank him or her for a piece that moved you—even if you didn’t fully understand it. You don’t have to be a scholar, just an appreciative audience.

It doesn’t even have to be “literary.” Perhaps the article by Carrie Neill in the November/December 2012 issue of Poets & Writers (“The Medium Is the Message”) about the future of print publishing helped you understand something that was heretofore mysterious.

And it doesn’t have to be current. Maybe what you read was from the 2005 issue of Ninth Letter that you found at the library or on the table at your doctor’s office (really? Give me the name of that literary doctor!). In any case, who cares how long it’s been? Art is art. Inspiration is inspiration. Write a note.

Be sincere. This isn’t about you. This isn’t about trying to network or “brown-nose.” Remember, we’re all just writers in this together, keeping literature and books and good writing alive.

Say thank you.

Remember what your mom taught you? A little thank you goes a long way.