How to Land on the Bestseller List

June 9, 2016 § 8 Comments

By Kathy Stevenson

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Kathy Stevenson Contemplates Her Next Bestseller

When I am working with students on their writing, I always tell them that they shouldn’t set out to write a bestseller.  They should write the story they feel compelled to write, the one that is burning inside them.  The one that only they can tell.  Of course it’s good to keep in mind publishing trends and what is happening in the marketplace, but this should not box in, nor define their creativity.

When I impart this sage wisdom, I can only imagine what my students are writing down in their notebooks.  Don’t write a bestseller.  Write from the heart.  I wrote those same notes in writing workshops just a few years ago when I was getting my MFA.  As if writing from the heart – writing from the pure core of your unique, passionate self – would be enough to at least get you published.  No one ever actually talked about getting on the bestseller list.  The true literary giants, the authors we students were supposed to admire were those writers who wrote their books in the thrall of their muse, not the thrall of appearing on The New York Times bestseller list, or getting a mega-deal with a superstar agent.  When that sort of success did come to a few of our fellow students, it was almost as though they needed to discount their part in the louche business side of things.

I have decided that this faux modest attitude shall no longer apply to my own writing.  I am dying to write a bestseller, and after years of continually scrutinizing the bestseller lists, I think I have come up with a foolproof list of aids that will help me get there.

…Change the title of my novel from The Last Act to Wednesdays With Pugsly: The World’s Ugliest, Yet Somehow Most Adorable Pooch Who Never Graced a Calendar.

…Replace the phrase “sideways glance” with “hot, lustful undressing in the mind.”

…Finagle book jacket blurbs from any of the following celebrities: Simon Cowell, “Bravo, not a false note.”  Britney Spears, “It’s as good as that other book I read.”  Madonna, “Kathy has made a convert of me.”

…Explore plagiarism as a marketing tool.

…Ask my agent if she thinks I’m too old to enroll at Harvard as an undergraduate. Possible plot line could be – sixty year-old woman enters Harvard as a freshman.  Sell it as “Legally (Fake) Blonde Meets Cocoon.”

…Move in next door to Oprah and become her new best friend.  (Find some dirt that will destroy Gayle King first.)

…Change name of book to anything with the words “secret,” “Christmas,” “diet,” or “adorable dog” in the title.  The Secret Christmas Death of an Adorable Dog?  Nine Lives of a Christmas Dieter?  Who Moved My Christmas Tofu?  A Secret Miracle Christmas Diet for Both You and Your Precious Pooch?

…Look into product placement to attract potential advertising sponsors.  My protagonist, a chocolate lover, could just as easily be a Godiva chocolate lover.  And drink only Veuve Clicquot Champagne.  And wear only Cole Haan shoes. And drive a BMW, Five Series.  You get the idea.

…Consider making my protagonist (now a suburban newspaper columnist) a zombie, with cute twin teenage zombie daughters.  (Can dogs be zombies?  Look into this possibility.)

…Become an undercover nanny, life coach, or personal chef to some really rich people, take notes, and then write a scathing tell-all about them.

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Life Lessons from the Gerbil Wheel

…Maybe cutesy, heart-warming dog books have had their day in the sun.  Explore possible memoirs using other pets.  Maybe Days of the Iguana.  Or Clipped Wings: What My Parakeet Taught Me About Overcoming Life’s Obstacles.  Or how about Gerbil: Life Lessons From the Flywheel.

…See if I can get adopted into a family that is more dysfunctional than my own so I have better material for a memoir someday.  Or ask Mom if she minds if I change her from the nicest mother who ever lived to a pill-popping, alcoholic, obsessive compulsive, many times divorced, always inappropriately dressed, binge-dieting, dog-hating, library book-stealing mother whose six daughters succeed against formidable odds and become perfect mothers with perfect children who always do everything right.

…Try writing a sort of backlash to The Secret.  Maybe No More Secrets: Lessons as Plain as the Nose on (Your Adorable Dog’s) Face.

…Forget dogs or any other animals.  Title my book anything with “Girl” in the title.  Maybe Girl on a BusGirl, FoundGirl with a Secret.  Or maybe keep it mysterious; how about just Girl

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Kathy Stevenson‘s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Clapboard House, Philadelphia Inquirer, Red Rock Review, The Writer, Chicago Tribune, American Way, and many other national and local publications.  She has just finished writing a memoir about being a sister, The Queen of Everything. She has a recent MFA from Bennington College.

On Writing the Same, Only Different

December 7, 2018 § 11 Comments

zz_kathyby Kathy Stevenson

Every time I read a book I really like, whether fiction or nonfiction, I close the book with a deep satisfaction, and immediately think to myself, “I wonder if I could try doing it that way.”

That way, of course, encompasses that particular author’s own unique vision, talent for storytelling, character development, and even syntax. Somehow the writer made all those singular elements come together to form a coherent whole – and not just coherent, but artful. Effortlessly artful.

Of course, deep down, I know that very few authors would describe their process of writing as “effortlessly artful.” That might be the way a finished work looks to others, but in reality most published authors have put in the hard work. (Though, sometimes hard work isn’t enough – raw talent and luck and other mysterious forces also can come into play.)

It’s not that I actually want to copy another writer’s style or organizing principles or, God forbid, themes. It’s more of a raw admiration for how they did it, and then me looking back through a work to see if I can discover how they made all the disparate parts a lovely and gratifying whole.

For example, I would kill any number of my darlings to write a book like Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Deceptively simple in its narrative structure, and even its “plot” and characters, Mrs. Bridge dumbfounds me every time I go back to it. I will start reading it, and think to myself, “Okay, this time I am going to figure out why this book sucks me in and keeps me reading even as nothing is really happening.” And by nothing, I mean life. Nothing blows up, there are no spies or aliens or fantasy worlds. Even sex is a vague undercurrent in Mrs. Bridge, although you sense simmering sexual tension throughout the book.

Nonfiction presents equal challenges. As someone who devours memoirs, and often writes memoir, I look at each one I read (after I have devoured it) with an eye to figuring out what magic tricks the author employed to suck me in. After reading my fiftieth or hundredth memoir, throughout a lifetime of reading, I still come to the end and think, “How did they do that?” And then, “I want to do it like that.”

Probably the memoir I have re-read most often is This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Each time I read it, I discover it anew. Much of this has to do with the language Wolff uses. “When we are green, still half-created, we believe our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters.” With each reading I remind myself to pay attention to the fine balancing act of Wolff’s storytelling and insight into his indelible (and very real) characters.

After reading Wolff, I want to do the same thing he did. To not clobber my reader over the head with profound insights, to let the narrative provide those leaps in the reader’s mind. And even though I can use the same tools as Wolff, my own stories – my way of narrating them – and my insights are going to be organically different.

Abigail Thomas is another memoir writer I greatly admire. When I read her work, again I think to myself, maybe I should try and write more like her. Ha!

Just because you admire the way someone puts words and narratives together doesn’t mean that’s the way you can or should do it. But I am still sorely tempted to try when I read Thomas’s words, “Maybe there are dozens of souls born again, and again into the same repertory company, and with each new birth they play different parts in a different play.”

For a long period of time, May Sarton’s Journal of A Solitude was a guidepost of sorts in my writing. Here, then, was the way to do it… Just write down your thoughts each day, and let those daily musings on life weave themselves into a whole cloth. A technicolor dream-coat of days that adds up to something more. The whole time I tried that little experiment, tried writing my own Journal of Whatever, I could sense some kind of writing fairy godmother floating nearby, calling my bluff. Clearly I was no May Sarton.

And yet, I find myself returning to these authors and their books and wondering what alchemy of words they were able to conjure forth. And, then I think, they did it – so why can’t I?

It’s not that I want to write the same book in the exact same way as my most admired memoirists (and I could easily name dozens). I know I have to find my own way. A different way. But just knowing that they have come before helps me gain the confidence that I can do the same. Only different.
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Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Red Rock Review, Clapboard House, Tishman Review, The Same, South Boston Literary Gazette, and the Brevity blog. She has an MFA from Bennington College and is living for the winter near San Diego.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Media

September 7, 2017 § 19 Comments

zz_kathyBy Kathy Stevenson

This past November I took the plunge and jumped headlong into social media.  Of course I already had a personal Facebook account for friends and family, but professionally I was way behind the curve.  I didn’t have a blog, nor did I tweet.  Whenever I had something published, I posted a link on Facebook, but that was kind of like the proverbial tree falling in the forest.  My friends and my mom could “like” my link, but it was highly unlikely that an agent or editor would stumble upon anything I posted.

Part of the reason I was reluctant at first to start a blog or Twitter account, was that – like many writers – I am not so good at “tooting my own horn.”  Even though I have published hundreds of essays and short stories, most copies of these languish as clippings in three-ring binders I store in my office closet.

One day though, after fretting and grousing about how out of the literary loop I was, I decided I would jump in, and I hired a young woman to help me set up a WordPress blog and Twitter account.  It only took a few hours, and I was on my way.  And, to my surprise, I discovered that I loved the whole enterprise!  Here are some of the reasons why:

— I am very opinionated, and I am always right.  (Just ask my family.)

— I’m old, in social media terms (or any terms, for that matter), but my online persona enables me to inhabit a new, witty personality, that – oddly – suits me very well.

— I can share and link to interesting essays, stories, books, and articles about the writing world with my “followers.”  My family is happy that I now have an audience – other than them – for this compulsion to share.  My mom has this same compulsion, which manifests itself as mailed newspaper clippings.

— I love making new “friends.”  Even theoretical friends who I will never meet.  And I can ignore nudists, religious zealots, gun lovers, and people who can’t spell.

— I can sit at home in my pajamas and act like I’m doing something in the literary world.  I’m involved, even if peripherally and at third remove, with all these new people I follow: authors, editors, agents, publishers, and literary journals.

— Who doesn’t like being “liked” and “followed”?  I’m all about immediate gratification.

— I can harbor delusional, but harmless thoughts that an agent/producer/editor will read my brilliant thoughts/tweets and “discover” me.

— I have something quiet and productive to do every day, when I wake up at 5:00 a.m. and everyone else is still asleep.

— Posting tweets and blog entries forces me to do something in the realm of reading and writing almost every day, or at least think seriously about doing something.

— It turns out that I’m really good at thinking up short, pithy random thoughts totally unrelated to anything else.  Or, as I prefer to call them: aphorisms.  Don’t laugh – Sarah Manguso recently published a book of aphorisms, 300 Arguments: Essays, with Graywolf Press, described on Amazon as, “A brilliant and exhilarating sequence of aphorisms from one of our greatest essayists.”

— Even though I know very few of my readers or new “friends” personally, I feel that I have found a group of people who are silently cheering me on.  And that may be the be best part of all.

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Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Red Rock Review, Chicago Tribune, Clapboard House, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, the Tishman Review, the Brevity blog, and many other publications.  She has a recent MFA from Bennington College, lives just north of Chicago, blogs here, and can be found on twitter at @k_stevenson01.

Re-thinking an Essay – After It’s Too Late

March 27, 2017 § 22 Comments

By Kathy Stevenson

zz_kathyI recently published an essay, “A Stranger At the Door,” on the Op/Ed page of the Chicago Tribune. And after reading it in its printed form, already irrevocably out there in the world – literally in black and white – I wanted to revise it. I really, really wanted to revise it. In fact, I wanted to rewrite the whole damn thing. But it was too late. The Chicago Tribune editorial policy (as I’m sure is the editorial policy of any traditional publication) is that authors are not allowed to change or comment on their own work once it is published.

As my editor replied to me in an email, “We don’t run letters by authors critiquing their own work.” Of course they don’t! Just think of all the confusion that might take place if this were allowed to happen.

“Oh, wait a minute, I just thought of something else I wanted to add in the third paragraph…” Or, “I really don’t think I hit the right tone, and I’d like to hand in this revised version.” The nature of an editor’s job, after all, is to move forward with the current, not drown in the undertow.

When you think about it, if we were allowed to revise our work after it was already published, then it might be in a constant state of revision. Might never really be done. Which sounds like another circle of hell.

Nevertheless. I still had this urge. In thirty years of writing commentary pieces and “slice-of-life” essays, and newspaper columns I have never had this response to one of my own pieces of writing. I always say what I have to say and move on.

Oddly, with this essay, as soon as I hit the “Send” tab I felt I might have done better. Might have gone deeper. The gist of my essay was that I had opened my front door to a stranger one night when I was alone, and how that small experience of doing so had made me question my mixed feelings about that small act. About whether I had been stupid to open my door, and whether I thought I might ever do so again. (Comments by readers let me know in no uncertain terms that opening a door to a stranger was about the dumbest thing in the world one could do.)

And it wasn’t that I wanted to write a response to these readers who were commenting on my essay. I actually wanted to rewrite my essay, because suddenly it seemed to me that I had taken a topic that was quite weighty and serious, and made it sound “lite” and quite smugly Pollyana-ish. What a great person I am to let a stranger into my home – twice no less!

What had made me uncomfortable was that, after reading my own words in print, I saw how easy it had been to blithely expound on how great I was to open my door to a stranger, from the comfort of my quiet, safe suburban home. Where the crime rate is low, and where our residents, as altruistic as most are – are able to do so in relative safety.

In this time of building walls, and not letting strangers in our metaphorical doors, I felt I did this topic a serious disservice. What was a feel-good moment for me personally did not warrant my own essayistic pat on the back. So, when I say I wanted a do-over, I guess I wanted to chance to frame the story in a new way.

Of course, 99.99% of the reading public is never going to read my essay. So I’m not even sure why it matters to me that I should have done better. Maybe one reason is that, even now, after decades of writing and publishing essays, I realized that I am still learning my craft. And that, always, words do matter.

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Kathy Stevenson‘s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Clapboard House, Philadelphia Inquirer, Red Rock Review, The Writer, Chicago Tribune, American Way, and many other national and local publications.  She has just finished writing a memoir about being a sister, The Queen of Everything. She has a recent MFA from Bennington College.

Have I Got a Residency for You

November 1, 2016 § 10 Comments

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Scenes from a Writers Retreat

by Kathy Stevenson

Most writers I know harbor an inner belief (or maybe it’s a fantasy) that if they could just get away for a week, or preferably a month, and ensconce themselves at a writers’ retreat or residency, it would make all the difference in their writing lives.  The scattered notes for a novel would miraculously assemble themselves into a coherent narrative; the poems written in spiral notebooks over a period of years would take on the emotional heft they have been lacking; the deep thinking required for your memoir’s narrative would result in a new breakthrough.

We writers have bought into the notion that “a room of one’s own” is critical to our mental health and literary success.  After all, what could be more appealing?  Take kids, spouses, dirty dishes, dust balls, and family pets out of the equation, and what comes to your mind first?  Perhaps blissful silence, meditative calm, the space to create.  It worked pretty well for Virginia Woolf.

Have no fear.  What you need is a residency at a writers’ retreat.  Browse through the listings in any magazine or website that provides information and inspiration to writers.  You’ll read descriptions of secluded wooded glens, private studios, farm-to-table meals delivered right to your door in cute little picnic baskets.

But lately I have noticed a disconcerting trend in several of these offers of space and quiet for writers and artists.  As the three excerpts below (from actual residency programs) illustrate, you ain’t gettin’ something for nothing:

Two-week to five month residencies for emerging or established writers.  Private room provided in exchange for twelve hours of work per week to help renovate and maintain grounds.
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Private studio space for writers.  An hour a day of routine caretaking of the property is required.
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Residents will assist with fieldwork, research, and other light ranger duties.
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But, routine caretaking?  Maintaining the grounds?  Caretaking and “maintaining the grounds” (such as they are) are the main reasons I sometimes find it difficult to write at my own home.

Nearly every residency program does require some exchange of “labor” as part of a mutually agreed upon quid pro quo.  A writer-in-residence is most often called upon to read from his or her work during the residency, usually a way of involving the local community with the residency program.  Community involvement with resident artists and writers is critical for the overall financial support these places rely upon, as well as being part of an overall mission of bringing the arts to a wider audience.  Often, in addition to a community reading, the resident writer is asked to present a program at a local school.

And I realize that for some residencies, “light ranger duties” or “caretaking of the property” might fit in with the overall mission of the program itself.  For a writer whose focus is writing about the environment or ecology, or fly fishing, these might seem like normal and attractive benefits of a potential retreat.

Part of me thinks it might be kind of cool to experience one of these outdoorsy residencies.  But then the sane part of me realizes that I don’t want to go to a writers’ retreat in order to bale hay or clear the North Forty or assist with “light housekeeping duties.”  I do like to picture my fellow scribes, though – usually wan, fragile creatures, not accustomed to much sunlight – sunburned and itchy and blistered in their flannel shirts and thick-soled boots.

So, check the fine print before you fly off to one of these fantasy camps.  You might be better off at one of the old-fashioned kinds of writers’ residencies, where the main activities revolve around drinking, complaining about how hard the writing life is, and gossiping about the other residents and teachers.
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Kathy Stevenson‘s essays have appeared in a wide variety of magazines, newspapers, and online publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Tishman Review, and (recently) the Brevity Nonfiction blog.  She has had short stories published in Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, South Boston Literary Gazette, and Pioneer Press, and has an MFA from Bennington College.

Phillip Lopate’s Handkerchief

August 29, 2016 § 10 Comments

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A well-timed cloth handkerchief

By Kathy Stevenson

One of the great privileges and joys of going back to school for an MFA was the unexpected bonus of entering into an entirely new community of people whom I never would have met otherwise, men and women who love to do the same thing I love to do all day, which is to read and write. I had been a newspaper columnist for years, but most of my work has been done in solitude, as much of a writer’s work is done. So the very idea of belonging to this community of writers, this group of strangers, was a bit unnerving at first. Would I be the oldest student? Would my work measure up? Would I embarrass myself on Dance Party Night?

Now a few years after our graduation my twenty fellow matriculating classmates are not only bound together for life by the fact that we shared something that demanded much from us financially and in time spent away from families and jobs –  we are also bound together by a communal spirit. This spirit is perhaps best exemplified by an incident that occurred during our second residency.

During our residencies, besides the ubiquitous and dreaded workshops, students were treated to readings and lectures by both permanent faculty and visiting writers. A mainstay of MFA programs, these events are hugely popular among the students. Maybe for each of us, in our secret heart, we are imagining our own selves up there someday.

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Phillip Lopate

On this particular day, a lecture was being presented by David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto was due to be published in several months.  The buzz among the students was that this lecture was not to be missed.  I am not sure how “the buzz” works, but among writers it usually seems to denote some sort of controversy, which at that point in our residency, we are dying for.

It was a packed house as Mr. Shields began his lecture.  Just the word Manifesto seemed to signify something promising; something sure to provoke discussion over glasses of red wine in our dorm rooms later that night.  We leaned forward as one, pens and notebooks at the ready, nifty note-takers that we are.

Mr. Shields started out riffing on a few notions he had about nonfiction versus fiction, and then about five minutes in, realized he had somehow gone off track from his planned lecture. He began sorting through his notes to find his place, but the papers must have gotten all mixed up, because he kept shuffling them faster and faster. The sound of this panicky paper-shuffling stabbed the deep quiet of the lecture hall for several interminable minutes.

He must have realized at some point that he was wide awake and not dreaming this particular nightmare. At that moment, perspiration began streaming off the top of his head in rivulets. Mr. Shields is completely bald, and the harsh overhead lighting did not help the situation. As the silence lengthened, we in the audience leaned forward as one.  We squirmed in our seats. We stared at one another in wide-eyed empathy. We willed him silently to find his place. We have had a similar nightmare.

In the hot, glaring spotlight over the lectern, the stream that poured from his head dripped piteously on his notes, which by now seemed to be hopelessly scrambled. Mr. Shields did not make eye contact. He used the back of his arm to try and staunch the perspiration, but this only served to fling it off him and make room for more. Thus passed several more minutes of dead silence, except for the slap of brow-wiping and the crackle of uncooperative paper.

Then, from the front row, another bald pate rose up and we all breathed out (we had been holding our collective breath). Bennington instructor and essayist Phillip Lopate was holding something out to Mr. Shields – an offering, a white flag. A cloth handkerchief.  Phillip Lopate was one of the reasons I had applied to Bennington, and here he was, saving a fellow writer in true distress. Here was a man who could be counted on.  Here was a man, maybe the only man in the room, who had a cloth handkerchief. It turned out to be exactly what was needed. After Mr. Shields was able to blot himself dry, his anxiety subsided, and he was able to get his notes in order. He went on to deliver his lecture like nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I like to think of my new community of fellow writers in just this way. I start to panic, and think I am not good enough, or my pages or words won’t order themselves the way I need them to, and I think of Phillip Lopate’s handkerchief.  It is a trim white flag, folded away, but at the ready when I need it.

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Kathy Stevenson‘s essays have appeared in a wide variety of magazines, newspapers, and online publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Tishman Review, and (recently) the Brevity Nonfiction blog.  She has had short stories published in Clapboard House, Red Rock Review, South Boston Literary Gazette, and Pioneer Press, and has an MFA from Bennington College.

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