The Eagle & The Arrow comes out next Tuesday (this year’s launch is waaay different than last year’s.)

Deep breaths. I’m gearing up for The Eagle & The Arrow‘s release next Tuesday.

The build-up to The Eagle & The Arrow’s release date has been so different from last year’s release of Beware the Hawk. I guess that makes sense. I had some time to prepare this year. I knew what worked well last time and what didn’t work so well.

Last year I promoted intensely on this blog and within my MFA community. I emailed a lot of reviewers who didn’t respond to me. I concentrated on a blog tour. There are worse things than doing a book tour in one’s pajamas, but I got the feeling that I was playing it too safe with Beware the Hawk.

This year, I decided to get out of my comfort zone a little. I tried some things I didn’t do last year. In some cases it’s meant reaching out to people and asking them for something. In some cases it’s meant putting money into promo. And in some it’s meant opening myself up for what could be a metric buttload of criticism. At this stage in the game, it’s hard to know what’s working and what’s not, but I am pretty certain that these items are going onto A.J.’s Standard Book Promotion Plan from now on:

  • I reached out on Goodreads by giving away copies of Beware the Hawk. That turned out to be incredible because bonus: a lot of people added my book. I’ve gotten pretty good at international postage in the past three weeks. I’ve sent copies to Serbia, Canada and Bulgaria. Next week, I plan to give away some copies of the Eagle & The Arrow.
  • I asked two authors I know and respect for blurbs for this book. I don’t like bugging people for blurbs but these blurbs helped a lot – I can use them on my promo materials and it’s always awesome when someone you respect writes something nice about your book, especially during a point in the publication process when I tend to doubt myself.
  • I’ve planned a book release party for the end of June, and sent invites to all the people I think might be interested, or who were supportive of the last book. (Ahem – if you’re interested send me a note or comment and I will send you details.) I also sent it out to local media. (Not the media I used to work for – other media that does not know me.) Can’t hurt.
  • I sent out books to reviewers I’ve worked with before and then asked for new reviewers who might be interested in doing reviews to contact me. I got a few answers and met one really cool new reviewer.
  • Lastly, I sent advance reader copies of my e-book to a small group of readers who were supportive of Beware the Hawk. These people were really good to me and my first book, so I figured it was only fair for them to get the first look at the sequel.

This book promo plan is obviously still in process. I want to try some new things. I’ve gotten a couple of interesting suggestions from friends. I belong to two author groups (Sisters in Crime & The New England Horror Writers) and I want to get more active with them. I want to go to Thrillerfest. I want to book some readings at places I have not read before. (I’m also open to any crazy suggestions anyone has for me.)

Mostly, I just want to meet readers. I had some success with that last year and it’s like a drug to meet someone who is excited about your work.

Here, have my notes from AWP.

I’ve been on about last week’s AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference since I got back home on Sunday. I promise this will be my last blog post about it.

Today I finally organized my notes from the panels I attended last week. Because I used Twitter for this (because it lets me take and pass notes at the same time which would not have been okay in high school but which is okay at a conference), I decided to compile the notes online, with Storify.

If you want those notes, you’re welcome to them. They are here.

They are a work in progress. I still haven’t mined my handwritten notes yet. I will be doing that and adding to the Storify story at some point when my eyes aren’t whirling from organizing my Twitter feed chronologically.

Tamela Ritter’s ‘From These Ashes’ is released today!

Tamela J. Ritter, From These Ashes, Battered SuitcaseI am so excited. My friend Tamela Ritter’s novel, “From These Ashes” was released today!

I will be writing about this more in the future, but I asked her for a quote about her first release so I could post about it, and here’s what she said:

“Having a hard time wrapping my mind around it, but if Amazon says it, it must be true: Today is the day this story and its characters FINALLY live in the world, not just my mind!”

Those characters live in my mind too, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them again. I first read the novel 10 years ago, when it was differently titled and we were in a writers’ group together.

I loved the novel; it’s a coming of age story, told in flashback from the point of view of a Native American teenager who is living in a cult recovery center. She and her brother had been traveling the U.S. in search of a home, and then… something happens.

I cannot wait to read it again. If you love Sherman Alexie, Native American tales, the American West (her writing always reads to me like a love letter to the land), or if you just love a good story, check it out.

I’ll post more about it later. Just as soon as I’ve got my copy.

Tweed holds a stink, and other lessons from AWP

Richard Russo, Jennifer Haigh, AWP, Boston.

The best picture I got? A blurry shot of Richard Russo, pouring water for Jennifer Haigh.

I spent Wednesday through Sunday at a writing conference in Boston, and I have what you could probably call an AWP hangover. I am moving around my office slowly, shifting piles of literary journals from place to place, drinking a lot of water and trying hard not to take a nap on the keyboard.

Because I spent three days frantically tweeting the conference, I was planning to write a big post about AWP and the helpful writing things I learned there, but I can’t even. What I can do is give you this list, however, of the things I learned this weekend that may or may not be helpful:

  1. Tweed holds a stink. Launder that vintage jacket, gentlemen. It’s not going to get any less nasty without the help of a dry cleaner.
  2. Take some time to learn how the camera in your new device works before stepping into any convention center. People like photos that aren’t blurry.
  3. Socially awkward writers like to make observations about how socially awkward other writers are. But not in person; on the internet.
  4. Speaking of which, the easiest way to make friends at AWP is via Twitter.
  5. Also, Twitter was the easiest way for me to take notes. (I can read my tweets, which is more than I can say for the notes in my notebook.)
  6. Someone needs to make writer paper dolls, featuring buns, turtlenecks, peaked caps, pencil skirts, Neil Gaiman hair and tweed with cartoon stink lines coming off of it.
  7. If you leave postcards, journals or any other promo materials on a cafe table at AWP, a janitor will come by five minutes later and very politely tip your stuff into the trash.
  8. Ben Percy’s description of literary fiction as a genre* should be inscribed on something in stone.
  9. If you hear Ben Percy’s voice, you’ll understand that everything he says sounds as if it actually is inscribed in stone.
  10. I came out of AWP with a lot of brand new heroes (Jennifer Haigh, Michelle Legro, Sarah Einstein) but Julianna Baggott is my spirit animal. And not just because she led a raid on the men’s bathroom.
  11. OMG. You need a Tumblr.
  12. Take #11 with a grain of salt; someone from Tumblr was on the panel that told me that.
  13. Very few people at AWP want to hear you read from your book. They are much more worried about their own books.
  14. The bigger the author, the more people want to unburden themselves emotionally during those last five minutes of Q&A.
  15. Wine+book fair = event planner genius.
  16. Getting trapped in a panel > getting locked out of one.

*Ben Percy’s definition of literary fiction went something like this: “You may as well call literary fiction its own genre in which a bunch of pretty sentences drink tea and look out a window at boiling clouds until someone has an epiphany.” That’s not it exactly. I hurt myself laughing and couldn’t get the whole quote.

How to force inspiration, kind of. (And how I learned that my shower is NOT actually the Magic Idea Box)

writing in the shower, inspiration

My diving slates.

UPDATE, 2/27/13: I’ve gotten more comments about creativity from readers on my Facebook page, so I’ve added more comments to the bottom of this post. Enjoy!

A few years ago, Wally Lamb spoke at my MFA program. One of the things Lamb mentioned in his keynote was that he got the idea for She’s Come Undone in the shower. If I’m remembering this correctly, it wasn’t an everyday shower; one of his children had just been born and he’d run home to clean up. Shortly after getting into the shower, inspiration sent him running down the hall for pen and paper.

I was so excited to hear this; recently I’d been noticing that my best ideas were emerging in the shower, exactly the time when I was unable to grab a pen and paper to write them down. I’d thought that I was the only one. And so, weird and creepy as it may be to randomly go up to a guy who is a complete stranger and talk about your showering habits, I just couldn’t help myself. I walked up to Lamb after the reading and said “Ohmygod I get my ideas when I’m showering too!” And he gave me the uncomfortable look that pretty much anyone would in the circumstances.

I’ve been thinking of the shower as the Magic Idea Box for a few years now. I never get ideas during morning showers (all they do is wake me up) but I know that if I’m stuck on something, I can take a shower in the middle of the day and the solution will appear within 30 seconds of the water being turned on. I keep diving slates in there so I can scribble the ideas down. I always figured it was the water, or the drumming of the shower on my spine that drew the ideas out. And until Lamb spoke, I thought it was just me.

This is apparently a thing. After reading a recent blog post by another favorite author, Mary Doria Russell, and seeing that she also gets ideas in the shower, I did a quick search for “inspiration in the shower.” It’s more common than I thought it would be. In 2006, Time published an interview with psychologist R. Keith Sawyer, author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. Here’s a quote from that piece:

In creativity research, we refer to the three Bs—for the bathtub, the bed and the bus—places where ideas have famously and suddenly emerged. When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain.

The bathtub, the bed and the bus. That makes sense. Everyone knows the story of the Greek mathematician Archimedes. The principle of the displacement of water came to him in the public bath and then went running out into the streets of Syracuse butt naked, screaming “Eureka!”
This blows a hole through my Magic Idea Box theory; Sawyer goes on to say that the “aha” moment is not a flash of inspiration. It is the end of a process that’s been happening for some time. Your brain has been working on the problem; the mental downtime of a shower or bath, or bus ride or the moments before sleep just kicks your brain into a different gear and that helps your mind solve the problem. But there are, apparently, other ways to force an “aha.”

Collaboration with people in or outside of your field is supposed to help. Here is Felicia Ryan, who commented on my Facebook page when I asked people how they get inspired:

My business partner (who is a visual artist by training) and myself (my training is in Communications) exchange ideas constantly, songs, artwork, books, resources….our exchange is a creative “call and response” conversation. Each of us adds to what the other has said and help to interpret it in a different way. We email, text and call each other and try to follow each creative thread to a conclusion or the next idea. It is like a on ongoing Ping-pong match.

Any kind of mental downtime. According to a recent NPR piece, people who can let their minds wander during breaks from a task are more likely to solve the problem when they return to that problem. As writer Tina DeMarco says, “Mostly [inspiration] comes when I’m busy doing something else!” Here is writer Krista Richards Mann:

I get inspired when it’s quiet. I like to go on a walk or a hike. But, inspiration has been known to nudge me while changing a load of laundry, baking a cake or sweeping the floor as well.

And here is writer Donna Orazio:

For me…it is when I silence the loop of conversation in my head and just listen to the sounds around me. What else is there to hear if I really listen? A new conversation often begins which leads me to unexpected places if I am open to it.

Writing in a blue room. I don’t get this one. Nor do I have a blue room, so I can’t test this theory. But NPR says it’s true, so like a good listener, I believe.

Speaking of NPR. Here’s social media marketer Kate Hutchinson’s strategy for getting ideas:

NPR. I love to listen to it in the car, and half the time I’ll listen to a story about communications between rebel groups in Syria and outside aid groups and suddenly I’ll realize there’s something I can apply to my social media strategy, so I’ll make a voice memo on my iPhone.

Driving/Walking to work. This falls, for me, into mental downtime (unless you’re driving in LA, across the George Washington Bridge or on I-95 in Connecticut) but enough people, like Hutchinson, mentioned getting ideas in the car that I felt it deserved its own category.

From Brian Hendrickson, creator of the web comic Call of Cthulu: The Musical:

From Karen P. Schuh:

I often get ideas when driving or when observing people interacting that causes my creative mind to react and imagine a story.

And from Talking to Walls frontman Brian Kelly:

I find that I write most of my songs at the least convenient times. The best happen when I’m driving or in the shower. If I “sit down to write” it almost never happens. But usually when I can’t get to a guitar or, in the case of a shower, paper, that’s when the muse hits. (I think she just likes watching me in the shower. Kinda creepy…)

Which brings us back to the shower. Here’s a comment from Stephen Schmidt, who has the same problem as Brian:

In the shower of all places – I guess the hot water gets my brain going. A whole new meaning for “go soak your head”. It’s hard to write stuff down though.

Diving slates, Stephen and Brian. Trust me.

How do you get your ideas? Does the blue room thing even work? Comment here or on my Facebook page and I may update with your input.

As for me, I’m headed over to the Magic Idea Box to see if I can harvest some ideas for the next chapter I have to write. Apparently I’m over the weirdness of publicly discussing showers, although I don’t think I’m quite at the Archimedes level of weirdness quite yet.*

*Archimedes was a bit on the odd side. He was killed during the invasion of Syracuse. He was working on an equation at the time. A Roman soldier came to take him prisoner and Archimedes was all “no thank you, kinda busy right now,” and the soldier got mad and killed him. (I imagine things didn’t end all that well for that centurion when his general realized that the greatest genius of their time was murdered in the middle of something brilliant by some kid with an anger management problem.)

The things I never meant to learn.

It’s been a bad week for writing.

It happens. Other stuff requires attention.
Dogs need walking, kitchens need to be cleaned before the roaches find them, jobs expect you to punch in and punch out, mothers need calling, and students expect you to answer their questions.

That’s life. But still, it’s been a bad week for writing. All the prose I’ve managed to crank out this week looks like it was written by the same person who authored the spam caught by my bulk email folder:

“We are desirous of your good advices. Peoples shall pay numerous moneys for this exhibition. Glory!”

Luckily there are a lot of things for a writer to do when you’re not writing that still allow you to work on a project without actually creating anything:

You can network with other writers.
You can revise.
You can write the synopsis that you will someday hand to an agent.
You can beg a friend to read a piece and give you feedback.

b-52, beehive

This is a B-52 beehive. From the ’80s. Because there wasn’t enough bad hair then.

Or you can do my favorite thing ever: research.

I’m not talking about real research, either. I’ve done that. In fact, I’m doing a series of interviews for my book right now. It’s great, but it’s also hard work and requires a time commitment that I can’t always make during a busy week. What I’m talking about is my best virtual friend: Google.

I Google countless things when I’m writing a manuscript, and I Google even more when I can’t write. And often I learn plenty, but not what I set out to learn, thanks to the way that Google guesses, Mad-Libs style, what I mean to type.

I’ve been chronicling some of my weirder searches on my Facebook page, but why not share the wealth of unintended knowledge with everyone?

So here, for your own personal enrichment, are some of the things I didn’t mean to learn during my research this week:

90s lips

Eyeliner and lip gloss. Who thought this was a good idea in ’94?

• No two chemotherapy regimens are the same.
• A really big bottle of wine (15 liters) is called a Nebuchadnezzar.
• A really little bottle of wine (half a liter) is called a Jennie.
• Those big bottles of Yellow Tail though? Probably just called a Magnum. (But no one seems to know for certain.)
• Someone tried to revive those awful ’90s lined lips in 2011. Because black eyeliner goes with everything.
Lindsay Lohan’s Twitter feed is depressing, and occasionally, mystifying. At any rate she uses punctuation in exactly the way I’d expected.
• Gwen Stefani swears a lot in Hollaback Girl. Somehow I never noticed. I always wondered what those blank spots were in the radio edit. This is like when I heard the non-edited version of The Humpty Dance and realized that “Burger King” had been bleeped out. It’s bananas.
• A B-52 is a kind of beehive hairstyle (for which the band was named.) Think Marge Simpson.
• Medical cannibalism is a thing. It still happens. And it’s just as gross as you think it is.

That’s everything in my search history for now. May you have sweet dreams of cannibals with beehives and the lined lips of Chilli in TLC’s Waterfalls music video.

Spry is Live! (some favorites from the first issue of a new online journal.)

SpryA few months ago, I published an interview here with Erin Corriveau and Linsey Jayne, founders of Spry, a new literary journal that revels in the short form.

Well, my friends, Spry* is live.

Because Spry is about short powerful pieces, let me recommend three small pieces that pack a big punch: The Wake by Allie Marini Batts, a short piece which related personal disaster to natural disaster,  Genesis by Elizabeth Cooley, which imagines Western Civilization’s God as a creative child, and Reflections on my Parents’ Past, a surreal short story by Kate Alexander-Kirk, which furs the line between family member and beast.

These aren’t the only awesome pieces, of course, but they are some of my favorites. Please go to Sprylit.com and pick out your own faves.

*I’m proud to say that my MFA program is well represented in this issue. Erin and Linsey are as I’ve mentioned fellow Fairfield University MFA alums, but there are others involved. Classmate Cisco Covino is responsible for the ‘zine’s graphic design. Elizabeth Hilts and Barbara Wannamaker submitted essays which were accepted (and Spry only accepts blind submissions), and former faculty member and author Porochista Khakpour was featured in an interview.

December: 2012 goals.

Well. This is it. The final check-in with my 2012 goals, which is delayed because I’ve been kinda lax these past few months.  But still this is a big deal for me, because this is one of the few years in which I’ve held myself accountable for the resolutions I made at the start of the year, and actually, I’ve made progress. Care to see how I’ve done? Read on. Can’t be bothered?* Below is my favorite Epic Rap Battle of History. Enjoy.

Now. Of the five concrete goals I set for myself in 2012, I accomplished three:

Make at least $20 off a piece of fiction. My book came out in January. By March I had accomplished this. I am not rich. I doubt if I’ve broken even on my expenses with this book, but I have made more than $20 and that’s a record for me.

Send out at least three short stories. Done. I’ve sent out three short stories and some chapters from my novel. I have more rejection letters for my office door because of this,  but I also have more finished work to send out.

Read one two novels a month in 2012. I set out to read 12 novels this year, because although I love to read, I tend not to do the things I enjoy and instead fret about things I don’t enjoy at all. The only time I read anything is when I had to, and then I did it in a state of stress. That’s counter-productive for someone whose job is to read and write. So I thought 12 novels would be a good way to make reading a habit again. I started out by re-reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a sort of holiday gift to myself last year and then I began to pick other books to read, starting with the shortest in my bookcase: The House on Mango Street, Heart of Darkness, Turn of the Screw and The Stranger.  By the time I finished those, l was binge-reading, like I used to read when I was a kid. The 12-novel goal turned into a 24-novel goal, and I am currently on novels 30 and 31.

So it’s been a great reading year. I’ve moved from very short novels and novellas to very long ones: Anna Karenina and The Count of Monte Cristo. I’ve read work that I’ve been wanting to read for years, and authors I know who published their first books recently. It’s been a great year, and I have to give some of the credit for this goal to Goodreads’s reading challenge, which helped me keep track of all my books.

Nest year’s reading goal will be however many books I’ve read in 2012, including one piece by Charles Dickens that’s neither A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist. Any suggestions?

I did not accomplish two goals: I didn’t finish the second draft of my novel or send it to agents, mostly because I was working on another manuscript for half of 2012. That manuscript I did finish and send out.  I didn’t know at the time I set my goals that the manuscript was in my future, so I don’t feel too badly about not finishing my novel. That said, it’s time to get back to work on it.

I also chose to work on two conflicts that have been giving me difficulties for a long time: My feelings about faith and my issues with anxiety. I worked on both, on and off, throughout the year and although neither is by any means resolved (and may never be) I do feel like I have a much clearer idea about faith now.

The idea was that I was going to write an essay about whichever issue I came closest to resolving, and I still might try to do that. But the problem I face, ironically, has to do with the other issue: anxiety. I’m not sure I want people to know how I feel about faith and religion. I have people in my life who are both very religious and who aren’t religious at all, and I enjoy not coming down on one side or the other. For now, it might just be enough for me to know how I feel and what I believe.

And that’s it. I will be putting together a new list of goals for next year. I’m wondering if I should include more personal goals and not just writing goals this time. I don’t want to have a huge list of goals, but I also have some things I’d like to do that are not writing-related. Thoughts?

*Dear people who can’t be bothered and for whom I am posting distractions,  if you are truly out there, why have you been clicking on these posts all year?

November: 2012 goals

Well, I should have posted this monthly update on my New Years goals/resolutions a good two weeks ago, but thanks to Hurricane Sandy, I’ve been abandoning my blogging duties this month. But better late than never. Don’t care? Have a distraction: Busty Girl Comics, which has been cracking me up all year.

On to the goals:

Finish the second draft of my novel by April (September.) This month, I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to finish up my other project for Dec. 1. My novel is a little neglected, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing research, and that’s meant interviews with drag queens, documentaries about drag and transgender culture, and a lot of articles from the ’90s about drag culture.
I think my husband is a little tired, actually, of all the research I’ve been doing, because as we’ve been working to remove the mud from our belongings, or to truck waterlogged items out of the basement, I keep hitting him with drag factoids. For example:

“Did you know that voguing got its start in prison?”

or

“Whatever happened to Crystal La’Beija?”

or

“I am so not paying $3,000 for a VHS copy of The Queen. I mean, come on.”

He’s a pretty good sport about my research. I mean, he sat through something like 10 or 12 versions of Macbeth two years ago, but he’s going to be happy when this phase of research is over. If it’s ever over, that is. Because this stuff is fascinating.

Get it sent to agents before summer. It could happen.

Send out at least three short stories. Done. I’ve sent out three short stories and some chapters from my novel.

Read one two novels a month in 2012. Done! I’ve met my goal of reading 24 novels in a year, and in fact, am up to 29. This past month I read books written by people I know: David Fitzpatrick’s memoir, Sharp,  Nick Knittel’s collection of short stories, Good Things, The Whipping Club by MFA alum Deb Henry and Twilight of the Drifter by family friend and prolific author Shelly Frome. Then I moved on to manuscripts that haven’t been published yet by people I know.

And then the lights went out and reading was hard to do for a while. Now that we can see at night, I’m finishing a manuscript and then turning to The Count of Monte Cristo, which was recommended to me this summer by a friend. I’m really looking forward to that.

Make at least $20 off a piece of fiction. Done in March. I got my first royalties in July. I can confirm that I made more than $20.

Other goals: I also set to work on two of my big conflicts this year: My feelings about my faith and my issues with anxiety. All I can say is that in the last month I did some praying, although some of it was involuntary, and I was anxious.