Increasing “the ambient intelligence.”

There’s a lot more to writing than Snoopy knows. I suspect, though, that Charles Schulz understood.

I got to hang out last Saturday with a bunch of really cool people — writers. Some of them approach writing very differently from the way I do, so I learned a lot. Even better, I had some time over the weekend to chat with writers about the writing life and about, well — real life. My tribe.

I love stories. I love people who create stories, fiction and nonfiction. I love the fact that people do indeed create stories, love that we humans have been explaining the world to each other through stories since the moment we were able to do that, somewhere back in time around the campfires outside our caves.

But… here’s the thing. There is a real difference between people who write as a career — or people who aspire to write as a career — and people who do not.

And I’m not sure it’s fair — not sure it’s a service to good writing of any kind — to ignore this.

The main difference often appears to be writers who aim for agents, publishers, grants, awards, etc. as compared to writers who self-publish. That’s an obvious difference, but it isn’t always an accurate, or complete, comparison.

I’m talking about a difference that goes deeper.

I mean the difference between writers who make a practice of submitting their writing to critical scrutiny from the wider literary community, and those who chose not to. Scrutiny is what writers ask for every time they apply for a grant, or submit to a journal, or query an agent, or research publishers, knowing that success with any of those things means eventually working with an editor, who will ask for changes the writer probably prefers not to make.

Making stuff up is fun. Revision is not.

But it’s necessary if we are to “increase the ambient intelligence” as George Saunders puts it in his honest, and funny, essay, about constructing his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. He invites writers to “imagine [their readers] generously.”

We should do that.

Here’s a secret I wish I had know when I first started writing fiction and poetry: Criticism makes my work better. Lots better. So I plan my time to include grant applications (and the feedback therefrom when I’m declined) and submissions to journals and contests and public readings. It’s the reason I will spend significant time and effort seeking an agent when I finish the manuscript for my first novel later this year.

I solicit and read and reflect on every piece of feedback/criticism/critique I can get from writers who know more than I do. And yes, it took some time to steel myself for this, to understand the difference between those who “get” my work and those who don’t.

Every writer I know who is willing to do this has three things in common: 1) they say that they cannot not write; 2) they write to know themselves; and 3) they read intelligent writers — voraciously.

They’ve stumbled on a great truth. We might as well write to know ourselves, because that’s going to happen anyway.

If we admit that goal to ourselves, it simply happens sooner.

I was blown away this weekend when Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux performed part of her middle-grade novel for us. She’d printed the wrong passage from The Marvelous Imagination of Katie Addams, so she punted. And — wow. She had us participating with Katie as she dug in a sand bank and discovered the door to an Egyptian tomb, advanced to grab the golden scepter in the mummy’s hand, dropped it, ran back through creepy passages to the ancient doorway, and buried it again in the sand. Wow, I thought, this isn’t just a story that Rose has memorized.

This is a story that’s in her bones.

Rose self-published this novel. She leads a writers’ group at her local library. She visits schools, and just about anywhere else she’s invited. She has a plan to get her work into the world and she devotes her time, and her efforts, to follow it. She participates fearlessly in the wider literary community.

Staci Drouillard is finishing her manuscript for Walking the Old Road for University of Minnesota Press. She’s spent years researching the history of Chippewa City in Cook County, Minnesota, interviewing Ojibwe elders, seeking permission to publish oral histories and photographs. When she joined us on Saturday to read from her work, I was immediately struck by how quietly and firmly she grounds herself in her material. She told us about the Ojibwe tradition of written history going back hundreds of years to the time of the migration from the East Coast to Lake Superior, about people’s relationship to place, about roads as conduits to other worlds, about the responsibility we have to preserve something once we name it.

Big ideas.

The passage she read was from an interview with an elder who described walking the Old Road into Grand Marais with his grandmother when he was a boy, pausing near Halfway Creek on the mile-long journey to eat the lunch she packed for her small grandson, stopping at a cafe in town, watching his grandmother enjoy the ice cream they ordered.

Small ideas.

But so very, very human. I was right there with that small boy and his grandmother, walking the road into town. Staci made it so with her lyrical writing, because this story is — literally — from the marrow in her bones.

Shoshanna Matney has just finished her first novel, Dog Lake, and is deciphering the feedback from the three agents who responded in ways that made sense to her. She sent dozens of inquiries just to get to this point. She’s already begun her second novel, but now chooses to return to the first one, and its revision. A daunting task.

Shoshanna read a passage that had in common with her childhood only this: a dog named Jack who escaped one night for a few hours. Her writing spun this skillfully, made a window into the book’s tension between the silence of peace, and the silence of secrecy. Two sisters witness their mother lying prone on the ice of the lake behind their house, trying to rescue their dog. They sneak back into the house before their parents know they’ve been out. “Don’t tell,” the older sister whispers. I was standing right there inside the younger sister when she came face-to-face with her father, weighing what to tell him. Bone deep.

These are writers who amaze and exhilarate, who make my heart stop for just long enough to help me know I’m alive.

I’m lucky to have many examples of inspiration, from this past weekend, and elsewhere. One of my favorite North Shore writers, Nina Simonowicz, couldn’t join us on Saturday. It’s not an exaggeration to say that her first book, Nina’s North Shore Guide is part of the reason I moved to Duluth, nearly twenty years after first reading it. She made this region come alive for me. It was the first time I read a nonfiction book that so clearly voiced the human being behind the geography her writing described. A bone-deep voice.

Nina self-published the first edition, with a quote on the back from her banker that said, “You should buy this book.” Eventually, University of Minnesota Press asked to publish it, and asked for revisions and editing and expansion. Nina is still at it, writing and maintaining the seminal guide to the North Shore. She makes it possible for others to live their stories in this landscape — “the prehistoric North Shore ridegline rising out of Lake Superior” — and maybe for some of us to write about it.

Every creative effort deserves praise. We should be a community of writers, celebrating and supporting each other’s work. We should cheer each other on. Of course we should.

But we can hold each other accountable, too. We can encourage literary and artistic criticism, because it makes our own work better. It raises the bar for creative endeavors for the communities where we live, work, and hang out.

We can “increase the ambient intelligence.” My bones tell me, in this era of fungible truth, it’s even more important for writers to pay attention to this.

Whatever credibility my writing has I owe to writers who weren’t afraid to show their bone marrow.

I’m grateful to them.


Some Writers Reading.

Participants in the 2016 Grand Marais Art Colony Mentorship in Fiction with Faith Sullivan, who is seated in the center.

Saturday, March 25 from 12:30 – 2:00 p.m.
at Grand Marais Public Library
104 2nd Avenue West, Grand Marais, MN  55604

Please join us as alumni from Grand Marais Art Colony‘s 2016 Mentorship in Fiction gather at Grand Marais Public Library to read from their nearly-completed manuscripts — Sandy Bloom, Joan Crosby, Shoshanna Matney, Shelley Odendahl, and Judy Budreau. We’ll be joined by some of your favorite Grand Marais writers — Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux (YA fiction), Gene Glader (Cook County history) and Staci Drouillard, who’s finishing a book about Chippewa City for the University of Minnesota Press. After the readings, we’ll have plenty of time to answer questions and talk about the writing life. Free and open to the public. BTW, that’s me, seated at lower left.

This event is made possible by the 2016 Career Development grant I was awarded from Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. Funding for ARAC programs and services is provided through appropriations from the Minnesota State Legislature, the Arts and Cultural Heritage Amendment, and a grant from The McKnight Foundation. Thank you, Minnesota!

4 Authors, 4 Books Published

Last Saturday, October 29, in the lovely space at Duluth’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation, four local authors talked about the road to publishing their most recent books — an event organized by Lake Superior Writers, thanks in part to a grant from Arrowhead Regional Arts Council. All photos above by Maddie Cohen.

I learned something new from each of the four authors:

Alice Springer Marks, Missing, published privately 2016
A former pre-school director and teacher, Alice turned to writing when she retired. She’s published some of her short stories in anthologies, and has written plays for non-profits. She and her husband, Sam, moved to Duluth 3 year ago and live in the Lincoln Park area of Duluth. Alice has a friend who self-published medieval stories set in Texas (I think I have this right!) through Women Addicted To Heroines — this friend encouraged her to join the ranks of “indie” authors to publish Missing, the story of two detectives who solve the mystery of a doctor who goes to lunch one day and never returns. Some of Alice’s points:

  • It took her seven years to write Missing, but only one year to write the sequel.
  • As an older author (her term, not mine!) she didn’t want to wait around for the typical submission/publishing timeline.
  • Revising is hard work.
  • She uses her computer like a typewriter, so she hired someone to format her manuscript.
  • Next project: sequel to Missing, called Break, starring the same two detectives who solve a double-identity puzzle.

Lucie B. Amundsen, Locally Laid, Penguin 2016
Lucie and her husband, Jason, own Locally Laid Egg Company in Wrenshall, MN, a “middle-agriculture” farming operation, where chickens are pasture-raised. Lucie’s background is in marketing; when her freelance career collapsed in 2008 she entered Hamline University’s MFA program (which she notes is no help at all in selling her writing).

  • While there, she wrote a manuscript for a graphic novel, queried five agents (researched them, followed them on Facebook, i.e. “benevolent stalking”). All passed on her manuscript, but one asked to see her next book.
  • Locally Laid is narrative non-fiction — Lucie jokes that this means, Where do you shelve it?
  • This personal story has a couple of arcs — memoir, then the business story arc, then the teaching stories (among them, explaining “middle agriculture”)
  • She sent 10 book proposals over an 8 week period to her agent. More or less a full-time job, on top of real life, getting to a satisfactory book proposal that her agent was willing to sell.
  • Offers came from Harper Collins and Penguin within nine days. Lucie chose Penguin because they wanted a teaching book — but Penguin wanted the book to be 40% longer.
  • 18 months after submitting the final manuscript, the book came out.
  • Then — she began marketing the book, a nearly full-time job on top of other full-time jobs like farmer, mom, marketing department at Glensheen, etc.
  • Next project: book about marketing and entrepreneurship for farms; nervous about the first draft — which is like shoveling dirt, then crafting sandcastles.

Felicia Schneiderhan, Newylweds Afloat, Breakaway Books 2015
Felicia worked as a freelance writer for several years in Chicago and elsewhere, and has published essays, short stories and poetry; she’s a regular writer for Lake Superior Magazine.

  • Her book started as a blog during her “liveaboard” days, along with her husband, Mark, on his boat Mazurka, in downtown Chicago.
  • She published articles based on the blog that later became chapters in the book — this helped her define a larger audience.
  • She queried 10 agents — of the 5 who replied, 3 asked for sample chapters or 10 pages of the book.
  • Learned BEFORE you query, you should have the whole manuscript ready!
  • Applied for and received an ARAC grant to finish a novel during this time, so she was working on more than one project.
  • She googled boat book publishers and found Breakaway Books, a small independent publisher, in upstate New York — publishers of outdoor adventure books with a literary tone. The owner and publisher does everything and outsources what he can’t do himself.
  • Queried them anonymously — now, she knows better! — but they wanted it.
  • Due out in Fall 2015. That August, publisher announced he didn’t have enough time to provide Advanced Reader Copies. (aka ARCs, these are the books sent to reviewers ahead of publication.)
  • NOW she knows that ARCs are REALLY important — almost no one reviews a book after it’s published.
  • Next project: She likes accumulating the “dirt” of a manuscript; feels elation and grief upon finishing a book, then sees “here’s the next thing and maybe I can say it” with writing.

Julie Gard, Home Studies, New Rivers Press 2015

Julie is an accomplished and award-winning poet who teaches at University of Wisconsin-Superior. She lives in Duluth with her partner, the poet Michelle Mathees. Julie says she’s been a writer all her life; her work has been published in chapbooks and literary journals. The 59 prose poems in Home Studies (a finalist for the 2016 Minnesota Book Award) were expanded from 18 poems she wrote between 2004-2007 when she and Michelle lived in North Dakota and adopted a 9-year-old daughter from Russia.

  • The book is divided into three parts. The middle section of the manuscript was going to be another project, but the [poetry] genre is flexible, so work can fit into different genres; this middle section was written in Duluth from 2007-2015.
  • She tends to overwrite, then pares back. She also writes more poems than she will use in a collection, then pares back the number.
  • In summer of 2012, she decided to put together a book, sent it out to contests and presses and queried 5-8 places.
  • Like Minnesota writer, Alison McGhee, she was prepared to go up to 80 queries!
  • She knew she wanted small literary presses, rather than an agent. The manuscript for Home Studies was the winner of the 2103 Many Voices project at New Rivers Press, a teaching press located at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
  • Next project: Living in the uncertainty of beginning another book. “This (Home Studies) is a book — will my next ideas be a book?”

  • Contests often require a fee; in effect, you’re paying someone to read your manuscript
  • Marketing your book is a lot of work — and it’s expected no matter which publishing route you go
  • Consider low expectations — then, when people respond it’s great
  • Do a great job getting pre-copies out to reviewers (aka Advanced Reader copies)
  • Felicia noted that ARAC provided a grant so she could travel to the East Coast (where she’s from) to do readings
  • Poets & Writers database is a good resource
  • So is Writer’s Digest
  • Alice says Reader’s Digest usually pays $100 for 100 words
  • Lucie suggests a tiered approach to getting published: devote X number of weeks or months to 1) securing agent, then 2) small press, then 3) self-publishing an e-book.
  • With every query you write, you are sharpening the marketing of your book.
  • amazon has resources for self-publishing; mixed-genre books can do well with this
  • Book talks appeal to larger audiences than a book reading — tell how you wrote the book or researched the subject. An entertaining presentation draws an audience. Lucie: “Making it funny is coping.” (Meaning your book content and/or your presentation.)
  • Business Facebook gives you many options for targeting audiences for small cost.
  • Couple a visit to a library (for a book signing) with a writing workshop that you teach — much more fun than sitting in a bookstore hoping people come by.
  • Write from your gut and heart first. Later, you can fine-tune the message.

So there you go — see what you missed? You’ve gathered by now that none of our four authors published their books expecting, or even hoping, to get rich. But they all found it satisfying. What will you do to make finishing and publishing your book a good experience?

The Arrowhead Regional Arts Council provides funding and support to Lake Superior Writers, and a host of other regional artists and arts organizations. “Funding for ARAC programs and services is provided through appropriations from the Minnesota State Legislature, the Arts and Cultural Heritage Amendment, and a grant from the McKnight Foundation.”



A Working List of Publication Possibilities — guide to lit mags and journals, links to calls for submissions, links to small presses. Alt-press-ish.

WritersDigest — links to blogs, articles, competitions, advice, market list, agent list. Huge.

GlimmerTrain Press — lit mag run by two sisters as a second career (good story), monthly contests (with fee) and free standard submissions.

Rachelle Gardner — blog by lit agent, clear query guidelines. Daily posts are usually interesting.

FundsForWriters — grants, contests.

QueryTracker — free database of agents and pubs, plus free tool to keep track of queries.

Duotrope — free database of markets for fiction writers and poets.

Jane Friedman — blog by media prof on advancing technologies and what they mean for writers. And for humans.

MediaBistro — the giant site for freelancers.





Non-Profit Literary Press seeks board members

Well, that wasn’t exactly how my friend Mary acquired a position on the board of Coffee House Press. In truth, the editor went to high school with her daughter, and one day she ran into him and was talking about something else, and he told her where he worked and what he did and she became interested and started following the authors and books that Coffee House publishes and a few years later she was invited to sit on the board. And to recruit others who might spread the word about the Press, or give money, or parties, or at least attend readings and tell their friends to buy the books. Which is how I came to be invited to an event for Boarded Windows, a new novel by Minnesota musician Dylan Hicks. The really cool thing is the accompanying CD, which Dylan recorded as one of the characters from his novel.
Coffee House Press has 8 staff members, about 7 interns, 17 Board members — and they publish the work of 168 authors. It began 25+ years ago as a poetry magazine started by Allan Kornblum. Mary said the Board is mainly charged with financial stewardship in service to the mission of the Press, but sometimes they spend meetings talking about the cover design of a particular book. Beginning in 2011, all Coffee House titles are issued simultaneously in print and e-reader format — a rarity even in 2012 as readership of e-books gallops alongside print…

Agents, view 2

I had this great writing partner many years ago, Margot. She was a psychotherapist (not a psycho therapist, as she once wrote me) and once I got over the feeling that she was decoding my childhood in my writing (actually, I came to welcome that) we got along great. When we worked together, she was writing essays on the natural world and the spirituality to be found therein. They were lovely essays, and I looked forward to getting lost in their woodsy paths and finding my way back out, always seeing something I’d missed. Margot organized the essays into a collection, subtitled the sections, wrote some more and sent off the manuscript to a series of agents. No one was especially interested for several years. Then an agent took it on, sent it to several publishers, and passed on their feedback to Margot. Feedback like, change this, or make this longer, or that shorter, and really, what we want is a coffee table book so how about we get rid of most of the text and add photos?
In the meantime, Margot had been sending out her little essays to different magazines and journals, some of them widely circulated, and amassing quite a long list of published essays. So she felt a bit freer to say no thank you to the feedback her agent was passing along and continued to send out her essays, one at a time. Some day, they will be a book on their own, and some publisher will be grateful she has a respectable following among readers of various magazines and journals.


Agents, view 1

My friend Colleen has written a children’s book, a YA novel in the parlance of writers (for Young Adult.) She’s participated in a writing group led by Jane Resh Thomas for a number of years, and her manuscript grew out of this. I haven’t read it yet, but our friend Angelina from Book Club did, at one sitting, and loved it. Angelina knows children’s books. The highlight of her family’s collection, and it’s considerable, are her shelves of Newbery winners, all 90 years of them, and our book club still reads the Newbery winner each year in December. (The award is announced in spring, but we’ve stuck with a December reading, a holdover from the days when it made a holiday gift book for our children, most of whom are out of or finishing college now.)
Colleen’s manuscript is with an agent, who might or might not take an interest in it and shepherd it through publication. Colleen is casual about this, and not boastful at all that a well-known and respected literary agent is even reading her work. But she is quietly proud of having finished the manuscript, as she should be. And a bit unnerved, because she just heard that this same agent has just received the final draft of a second book by an award-winning YA author. Colleen is sure her manuscript is now buried under this magnificent new one, as well as some take-out menus, and dry-cleaning tickets, and the box of stale bagels from last Wednesday’s staff meeting…
Whatever happens next for Colleen and her book, I’ll remember her quiet pride when she said she had finished the manuscript. I can’t imagine any of her emotions at her publication party will top that.

Coffee House Press visit

In January, I was invited to a Coffee House Press new book event by a board member. Very cool. Publisher Chris Fischbach interviewed Dylan Hicks about his novel, Boarded Windows, due out in May. Hicks is a Minneapolis singer and songwriter and music critic.

Even cooler, though, was hearing Dylan Hicks talk about the album that came out of writing the book, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene. When he was done writing the book, he recorded the songs he imagined one of his novel’s characters singing.

So the January evening at the Press was Chris and Dylan sitting on stools in front of 40 or so of us, talking about publishing this particular book, and next to them on top of a bookcase was Chris’ portable radio/CD player, on which we heard part of the album. Nerdy in the best possible way. Chris began by saying that he sort of thinks the entire goal of publishing is to inspire more art or literature – or he hopes, at any rate, to inspire the creation of something beyond the book they’re publishing. In this case, Dylan casually mentioned that an album grew out of the book. Hmmm… thought Chris. This guy posts on Facebook that we’ve picked up his book, and gets 2,000 congratulatory messages from his friends, who know him as a musician. Cross-pollination! Here’s the deal: when you buy the book, you get to download the album for free. And the book and album will be promoted to overlapping markets. And Dylan will do author events at bookstores and music venues, sometimes reading, sometimes singing, sometimes both.

Chris also said he was attracted to Boarded Windows because of its unreliable narrator – a common theme among Coffee House titles. Leaves the reader to do the sorting out. And Chris noted that he tends to veer away from novels written in the present tense, because there is no good way to spell out the history, the context of the story the narrator (unreliable or not) is trying to tell us.

Lucky me – in the middle of a project about creative writing, I saw an author’s first public event, and now I can watch the debut of a newly published novel, and its accompanying CD…