Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Poetry Minute with Poet Walter Bargen


Today’s conference spotlight features poet Walter Bargen who became Missouri’s first poet laureate in 2008. His poems and fictions have appeared in over 100 publications including American Literary Review, Missouri Review, River Styx and more. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship in 1991 and several subsequent awards. Over his forty year writing career, he has published 14 books of poetry including his most recent, Endearing Ruins, (2012) along with Theban Traffic, (2008) which focuses on a couple, Stella and Jake, living in the present-day town of Thebes in the Midwest.

During the “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” writing conference, Walter will teach a breakout session and a master class. His breakout session will investigate what the great prose poem poet Russell Edson, meant when he wrote, “pure poetry is silence.” If this is true, then how does anyone write a poem, knowing that this standard of purity can never be reached by the act of writing?
Attendees of his Sunday morning master class will take a close look at first lines in poetry. He will read several examples of poems structured by their first line. Then, attendees will write poems with the first line in mind. 

Sarah: Walter, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about the impending Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference. We’re looking forward to having you this year!

Walter: I’m honored to be asked to part of the MWG conference and look forward to meeting fellow poets.

Sarah: What is the most surprising thing you learned while being Missouri’s first poet laureate?

Walter: What most surprised me was the continuous interest in the position of Poet Laureate over the entire two years of the appointment.  I made over 100 appearances including visiting primary and secondary schools, county and city libraries, elder facilities, historical societies, book festivals, etc. And that number could have been larger, except for scheduling conflicts and having the time to do it.

Sarah: If beginning poets want to publish their poems, where would you recommend they start?

Walter:  Sometimes it is good to go back to the very beginning and remind ourselves that if we are not writing, we should be reading.  Reading is the foundation of writing along with understanding that we must write every day.  Only if we become fluent and confident in our writing, trusting in the process of writing, will magazine editors and publishers be interested in what we write. Then I would begin by submitting my work to magazines within the state where I live, e.g., Natural Bridge, New Letters, River Styx, Chariton Review, etc. Also, I would find magazines on the web, such as, 2River, Midway Journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review, etc., and submit to them, too. And if my work is rejected I look on the rejection as an opportunity to revise the work.  Be persistent. Send the work out until you get it accepted.

Sarah: During your master class, you plan to answer a lot of questions about first lines. Why is the first line of a poem so important?

Walter: If success is defined as getting the reader to read the poem that you’ve written, then the first line is of paramount importance. If the first line is just functional or weak, then there’s good chance the reader won’t enter further into the poem.  Plus a good first line helps the poem succeed in many more ways that will be discussed during the workshop along with listing the characteristics of a good first line.

Sarah: What should attendees expect to learn from attending your breakout session on silence in poetry?

Walter:  Hopefully, it will poets make use of one of the most powerful aspects of a poem that is often overlooked and forgotten.  Also, that there are many forms/types of silence.

Sarah: What do you hope people who attend your sessions take away from them?

Walter: An excitement and a reinvigorated enthusiasm for writing and reading poetry, along with some ideas and techniques for writing new poems.

Sarah: And finally, any new projects you’re working on or any news in your world you’d like to share?

Walter: My 15th book, Troubled Behind Glass Doors, is scheduled for publication in January, 2013.  I have two other completed manuscripts that are looking for publishers and two manuscripts that I’m working on revising. And I will be giving a reading at the St. Charles Art Foundry on April 27th at 7 pm.

Sarah: Walter, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions about your upcoming guest appearance at the Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference.

If you haven’t registered for the conference, but are interested in attending and hearing Walter speak, it’s not too late! Click here to learn more about late registration.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Writing Non-fiction with Author John C. McManus

John C. McManus is a native St. Louis author who has written several books about American combat history. He has a PhD in American and military history from the University of Tennessee. He currently works as an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Rolla where he teaches courses on the Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, Military History, and the American Combat Experience in the 20th Century.

His first book, The Deadly Brotherhood: The American Combat Soldier in World War II, was originally published in 1998 and drew from first hand interviews of World War II veterans he’d collected while working in Tennessee as the assistant director of the Center for the Study of War and Society. Since then he’s gone on to publish eight non-fiction books, with a ninth scheduled for a June release, and he is a frequent contributor to World War II magazine.

During the “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” Conference, John will share his experience in a breakout session, titled “Writing Non Fiction History: How to Start with an Idea and End with a Book.” The session will provide an inside look into dreaming up an original concept, doing the research, conducting interviews, surmounting the challenge of actually writing the book and finding a publisher.

Sarah: John, thank you for taking the time to give us some more information about your upcoming appearance at the Missouri Writers’ Guild. We’re looking forward to having you.

John:  It is my pleasure, Sarah. I am very much looking forward to the event.

Sarah: First, to get us started, where are you right now as you type this?

John:  I am sitting in my office at my home in St. Louis.

Sarah: You’re an avid St. Louis sports fan and you even play amateur hockey. So, tell me how did you go from working in sports journalism and marketing to having a history-focused academic career. Both of those involving writing, but I’d imagine its two very different types.

John:  When I was an undergraduate, my great dream was to become a sports broadcaster. This was the main reason I attended the journalism school at Mizzou. Once I actually got into the J school and began taking classes, I found that I enjoyed my history electives much more. Nearly every time I had open hours, I took history. Eventually it dawned on me that I was much more interested in a career as an historian than as a broadcaster. I finished the journalism degree but went to grad school in history. The interesting thing is that the writing skills I learned in journalism school gave me a big advantage in the historical profession. I learned so much about eliminating the passive voice, moving a story forward, and staying on message. In grad school I was amazed to see how little effort most academic historians put into their writing. In my opinion, they failed to understand that good writing is the essential foundation of all good history. As a result, academic histories tend to be dry as dust. My goal always was to write not just for a scholarly audience but a popular audience too. My journalism training helped me to do exactly that. I also learned useful interviewing skills.

Sarah: From a writing/research perspective, of all the books you’ve written, which are you most proud of? Why?

John: That’s a tough question to answer. It is almost like asking a parent which child is his favorite!  All kidding aside, I would have to say I am especially proud of a book I wrote called Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II through Iraq. The research process for the book was exhausting and mentally challenging but I think the end product made it all worthwhile. The book was recently named to the US Army Chief of Staff’s professional reading list and I think it contains many important—and fascinating—lessons that can help today’s soldiers. I am also very proud of another book I wrote called Alamo in the Ardennes: The Untold Story of the American Soldiers who Made the Defense of Bastogne Possible mainly because it revised the way in which historians view the Battle of the Bulge. I was able to access so many incredible primary sources and new perspectives. Plus, the story is so fast paced and pressure packed that I like to think it reads like a military thriller.

Sarah: In addition to your books, you also write pieces for  World War II magazine. Has that been advantageous to your career? In what way? Doesn’t it take time away from writing your books?

John: The articles for World War II magazine have definitely been advantageous for me as a writer and a professor. For one thing, I established a strong relationship with the magazine’s editor. For another, the various pieces enhanced my visibility in the profession, even though they do not count as academic articles for a tenure dossier. For that, I have published academically refereed articles in non-profit journals. Most of the World War II magazine articles have dealt with topics derived from my books, so it has enhanced, rather than taken away from the process of writing books. For instance, I wrote an article for the magazine about the capture by the 7th Infantry Regiment of Hitler’s mountain redoubt at Berchtesgaden at the end of World War II. The piece debunked the myth, mistakenly propagated by Stephen Ambrose in Band of Brothers, that paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division had taken Berchtesgaden. In writing my article, I drew directly from a book I had just published on the history of the 7th Infantry.

Sarah: You’ve obviously established yourself as an American history expert. In your opinion, do you have to be an expert on a topic in order to write about it?

John: I think it depends on the particular book you have in mind. If, for instance, you are writing a book that delves into an ancestor’s experiences in the Civil War or World War II, you do not necessarily have to be a so called “expert” on those wars. History, after all, is for everyone. That’s what makes it fun. James Nelson, though he had no particular reputation or training as a World War I historian, recently wrote a fine book called The Remains of Company D   about his grandfather’s experiences in the war. If, by contrast, you envision writing an authoritative new book on the US experience in Vietnam, or the Battle of Stalingrad or the role of women in the Revolutionary War, it does help to have some acknowledged expertise. Publishers will take your proposal a bit more seriously and, once your book is published, reviewers will probably treat it with more kindness. I do want to underscore, though, that you do NOT have to be an academic expert to write history. After all, even if you don’t have the academic training, you can always train yourself to master nearly any historical topic. Again, that’s the beauty of the field.

Sarah: Of the various steps in the book writing process – idea, research, interviews, writing, etc – which one is the hardest for you? What do you do to keep motivated when you’re in that stage of the process?

John: I would say the writing process is the hardest part. Ideas are seldom a problem for me. I always have more ideas for books than I can actually write. And I absolutely love the research/interviewing process. That is definitely the most enjoyable part for me. The actual writing can sometimes be a hard slog. It takes a lot of time and mental energy. For me as a professor, it means devoting most all of my non-campus time to writing the book. The biggest challenge is how to shape the vision I have for the book into actual reality. I also sometimes get frustrated that I simply cannot utilize all of the vast amounts of research material I gather. This means prioritizing and tightening the scope of my book. This is one hundred percent necessary but it also means making tough editorial choices.

Sarah: In your breakout session, you’ll talk about the interview process for non-fiction books. How do you know if you need to conduct an interview? Could you include an example or two of how an interview could add to a book?

John: I think interviews are important for anyone doing modern history or journalism. Ask yourself if the documentary sources truly tell the whole story or if the perspective of someone who participated in the event would add to your book. The answer is usually yes. It never hurts to pick the brain of a participant. It doesn’t mean that they should dominate your narrative or that you take everything the interviewee says as one hundred percent truth. The interview is just one source among many available to you. It might loom as your most crucial source—as in investigative journalism—or as a complementary source as in some administrative histories. I believe that interviews have added much to my books. One good example is the Guam chapter of Grunts. The focus of the chapter is on a massive Japanese banzai attack against U.S. Marine lines a few days after the Americans invaded Guam in July 1944. Through a veteran’s association I was able to locate and interview a large number of veterans who had fought the Japanese on that hellish night. Their memories were incredibly vivid, honest and accurate. The chapter was based on a rich blend of sources such as after action reports, unit journals, personal memoirs, letters and the like. But I think the first hand immediacy of the interviews brought the event to life like nothing else could. This is the advantage of the modern historian—to actually interact with your subjects. I recommend making use of that.

Sarah: You’ve targeted your breakout session toward historical writers. Will all writers of non-fiction benefit from attending? Or only if they write historical non-fiction?

John: I think the session can offer something useful for all non-fiction writers. Obviously self help is different from military history or true crime. But I think all non-fiction authors can relate to the process of conceiving a book and tracking down a good publisher.

Sarah:  How long does it take to write & research a non-fiction book? From the original idea to submitting it to the publisher?

John: For me, on average, it takes about two or three years, from the proposal stage to publication. I spend the bulk of that time doing the research.

Sarah: For non-fiction writers, how is the process of getting a publisher different from the process that fiction writers go through?

John: Fiction is tougher because most every writer thinks he or she can do it. Thus, there is a huge amount of competition for good agents and/or good self publishing deals. Non-fiction topics tend to narrow themselves down by who is interested and qualified to write about them. Fiction writers have to worry so much about story structure, character development and the like. For non-fiction writers hoping to sell a proposal, the main challenge is to demonstrate a clear market for your book and sell the publisher on the notion that you are the ideal person to write a good book to meet this demand.

Sarah: If someone is interested in writing non-fiction, would you recommend that they get an agent? Why or why not?

John: I think for eighty percent of authors, an agent is the way to go. If you are very business savvy; if you enjoy negotiations; if you understand something of how publishing contracts work; if you don’t mind the idea of canvassing a large number of publishers and dealing with direct rejection, then you don’t really need an agent. If you are like most writers, who are better at creativity than business acumen, an agent can really be a godsend. Your agent can save you a lot of time and trouble, not just in tracking down a publisher, but in refining a marketable book concept. It is important to have a good agent who can tell you frankly “That concept won’t sell” or “That idea is a good one; let’s develop it.”  The agent can focus exclusively on the business side while you work on the production side—writing the books. Moreover, once it is time to work out the details of the contract, you will almost always get a better deal with an agent at your side, especially if you are a new author. On a personal level, the first person I pitch any new idea to is my agent. He tells me which ones are worth pursuing and which ones are not. In twelve years, he has seldom been wrong.

Sarah: What are some of the tips you’ve developed over the years for writing a non-fiction query letter?

John: I think a good query letter should be short and to the point, maybe a couple paragraphs at most. Explain to the editor the market for your book, why your particular book will benefit their bottom line and why you are the person to write this particular offering. Perfect a courteous, confident and professional tone.

Sarah:  John, thank for taking the time to answer my questions.

Don’t forget to register. If you’ve learned something from author John McManus, please consider attending the 2012 Missouri Writers Guild Annual writing conference. We would love to see you there. 

Click here to learn more about the Missouri Writers Guild 2012 Conference or to register!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Missouri Author Carol Carr Sheds Light on Author/Agent Relationship

After a career as an attorney and corporate executive, Carol K. Carr decided she’d had enough. She turned to writing.  Her first book, INDIA BLACK, was published in 2011 by Berkley Prime Crime.  A sequel, INDIA BLACK AND THE WIDOW OF WINDSOR, appeared in October 2011.  Carol is currently at work on the third book in the series.  She lives in Springfield, Mo., with her husband and their German Shepherd dog. 

Carol is represented by Ann Collette of the Helen Rees Literary Agency. She and Ann will be presenting a combined breakout session during the “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” Conference that will address the agent/author relationship. Attendees will receive inside knowledge from this agent/author team about various topics including how an author gets an agent, how an agent chooses a client, the expectations each has of the other, and what it takes to develop a successful author/agent relationship.

Sarah: Carol thank you for visiting the Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference blog today. We’re excited to learn more about you and hear about your upcoming appearance at the “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” Conference.

Carol:  Thank you, Sarah.  I’m really pleased to be invited to speak at the conference, and I’m looking forward to meeting fellow authors from Missouri.  We’ve got quite a literary tradition to keep alive here, following in the footsteps of T.S. Eliot, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and of course, Mark Twain.

Sarah: To get us started, can you tell me where you are right now?

Carol: I’m originally from Summersville, a small town in Texas County.  I attended Missouri State University and then law school in Washington D.C.  After a couple of decades in Texas and California, I returned to the thriving metropolis of Springfield.  I love being back in the Ozarks.

Sarah: It seems like every author follows his/her own unique path to publication. Yourself included. First you became a lawyer, then an HR Director, and now in the past couple years, an author. That is a very windy path to becoming a national best-selling author! How did you find yourself writing a novel? You didn’t just sit down one day and decide to write one, did you?

Carol:  Well, yes, I did.  Like most writers, I’m a reader.  I can’t recall the book I was reading at the time I made this decision, but I do remember putting it down in disgust and thinking, “I can do better than that.”  Ignorance is bliss.  I had no idea how difficult it was to pull off.  I wrote one really terrible novel, which I’m glad to say has mysteriously disappeared from my computer.  I’m sure a few agents rolled their eyes when they read that submission.  Those rejection letters fired my competitive spirit, though.  I wrote two more novels which were much better, good enough to get an agent, in fact, although no publishers were interested in them.  I finally scored with India Black.

Sarah: Do you think that working in those previous jobs has helped you in the long run? Why or why not?

Carol:  Oh, yes, they’ve helped tremendously.  Being a lawyer is almost perfect training for writing.  I was a transactions lawyer, working in real estate and finance.  There were always deadlines and multiple projects to handle.  You have to work when you’d rather not.  You spend a lot of time at your desk, staring at a computer screen or reviewing documents.  You must learn to express yourself concisely and accurately.  Writing fiction is a bit of relief, actually.  You’re not likely to be dragged into court over the meaning of a sentence in your novel, but you could very well end up before a jury trying to explain what you meant by the use of the word “reasonable.”  I can’t say I enjoyed the Human Resources gig; I was dragged into that.  I had no idea anything could be more stressful than practicing law, but dealing with 120,000 employees (average age – 24) most certainly was.  The one benefit I derived from that experience is that I am virtually shock-proof with respect to the things people do and say.  You learn a lot about human nature in H.R.  I usually include several scenes of India’s management issues running the brothel.  I have great fun imagining those episodes. 

Sarah: You’ve said this will be the first time that you and Ann have met in person. How does your working relationship….work, then?

Carol:  Our first contact was by email.  I’d submitted a query and writing sample to her and she sent a very nice email asking to see the rest of the manuscript.  After reading through it, she wrote once more and asked if I’d be interested in having the agency represent me.  I played it cool.  I waited approximately ten seconds before I emailed back to say I would.  Then we had a conversation on the phone which went well, in which Ann explained the terms of representation, how the submission process would work, and which editors she would be approaching.  She also discussed the kind of deal I would likely get from the publisher.  During the submission process, she kept me apprised by email of publisher’s reactions and when the manuscript was picked up by Berkley, she called to tell me.  We have periods when we email each other frequently, over contract terms or new deals from the publisher and months when I’m writing and we don’t communicate much at all.  It’s worked well.

Sarah: What has surprised you the most about working with Ann?

Carol:  The best surprise is that there have been no surprises.  When Ann says she’ll do something, she does it.  She never fails to answer a question and she always responds to emails.  She’s a straight shooter, too.  Publishing is a business and she understands that aspect of it and makes sure that you do as well.  I’ve heard horror stories from other authors about agents who disappear before the ink is dry on the contract, so I feel very fortunate to have found an agent who is dedicated to her clients.

Sarah: During your breakout session, you’ll be addressing what a good author/agent relationship looks like. What are some signs that maybe an author/agent relationship isn’t good?

Carol:  I’ll have to wing this one, as my experience with Ann has been wonderful.  So, I’ll take the way she operates and assume the opposite of that behavior is bad agenting.  Here’s my list:
The agent is difficult to reach.  The agent is evasive and dances around issues.  You have to
contact the agent to see where you stand in the submission process.  The agent doesn’t even start the submission process.  You have to contact the agent regarding payments.  The agent is unrealistic about the kind of deal you’ll make.  The agent will not provide specific information about which editors she’ll be approaching.  The agent keeps poor records.  The agent is disorganized.  The agent will not provide you editorial feedback during the submission process.
I think that’s how a bad relationship would look.  There’s the personal factor, too.  If the agent is aloof or arrogant, I don’t think I’d be happy working with him or her.  An agent may not be your BFF, but you should share a mutual respect for one another.             

Sarah: What’s the most important thing an author should expect from the agent/author relationship once a book has been published?

Carol:  At that point, I think the agent’s work is finished with respect to that book.  Prior to publication, your agent may solicit blurbs for your book from other writers she represents.  She can suggest some marketing tips or point you in the direction of some opportunities to get your name out to the public, but that’s really not her job.  One thing I do think is important, though, is that your agent keeps your name in front of your publisher.  When Ann meets my editor, Ann will email to let me know how the editor feels about sales, or the possibility of another book, or anything else that’s pertinent.  An agent should be promoting her author when she has the chance.   

Sarah: You’ve written 2 published and one soon-to-be-released mystery novels featuring Madam India Black. How did you come up with the character?

Carol:  I’m a history buff, and particularly like the Victorian era.  I wanted to write my own historical adventure with a female heroine, but that was such a restrictive period for women that it was difficult imagining a woman who was free to chase after assassins, who was street-wise and tough, and who didn’t care at all about polite society.  After a little thought, I concluded that a madam would be just the ticket.  India is self-employed, knows how to use a gun and has fought her way up and off the streets of London.  Authority doesn’t intimidate her.  Indeed, not much does.  I’ve never liked women who swoon.  Protagonists with flaws are so much more interesting, and India has quite a few.

Sarah: Can you tell us a bit about India’s upcoming new adventure?

Carol:  India Black and the Shadows of Anarchy will be published by Berkley Prime Crime in February, 2013.  India and her cohorts, the luscious government agent French and the odiferous street urchin Vincent, infiltrate a group of anarchists, with explosive results.  In January of 2013, I’ll be publishing an eSpecial describing how India acquired Lotus House, her brothel.  I’m also pleased to say that I’ve just signed a contract for the fourth book in the series, and for a second eSpecial to be published in conjunction with it.

Sarah: That is exciting news! Congratulations! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on the agent/author relationship. For more information about Carol and her books, you can visit her online at www.carolkcarr.com.

For those who have signed up to attend the Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference, please consider volunteering. This is an excellent way to get to know our featured faculty a bit better. For more information e-mail MWG President Deb Marshall at mwgpres@gmail.com