I was so glad to see this great interview with Dr. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington in today’s New York Times, about her penguin research in Argentina. The interview is terrific in highlighting Dee’s work with the Magellanic penguins over the years (25+), and important in pointing out the serious threats penguins face today due to climate change and overfishing.
As readers of Forgetting English know, the story “The Ecstatic Cry” is about a different breed of penguin … but my husband and I were fortunate to have been able to help Dee with her census at Punta Tombo a couple of years ago (John’s award-winning short story, “The Tourist Trail,” was inspired by the trip). It’s an amazing part of the world — and while much of it still feels pristine and unspoiled, the sad fact is that, as Dee mentions in the article, the colony at Punta Tombo has declined 22 percent since 1987: “That’s a lot. This type of penguin is considered near-threatened. Of the 17 different penguin species, 12 are suffering rapid decreases in numbers.”
In the photo above, though it looks as if I’m stabbing this poor bird, I’m in fact lifting it just slightly so that I can count the eggs it’s incubating. That was one of our tasks as volunteers: to count individual penguins, breeding pairs, and eggs. The penguins suffered no harm — in fact, having to lift the birds, let alone hold them to weigh and measure them, was probably more stressful for John and me — but it’s because of this meticulous research over nearly thirty years that Dee is able to tell us about climate change, feeding and breeding patterns, and how we can help the penguins of the future. As she told the Times, “If we’re going have penguins, I think we are going to have to do ocean zoning and try to manage people.”
Click here to learn more about Dee and The Penguin Project at UW.
I just wanted to mention a few great resources for writers (and readers) …
For all of you writers who need a little discipline, check out 100 Words, where you pledge to write 100 words a day (exactly) of whatever you want. If you complete your 100 words a day for a month, you’ll be a featured member, and you can then post what you’ve written. It’s fun to see what other members are writing as well.
And my friend Jennifer Simpson has started a cool new venture, Writers Out Loud, and is now taking audio submissions of writers reading from their work. Visit her submissions guidelines, grab a mic, and start reading. Even if you’re not a writer, visit the site to hear an excerpt from Jennifer’s lovely memoir, and check back later for more.
And for all writers and readers in the Pacific Northwest, check out the offerings at the Get Lit! Festival, starting next month. Even if you’re not from the area, it’ll be well worth a visit (have I mentioned it’s in wine country?). I’m excited to be a part of it, of course, but am even more eager to enjoy all the other events — far too many to mention here. Visit the web site to see a complete listing of authors, readings, panels, workshops, and more.
Finally, something to do with all those rejection slips! The literary magazine Marginalia is offering a “Sad Bastard” discount on a copy of the magazine: simply mail in ten rejections and a dollar for your free issue. What a great deal.
And, in case you find that digging out those ten rejection slips is a little depressing, just know you’re not alone. Here are a few ways to commiserate with fellow rejected writers:
Read: Jon Friedman’s book Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled is a compilation of essays, jokes, sketches, cartoons, and articles rejected by venues from Saturday Night Live to Reader’s Digest, and was hailed by Publishers Weekly as “uplifting” and “fine, funny collaboration.”
Listen: Check out this NPR segment on famous rejected writers, from Jack Kerouac to George Orwell to Sylvia Plath (all turned down by Knopf). This will make any rejected writer feel a little better.
Visit: Rejection Collection posts rejection letters of all types, including those from literary agents, publishers, magazines, and art galleries — and invites you to submit. (NOTE: Be warned that the site doesn’t publish all submissions, so there exists the possibility that you could be rejected by a rejection letter web site, which might take you back to This Is Depressing).
I loved this op-ed in today’s New York Times, in part because I love to see good grammar appreciated. It also says a lot about the change in administration: The authors are being extremely nitpicky about Barack Obama’s near-perfect grammar, whereas only a year ago they’d probably have been happy just to hear a complete sentence from the commander in chief, or words that actually appear in the dictionary.
The article is about the improper use of “I” as an object in such phrases: “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” or “graciously invited Michelle and I.” It should, of course, be “me.” (As in, “between you and me, I’ve been so interested in what Obama says that I’ve never noticed his pronoun issues.”) The authors, Patricia T. O’Conner (of the wonderful grammar book Woe Is I) and Stewart Kellerman, go on to justify its usage due to linguistic precedent — but in the end, I was happy to see, they conclude that “an educated speaker is expected to keep his pronouns in line.” And they end with the little trick that, once applied, will forever teach you to say it right.
Yesterday was a beautiful, sunny day, most of which I spent inside at the Southern California Writers’ Conference — and it was well worth it.
Actually, I spent more of my day teaching sessions than attending sessions — but it was great to see the energy of all the writers, to hear all their thoughtful questions, and to read a few samples of their work. I was particularly happy to see such a nice crowd at my afternoon revision session — revision being such a necessary part of the writing process, yet often one of the least fun for many writers.
And later, in their afternoon panel, several agents and editors confirmed the importance of having polished work. The panel featured agent (and former editor) Claire Gerus; agent Natanya Wheeler of Lowenstein-Yost; Jeff Moores of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner; and editor Lynn Price of Behler Publications.
When asked about the biggest mistakes writers make when submitting to an agent or a small press, the answers were issues that can all be resolved with careful revision: grammatical errors, point-of-view switches, having too much backstory too early on (a structural issue), as well as an overall “lack of preparedness” on the part of the writer.
The panel also talked about the difficulties for writers in the current economy (writers can expect lower advances); the fact that writers need to be their own publicists, or hire one; and the advantages of using Internet to promote one’s book. It was nice to hear them emphasize that it’s the quality of writing that gets their attention, not a trendy topic; they’re looking for timeless books rather than a hot topic.
I also spoke to a couple people who did the Rogue Workshops (these are the ones that begin at 9 p.m. and last indefinitely), some of which finished shortly after midnight and others that lasted past 3 a.m. They sounded like so much fun that I’m (almost ) sorry to have been sleeping through them.
It’s nice to be in San Diego, even if the temperatures are in the 50s (it’s still 20 degrees warmer than where I’m coming from) — and the much-needed rain is always worth celebrating, especially when it alternates with sunny blue skies (and gorgeous sunsets).
The Southern California Writers’ Conference started yesterday, and I sat in on a couple sessions before taking off to prepare for my own this morning and this afternoon. I really enjoyed Julie Ann Shapiro‘s session on flash fiction; as a writer of short fiction myself, I nevertheless tend to write longish short fiction rather than the 500-750 word “flashes” that give this sub-genre its name. But Shapiro gave us an excellent introduction to the form, read us a few flash examples, and then put us to work. She has a lovely, encouraging style that encouraged us all to give it a try and, most of all, to have fun with it.
I also attended Michael Thompkins‘ session on character, which offered a great way to approach characters — one that we all might do subconsciously but would be better off doing consciously. A psychologist, Thompkins brought us into the physical aspects of character and offered four different personality types, encouraging us to pay close attention to somatic psychology and emotional anatomy as we define and portray our characters on the page. (Too many details to go into here, but he is also doing a follow-up session this morning, and more info is available on his own web site.)
Today’s good news is that I have copies of Forgetting English in my hands at last. This is cool.
One of the stories, “The Ecstatic Cry,” originally published in Ontario Review, is about a penguin researcher in Antarctica — which brings me to the bad news, this story in the Boston Globe’s Green Blog about the fate of the emperor penguins.
New research from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution indicates that the emperors face serious population declines due to climate change. According to this research, if climate change continues to melt sea ice at the rates reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the larger emperor colonies will shrink from 3,000 to only 400 breeding pairs by the end of this century — and there are only about 40 emperor colonies in the world to begin with.
And Al Gore’s update to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday is nothing short of terrifying. I realize I’m a little off-topic here, but a world without penguins (or polar bears, or sea ice) isn’t a world I’d want to live in. But of course, it’s not just the animals I worry about … as Gore reports, for each 1 meter of sea level rise, there will be roughly 100 million climate refugees. And Antarctica is melting fast.
As readers of this blog know, I get a little cranky when I hear about memoirs that turn out to have been made up. Today’s NY Times has an interesting story about the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, whose two recent novels (2666 and The Savage Detectives) are not in question but whose biography is.
Apparently Bolano, who died in 2003, was not into heroin, nor was he in Chile during the military coup that brought Pinochet to power, as he has claimed. And American critics and publishers are being taken to task for “deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.”
It’s no secret that writers and publishers need to think about sales — and aside from the writing, it helps to have youth, beauty, or some other angle or platform that helps sell books. But when writers have to start re-creating their own personas to sell books, we might be taking things a little too far.
Lately it seems that the publishing industry is making headlines in a bigger way than usual, with the layoff of Publishers Weekly’s editor-in-chief Sara Nelson yesterday and the former publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt joining Riverhead, not to mention the many other layoffs and reorganizations in the industry over the past few months.
In addition, I’ve noticed several articles on “the new publishing,” which in many cases refers to self-publishing, on which the NY Times has a cover story today. It begins, “The point may soon come when there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them” — though I have long wondered whether we’re there already.
The article outlines the pros and cons of self-publishing, of which most writers are aware, and mentions one surprising fact: this month, Author Solutions (which operates iUniverse, AuthorHouse, and other vanity presses) bought Xlibris — and combined, the company represented 19,000 titles in 2008: almost six times more than Random House, the world’s largest traditional publishing house. (And keep in mind that these books did not have editors.) It’s a strange statistic.
But those in the self-publishing business know that it’s not about books but about money. Lulu’s CEO, Robert Young, admits that most of its titles are published for few other than the authors and their families. “We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,” he told the Times.
And yet for all those niche books that will sell only a few copies, there are authors out there who know there is a larger audience for their work — and it is for these writers that I’m glad self-publishing is now easy and cheap. Today’s success story is Lisa Genova, whose first novel, “Still Alice,” was turned down or ignored by 100 literary agents. She self-published the novel for $450 and, though perseverance and fantastic luck, eventually sold it to Pocket Books for a mid-six-figure advance. It debuted on the New York Times trade paperback fiction bestseller list at number five this Sunday.
I’ve recently received my fall issue of American Literary Review, in which I’m thrilled to have a story of my own included. Even after having written and rewritten a piece, then editing the proofs, I still get a kick out of seeing a story in print (especially in the pages of a magazine I’ve read and admired for years). Somehow, a published, polished piece feels a little different, in a good way, and the effect this had on me today was to remind me of the origins of this one.
Years ago, when I was working in the alumni office of a large university, we received a letter that contained a ring — a lovely, expensive-looking ring — along with a note asking that it be returned to its rightful owner. The sender wrote that she had stolen it from her roommate years earlier and wanted to make things right again. (This is the kind of thing that a writer can’t get out of her mind.)
And I never did get that letter (or the letter writer) out of my mind. Much later, while in Hawaii for a friend’s wedding, I found myself noticing the couples next to me at the bar, or in a cafe — a lot of young honeymooners and a lot of older couples as well. I thought again of the ring, of relationships and regrets, and, to make a long story short, these ideas collided in my mind (as Grace Paley once said, “I don’t have a story until I have two stories”), and “Twin Falls” was born.
To see how the story evolves and how it ends, turn to page 39 of this issue of ALR. 🙂
This is the novel that came from the screenplay that came from the memoir that came from the story that came from the house that Herman Rosenblat built.
It’s a little convoluted, but here it is: Today’s NY Times reports that Herman Rosenblat’s false memoir will actually be published as a novel (as it should have been all along, since it was fictional). Apparently, the film rights for the memoir had already been sold, and a screenplay had been written, and now a publisher in White Plains will publish a novel based on the screenplay.
All’s well that ends well. But would it have been so hard to write a novel to begin with?
I didn’t expect to read another author-caught-cheating story so soon after my last cranky blog about it (see “Not Again…” below), but I suppose by now I shouldn’t be surprised. This time it’s Conversations with God author Neale Donald Walsch, and he has plagiarized a Christmas story while “believing the story was something that had actually come from his personal experience,” according to this NY Times story.
Now, I myself have a notoriously poor memory (ask my husband, who always gets a little freaked out when I can’t remember movies we’ve seen together or articles we’ve discussed) — but even I have yet to adopt other people’s memories as my own. The Times reports: “Except for a different first paragraph in which Mr. Walsch wrote that he could ‘vividly remember’ the incident, his Dec. 28 Beliefnet post followed, virtually verbatim, Ms. Chand’s previously published writing, even down to prosaic details like ‘The morning of the dress rehearsal, I filed in ten minutes early, found a spot on the cafeteria floor and sat down.’ ” Wow.
By way of apology, Walsch claims “I have told the story verbally so many times over the years that I had it memorized … and then, somewhere along the way, internalized it as my own experience.”
The true author of the story, Candy Chand, told the Times she isn’t buying it, pointing out that as the author of the Conversations with God series, Walsch should recognize that the Ten Commandments include not lying and not stealing. What’s also interesting is that Walsch’s statement to the Times — “I am chagrined and astonished that my mind could play such a trick on me” — sort of calls into question the whole premise of his bestselling works, which is that he talks to God. Or, some of his readers may begin to wonder, was his mind playing tricks on him then, too?
Today’s New York Times has a couple of interesting articles about publishing and its fate — one story, “Puttin’ Off the Ritz,” considers the new austerity in the publishing industry, i.e., cutting back on expensive holiday parties, sales meetings in exotic locales, and pricey lunches. But as editor Robert Gottlieb points out, this is “small potatoes compared to the problems they face.”
Yet HarperCollins is experimenting with a new business model that addresses the two biggest concerns in publishing when it comes to profits — large cash advances and unsold book returns — and this is a solution that works for both author and publisher. Set up last year, HarperStudio will limit author advances to no more than $100,000 and give authors half of the profits from book sales (currently it’s at 10 to 15 percent). It’ll be interesting to see how bookstores deal with the issue of returns, which dates back to the Depression — but so far Borders has agreed to take on 14 nonreturnable books from HarperStudio’s 2009 list.
As an instructor, I still run across writers who think they’ll crank out a novel and make an easy buck. (For a few lucky people, this actually does happen.) But this new publishing model would engage the writer even more, while allowing publishers to take chances on more writers, promote more books, and not worry so much about creating mega-blockbusters to earn back those huge advances. (Though the article does quote an independent bookseller who’d like to see fewer books: “[Publishers] need to have some sense of what is going on in the country and what the readers are really looking for.”)
And speaking of new publishing models, this article on Google’s book search highlights the program as a way to get out-of-print books back to readers, as well as providing a great resource for researching just about anything (such as the phrase “you’re not the boss of me,” which, by the way, was coined in 1883). It’s good news for authors and publishers, too, as they receive 63 percent of revenues. According to the article, Macmillian offers 11,000 titles for search on Google through its various imprints and estimates having sold 16,400 copies through Google in 2007.
With all the bad news about the economy (and all the talk about the demise of books and bookstores in general over the years), it’s good to see the industry embracing new ideas. People are always going to want and need books — but they way they’re acquired, sold, and read is definitely changing. As Paul Courant, university librarian at the University of Michigan, told the Times, “There is no short way to appreciate Jane Austen, and I hope I’m right about that…But a lot of reading is going to happen on screens.”
You’d think — after James Frey (we all remember James Frey), then Margaret Seltzer (she’s the one who wrote the “gang memoir” about being a white girl raised in an African-American foster home, when in reality she grew up with her own family in a lovely Los Angeles suburb), and then Misha Defonseca (whose memoir about running from the Nazis and living with wolves turned out to be fabricated) — that we’ve seen the end of fake memoirs, canceled publishing contracts, and poor Oprah being duped. But not quite: this article in today’s New York Times tells the story of yet another one. Another amazing love story, another unbelievable Holocaust memoir — and another confession from the author that its premise is not true. And yes, another canceled book contract.
It’s not that I blame the agents, editors, and publishers — they can’t fact-check every detail of every manuscript that comes across their desks, though they might consider doing a bit more given the prevalence of fake memoirs these days. I’m just not sure what these writers are thinking. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t just go ahead and write a novel instead of a “memoir,” when they know the story is untrue and often have to go to elaborate lengths to perpetuate the lie.
I can empathize with the notion that a story can seem more powerful if readers know it’s true — but this is only the case when, in fact, the story is true. What about the power of fiction to open readers’ eyes to truth as well? (I’m not just saying this as a fiction writer but as a former nonfiction writer who remains a stickler for getting the facts straight.)
In the end, I worry that writers with legitimate stories will find it hard to earn the trust of agents, editors, and publishers, and I worry that readers may stop caring whether a memoir is true or not, as long as it’s a good story (this is especially frightening with such historic events as the Holocaust). If writers keep blurring the lines between fact and fiction — and keep getting published — then what?
I’ve just posted an excerpt of one of the stories in Forgetting English for all of you who are just dying to start reading (okay, just humor me here). Click here for the excerpt, which is from the story “First Sunday,” first published in Indiana Review.
I’d like to say a special THANKS! to Rebecca Raymond, without whom I could not have written this story (which is not in any way based on her life, in case you wonder about that after reading it…all characters and their actions are purely a figment of the author’s imagination and are not based on actual persons, living or dead, yada yada yada). But, being a former journalism type and therefore being a stickler for details even when I’m making stuff up, I wanted the fine print of the story to be just right, from the Tongan phrases to life in kingdom’s villages.
It’s so great to know people who do interesting things and don’t mind your stealing their material. Thanks, Beck.