Monday, September 1, 2014

Finding Time for Writing: Strategies and Social Dilemmas for Scheduling or Stealing It

After perhaps my longest hiatus from blogging (and creative writing), this Labor Day I'm reassessing my time--and commitment to the craft--while battling party fatigue (a big bash took over our backyard yesterday, complete with a cornhole competition to the tunes of Pandora, when what I really wanted was to read in the hammock and listen to wind chimes). The order of the day is to realign my writing goals (revise-revise-revise and publish-publish-publish in lit journals), then figure out what every writer must: how to carve writing time into my schedule. And stick to it.

It's been exactly two years since I completed my MFA program, and I realize that I have yet to settle into any kind of writing routine since the dread of deadlines no longer looms each week as incentive. I've found some success in terms of a new career direction with copywriting/editing after a stint in journalism and teaching/tutoring, and I've published two essays in lit journals, with another currently in circulation. But now that I've got my bearings, I'm just not satisfied publishing only once a year.

I'm not talking about writerly ego, that hunger for recognition or validation that comes with your words in print (or online). What I really mean is that writing or revising only one essay or story per year for submission isn't satisfying my deepest heartfelt desire to create art and find a venue for its audience.

Rather than start today's quest like a schoolmarm with a yardstick and a list of recitations in hand that are sure to bring my bridge troll out from hiding, I delved into my latest issue of the Review Review, an endless source of inspiration and resource for a writer in any stage of her career, with a link to Australia's, where writer and single mother, Helen Addison-Smith notes:
'Writing takes time – great swathes of clean, empty time, unsullied by children or housework or deep worry about money or skincare routines. To be a writer is to be selfish enough to grab time and spend it churning words around, even though you are not getting paid very much, hardly anybody cares about what you’re doing, and even fewer people think that it’s any good.'
Judging by the reader responses, the challenge of finding these "great swathes" in which to "churn words around" isn't a unique phenomenon, especially (as the author argues) for women, and especially those raising young children, for whom stepping away from household tasks poses its own dilemmas. It's no wonder writer residencies are so popular, and that up to five times as many women as men apply for them, according to Peter Bishop, executive director of the Varuna Writers' Centre in Australia. Ironically, as stated in an online article at The Age, he's so busy with others' manuscripts that:
From time to time he will find a morning or an afternoon when he can work on his own novel but it is almost impossible to steal the time necessary.
If you're looking for some writing time away from your daily responsibilities, there are plenty of residencies to choose from. It's not even too late to apply for the women-only Hedgebrook Writers in Residence program, located on 48 forested acres of Whidbey Island, northwest of Seattle. Applications are due at midnight, September 3:

Residents are housed in six handcrafted cottages, where they spend their days in solitude – writing, reading, taking walks in the woods on the property or on nearby Double Bluff beach. In the evenings, they gather in the farmhouse kitchen to share a home-cooked gourmet meal, their work, their process and their stories. The Writers in Residence Program is Hedgebrook’s core program, supporting the fully-funded residencies of approximately 40 women writers at the retreat each year. 

As for me, I'm staring at my calendar now and trying to figure out where to schedule writing--like exercise, it often lingers on the periphery of my days and I want it to take a more central place. Although we do the majority of our writing as solitary beings, sometimes breaking out of isolation is what we need to crack open the conundrum of how to--whether it's how to approach an ending of a story or how to be accountable to our writing goals when grades or contest deadlines aren't enough. That's why I'm signing up for a local workshop run by Leilani Clark of Petals and Bones:

If you're looking for camaraderie and writing community, look no further. In this monthly workshop, you'll receive  support and inspiration to help you make progress on a writing project (all genres welcome!) whether that involves writing everyday for 20 minutes, or completing a set amount of words or pages. We will get the creative sparks flying with two short writing prompts, followed by check-ins and accountability on the previous month's writing goal(s). Plus, you'll get lots of resources and mini-craft talks from workshop facilitator Leilani Clark.

For now, it just may be the extra impetus I need to help me dive back in.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Chichen Itza, cenotes, and whale sharks--oh my!

Paper-pencil-pen will be on a hiatus for summer break in Mexico as my wife and I road trip around the Yucatan Peninsula for three weeks. Prompted by my copywriting career at Viator, where I've written multiple tours about swimming in cenotes (limestone sinkholes), exploring Maya archeological ruins and snorkeling with whale sharks, I was drawn to this spot between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Ironically, I haven't booked any tours, since we're such independent travelers. But I'll be sure to take notes as I travel--and perhaps even pitch something upon return to Via or LA Times!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Duotrope Submissions Tracker: "Rinse & Repeat"

Thank you for your recent submission to Gulf Coast. We appreciate your patience while we read your work. However, we're sorry to inform you that your work was not the right fit for us at this time. Thank you again for submitting, and good luck with all your writing endeavors.

The Gulf Coast Editors

My first publication by Travelers' Tales
It's just another day in the business of literary rejection. After submitting "Crisis" as my sample essay for my application to Lit Camp, I polished (and re-polished) the piece and sent it on its merry way. During the months of March and May I submitted to 10 literary journals. Since I'm pretty bad at keeping track of my submissions/rejections (needle-in-a-haystack acceptances I celebrate--yes, that's me with my first publication in 2009), I decided to try out Duotrope, "an established, award-winning writers' resource." Check out features like its publication search (you can customize searches of market listings and even compare response times and acceptance rates) and submissions tracker.

I signed up for the 7-day free trial and committed to a full-year subscription ($50, or just $5 a month, which might be the best route in retrospect). Here's what my submission tracker looks like:

In case your magnifying glass couldn't decipher the tiny text from my screen capture, it's basically a spreadsheet with columns for piece, publication, date sent, date rejected/accepted, type of response (I've got 4 of those lovely letters so far!), and how many days you've waited with bated breath. You can even filter your report by submission status, piece, market and year of submissions.

Even if you don't have any submissions to date, I encourage you to check out the Duotrope website. In their own words:

Like the shampoo bottle says, "Rinse and repeat." Keep writing, keep submitting. Learn to shake off rejections and accept constructive criticism. Celebrate your acceptances. You'll have many more to come!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lit Camp 2014 and Post-Lit Camp Ennui (PLCE)

Well, it's been almost one month since I went to Lit Camp 2014, and it's taken about as long to shake off what one attendee labeled Post-Lit Camp Ennui (PLCE). One volunteer extraordinaire, Thea Sullivan (that darling dame in the photo) defined it with the following comments on Facebook:

Thea Sullivan, Travis Peterson and Matthew James DeCostner
Photo credit: Ian Tuttle

Common symptoms of PLCE: 
Changes in sleep habits
Mental fog
Unexplained sadness
Compulsive checking of Facebook
Continual "reliving" of past experience
Inattention to daily duties
Unrealistic desire to return to fantasy state involving witty conversation, intellectual stimulation, delicious food, festive cocktails, heartfelt connections, and the sense of having found one's "tribe".

Isabel and Nicole at a Lit Camp session
That tribe included 40 Lit Camp members plus several fantabulous volunteers (including founder Janis Cooke Newman) and a host of literary hotshots (editors, agents, writers) who graciously shared their expertise with us during panels, porch time conversations and daily writing workshops. While this formal learning added its usual enrichment to my literary arsenal, it was the informal gathering with said tribe--the ease of communication and depth of connectivity with likeminded individuals all seeking their way with words--that made the adjustment to the normal world so laden with listlessness, malaise and melancholy (all synonyms for 'ennui'). I've since recovered.

Photo credit: Ian Tuttle
Photo credit: Ian Tuttle
I got up early in the morning to swim in the spring-fed pool (solo), hiked the trail past chaparral in the Calistoga hills, heard the echo of Canada geese honking through the canyon, ate fresh meals sourced from the garden that served as our backdrop during sunny afternoons on the deck, fell into constant conversation on the writing life, and--of course--considered the craft of writing for several days, followed up with evening fun, including a much better than expected Lit Camp talent show.

Lit Camp also raised a total of $930 for 826 Valencia with the naming of the 2014 Lit Camp cocktail.

CC, Nicole and Isabel on Polaroid

Here's the recipe for this delicious drink, now known as The 700 Club, in case you have cause for celebration:

2 oz. Bummer & Lazarus Gin
1 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice, or the juice from one lemon.
½ oz. simple syrup
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Ginger Beer
Shake ingredients (not the ginger beer) with Ice and strain in to glass > Top off with Ginger Beer

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mobile Phone Photo Exhibit: My Year in Pictures

In a departure from the writing emphasis at paper-pencil-pen, I'd like to share a few pictures submitted (and accepted!) to the Petaluma Arts Center's Mobile Phone Photography Exhibit: FonFoto, a juried exhibition of images photographed with cell phone cameras.

According to the website:
As the heated discussion over the capability, viability, credibility of the camera phone continues among photographers, many have embraced the technology and the all-in-one, multi-media lifestyle of the cellphone-toting imagist.
Smart phones are today’s newest medium in art. Combined with software applications, they have transformed contemporary art forms in an important way — they are accessible to all. This exhibition hopes to capture the amazing images of amateurs and professionals who snap, click and shoot with a mobile device.
The images I submitted follow the four seasons. (Consideration was given to unusual angles and app enhancements unique to cell phone cameras.) "Spring" was rejected, but I can bring in its replacement (below) with no guarantee whether or not it will be hung. Tomorrow I'll get them printed at a fine arts studio that prints on paper, canvas and even aluminum! If you're in the area, come to the Artists' Reception on May 10 from 4-6 p.m. or stop by the exhibit between May 9 -- July 6, 2014.

Summer: Santa Monica Pier

Fall: Apple Harvest

Winter: Frosted Windshield

Spring: Cherry Blossoms

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Journal Entry, Spring 2014

Last night, after stumbling to the bathroom, I glanced at the kitchen clock whose digital glow read 3:07 a.m. In the old days I could fall fast back to sleep; in fact, I was known among friends for my ability to doze deeply anywhere, at any time. Chalk it up to mid-life hormones or my wife's coughing or the incessant mind-spin I can't seem to shut off, especially in the middle of the night, but this was my third in a row that insomnia was my bed partner.

So I lay quietly, listening to the welcome rain (green fields! daffodils!) until my wife beside me broke the stillness with a reminiscence of the last time we awoke during a storm.

Nicole R. Zimmerman: Farm Tulips
We'd both been in the kitchen then, when thunder and lightning struck (rare here in northern California). The rumble and snap and flash startled us from our half-slumber so that she--nearly blind without her eyeglasses--ran straight into the yellow wall while my hip collided with the corner of the butcher block in our haste to escape to safety. Last night we laughed about our physical comedy routine and I said in a TV announcer voice, "On the next episode of Naked And Afraid," funny because we weren't dropped off in a remote wilderness but for one moment lost in our own quiet cottage at the edge of 80 acres.

I just can't seem to get used to the idea that in my job as a copywriter and copy editor, the inbox is permanently full. Even my wife, in a profession notorious for bringing work home, finds occasional respite in real breaks or the completion of end-of-quarter comments (which I'll edit this morning) for her middle-school science classes.

On the bright side, I'm getting a lot more reading done, for books are what I resort to on sleepless nights. Recently I began culling them from living room shelves, overgrown like anything in a house one has lived in for six years (my longest residency following a record 17 abodes in 20 adult years, not counting the half-year I spend road-tripping and the half-year backpacking Down Under).

Aside from issues of the Sun magazine and a brief stint with Annie Dillard (it was a slender book), I've spent most of my late night hours with Ann Patchett's This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which said wife gave to me for Hanukkah and whose title has little to do with the book as a whole (with the exception of the title essay). It's a highly informative, entertaining and poignant essay collection--from a story on trying out for the LAPD to caring for her grandmother in her final decade.

So I'm awake again, writing in bed what I started in my head last night, ready--or not--for another day.

[Side note: since this entry was written I've moved on to Bee Season by Myla Goldberg. I'm getting up at 5:30 a.m. to catch a flight tomorrow to DC to visit my nephews and don't intend to read--or write--before then!]

Nicole R. Zimmerman: the three musketeers

Monday, March 31, 2014

Writing the Rails: #AmtrakResidency for Writers plus Vela Magazine's Writing Contest for Women

I recently dragged out an old unfinished essay (or a few rough renditions of it) from the filing cabinet, hoping to see it through revision to completion in time for the first ever nonfiction contest at Vela, an online magazine that publishes "creative nonfiction inspired by travel, written by women." 

Camping in the Black Rock Desert, NV (without Burning Man)
Well, as time will attest, hope isn't enough to get a story ready for submission; I failed to meet today's deadline. But after a disheartening attempt at reviving two other essays from my own slush pile (both from my MFA days and both unsalvageable in my eyes), I'm excited to report that this travel piece (about embarking on a seven-month solo road-trip around the U.S. 15 years ago) re-ignited my fire.

Just in case you've got something up your sleeve, it's not too late: a $500 prize plus publication!
We’re looking for creative nonfiction, written by women, with a strong voice, a compelling narrative, and/or a powerful driving question. We’re interested in a wide range of essays and stories, including literary journalism, personal essays, memoir, and expository or experimental essays. We are not a “women’s magazine,” and are not looking for work that is written solely for a female audience.

On the subject of my first love--travel writing--check out the new Amtrak Residency For Writers! "Test-run" by Jessica Gross, whose piece Writing the Lakeshore Limited was published in the Paris Review, this writing residency on wheels will select up to 24 writers on a "rolling basis" through March 2015. According to the #AmtrakResidency blog:

Round-trip train travel will be provided on an Amtrak long-distance route. Each resident will be given a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration. We hope this experience will inspire creativity and most importantly fuel your sense of adventure!

My month-long Eurail trip in 1990 (edited on Instagram)
Since a Twitter handle is required on the application (Facebook URL and Instagram handle are optional), as the focus is "on individuals with a strong media presence," according to Amtrak's social media director Julia Quinn in an interview with The Wire, where you can read the backstory of the program's beginnings that all started with a few tweets.

Just be sure to read the fine print in the Official Terms you're agreeing to, including:

Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties.

That includes your writing sample.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Literary Grab Bag: Lit Camp, Handling Rejection and The Review Review (with Cappuccino)

This week brought more great news to my writerly world:
Congratulations! You are being offered a place at Lit CampWe had more than 250 submissions for only 40 spots. Everyone who was chosen represents the very best in fiction and nonfiction writing. It was a pleasure to read your work! 
Mayacamas Ranch, Calistoga, CA
Sponsored by Litquake and the San Francisco Writers Grotto, Lit Camp is an annual spring writers conference that takes place at Mayacamas Ranch, a retreat center in Calistoga, CA. Take a look at the rigorous Lit Camp schedule, which includes a Yoga for Writers workshop; free time to enjoy the hot tub, saltwater pool and spring-fed pond; and plenty of 'Booze and Schmooze' opportunities with writers, literary agents and editors of esteemed publications such as ZYZZVYA, McSweeney's, The Believer and The Rumpus. Oh, yeah, and some writing workshops!

The bad news: A couple of my writer friends didn't make it in. Which brings me to my next topic: Handling Rejection. I happen to know that these two are excellent writers; one just scored an agent and a possible publishing contract for her book. So here are some refreshing perspectives to share.

Helen Dring at Black Fox Literary Magazine makes the claim that "rejections will make you better":
You see, receiving rejections means two very good things. First, my work is out there in the world being read...   
Second, sometimes rejections come with feedback...
In her blog post, Rejections I Have Known, Susie Meserve reveals the good, the bad and the ugly (as well as sweet) in her folder of 282 rejections -- including some nostalgia for handwritten notes.

I borrowed the rejection links above from my weekly shot of The Review Review, which sends me an e-newsletter I never reject from my inbox. Amid all the spam is this constant gem, filled with fascinating tidbits from the writerly front, from interviews to blogs to lit mags to the ever-so whimsical parting words of its founding editor, Becky Tuch, who created the website from the ashes of rejection:
In the spring of 2008, I stopped submitting to literary magazines. As a fiction writer, trying to get my work published felt as futile and inconsequential as trying to write my name on a snowflake.
Here is how Ms. Tuch signed off this week. How can you not love a newsletter like this?

And that you white-tea sippers, you acai-berry chewers, you leafy-green consumers, you who love your antioxidants, you who are a dangerously free radical, you who are fit, you who are strong, and you there, just trying to get through the day without spilling food on yourself, is the news in literary magazines.

Well, it's not white tea or acai (pronounced 'a-sa-ee' -- it rhymes!) that's for me.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

7 great writing contests for literary journals with upcoming submission deadlines

It's time to get that essay, short story or memoir excerpt into tip-top shape and submit. I did!
(Be sure to click on each link to read the submission guidelines. Most entries can be submitted online and require a reading fee of $15-25, which also goes toward a subscription to the journal.)

Gulf Coast is now accepting entries for the 2014 Gulf Coast Prizes in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry. 
The contest awards $1,500 and publication in Gulf Coast to the winner in each genre. Two honorable mentions in each genre will be awarded $250. 
All entries will be considered for publication and the entry fee includes a one-year subscription to Gulf Coast.

Deadline: March 24th

The Arts & Letters Prizes competition offers publication and a $1000 (US) prize for winners in: Fiction (Short Story), Poetry, Drama (One-Act Play), and Creative Nonfiction (Essay). 

In addition to publication and $1,000 prize, the prize-winning one-act play is produced at the Georgia College campus (usually in March); the winning playwright is brought to campus to attend the production and receive the prize.


Deadline: March 15
Fourth Genre will seek the best creative nonfiction essay for its annual Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Prize. Authors of previously unpublished manuscripts are encouraged to enter.
The winning author receives $1,000 and the winning entry will be published in an upcoming issue of Fourth Genre. Runner-up entry will be considered for publication. 
Electronic submissions will not be considered.

Deadline: March 31, 2014

WE’RE LOOKING for short shorts, short stories, essays, memoirs, photo essays, graphic stories, all forms of literary nonfiction, and excerpts from longer works of both fiction and nonfiction. Entries must be previously unpublished, no longer than 15,000 words, and must not have been previously chosen as a winner, finalist, or honorable mention in another contest.
As always, we are looking for works with a strong narrative drive, with characters we can respond to as human beings, and with effects of language, situation, and insight that are intense and total. We look for works that have the ambition of enlarging our view of ourselves and the world.

Awards: First Prize is $2,500, Second Prize is $1,000, Third Prize is $500, and ten finalists will receive $100 each. All entries will be considered for publication.

Vela’s Nonfiction Contest

Deadline: March 31
Vela publishes literary journalism, essays, memoir, and narrative nonfiction written by women and inspired by travel. We’re looking for creative nonfiction with a strong voice, a compelling narrative, and/or a powerful driving question. We’re interested in a wide range of essays and stories, including literary journalism, personal essays, memoir, and expository or experimental essays. We are not a “women’s magazine,” and are not looking for work that is written solely for a female audience.

Winners in each genre receive a $1,000 prize and publication in BWR 41.2, our Spring/Summer 2015 issue. One runner-up from each genre will receive $100 and finalists will receive notation in that issue and are considered for publication.
We are looking for prose that is arresting, that grabs us from the first word and refuses to let go, that blows our minds or breaks our hearts. We want to read prose that feels unexpected, prose that fearlessly extends the boundaries of form, language, and narrative.

Deadline: May 31, 2014
We’re looking for stories that are honest, accurate, informative, intimate, and—most important—true. Whether your story is revelatory or painful, hilarious or tragic, if it’s about you and your life, we want to read it.
Submissions must be vivid and dramatic; they should combine a strong and compelling narrative with an informative or reflective element, and reach beyond a strictly personal experience for some universal or deeper meaning. We’re looking for well-written prose, rich with detail and a distinctive voice; all essays must tell true stories and be factually accurate.
Creative Nonfiction editors will award $1,000 for Best Essay and $500 for Runner-up.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Premature Submission: how to know when your work is polished and ready for publication

Twice now I've had my work accepted by literary journals via contests I entered (and didn't win). And both times I found myself in the awkward position of explaining to the editors that I'd since revised my essay and asking if they would still accept it. Luckily, both times they said yes.

Actually, the first journal mistakenly published the original submission, but it was just as well... although I'd tightened sentences and reworded passages--and even removed an entire section--I admitted there were parts I liked better in the initial version, and nobody would know the difference. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the second publication (this spring) prints the polished revision.

All this to say that revising work post-submission (or submitting prematurely) is not something I'd recommend making a habit of. But this snafu brings up the question of how we know when a piece is ready for publication. In the case of a book, agents and editors often work closely with authors who may revise their work multiple times after acceptance. But when you're sending an essay or short story out, it's generally a one-shot deal. So it had better be your best.

Here's what Michael Nye, managing editor of the Missouri Review, says this about premature submissions in a blog post called "The False Promise of Acceptance and Publication":
Publication and promotion, while good (of course) and necessary (definitely), pales in comparison to getting the story right. The apex of the writing process is before an editor or agent has seen your work, when you have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve gotten it right. Once the story is in their hands, perhaps well enough to be published but also perhaps prematurely, it is out of yours. 
I recently finished a third revision of an essay I submitted to several journals in February and will continue to do so in March. I haven't looked at it for a week or so, but I'm pretty certain it's the most polished I can get it. I've got mid-March deadlines for another essay, but I'm nowhere near done--it's still struggling to find its structure, its focal point. I read through it tonight on Scrivener and feel completely uninspired. Whereas the last time I worked on it, I was pretty excited about its content and voice, now the critical voice in me is asking, "What's this really about? How is this compelling? Where is this going?"

Submission and contest deadlines are great motivators, but we writers need to be careful not jump the gun. Can I really get this piece in shape in 7 days? Doubtful. I'll be disappointed if I don't, because I have certain thematic issues in mind, but at least I'm on the road to completion, and if that date turns out to be the end of the month (or beyond), so be it.

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