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.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

'Mad Men' cocktail hour: copywriting tours for Viator and creating Mad Men avatars on the side

This week marks my first foray into my new role at Viator, where I've held a copywriting contract for more than one year. I recently received a non-promotion promotion to copy editor, now dividing my hours between writing online tour brochures and editing them. It's great adding more to my skills set and expanding my reach in armchair travel from my Asia and Latin America/Caribbean 'products' (as we call them) to--thus far--the wine chateaux of France and the Gardens of Versailles (or: the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Versailles Gardens, as I noted for style consistency and SEO). Of course, the process of copywriting already incorporates copy editing. Each time I set out to write the introductory summary, highlights and descriptive itinerary of a tour, I reword and rearrange information from the tour supplier, often supplemented with online research. Sometimes I receive nonsensical sentences, such as: "Explore with us the treats of yesteryear with the humble Penang Lobak, the Appoms and Kuihs found only in the Penang backstage." 

That itinerary was supplied for a street food tour that, with some help from the web, turned into this:
Explore the back lanes of Penang off the beaten track, where you’ll taste delightful snacks, drinks and desserts. Infused with spices, Malaysian food showcases a unique cultural fusion of Malay, Chinese and Indian flavors. Try Penang lobak, a spiced deep-fried pork roll, among other savory snacks.
When it’s time for dessert, taste a sweet Indian pancake called an apom — deliciously crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Or sink your teeth into a bite-sized kuih, a traditional sweet treat made of sticky glutinous rice. Along the way, listen to your foodie guide describe the street-food phenomenon of Penang.
Once in a while I'm given an extra project, like when my editor asked if there were any "Mad Men" fans among us to write a Mad Men cocktail tour of Manhattan. Admittedly, sometimes my online research takes me a bit off the beaten track, as when I discovered this Mad Men Yourself Avatar Maker--an easy-to-use design complete with a choice of clothing, accessories, props and backdrop.
The good 'ole days: chain-smoking and bloody Mary's in the boardroom
Peggy writes new copy while smoking Joan wonders who's that gray-haired pregnant girl.
Don and Megan are hamming it up on another beach business trip. Uh-oh! Here comes Betty!
Ah, yes, back to the task at hand. Here's a screen shot of the final copy, now a 'live' tour on the website and available for purchase. Some of the snappy prose, such as 'chain-smoking, booze-soaked debauchery,' came straight from the tour supplier whereas other phrasing like 'the good old days at the office, sipping a Bloody Mary in the boardroom or taking your clients for cocktail-hour martinis at the swankiest spot in town' are my own.

Continue reading this Mad Men Tour at VIATOR

Monday, February 3, 2014

Frances Lefkowitz uses her essay 'The Gifted Classes' in The Sun's writing workshop on money

Here's a long overdue recap of a writing workshop given by Frances Lefkowitz at The Sun magazine writers' retreat in October 2013. Using her essay, "The Gifted Classes," Lefkowitz discussed ways to consider and write about class. The author of the memoir To Have Not offered her text as a model for how to "extrapolate your personal story" and make it appeal to a wide audience. "The more specific you can get, the more universal your story will be," she said.
from the January 2003 issue 325:
What you once knew without thinking begins to clash with the evidence darting out at you from all around — from tv and movies and comic books and magazines, and even real life, like the way your mother oversmiles as she takes the crumpled green bills out of her fabric wallet and hands them to the department-store clerk to pay for the book, scarf, dress, hat, and kerchief that you need to join the Brownies. This is the moment when you discover that there are people out there who have things that you don’t have. 

The excerpt above, archived in The Sun, reveals the author's "dawning of the realization of poverty, of being different." This internalized shame is a central theme in her 2010 book, which began as a collection of essays--four of them first appearing in the magazine. In her workshop Lefkowitz encouraged us to explore similar themes of shame around money and class--be it poverty or privilege--acknowledging there may also be "a lack of wealth in having it all, in materialism and its expectations."

During our reading of her piece followed by a brainstorming session, we considered that class isn't necessarily static or isolated; a personal story of class could be made more powerful if juxtaposed within the social strata. Some of my own experiences living with a divorced single mom on the edge of an upper-middle class milieu came to mind, such as my perception of never having "enough" wealth at my 1980s suburban middle school and Jewish summer camp. In my case, it was not the shame of real poverty that I experienced. But the social class I was surrounded by--with its emphasis on material excess, from leather-seated sports cars to fashion trends always out of reach--defined my self-worth and social status as lacking (and shameful) in comparison, which led to a painful and internalized sense of alienation and exclusion that lingered beyond high school.

Try This:

a) Using the prompt 'the dawning of discovery that there was money,' write about your relationship with class as you became aware of it for the first time. You could describe your first job and paycheck or your parents arguing. Extrapolate a message you learned (to be careful with money, that you weren't worth the money, etc.). Write of several incidents that accumulate, choosing sensory details to describe them. What was your--or someone else's--revelation?

b) Write about what you are poor in. Talk about your poverty (the ways in which you yearn for things you do not have). Even if your material needs are provided for, perhaps 'poverty' permeates other areas of your life. How are you a 'have not'? What do you feel you'll never get enough of?

c) Write about what you are rich in. Brag about it. What 'club' are you part of? What do you belong to?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Publishing short works in small places: Telling Our Stories Press

While I'm in the midst of revisions and submissions, here's a little something I published a few years ago (already!) in Impact: A Collection of Short Memoirs. This ultra-short memoir project (less than 300 words) solicited "raw, close to the bone writing." Edited by Coco Harris at Telling Our Stories Press, it's a "literary collection showcasing the art of short memoir with a variety of personal narratives of varying voices and artistic form." Read it on Kindle for just $2.99!

Sunrise on Mt. Shasta (Wikipedia commons)

Shasta in Stanzas

When he returned from the summit, she curled up next to his frostbitten toe. He said the wilderness teaches you about your own resilience.

She watched her firefighter-river-guide-mountaineer unpack his coiled ropes and carabiners. I’m a man of commitment, honesty and love, he announced.

Later he would light the wood stove and make stir-fry while she wept.

He would putter around his yard. This is where the fishpond will go, he said, pointing next to the Magnolia he’d planted for her.

They walked along the bluff and watched the sun change shape. They did not touch in the almost darkness. She listened to him discuss the weather while she beseeched the stars.

Then one day he fell in love with someone else.

She saw the evidence everywhere: the barrettes on the bathroom counter, the little bike out front. A mosaic steppingstone of the mountain lay not far from the Magnolia tree.

We even share the same dreams, he told her, forgetting that it wasn’t the first time.

She consoled herself with pots of soup and hovered by the heater over a long winter. In spring she drove to the snow-covered crag as flocks of red-winged blackbirds flew from the dawn.

At dusk the snowy peaks glowed purple. Her tent was a silhouette, wrapped in the shadow of twilight.

Heavy winds blew down as she fell into dreams. That was God’s breath clearing everything out, someone said in the morning.

Outside, a sliver of moon still hung in the sky.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Big Brother Mouse: Sponsoring a Book Party and Launching a Reading Program in Rural Laos

I've posted before about one of my favorite literary organizations: Big Brother Mouse. More than six years ago my wife and I spent a week in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Luang Prabang, Laos, and my biggest regret (other than not visiting the waterfall via tuk tuk!) was that we didn't stop by this grassroots, local, community-based project doing extraordinary things.

This year we made a donation to sponsor a book party and launch an entire reading program at a rural school in Laos. Here's the email update I recently received, along with pictures and a link to the page on the Big Brother Mouse website. These precious photos show the team reading aloud, talking about books, teaching songs about books and leading outdoor games. (I can't get enough!)
Wednesday, 25 December 2013, Huaihok Village, Khoun District, Xieng Khuang Province
Today, every student in Huaihok Village will be enjoying a book during their school's new reading time. Until now, most of these children had probably never even seen a book except perhaps a textbook, and had never read a book for enjoyment. Some didn't even know such things existed.
With your help, we've set up a reading program in the primary school here.  Many of these children won't be reading at first; reading skills are very weak, because they have so little practice. But now, with the very easy books that we provide, those skills will improve. To start off the new program, we held a book party for the children.

At the end of the party all the kids got to select a free book of their own, nearly always the first book they've ever owned. Then we left a set of books for every classroom, so they can have a reading time every day.  
It was an exciting day for all of the children, and we know they will always remember it -- both because they had fun, and for the magic of opening a fun book for the first time. And now, they can begin to develop a habit of reading every day, and discovering the new world that opens up. 

If you're as moved by this impact as I am, please consider making a donation! ($70 sponsors a reading program in 1 classroom; $350 for a whole school; $1,000-$3,500 sponsors a new book.)

Monday, December 30, 2013

Revision, Part I: Restructuring your story

I've been away all of this holiday week, first on a road trip with my wife and mother-in-law to Joshua Tree National Park and then to a 3-day retreat, so I've been remiss in my blog posts. 
Ocotillo at Joshua Tree National Park (Nicole R Zimmerman 2013) 
In the new year I'm settling in at 30 hours a week of copywriting for Viator, which leaves me 10 for creative writing/revision. With two MFA essays now accepted for publication, I have a host of others (and two short stories) on my list to revise and polish for submission, and I'm excited about the challenge of bringing these pieces to fruition. 

Before leaving on my trip I started revising an essay -- a profile of a woman I know who worked as a seasonal wildlife biologist in Alaska. After several interviews with her and her partner (a close friend of mine), the essay morphed into a portrait of their uncommon relationship and its challenges. I submitted two very different drafts of the essay in 2011 during my MFA, one in Feb. and one in Nov., and I have approximately eight 1-page student responses (plus instructor comments) that accompany each. So I began the daunting task of unraveling and restitching my material by reading through and highlighting all of this feedback. 

As I find with much of my work, there are several themes and stories competing for attention, and my job in the revision process is to untangle them, make some decisions about which to highlight, and shape the arc of the story toward that vision. 

"What is this piece about?" is the essential question. Here are a few responses:
  • What it's like to make the transition back to society after being connected to the earth's heartbeat for so long
  • A modern relationship and the challenges of maintaining connection with an extreme work situation
  • What it's like to hold space for someone when separated by space and time
  • About loving across thousands of miles
After reading the comments on the first draft, I then read that draft and made some notes in relation to the students' and instructor's responses. Then I did the same for the second draft. As often happens in a second draft, many of the essential components were cut in an attempt to address feedback, but in doing so more was lost than gained; although strides were made on a prose level (much of it had been initially told in lengthy block quotes, which I later changed to my own words or described in scenes), the structure had lost its shape and new questions arose. So, much like taking apart a textile to reweave it, I cut apart both drafts and rearranged them into one on the kitchen table (sometimes with its alternate version of text next to it). I had to take out two extra leaves to make the paper fit across it!

This part of the revision process is painstaking, but it is one I love, for I call upon the dreamlike, imagery-laden, intuitive right brain and the analytic, language-loving, problem-solving left brain to unite in a coordinating effort towards art. If I allow my left brain to listen without taking over, the story takes shape before me and transforms again and again until it feels right. That essay on the table is roughly hewn, but my material is all there. When I reach a hair-tearing state and can't imagine how to go on, I read a section I especially like and remind myself to trust in the process, remembering that I've been here many times before and I've seen my way out.

Once I arranged this essay into a loose structure, I wrote an outline for each section before cutting and pasting them anew on the computer. Now I've placed that 30-page draft (which I imagine will be cut in half by the end) into Scrivener, a writer's lifesaver. Those notes I took for the outline can then be placed on virtual index cards on the 'cork board' and entire sections easily moved around, tightened or sliced up without pages of scrolling. My next task is to comb through each section and tighten the prose, and keep rearranging its structure until the story emerges whole. I'm still not positive what that is, but I trust it'll tell me.

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