For your summer reading list

By Midge Raymond,

Read this New York Times story for news about the  partnership of the O. Henry Prize stories with PEN American Center. Starting with the 2009 collection, which will be published by Random House in early May, the annual anthology will be called the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

Included in this year’s edition are stories by this year’s Spokane Prize winner, Caitlin Horrocks, and this month’s Andrew’s Book Club Indie Pick, Paul Yoon.

My summer beach reading stack is now taller than I am.

A different breed of penguin

By Midge Raymond,

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.


Cool stuff for writers (and readers)

By Midge Raymond,

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.


Recycle Your Rejection Letters

By Midge Raymond,

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).

Literature in the Recession

By Midge Raymond,

Hirsh Sawhney has a nice post in today’s Guardian Books Blog on independent publishing, noting that while many of the bigger publishers are scrambling to cut expenses, the smaller, independent presses, which have always operated on lean budgets, are doing quite well.

Sawhney admits to being a bit biased (his book, Delhi Noir, is forthcoming in August by the independent publisher Akashic) — and I’m a little biased myself, Forgetting English having been published by a university press. But I think a lot of us who love good writing will appreciate his point of view: “[What] will save literature from economic disaster? Simple: independent publishing. Yes, independents -– the ones who struggle to sell enough books to make payroll -– will ensure that engaging, challenging books continue to be produced and consumed. It’s they who’ll safeguard literature through the dark economic days ahead.”

It’s not just small-press pride that inspires Sawhney’s claim (nor is that why I’m repeating it here); it’s a fact that the smaller publishers simply do business differently, which in this economic climate has served them well. Small presses don’t generally pay gigantic advances, then suffer huge losses when books don’t earn them out. They’re accustomed to shoestring budgets (which most likely does not include martini lunches). And, as Sawhney points out, “when you’re independently owned, you’re somewhat insulated from the machinations of the market.”

Sawhney says he’s “hearing rumblings from friends and colleagues who work with bigger houses,” and while he’s not specific about what these rumblings are, exactly, the point he’s making is that he’s very happy with his own publisher — like me, he gets nearly instant replies to his emails and the careful, personal attention to his work that, these days, perhaps only an independent press can offer to each and every one of its writers.

Whether independents will “save literature from the recession,” I’m not sure…I do believe books will survive no matter what (even if we have to read them on our Kindles or laptops). But I too see the independents, and their authors, weathering this recession quite well. I’ve been grateful, many times over, that my book was published as a trade paperback (who can afford hardcovers these days?) and that every royalty statement I receive will reflect actual earnings, not how much farther I have to go until I’ve paid back my advance. And, as Sawhney writes, “The real virtue of working with an independent publisher is the artistic experimentation they not only allow, but encourage.”

But publishing is still an industry facing big changes. Kassia Krozser’s Booksquare post (or I should say critique) on the panel “New Think for Old Publishers” at South by Southwest 2009 offers an interesting and important look into the publishing industry of today. The panel’s goal was to address how traditional publishing would interact with our new digital world, “to learn what is going right and wrong in publishing…to learn how books and blogs can work.” Yet, Krozser writes, “Not one word spoken in that session, either from the panelists or from the audience, was new or innovative.”

Krozser followed up with another post yesterday on the same topic — it’s great food for thought, not only for publishers but for writers as well. Like it or not, publishing as we’ve known it will continue to change, and if publishers and writers alike aren’t ready, what’s likely to suffer the most is all those good books out there that won’t be able to find their audiences.

Brilliant people I know

By Midge Raymond,

I was just updating my Goodreads page and realized how many of the amazing books I’m currently reading have been written by people I know. For example: Diana Joseph‘s hilarious and touching memoir I’m Sorry You Feel That Way, and Telling True Stories, co-edited by Wendy Call and Mark Kramer.

And as I was thinking about what to read at tomorrow night’s Hugo House Teacher Reading, it reminded me that I’ll get to see Carolyne Wright, whose gorgeous Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire I’m reading now, and Clare Meeker, the award-winning children’s writer who is also my writing buddy.

And I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of Janna Cawrse Esarey‘s The Motion of the Ocean, and Audrey Young’s The House of Hope and Fear.

And, to venture beyond books for a moment, I just saw Rob Postrozny‘s beautiful short film, Forgetting Betty, and it’s very clear why it got such great reception at the festivals, including Best Short Film at the Chicago Film Festival.

NOTE: This is just a partial list of the brilliant people I know…I’ll keep updating.

How to write a query letter…

By Midge Raymond,

Literary agent Janet Reid‘s awesome blog, Query Shark, is a great way to learn how to write a good query. You can send in a query to get posted and critiqued — but even if she doesn’t post and critique your own query, you can learn a lot about what to do (and what not to do) by reading the other posts.

A couple of Query Shark’s recent tips:

  • Always put “Query” in the subject line of an email, so agents will realize that titles like “Unleashing Your Inner Sex Demon” aren’t spam.
  • Identify who the main character is (sounds obvious, but see Query #101).
  • Always use word count, not page numbers.
  • Be humbly professional (don’t tell an agent “time is of the essence” or mention your membership in Mensa).
  • PROOFREAD. I know the Query Shark isn’t the only stickler for correct spelling and punctuation.

This is just a fantastic blog – in part because people tend to learn best by making mistakes (or studying others’ mistakes). And with the variety and number of queries posted here, it’s impossible not to pick up a few good tips. Best yet, at the end of the critique, Reid lets you know whether your query would’ve been a form rejection, a request for pages, etc.

When Homework Collides…

By Midge Raymond,

This little gem comes from McGarrity Harney, from the Southern California Writer’s Conference:

“The star-crossed lovers raced toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Chicago at  7 a.m. going 68 miles per hour, the other having left Milwaukee at 8:15 going 75 miles per hour.”

It comes from a real assignment, McGarrity says: The student apparently got his math and English homework confused.

A Few More “Don’ts”…

By Midge Raymond,

Last week, literary agent Colleen Lindsay proclaimed March 5 as #Queryfail Day on Twitter — a day on which a group of online agents, as well as book and magazine editors, post about what exactly makes them stop reading in a query letter.

It’s a wonderful idea (one she indicated will be a regular or semi-regular event) — and please keep in mind, as I reprint a couple of their examples of bad queries here, that this was done in the spirit of education:

  • “I’ve queried more than 50 agents and have gotten nowhere and now I’m querying you.”
  • “I don’t think you’re the right agent for me, but could you pass my query along to some of your colleagues?”
  • “I know you don’t represent children’s literature, but I hope you’ll make an exception in my case.”
  • “This is my first attempt at writing a fictional novel.”

While we’re on the subject, I’d like to add a few “don’ts” of my own. As a fiction reader for a literary magazine, I don’t receive queries but full manuscript submissions — and it’s the cover letters that are often problematic in my case. First, you must know that no matter how absurd your cover letter may be, I’m always going to read your story (it’s a karma thing). Second, you must realize that not all editors feel this way, and that a cover letter does have the potential to taint a reader’s experience of a story.

I always say keep your cover letters short and to the point: give editors what the submission guidelines ask for and little or nothing more. Including a word count and a short bio can’t hurt — but adding a three-paragraph description of your story could. (Why? Because by telling us what the story is about, you 1) take away the pleasure of discovery that goes along with a first read; 2) limit the uniquely individual experience that we might have were we able to draw our own conclusions, and 3) offer very little incentive to read the story from beginning to end, if we already know how it turns out.)

A few other things to keep in mind…

  • If you mention a famous writer you’ve studied with extensively, be sure you spell this author’s name correctly.
  • Send clean copies of your manuscript, not worn-out, coffee-stained photocopies with torn pages.
  • Make sure there are no pages missing in your manuscript, particularly those very important pages at the beginning or end.
  • While we like knowing whether yours is a simultaneous submission, it is not necessary to list all the magazines to which you have simultaneously submitted your story.

This is, of course, a small and incomplete list … and it probably makes me sound like one of the crankier editors out there (really, I’m not). But I do admit my bias in favor of the simple, straightforward query: Here’s my story; here’s a little about me; thanks so much for your time. As a writer, that’s what I send out. As an editor, it allows me to get straight to the work at hand, to focus on the story itself. And that’s where, as both editors and writers, we want our readers to be.

What Keeps Me Writing

By Midge Raymond,

I’m happy to be taking part in Get Lit!’s Cyber Author Panel on “What Keeps Me Writing” — and the topic reminded me of an essay I came across recently: Geoff Nicholson’s New York Times essay, titled “Can’t. Stop. Writing.” Addressing the same topic, the essay first focuses on the prolificacy of authors (Nicholson’s own 20 books in 22 years; Joyce Carol Oates’ more than 100 books in 45 years; the late John Updike’s 50 in 60).

It focuses less on prolific unpublished authors (though the essay does mention the romance novelist Barbara Cortland’s unpublished 160 novels, of 700 books total). I myself am somewhere in between, with some two dozen published stories, a just-published collection, and a (yet) unpublished novel. And, as a writer who is still “emerging” after a decade of slowly but surely getting published stories into the world amid my various day jobs, this makes the question of what keeps me writing very relevant, as in “Why do I keep writing fiction when I could pursue a more sustainable, lucrative career path?”

For one, when I was young, I never imagined doing anything else. When I grew up and realized that no one was going to pay me to sit around and write, I did the next best things: I taught English. I went to graduate school. I moved to New York and worked in publishing. I wrote for magazines and newspapers and newsletters. I wrote fiction on the side and eventually carved out more and more time for it in what increasingly became a patchwork life of teaching and freelancing and writing, writing, writing. And this alone keeps me writing – my knowledge that the ability to live this way is a gift too valuable to be wasted.

What also keeps me writing is, most often, the little things. When I see or hear something interesting, it becomes the kernel of a new story. Every moment, to me, is a story waiting to be born; I’m not sure I’m capable of looking at the world in any other way. And these little things eventually lead to the bigger things: the chance to step outside my world and delve into another, to take a part of my own world and transform it into something that is broader than my own experience — and I hope, the ability to do the same for readers.

Eventually, these little and big things multiply and become another source of inspiration to keep writing: publishing a new story in a literary magazine helps me recognize how much I’m still growing as a writer; teaching at a conference makes me realize how much I’ve learned along the way; getting feedback from readers tells me I’m making a connection somewhere out there.

For me, Nicholson sums it up perfectly: “…perhaps the real reason we keep writing is the hope, naïve perhaps, that we’ll make a better job of it next time. Unless you’re a genius or a fool, you realize that everything you write, however ‘successful,’ is always a sort of failure. And so you try again.”

Publishing – and unpublishing – online

By Midge Raymond,

Jessica Powers has an interesting article on New Pages, which begins by telling the story of a ridiculous argument between two online editors and then moves on to discuss the pros and perils of publishing work in online magazines.

The argument she refers to ended in the “unpublishing” of one editor’s stories — an interesting and uniquely online concept (once you publish a piece in print, of course, there’s no taking it back). But while most online editors do not remove content out of spite, they are sometimes approached by authors wanting their work taken offline because they feel it hasn’t aged well. Justin Taylor, editor of The Apocalypse Reader and a regular contributor to HTML Giant, makes a great point about the problem with this option: “I was who I was, I wrote what I wrote, and those people were interested in what I showed them at the time. The fact that I’ve moved on doesn’t change the fundamental kindness or integrity of what they did for me. That’s the whole point of art: you make it, and then it exists.”

The good news in this article is that, according to AGNI editor William Pierce (whose magazine publishes both print and online content) believes that online magazines, often taken less seriously than print publications, are becoming more and more respectable: “More and more, work published online is eligible for the prize anthologies and is winning recognition that used to be reserved for print publication.”

It’s a great article for any writer looking to publish online — and among its important points are cautions that apply to submitting to both print and online pubs: Be happy with your work before sending it anywhere, and be sure it’s a magazine you respect and would be proud to see your work published.

Midge’s Alter Ego(s)

By Midge Raymond,

Now that Forgetting English has been out for a few weeks, I’m getting wonderful responses from readers (thank you!), many of whom are friends, students, or otherwise know me on some level.  And this is when they usually ask, with some degree of concern, “To what extent are these stories autobiographical?”

I love this question. The stories in Forgetting English are, generally, about characters who are lost, lonely, on the edge. There is betrayal, adultery, suicide, and, as one reader puts it, “so much sex in this book.” I’ve captured these characters at the very last outposts of the world (literally) and of their own lives (metaphorically).

For those concerned, however, about my marriage and/or my mental state: Rest assured my own life is not nearly as interesting as those of these characters. When I think about the origins of these stories, as I have a lot lately in response to questions, I’ve enjoyed remembering the moments in which the stories began to take shape. The day a ring arrived in the alumni office where I worked (“The Road to Hana”); the moment I saw a Japanese couple clap their hands at the Zozo-ji temple in Tokyo (“Translation Memory”); the time I picked up a hotel room phone to discover someone else’s message (“Rest of World”).

For me, it’s the little moments that inspire a story — something that piques my curiosity about a life beyond what I’m witnessing. It’s why I write fiction … to explore what’s beyond my own experience, and perhaps to find a common truth in what I discover. For me, that’s about as close to memoir as it gets.

Divorce attorneys, keep your business cards. Pyschiatrists, keep your straightjackets (though you can keep your prescription pads out). All is well — except maybe in my (perhaps overactive) imagination.

Obama, It’s “Me”

By Midge Raymond,

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.

Publishers on the Recession

By Midge Raymond,

I just came across this series of interviews with independent publishers on how the recession is affecting their business. It’s interesting to see that, in general, the small, independent presses have tended to fare far better during the recession than the larger publishing conglomerates, due to, among other things, a smaller lists of quality books, low overhead, and loyal readers. And, the independents are keeping a close eye on digital technologies and new options for approaching and serving readers online.

David R. Godine, the publisher at Godine, points out a few major differences between the small presses and the large New York Houses: “First, we are privately held and cash flow is far more important than profitability. We are not answerable to stock holders for ever improving scores on the bottom line or the balance sheet. We own our own warehouse and ship our own books, so we can print for three or four years, and not just for a season. We are not expected to offer huge advances or munificent royalties, so people aren’t disappointed when we live up to our, or their, expectations. Finally, we provide a fairly identifiable “quality” product and we have a fairly loyal and predictable customer base — both consumers and bookstores. When times are tough, people inevitably move to quality. They may buy less, but they buy better.”

Allan Kornblum, the publisher at Coffee House Press, echoes this in response to a question about Houghton Mifflin’s troubles: “Houghton Mifflin’s mission is to make money for shareholders first, and to serve literature second. As a nonprofit, our mission is to serve the public good.” He also adds that authors have more realistic expectations from a smaller house: “Our authors don’t expect to be picked up at the airport in a limo when they tour. They sleep on couches in the homes of friends, not at the Hilton, when they give readings.”

In the interview with Margo Baldwin, president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing, Baldwin had very interesting things to say about the future of publishing. And, because this company focuses on sustainable living issues, Baldwin adds that it has done quite during the recession. “If you want to eat, you learn how to grow your own food. If you want a house, you can learn how to build it yourself. If you want to reduce your energy use, you can figure out how to harvest your own power. Survival is a wake up call, and we have the books to educate people on that front.”

Richard Nash, editorial director of Soft Skull Press and executive editor of Counterpoint, talks about how it’s getting more difficult to get books into bookstores — but again, it’s one of the many challenges small publishers are used to. “More and more you have to prove to the retailer your book will sell. But frankly, Soft Skull has almost ALWAYS had to do that. Our books, either because they seem to be very nichy, or very literary, or very alternative, or very hybrid, have always faced significant challenges when sales reps present them to bookstores. So in a sense these challenges that we’ve faced for our entire existence likely have us better prepared for the current challenges.”

Fred Ramey, co-publisher (with Greg Michalson) at Unbridled Books, mentions changes he’s noticing in book-buying behavior, which would affect bigger publishers more than independent ones. “If instead of buying the book they’re told to buy, readers are heading toward books that are hand-sold to them or that their online friends recommend, toward books they find links to on Amazon/Powell’s/etc., then what has previously appeared to conglomerated publishers as the surest thing will become much less so.”

Declan Spring, senior editor at New Directions, acknowledges, “None of us got raises this year. We’re trying to cut costs, and interestingly, we’re finding that the printers are more eager for business. We find we can bunch up more titles and bring down the printing and binding costs this way for titles that sell more steadily. We’ve always run sort of on a shoe-string, so while we’re certainly being careful about keeping expenses down, this is something we’ve always done anyway.”

SCWC; Day Two

By Midge Raymond,

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.