Month: May 2012

Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers – Review by Carol Smallwood

Motherhood for adoptive and birth mothers is a life-changing experience. Writing helps the confusion that new mothers flounder through as they fight post-partum depression, exhaustion, and finding new coping skills. This experience, as Kate Hopper’s Introduction  notes, “… was the stuff of which real literature was made.”

The 14 chapters on creative nonfiction cover such topics as voice, character development, using concrete details, and publishing. The exercises in each chapter will help writers block and launch new creative threads.

In her foreword, Hope Edelman, the author of The Possibility of Everything, observes: “Turning personal experience into readable prose is a daunting process for anyone, and carving out the time to do so isn’t easy with a house full of short people in need of constant attention.” I can personally relate to this and also agree with her comment that “…we mothers are pros at multitasking.”

Women writers do have an uphill battle to get published as well researched on the Vida: Women in Literary Arts website, http://www.vidaweb.org/the-2011-count. The percentage of women getting into print compared with men is indeed an eye opener.

The eighteen contributor bio’s, reading questions, list of resources, acknowledgments, writing prompts, index, author picture and bio, finding an agent tips and resources, and other aids, are in the back of the book. Fulbright Scholarship recipient, Kate Hopper puts her expertise as a writer with a MFA in creative writing, Literary Mama editor, blogger, Loft Literary Center instructor, and mother to good use in a guide meant to be underlined, highlighted, reread, bookmarked, carried around, shared, by countless mothers.

Reviewer Carol Smallwood co-edited (Molly Peacock, foreword) Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women Poets (McFarland, 2012) and Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing (Key Publishing House, 2012).

A Conversation with Charles Holdefer

Charles Holdefer is the author of four novels and has also published many short stories, articles, and reviews. His previous novel, The Contractor (2007), was praised as “stylish, fiercely funny and frightening” (Kirkus) and as “a compelling mix of thriller, psychodrama and political commentary (Booklist, starred review). My full review of the book can be found at Small Press Reviews.

Charles’ next novel,Back in the Game, is scheduled for release in June 2012.

This is your first book in five years. Tell us about it.

It’s about a schoolteacher named Stanley Mercer, who got his job by faking his credentials and a short time later becomes romantically entangled with the mother of one of his pupils. She’s still married, and the kid’s father is a methamphetamine addict. So Stanley jumps headfirst into some pretty troubled waters. Along the way he meets plenty of other characters who have their own stories, their own problems. Their own jokes, too. It’s not only Stanley’s story, but the story of a place. Back in the Game is a going-home book for me. I wish I’d finished it sooner.

What do you mean by “going home”?

The story is set in southern Iowa, the part the Midwest where I grew up. I live in Europe but I still get back there every year, I haven’t fallen out of touch. My parents still live on the farm where I spent much of my childhood. And it’s not only the setting—I mean this book feels like going home. Back in the Game has been brewing for years, I’ve been living with these characters for a long time. This is the first novel I ever started and I wrote and published three other books in the meantime while I was working on it. Parts of Back in the Game came out in some good magazines but in my head they were always pieces of a larger story. It was always my baby and it’s probably closest to my heart. It’s both new and not new. Anyway, here it is. Finally!

Why did it take so long? Did you feel blocked?

Not exactly. Maybe I wasn’t blocked enough. The novel kept getting bigger and bigger, it became a huge monster of a thing and got out of control. I have boxes and boxes of chapters. But anyway, to make a long story short, eventually some things clicked in my head and, as a consequence, I bit the bullet, very hard, and cut hundreds of pages. Got it down to one voice, three parts, a dozen chapters. Only about 60,000 words. A skinny book, in the end! I feel sort of stunned after the whole process, actually. I never would’ve dreamed that it would take so many years to get it right.

Two issues that emerge in the novel are the ravages of methamphetamine addiction and the complicated relationship between corporate agriculture and small-town economies. Do you see a parallel between these issues?

Yes, there is a parallel, in the way both have contributed to hollowing out quality of life. It’s a vast subject but there have been fundamental changes in the last generation. When I was a kid riding a country school bus, most of the stops along the way were family farms. I don’t want to romanticize family farming—it was often a tough way to make a living—but now everything has changed. Only a fraction of those family farms still exist. Now when you hear about the “family farm,” it’s mainly a marketing slogan for corporate agriculture or political lobbies. It’s pretty cynical. It’s not that I’m saying corporate agriculture is all bad—there are nuances—but you’d have to be a sucker to take them seriously when they play the sentimental card of supporting the “family farm.” I mean, how many people in upper management of the swine industry would consider living on site near their huge sewage lagoons? It would be unbearable. There’s a major disconnect from the land, from the animals. Local economies don’t have much say in this story. The “family” in charge is bigger than the community, bigger than the state, even. And meth, in an insidious way, found a niche in this new arrangement.

What do you mean?

Well, take the meat packing industry. Those are tough jobs and they’ve been around for a long time but nowadays they don’t pay as well as they used to. It’s been argued by investigative journalists that that’s how meth made its first major inroads in the region. People were working overtime or double shifts at the plants in order to make ends meet, and some started using crank to maintain. Soon it spilled over into the families and friends of the users, and moved out into the culture in a more general way. It’s cheap and it spread fast. Meth isn’t a “glamour drug”—you know, like the image of celebrities snorting cocaine beside their swimming pool. Meth is a largely blue collar thing, not for “beautiful people” as much as working people. For the short term, it gratifies and helps them deal with pressures and keep working. But it’s a dead-end proposition and usually the dead-end comes pretty fast. The drug is just too damaging.

Back in the Game also focuses on a number of children. How do they fit in this mix? Was there a particular source of inspiration?

Well, children make a story bigger. I don’t mean this in an exploitive way, but they raise the stakes, and increase the range of emotions. As for inspiration, I don’t know, these are characters I’ve lived with for a long time. And there’s literary inspiration, of course. I could cite a bunch of examples but a basic one that was one of those “clicks” that helped me find the heart of the story and finish the book comes from a poem called “The Mower” by Philip Larkin. At the end of Back in the Game Stanley Mercer is with Jim and Christine and Billy Snow—these children are key characters in the novel. I’m not going to give away the ending, I hope people will read the book, but part of the ending, at least, springs from this poem, an assertion of what we should do “while there’s still time.” Larkin has a reputation as a misanthrope and there’s truth to that description but he was an excellent poet and this particular poem finishes with a generous sentiment that would be a platitude in less able hands. The poem works. I hope the novel does, too.

Thank you, Charles. Best of luck with Back in the Game.

Thank you.

Designing for a Small Press. Big Rewards. (smaller fees) – Essay by Lon Kirschner

In the Fall of 1991, I received a phone call in response to a promotional mailing I had sent to publishers advertising my studio’s book jacket designs. The promotion was unique in that it was quite small, only 3 ½ by 5 inches and arrived in a hand-addressed envelope. This gave it the look and feel of a personal invitation, not another mailer from an art studio.

As I write this in 2012, printed mailings and telephone inquiries seem quaint but were a very human way to make contact with a prospective client. Someone had to take the time to open the envelope, hold something in their hand, read some copy and then, if you did it right, make a phone call and have a conversation. Aside from the conversation, this is much the same way a well-designed book jacket should work. Something sparks your interest, you pick it up, read some back or flap copy and, if the package is right, you’re hooked.

That phone call was from Martin Shepard, who along with his wife and co-publisher Judith, run
The Permanent Press, a small independent publisher of quality fiction.

Marty and I spoke for several minutes, long enough for us to feel each other out. During that first
conversation I learned several things:

1. Marty was a sincere and honest man who published because he believed in his authors and
their work. He published what he and Judy would want to read.

2. He had an artist’s sensibility and knew the importance of a good cover and its impact on how a
book would be perceived.

3. Independent publishers do not have deep pockets.

For some designers, point 3 could have been a problem, but we agreed to give it a try due to the fact that the print schedule of the press would allow me to work on several covers at a time, but the most exciting part of this venture would be the working relationship I would have with The Permanent Press.

There was Marty, and there was me. No account guy, no marketing guy, no focus group guy. It was just us two guys. This could be a dream client.

My first assignment was Postcards from Pinsk by Larry Duberstein. I read the manuscript, got to work and turned in my cover concept. Marty loved it. All was right with the world.

Then the phone rang.

It was Larry, “The character on the cover is too fat. Can we slim him down”?

Dream client?

It must be said that Larry Duberstein is a wonderful person and author and meant no harm in his comments. He genuinely loved the cover and even more so when an eraser (pre-computer) solved the cover’s slightly “weighty” appearance. We went on to produce another half dozen covers together (without ever once again
needing an eraser).

The point of this is that although my ultimate approvals come from the publisher, I as a cover designer have become very aware of the author and their feelings of wanting to be involved. Marty and I have developed a policy that works like this: “We welcome your suggestions and will always listen to them but we make no promises.” This sometimes proves difficult for an author. They have worked tirelessly on a book and have a unique and emotional relationship with it, they feel they know exactly how the cover should look.

Is it a good or a bad thing to let an author be involved in the development of a cover? After more than
20 years and well over 120 covers, I still haven’t fully decided. I can’t say that I have ever taken an author’s suggestion and created a cover based solely upon it. What I can say is that if you stop and listen, you may get a better understanding of the author’s intent even if the graphic representation presented may not be quite right.

This brings to mind a wonderful book, The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer. The story of Chester’s life is told by stringing together a series of short stories. Individually, each story can stand on its own, but together they become a life. A life that is dominated by the relationship between a boy and his father.

Kermit did not make any initial suggestions for a cover design. The original concepts I created were not quite right. They just didn’t do the book justice. After several emails with the author I began to get a better understanding of where we should be going. The final cover, an image of a vintage car heading down the road has a nostalgic overall feeling. The cover reflects the power of the father figure and also serves as a subliminal reminder that life is a road that must be travelled. Combined with some retouching, a typographic treatment and color scheme, it became the complete package. When I found this image, I knew it was going to be the cover due to my contact with Kermit. When Kermit saw the final design he was thrilled, it was everything he wanted the cover to be.

Many times an author will make one little suggestion that in fact helps elevate the cover and gives it an extra push. A suggestion by the brilliant Leonard Rosen to include a figure of his protagonist on the cover of All Cry Chaos was something that both Marty and I resisted. We felt it would confuse the bizarre cover image but in the end, the addition of that figure in such a strange landscape set the stage beautifully for the first Henri Poincaré mystery thriller.

There is nothing more satisfying than having an author tell me that the cover is perfect. It is what I strive for. As a cover designer, I get one chance to state my case as opposed to an author who gets to build his case page after page.

Most of the covers I produce do not have the input of the author. I read each manuscript as I find it very hard to grasp a book wholly by reading several pages of a synopsis (unless that is all that is available). I have been asked many times if it is worth the time and effort. My answer to this question is that more than once the idea for the cover has come on page 209 of a 211 page manuscript.

This is not to say that I choose to illustrate a particular moment in the story, it is more likely that something in the text sets off an idea that in the end becomes the basis for the cover.

My hope is that when someone reads a book, they will look back at the cover and say to themselves “yes, that is what this book is about.”

The world of publishing is constantly changing. Internet shopping and digital delivery present new challenges to authors, designers and publishers, but in the end, no matter what the form, a book is still a book—an idea pieced together with words from an author’s unique idea. In much the same way a cover is still a cover—a package to present that unique idea whether it be printed on paper or illuminated on an e-reader.

Many years ago, the Creative Director at Bantam Publishing said to me, “If I can get them to pick up the book, then I have done my job.” In this day of internet book selling and online browsing the rules may have changed slightly but the basic concept hasn’t: “If I can get them to click on it, then I have done my job.”

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Lon Kirschner is a graphic designer who has designed logos, packaging, film posters and of course book jackets. You can see more of his work at www.kirschnercaroff.com.


Minus One: A Twelve Step Journey – Review by Cindy Zelman

It’s not often that I continue reading a book when, at first, I don’t like the lead character. For quite a few pages, this was the case with protagonist, Terry Manescu, in Bridget Bufford’s novel, Minus One: A Twelve-Step Journey. My dislike was due to her attitude: I found the twenty-something Terry to be grating, self-absorbed, and annoyingly angry.  Normally, such derisive feelings toward a protagonist spell disaster in terms of continuing to read a book, but something kept me moving forward, and that was simply the author’s superb writing.

Not far into the book, Bufford managed to deftly convert me into a Terry-loving cheerleader. The author transformed Terry into a multi-dimensional, open, and sympathetic character in a powerful and pivotal scene involving sex and pain and mental anguish.  I was stunned and breathless throughout the violently sexual episode between Terry and Pat, a woman she meets at a diner and with whom she has a one night stand. The scene turns out to be Terry’s low point, and from there, she works her way up to sobriety and emotional health.  She’s still a hot head at times, but now she has self-awareness – and that’s the key. Now I, as reader, like her and root for her.

Bufford has a way of teaching us about the 12-Steps that is fascinating, beginning with some laconic and often humorous quotes overheard at AA meetings. One of my favorites: “Getting lost in my head is like talking to an asshole in a bad neighborhood.” Bufford also is expert at having characters dialogue in meaningful ways about the Twelve Steps and what they mean and how to use them in one’s life.  Terry’s attitude is one of both resistance and embrace.

Just for the ability to engage us in such a topic that could have been deadly boring, I designate Bufford a word-wielding, character-building, story-telling magician. Bufford infuses humor and self-deprecation in throughout the book, which helps to lighten a very serious story of overcoming alcohol abuse.  I learned a lot about the 12-Step Program, and I found it applicable to my life, too, even though I’m not in recovery from drugs or alcohol. Perhaps we are all in recovery from something.

For example, I found myself making amends this week to someone I felt I had wronged months ago, and I don’t believe I would have done this – the act itself or the labeling of it as “amends” – if not for Bufford’s book. It’s a powerful story and a powerful author who can actually affect my behavior.

I need to mention that Bufford writes fabulous sex scenes between women. Her scenes are natural, smooth, emotional, suspenseful,  and passionate. Yet, she avoids any blushing moments and doesn’t need to use any “dirty” words. As a lesbian and a writer, too, I admire what she does with her sex scenes. The ones I write are sometimes embarrassing in their rawness, often sadly humorous, and full of bad words and bad sex. I see Bufford’s work as a lesson in how to write such scenes with perfect pacing, tone, mood, and emotion.

Here is a short excerpt:  “Her hands on my shoulders betray a fine tremor. I grip her hips,lean my forehead against her, knead the muscles of her hamstrings, her calves, pull every part of her close…”

Bufford’s novel reads like the finest creative nonfiction memoir, and for saying that, I suspect the author would like to clobber me over the head, so I will acknowledge this book as a work of fiction.For anyone interested in alcoholism, in the way gay women interact with one another, or just in a very human story of triumph over adversity, this is a great read by a very talented author. I look forward to reading her second book, Cemetery Bird.