Wednesday Web Browser: Free Trip to Texas Book Festival, Hope Lives for Rejected Work, and New Writing Prompts

Would you enjoy a free trip to the Texas Book Festival (which takes place November 1 and 2)? Check out some Festival prize possibilities here (but do it soon–deadline is October 3). NB: Open only to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia.
Poets & Writers reports that writers who have recently received rejection letters from Academy Chicago press with no personalized information included may still have reason to be hopeful–there’s been a “bookkeeper bungle”–and should contact the press.
I don’t know about you, but I can always use some new writing prompts. So I’m glad to discover this concise list on The Writer magazine’s Web site.

Random Encounter with a Former Editor

On Tuesday night I made my first (and given the way my own writing seems to be going these days, quite likely only) visit to the Random House building on Broadway. I owe that opportunity to the wonderful people at Jewish Book World, who invited me to come to a reception held on the building’s 14th floor to celebrate their redesigned publication.

I arrived late (note to self: do not take a crosstown bus when various world leaders and [vice]presidential candidates are in town), but managed to hear a few of the speakers and, even better, caught up with a few people I was very glad to see again.

Among them was Josh Lambert. As former editor of, Josh was the first one there to accept my pitches and publish my work, so he has my eternal gratitude. I’d also noticed in some of his own recent bio notes–he is very much a practicing writer!–that he is about to become a published book author, so I was glad to have the chance to find out more about American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide), which will be published in January (JPS, for those who may not know, is the Jewish Publication Society. Expect to hear more about that book from me in due course.

(cross-posted on My Machberet)

Two Takes on Getting A Short Story Collection Published

I’ve recently stumbled on remarks from two authors of debut short story collections focusing on, in each case, the road toward that elusive prize: book publication.

Allison Amend’s book, Things That Pass for Love, will be out in October from OV Books. You’ll find Amend’s first-person tale of her road toward getting the collection published here. And there’s some seriously good advice mixed in with that lighthearted tone.

And for background on how one writer got his collection agented, read Jason Boog’s interview with Donald Ray Pollock (author of Knockemstiff, published by Doubleday in March). Pollock’s experience supports the idea that agents do indeed approach and accept clients based on discoveries within the pages of literary magazines and journals.

The Wednesday Web Browser: Advice for Poets, Peter Carey Profile, and Sandra Tsing Loh

Thanks to the NewPages blog for pointing me to Copper Canyon Press’s “advice to poets” articles (including some very good tips for those submitting poems for publication, like the ones concerning cover letters you’ll find here).
Hot off the screen! This profile of Peter Carey, penned by my colleague Jill Jarvis for the series she and I have been working on that focuses on Distinguished Professors who teach at The City University of New York, is now available for your reading pleasure. Those interested in the Hunter College MFA program will find it especially worthwhile. NB: As the profile notes, Carey is currently in the running for the “Best of the Booker” prize.
As far as I’m concerned, any Atlantic piece by Sandra Tsing Loh will be among its issue’s best reads. Her latest is now online. And the bio note reveals that she has a book coming soon, too.

On "Letting Go" of My First Novel–A Reply

Last week, one of our commenters responded to this post on “Goals and Priorities” and asked: “Erika, I’m curious as to why you abandoned the goal of publishing a novel?”

Well, I haven’t necessarily abandoned the goal of publishing a novel, but I have pretty much abandoned the idea of publishing my first novel manuscript. I promised our commenter a more detailed response, and here it is:

Once upon a time (the summer of 1996, to be specific), I discovered a file in the French National Archives while I was conducting dissertation research in Paris. Although the file lacked direct relevance to my doctoral project, it was an amazing find. Because its contents sparked the idea for an entire novel.

For the next several years I worked on that novel. I split my time three ways: I taught (I was an advanced graduate student, after all); I worked on my dissertation (which I finished in 1999); and I worked on the novel. I enrolled in workshops locally (in Massachusetts) and, for four consecutive summers, at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I applied to and was admitted to a Master Class at the 92nd Street Y. I attended the inaugural session of the Taos Summer Writers Conference. I obtained two in-depth consultations. I shared work-in-progress with my writing group, and with my colleagues in Harvard’s History and Literature program.

By the time my Harvard colleagues got a peek at the work, I was looking for an agent. I’d already received a few very generous referrals, but none had panned out. So when one of my colleagues told me I should go ahead and contact his agent, I was thrilled.

The agent didn’t snap up the manuscript right away. But she seemed to “get” what I was doing, and she made editorial suggestions I was willing to try. By the spring of 2001–very shortly before I was to attend the first residency of my “low-res” MFA program in North Carolina, the novel was officially “agented.”

Although the writing sample I’d submitted with my MFA application was, in fact, the novel’s opening chapter, it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to be submitting chapters for critique while the book was simultaneously making the rounds in New York. Was that a mistake? I don’t know. What I do know is that for the first three semesters of my MFA program I focused exclusively on short fiction. It was only by the fourth semester that I was back to “workshopping” the novel.

And that was because it hadn’t yet sold. My relationship with my agent had not been easy. I found it difficult to get her on the phone, or to receive responses to my e-mails. Between 9/11 and her own series of health problems, she was, understandably, distracted. More significantly, she was primarily a nonfiction agent–which I should have realized and appreciated as soon as my colleague-her-client, a nonfiction writer, recommended her. But I was so happy to have “found” an agent who was willing to take me on, that I’d jumped right in.

By the winter of 2003 she’d told me that the novel had been rejected by many, many publishers (though I saw only a handful of the responses). One of the few she did share with me came from a Major Editor at a Major House. This editor really liked the first half to two-thirds of the novel, but thought the rest of it needed a lot of work. And she said that was willing to review the manuscript if I revised.

I was willing to revise.

So, in my last semester in the MFA program, I thought I’d try to focus on the novel again. But I really had no sense–nor had I received any advice concerning–how to workshop a novel over a semester. I figured the group had to see the first chapter. Big mistake. I didn’t really want feedback on the first chapter. I needed help on the later segments, but had no idea how to get it. What happened in that first workshop that semester destroyed my trust in and respect for the instructor, and, I am quite aware, made her dislike me equally.

I soldiered on, though, and tried to revise more or less on my own. The Major Editor rejected my revision, and my agent was clearly losing interest. We soon parted ways. For a year or so I tried submitting the book to contests and independent presses on my own. No success.

Meantime, I’d become quite entranced with the short story form, and had begun publishing some of the short stories I’d written in the MFA program. My energies seemed more naturally directed toward developing a collection. But every time I approached agents with the collection, they wanted to see a novel, and the novel I had to show them had, well, been around. I needed a new novel, but I had no inspiration to write one.

I’m not sure when, exactly, I gave up on the novel. Publishing a snippet in 2006 seemed to help me close this “chapter” of my writing life more than it motivated me to continue with yet more revisions. Go figure.

So here I am. I want to write a new novel, and for the first time, I have some glimmers of hope in that regard (hopefully I can share more about that as the summer goes on). But when I return to that first one, I simply don’t have the passion for it that I once did. It’s almost painful for me to read it. Stubbornness aside, I’ve let go of this project. For now, at least.

New Series at Beacon Press

News about Beacon Press, via Publishers Weekly:

Beacon Press is planning a new series of books focused on free speech. It is a natural progression for the independent Boston press, which has long been associated with First Amendment issues, having published the first full edition of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, as well as authors including Howard Zinn, James Baldwin, Ben Bagdikian, Cornell West and others.

The series will explore free speech over the first 150 years of American history; the emergence of an organized fight for free speech in the post-WWI years, and battles that have been fought over free speech in recent years. “Beacon Press publishes books that try to change the way that people think about fundamental issues. We believe that exploring the history of free speech is essential to ensuring that our understanding and respect for the First Amendment continue to grow,” press director Helene Atwan said.

Read the article, linked above, to find out more–including info on submitting book proposals for this new series.

And because this is the sort of thing that really ticks me off: This is the second time in two days I’ve seen Cornel West’s name misspelled by a publication that should know better.