2018 Literary Magazine Rankings

Below are links to the 2018 Perpetual Folly Literary Magazine Rankings for Fiction, Poetry, and Non-Fiction. Scroll down for a discussion of the rationale and methodology behind the lists.

If you find the lists useful, please consider making a donation to support this site.

 

Literary Magazine Ranking — Fiction

Literary Magazine Ranking — Poetry

Literary Magazine Ranking — Non-Fiction

Rationale for the rankings. Years ago, when I was first submitting short stories to literary magazines, I wanted a way to tier my submissions. I believe in simultaneous submissions, but I didn’t want to submit a story to a great magazine and a not-so-great magazine at the same time because of the risk of multiple acceptances. (If the not-so-great magazine accepted first, it would pain me to withdraw the story from the great magazine.) Developing a ranking of literary magazines allowed me to submit only to those magazines in roughly the same tier. I began sharing the list on my blog because I knew other writers used the same tiered approach to submissions. Eventually, I added poetry and non-fiction rankings and also links to magazine websites.

Basis for the rankings. I base the rankings on the annual Pushcart Prize anthology that comes out in November. That anthology includes fiction, poetry, and non-fiction and excludes the magazines of general circulation like The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper’s, and so on. Other anthologies, like the Best American series and the O.Henry Prize Stories are excellent books, but their approach to assembling their winners is different. As these things go, the Pushcart Prize anthology draws from a wide range of nominating magazines, which makes it the best choice for these rankings. One criticism of the Pushcart Prizes is that they have a print-publication bias. Although there are an increasing number of online publications earning recognition in the anthology, that bias is probably real. There are some fine online magazines that won’t appear on these lists, unfortunately.

Methodology.  After several years of making these lists, I made a change last year that I have retained. Originally, I based the rankings on a ten-year rolling score that assigned a constant value for Pushcart Prizes earned over that period and a lower value for Special Mentions. Some readers suggested that a five-year rolling score would be better because it would result in newer publications rising in the rankings sooner. But reputations take years to develop, and I didn’t like the shorter period, while acknowledging the validity of the point. So last year I compromised. Now the formula assigns one value for Prizes and Special Mentions received in the most recent five years and half that value for Prizes received in the preceding five years.

Symbols. You’ll notice a few symbols next to the names of some magazines on the lists. (c) indicates a closed magazine; (w) indicates a broken link for a live magazine; and (?) indicates some question about the magazine or an unknown link.

Feedback and Support. I welcome your feedback. Let me know if you find a broken or incorrect link, either by leaving a comment or contacting me through this website. I don’t mind hearing criticism of my approach, either, if that’s what you want to share. (Praise is also welcome.) And if you find the lists at all useful, please consider making a donation to support the site. You’ll find a Donation button above and on each of the ranking pages.

Passport Evolution

I recently began writing an essay for which I wanted to look at my first passport. I readily found my current passport and the other most recent ones (I keep them in a secure spot in the house), but I had a notion that the really old one was in a box in the basement. Happily, I didn’t have to look too long, and I was rewarded by finding not one but two old passports.

I apparently got my first passport in October of 1973. I was 19, a junior in college, and I wonder where I thought I was going? The address listed on the passport is my parents’ home in Indianapolis, even though I was living in Evanston, Illinois. Because of passport number 2, discussed below, I didn’t actually use this passport until I arrived in Taiwan (Republic of China) in December 1977, having completed my Peace Corps service in Korea that month. My backpacking trip on the long way home from Korea took me first to Taiwan, then Hong Kong, China (and because I had the ROC visa stamped in my passport, the PRC visa is on a separate slip of paper, which I still have), Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Poland (I got a cheap flight from Bangkok to New York on Lot Polish Airlines that included a brief visit to Warsaw).

My second passport was a “No-fee Passport” I received when I joined the Peace Corps, a document that showed I worked for the US Government and, I guess, afforded me special privileges, although I have no idea what those might have been. The issue date is November 1975 and the stamp in it shows that I arrived in Seoul on January 10, 1976, made one trip out of Korea—to Japan, in January of 1977 during my Winter break from teaching—and left Korea for good in December of 1977.

Both of my passports then expired in 1978, which wasn’t a problem because I was deep into graduate school and had no travel plans. But at about the time I graduated from law school in 1981, I must have thought my travelling days were about to return because I got a new passport in August of that year. It wasn’t until 1983 that I put the passport to use, however: I spent two weeks in Paris that year, for my first European vacation. I was 29. And then the travel got serious. With this passport, I arrived in Singapore on the last day of December 1983 (for tax planning purposes, to prove expatriate status for 1984) where I was taking a job in my law firm’s office there. It’s difficult to track individual trips, but this passport, which had extra pages added at some point, includes stamps for Thailand, Japan, England, Hong Kong, Brunei, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cyprus, Dubai, Denmark, Korea, and, of course, Singapore. (I think I also travelled to Italy, Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden on this passport, but Europe isn’t consistent with their stamps.)

When that passport expired in 1986, I got a new one. I was still living in Singapore at the time, and this passport includes the following stamps: Thailand, Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Bangladesh, Portugal, Singapore, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Nepal, Taiwan, and a visa for Burma, although I didn’t actually get to use it. In 1991 (by this time, passports were good for ten years instead of five), more pages were added with stamps of many of the foregoing countries plus Cambodia and Vietnam. In 1993 I returned to the US for a year of graduate school, and then with a different job my stamps moved to a different part of the world: Kazakhstan. (I made several trips back and forth to Almaty that year, transiting in Frankfurt, and there is one German stamp.)

My next passport was issued in October of 1995 as the previous one was near its expiration. I recall that I was living in Washington DC and anticipating doing more consulting work in Central Asia, and I also came quite close to taking a job back in Singapore. But in January of 1996 I began working for the World Bank in Washington and again my stamps reflected my work in Asia: Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam. I got pages added in 1999 and more stamps from all of those countries.

But in 1996 I also got my first Laissez-Passer, the United Nations passport, because the World Bank is considered part of the UN system, and for work-related travel most of my visas and stamps appeared in that document: Indonesia, Vietnam, China, and South Korea, the countries I visited most for my work.

 

 

The LPs were only issued for 2 years, so in 1998 I got a second one: Korea, Vietnam, China, and a new country for me, Lao PDR, which I visited once, in January 2001, shortly before I left the World Bank (the LP was renewed in 2000 and continued to be valid).

After I left the World Bank as a staff member, I continued to work and travel for them as a consultant, and I went back to using my 1995 US passport. I recall that I was preparing for a trip to Asia in early 2002 when disaster struck—the passport got lost! My standard procedure was to send my passport to my assistant at the Bank who would get it to the travel office to arrange for the necessary visas. So, well in advance of the upcoming trip, I mailed it to her. But this was during the anthrax scare, and I didn’t realize that all mail to the bank was being routed to a facility for testing or radiation or something. My passport didn’t arrive, so on an emergency basis, I applied for an expedited passport for which I had to go up to the passport office in Washington. (The missing passport turned up many years later, was canceled, and is now part of my collection.)

So, my replacement passport was issued in January 2002 and on it, I traveled to Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and China. In 2004 pages were added but the only stamps on the new pages were for several more trips to China. (They usually only gave me a single-entry visa, which takes up a whole page.) I also went to Mexico several times with this passport, but apparently earned no stamps.

With my latest passport due to expire in January of 2012 and two trips on the docket for the year prior (taking me into that period prior to expiration—6 months usually—where countries won’t issue visas or allow entry), I got a new passport in March of 2011. I visited Korea and France that year (although my port of entry to Europe was Germany, so that’s what my arrival stamp says). And the last stamps in this passport are Singapore and Indonesia, where I visited in 2017, although I’ll be putting the passport to use later this year.

All of which has little to do with the essay that prompted the search for the old passports. More on that later.

 

pensées pour un samedi pluvieux

1. At a little after 3:00 am this morning, I awoke when I heard the various beeps that accompany a power outage: the CO detector, the power backup for the computer, etc. Frequently, the power comes back on in seconds and all that needs to be done is reset the clock on the microwave. But the power stayed off and the UPS continued to beep. It was annoying, but the UPS is in the office upstairs and I didn’t feel like getting up to deal with it. Plus, I was curious about how long the UPS battery would last. I did get out of bed long enough to get my tablet, and I logged on to the power company’s website to report the outage (fortunately, my modem is powered by the UPS, so I still had WiFi). I learned that about 350 households were affected by the outage. Nothing to do then but try to get back to sleep. Beep. Beep. Beep. (The UPS gave up after about 2 hours.) At 7:00 am, new beeps signaled the restoration of power. I got up to face the day, which promised to be rainy and gloomy.

2. Today is the Royal Wedding, about which I care not. I do like Meghan Markle, however. I have watched the show she’s on, Suits, on Amazon Prime, and I like it very much (mostly because of the law firm setting that brings back memories). She’s talented and beautiful. Also, she went to my alma mater, Northwestern, so there’s that. And she seems to be shaking up the royal family in several ways, which is all to the good. I hope they’re very happy.

3. The title of this blog post is in French because I’ve been doing daily French study in preparation for a five-week stay in France later in the year. I’ve been to France before and spoke very little French, but because this is a longer trip I thought I should make the effort. Also, it’s fun. I’m using Duolingo plus an online flashcard-based vocabulary builder, and I’ve started meeting weekly with a friend to practice speaking. We meet at the French bakery in town and I’m tempted to order in French–Donnez-moi un croissant et un cafe noir, s’il vous plait–but they’d probably think I was nuts.

4. The New York Times is offering tips for decluttering, which are mostly what you’d expect but because they are spaced out over a few weeks, it seems to be really helpful. So far I’ve only decluttered my bathroom, but the bedroom is next. That’s a much larger challenge.

5. I’m reading several books, and I plan to spend part of this rainy day with a couple of them. On the one hand, I feel like I should be cleaning or fixing or cooking or something, but . . . books!

6. Last night I went to the American Shakespeare Center to see Sense and Sensibility again. The play is an adaptation by Emma Whipday of Jane Austen’s novel, performed by the ASC’s touring company, which is in residence for the Spring season. All four of their productions are excellent and this one is especially good. The theater was nearly full–on the first level, anyway–which is a pretty regular occurrence these days.

7. I’m unlikely to get any writing done this weekend, other than this blog post, but I’m about to launch into a revision of a novel that I once thought was done. I recently received some very thoughtful comments from an editor and so I believe I know what needs to be done with this manuscript, which is exciting. I wish I could hide away for a couple of months to really focus on this project, but that isn’t possible. I do hope to stay off social media–during the day, at least–to give myself the best shot at finishing my revisions by the end of the summer.

Tips for Writers: The Author as Optometrist

One of the hallmarks of great literary fiction is its attention to character. Every story needs a plot, of course, and a setting, but even the most exciting story set in an exotic location will lose the reader if the characters are not compelling. Writers sometimes take their characters for granted, however. Aren’t they just people, after all? And aren’t we all people ourselves? How hard can it be?

In a seminar I taught this past weekend at WriterHouse in Charlottesville (which, by the way, is a great place to find writing guidance or a community of writers, or both) we explored various techniques for creating memorable characters in fiction. We looked at examples from classic and contemporary fiction and considered what seems to work well. We discussed whether characters need to be likable or relatable, as some critics have said. We talked about the special challenges of writing about characters outside of our own experience—a different gender, race, culture, age, sexual preferences.

And we talked about the author as optometrist.

Say what?

I suggested that it’s important to remember that there’s a distinction between the character the author has created and the perception that other characters and the reader have of that character.

The foundation of creating great characters is learning to know them even better than we know ourselves. There are the obvious physical characteristics we need to be aware of in order to show them to the reader: height, weight, hair and eye color, tattoos, race. But characters are much more than their outward appearance. What are the character’s religious beliefs? Is she a regular church-goer? A non-traditional seeker of spiritual growth? What is her temperament? Does she have an anger-management problem? A personality disorder? Is she taking medication to control it? What is her level of education? Is she using her education and, if not, is that frustrating? Does she have a career? Or just a job? Or not? What’s her family life like? Politics? Taste in music? Film? Literature? Who’s her best friend? In whom does she confide when things get dicey (as they must)? What car does she drive? What car would she like to drive? Sexual turn-ons and turn-offs? What does she regret?

The character profile thus generated will prepare the writer to present as part of the story authentic responses to any situation that arises. How will your character react if she is confronted by a professional rival? Or a mugger? What will she do if her efforts to get a job are frustrated? What will she do if she suspects her husband of cheating on her? Or if her son is arrested? Not all of the details from the profile will appear in the work explicitly—just as much historical research will be left out for the sake of concision—but the total profile will inform the writing. The better the writer knows who the character is, the more credible she’ll seem on the page.

But perception of the character thus created is a separate issue. The author/narrator is like an optometrist in this regard, placing a filtering lens between the reader and the character. The lens can sharpen the image or it can distort. In many cases, the image will be blurry at first, but gradually come into focus as the filters gradually fall away.

Book Reviewing

When I talk to writers about being a good literary citizen, one of the things I recommend is writing book reviews. It not only helps to keep one’s critical skills sharp–useful in evaluating your own work–but also it spreads the word about books by other writers, and that’s a good thing for the literary community. Although venues for book reviews in print are disappearing, the online book review world continues to expand, so there are lots of places to publish reviews, and there’s nothing wrong with posting reviews on your own blog if you don’t want to go to the trouble to place it elsewhere.

There is no single formula for “how to write a book review.” In graduate school, I did take a class on book reviewing, and I’ve been more or less following the process I learned there when I write reviews, but I’ve read all kinds of reviews over the years. Trust me. There are lots of ways to skin a book, and I highly recommend reading other reviews to get a sense of the variety.

The real reason I’m writing this post, though, is that I just updated the Publications page on my website and added all (or most–I may have overlooked a few) of the reviews I’ve published over the past few years. I surprised myself at how many there were (and why the heck wasn’t I updating the list all along?). Recent venues include Washington Independent Review of Books, Peace Corps Worldwide, and Best New Fiction.

If you’re interested in a [semi-]complete list of my reviews, with links where available, check out my Publications page and scroll down to Essays and Reviews.

The Writer in Public — May 2018

Writing is usually a solitary occupation, although I do frequently spend time with my laptop and my thoughts at coffeeshops. Still, there are occasions when we can be seen in public and for me a few of those moments are coming up.

First, tonight (May 9) is our community’s monthly open mic night for writers of poetry and prose. SWAG Writers–the Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta Group of Writers, a subchapter of the Virginia Writers Club’s Blue Ridge Chapter–hosts this event on the second Wednesday of every month. We’ve been doing it for many years and for the last few years, our partner and host has been Black Swan Books & Music. It’s always entertaining. Last month we had 18 readers, each of whom signed up for a 5-minute slot to share their work. Free and open to the public. 6:00 pm.

Next, on Saturday I’m leading a half-day seminar at WriterHouse in Charlottesville: Care and Feeding of Compelling Characters. Characters are an important part of any narrative, of course, so we’ll talk in this class about what makes characters interesting and memorable. I hope the students get something out of it; I certainly did as I was preparing for it.

Then, next week, on Thursday, May 17, I’ll be participating in the Augusta County Library’s first Local Author Expo, a casual event where readers can meet a few local authors, chat about their work, and maybe buy a book. I know most of the other writers who will be there, so it should be fun.

I think that’s it for public appearances for this month.

Checking in on my writing goals for the year

I realized this morning that the year is one-third gone already, which led me to consider how I was doing with the ambitious writing goals I’d set for myself.

  1. Novel edits. I have a novel coming out in early 2019, so an important writing goal for the year is to deal with edits I get from the publisher. I haven’t received the edits yet, so that’s still on the list.
  2. Compile Anthology. Done! Ahead of schedule, I finished selecting the twenty stories for Volume III of Everywhere Stories. I also got the editing done and compiled the manuscript, sending it off to the publisher last week. There is more work to be done—proofreading being the most challenging task ahead—before the book comes out in the fall, but this project is under control.
  3. Find a publisher for my novel. Um, no. Change of plans. Although I had some interest in this book from small presses, I decided that what it really needed was a developmental edit. That is underway, with comments due soon. I will then revise the manuscript and then start the process again.
  4. Finish the new story collection. Done! I was fortunate enough to get a short residency in February and used that time to finish a few new stories and compile the collection. It’s now being considered by a publisher and if that doesn’t work out I will send it to some other small presses.
  5. Finish the new novel. I had actually hoped to finish the new novel this summer, but that looks unlikely. Instead, I will aim to finish during a long residency I have scheduled this fall.
  6. Query agents. I still plan to do that this fall, but it won’t be for the new novel as I’d intended. Instead, I’ll query for the earlier novel, if I finish revisions by the end of the summer as I hope to do.

So, a third of the way into the year, I’m doing pretty well, I think. I even added a goal, which was to send out some of the new stories to magazines. I’ve had one acceptance so far, and hope to have others as the year progresses. Stay tuned!

Everywhere Stories–an update

Everywhere Stories Volume I

I’m pleased that we are on track to finalize Volume III of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet for a fall publication date.

The series arose from an idea I presented to Press 53 back in 2013, one that I’d been kicking around in my head for some time. As a world-traveler myself, I am drawn to fiction set outside the United States. An anthology of stories set around the world, I reasoned, would certainly appeal to me. Surely other people would be interested, as well.

We opened submissions for the project that fall and were overwhelmed. I had about 800 short stories to sift through. I selected 20 stories set in 20 countries for the first volume and, optimistically looking toward a possible second volume at some point, held on to another 10. I think it was my idea to put a world map on the cover, but it was the publisher who found the map we eventually used and secured the rights. He added red dots to mark the countries covered by the stories in the book, and Volume I appeared in October of 2014.

We were very pleased with the book, the theme of which was “It’s a dangerous world.” We included stories set on every continent, including Antarctica, and the response was uniformly positive.

Everywhere Stories Volume II

A year went by and we decided to proceed with a second volume. I had the stories I’d reserved from the first submission period, but in the fall of 2015 we reopened to new submissions. Once again we had a great response to the submission call and I was able to assemble a collection of 20 fine stories set in 20 countries. (We decided we would not repeat any countries except the United States, and within the US we would shift the setting to a different state for each volume.) We used the same cover image but tinted the background a different color to differentiate it from the first volume. Our theme for Volume II, which came out in October 2016, was “It’s a mysterious world.”

Both the publisher and I were pleased with the response to both volumes, and so after a year, we made plans for a third. Last fall we reopened submissions and I spent several months sifting through hundreds of stories to select 20. Again, the only country we’ve repeated is the U.S. I’m nearly done with the editing of the 20 stories—it’s been a real pleasure to read the stories again closely—and we’ll soon move into the production phase of the project with a view toward fall publication. Same cover, different tint. Theme? The world is still dangerous and mysterious, but it’s also surprising.

Will there be a fourth volume? We will have covered 58 countries in the first three books, so there are about 150 more countries in the world that we could find stories for. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility.  Too soon to say.

 

Report from the Virginia Festival of the Book

Shortly after I moved to this part of Virginia I began to attend the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. I would sit in audiences at the Barnes & Noble or the library or the New Dominion Bookshop and imagine what it would be like to one day be an author on one of the panels, talking about my books. Eventually, after the publication of my first book in 2009, that dream became a reality, and since then I have either been on a panel talking about my own work or have moderated a panel featuring other authors every year. This year I moderated two fiction panels, and I continue to be delighted to be part of the festival.

Fractured Characters Panel featuring me (moderator), Jessie Chaffee, Noley Reid, and Lauren Sanders

We got off to a rocky start this year, though, as weather affected the festival’s first day. Where I live, 40 miles west of Charlottesville, in the Shenandoah Valley, we had between 6-8 inches of snow that day, so I spent the afternoon shoveling my driveway instead of attending book discussions (many of which were canceled, anyway). By Thursday, however, the roads were fine and I had no trouble getting over the mountain and to the Noon session I was moderating. The title of the program was Fractured Characters and featured fine novels by Jessie Chaffee (Florence in Ecstasy), Noley Reid (Pretend We are Lovely), and Lauren Sanders (The Book of Love and Hate). We had good attendance, the authors were prepared and eloquent, and everything went smoothly.

I then went over to Tilman’s, a new restaurant on the Downtown Mall, for a private event with Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers, the first “Carol Troxell Reader”—supported by a fund to which I’d contributed named in honor of the late owner of the New Dominion Bookshop. That was fun and I enjoyed chatting with Ko and hearing her speak about her excellent book (which I had read the previous week in anticipation of meeting her). As if I hadn’t had enough book talk for the day, I hurried home for the monthly gathering of my book club. The book club (a mostly non-fiction club called Reading Liberally) meets in a restaurant that has a habit of screwing up the reservations I make, so I wasn’t surprised when the staff had no record of my reservation for 14 people! We waited while they made up a table and I fumed, but then we went on with our dinner and discussion about a collection of anti-Trump books. (We mostly agreed that we are sick of talking about Trump and so will read other sorts of books in the future.)

I had no Festival duties on Friday, but there were several panels I wanted to attend, starting at noon. That was a panel with Jon Pineda—a versatile writer who has published books of non-fiction, poetry, and fiction—and Wiley Cash. I know Jon, who teaches in the MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte and had previously met Cash, but it was fun to hear them talk about their new books. I already had Cash’s novel, The Last Ballad, but Jon’s book, Let’s No One Get Hurt, had just been released so I picked up a copy of that. This panel was done in an interview format and the charm of both authors came through. Then there was a panel on International Stories featuring Annabelle Kim (Tiger Pelt), Katia Ulysse (Mouths Don’t Speak), and Adrienne Benson (The Brightest Sun)—books set in Korea, Haiti, and Kenya, respectively. I enjoyed all three of the authors’ remarks and got copies of their books. Although I was tempted to squeeze in another panel at the end of the day, I had made plans to see a play that night at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, so I headed home. (The play, a rarely performed play by John Marston called Antonio’s Revenge, was excellent. And bloody.)

Saturday is the Festival’s biggest day. In addition to literary programs in all the usual venues, the Festival’s Crime Day and Publishing Day happen at the Omni Hotel, along with the annual book fair. I did a quick pass through the book fair and then started my day back at the library for a panel on “Epic & Audacious” Fiction, i.e., fat books. This program featured Elizabeth Kostova (best known for her novel The Historian but now out with her new book, The Shadow Land), Martin Seay (who went to the same MFA program I did and has published a novel called The Mirror Thief), and Brendan Mathews (who was my suite-mate when we were Scholars at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2006 and has now published his first novel, The World of Tomorrow).  They all gave fascinating talks about their work and, naturally, I bought their books. They’re big ones, though, so I’m not sure when I’ll get around to reading them! I then gave myself some time off for lunch because there is a new Korean restaurant on the Downtown Mall I wanted to try. It’s good. I expect I’ll go back. After lunch, I decided to attend a panel on suspense thrillers. I can’t say it was terribly helpful to me as it is far from what I write or read. I was hoping the authors would talk about the craft of writing suspense, but it was mostly about what it’s like to actually work at the CIA. Interesting, but not terribly helpful. Then I decided to attend the program on the new-ish biography of Elizabeth Bishop by Pulitzer Prize-winner Megan Marshall, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast. That was fascinating and I was glad to come away with a copy of the book.

Then it was time for one of my favorite events of the Festival—the Authors’ Reception. Good food, wine, and mingling among the Festival authors who were still in town.

On Sunday, I had one more event to attend—the panel I was asked to moderate with Chris Offutt and Janet Peery, both of whom have new novels out–Country Dark by Offutt and The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs by Peery. Before I got there, while I was strolling around the Downtown Mall, I ran into Peter Ho Davies, a former teacher of mine, so we got to chat a bit. (I’d also seen him at the AWP Conference in Tampa the week before, so there wasn’t much catching up to do.) The program at New Dominion got off to a bit of a rocky start when it turned out Chris had not received my email with my outline of the program. The only email address for him was the one given to me for his publicist at Grove Atlantic, who may not have forwarded my message to him. So he was not prepared to say much or read anything from the novel, as Janet was, having assumed the format would be strictly an interview and conversation. Fortunately, I did have plenty of questions prepared, so Chris improvised for a few minutes, then Janet spoke, and we launched into questions. It actually went rather well, I thought, but I was relieved when it was over.

The books I picked up during the Virginia Festival of the Book

That was the end of the Festival for me. And now I’m ready to get back to my own work! Dates for next year are March 20-24, 2019 (the week before AWP in Portland). (I guess it’s too early to worry about, but the two events will next coincide in 2022 when AWP will be in Philadelphia. How can I be in two places at once?)

Report from AWP18

After the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington D.C. (AWP is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and holds an annual conference in a different city each year), I vowed I would not be attending the 2018 Conference in Tampa. There were several reasons for that decision.

First, I had no interest in visiting Tampa. It’s not particular easy to get to from where I live in rural Virginia, and Florida does nothing for me as a destination (I get enough sunshine at home in the summer). Second, the conference itself is problematic on several levels. It’s expensive (registration, airfare, hotel, meals—it adds up to a hefty sum if you are an independent writer without institutional funding). Presentations are of disparate and unpredictable quality. It has become something of a young-writers’ gathering, and I have felt increasingly out of place in recent years. Plus, efforts to improve the organization’s gender diversity record have resulted in a conference that is dominated by women (a significant majority of presenters are women—nearly two-thirds). There may be good reasons for all of these developments, but it makes the conference feel less relevant to me. And third, I did not have a book come out in the past year, so I had no new publications to sell at the book fair.

But as the deadline for registration (not to mention travel and hotel reservations) grew closer, I felt my resolve slipping. Many friends made plans to go and urged me to come. Press 53, publisher of my two books and two anthologies, expected to have a large presence, including almost 30 of its authors. And I realized that it might be valuable to touch base with some of the small presses in attendance to stir some interest in a completed novel manuscript that needs a publisher. There is nothing like the AWP Bookfair for making those connections—800 exhibitors ranging from tiny magazines to large publishers all in one football-field-sized space.

In the end, I changed my mind and decided to go. This, then, is my report of my AWP experience and a few lessons learned.

  1. Travel/Hotel. Book early. Because I waited too long, my best flight option was to fly from Roanoke VA to Chicago to Tampa. (One blessing is that I used frequent flier miles, so at least it didn’t cost anything.) Because my flight out of ROA left at 6:23 am, I had to leave home at 3:30 am. That was no fun. I have no idea how one gets to Portland OR (site of AWP 2019) from here, but I’ll definitely book the trip earlier than I did for this year. And my hotel was pretty funky. It didn’t bother me much that it was a mile away from the convention center—I love to walk, especially when the temperatures are mild—but being closer is potentially convenient and better. I’ll try to book the main hotel for next year.
  2. Panels. I didn’t attend as many panels as I thought I might, but the ones I did go to were pretty good. Like many writers of literary fiction, I’m torn between plot—which I struggle with—and style. So I attended several panels on structure and plot and one on style, and I think I learned a few things, although I’m still torn. Plot is important—readers expect something to happen—but sentences are just as important. So I got something out of the panels I attended. However, looking at the schedule of panels, I was astounded by the number of panels that were made up entirely of women. And I’m not talking about subjects that are only of interest to women, whatever those might be. I would have thought that AWP would want to see diversity on its panels, but only 31% of panelists this year were male, down from 33% the year before. As noted above, maybe there are good reasons for this imbalance, but if the goal is equality then we’ve taken a wrong turn, in my estimation. Because panelists get some advantages—discounted registration and early access to conference hotel reservations—I have resolved to participate in panel proposals for 2019, against the apparent odds.
  3. Offsite Events. At AWP, there are the regular panels and the sanctioned evening events, like the keynote address (this year delivered by George Saunders). For some people—perhaps the people who didn’t have panel proposals accepted?—the “offsite” events are just as important. I usually stick pretty close to the main events, but this year I ventured out and attended a few things, such as an Authors’ Guild party and a reading at an Irish pub by alums of the Indiana University MFA program. (I didn’t get my MFA there, but I did get an MA in English there, plus one of the readers has contributed a story to the anthology I’m editing and I wanted to meet her.) Another event I wanted to attend resulted in a rather bizarre evening. I made my way in the rain to the venue listed in the program, a wine bar several blocks north of the convention center. It was loud and busy and no one there knew about the reading. Puzzled, I paced on the sidewalk outside wondering what to do. I was sure I had the right place, although the program listing mentioned a second floor space, and this wine bar clearly did not have a second floor. Just as I was about to give up, a manager came out and told me that she didn’t know what the mix up had been, but the reading had moved to another location, and she named a bar. As it happened, I’d seen that bar in my walks between my hotel and the convention center, so I knew where it was. I got there, ordered a drink, and waited. Eventually, the event organizers arrived and started to get things set up with the management, except that it became clear that the bar was not prepared for the event. The organizers reached a conclusion: there would be no reading. Instead, we were invited to a pub across the street for a drink on their dime. So we headed en masse across the street, had a drink, and then disbanded. But a few folks wanted to find dinner, so six of us—people I’d never met before—went to a Vietnamese fusion place not far away—and asked for a table. While we waited outside for the table to be ready, three of our group gave short readings on the sidewalk. So the reading happened after all. And then we had a pleasant dinner together.
  4. Bookfair. For me, the best part of AWP is the bookfair. Some years, when I’ve been actively submitting short stories to journals, I enjoy visiting their tables or booths and talking to editors. This year I was more interested in learning about small presses who might publish a novel manuscript I have available. I had even gone to the trouble of checking out these presses in advance and had made a list of the publishers I wanted to talk to and also the places I’d already submitted the book so I could follow up with them if they were in the fair. I printed the list out, and then forgot to bring it with me! But no matter, having done the work, I remembered most of what I needed to know. As a result, I had several productive discussions. Also I got to spend some time with the folks from Braddock Avenue Books who are bringing out my novel next year (in time for AWP in Portland) as well as my current publisher, Press 53 and visitors to their booth. I also bought a load of books and was also given a few books, making my suitcase way heavier for the trip home.
  5. Friends. AWP is one big reunion. I was able to see old friends from my MFA program, from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, from my publisher’s stable of writers, plus other writers I’ve met over the years. I also got to see several of the authors from my anthology series, including the new one that comes out this fall. I even had drinks with a friend from high school! (That was a long time ago.)

As noted above, I have some concerns about AWP and wonder if the conference is still relevant to me. I’ve committed to attending next year in conjunction with the launch of my novel, but if it weren’t for that, I doubt that I would go.

No, I did not “retire.”

When people learn that I used to practice law, they often ask “So, you’re retired?” I can’t blame them for using the ‘R’ word. After all, I’m not as young as I used to be, and that’s what many people do when they’ve had long and successful careers. But, unfailingly, I correct them: “That’s not the word I use,” I say. “I changed careers.”

Although I continued for several years to do some legal consulting with my former employer, I left my last full-time job in 2001, when I was just 47. It was my intention to change course in a fairly dramatic way: I would become a writer and that would be my new career. I prepared to become a lawyer by going to law school, so it made sense to prepare to become a writer by going to school, and so I entered a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, which I completed in 2003.

Since then, I have been a self-employed writer, not a retired lawyer. (Admittedly, it took me a long time to shake my identity as a lawyer. How do you reply to the question “What do you do?” when you meet someone at a cocktail party? “I’m a lawyer,” I used to say. After some years, I was finally able to say, “I’m a writer.”)

I sometimes wish I had had the discipline to write fiction while working fulltime—I actually enjoyed my last legal job, which was in the legal department of the World Bank—but I knew I did not. The job was draining, with lots of international travel, and I just wasn’t good at using my off time for a creative purpose. I tried. I took writing classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, just outside Washington to learn some basics. I worked to edit a manuscript I had managed to write before I started work at the World Bank when I was in a less-demanding consulting job. But I concluded that I needed to really focus on writing if I were going to be successful at it.

Now, many years later, I have had, by some measures, success at being a writer. I haven’t published a bestseller or even a book with a large press. But I treat the writing as a job, although one with flexible hours, and I set goals for myself. I’m trying to be the best writer I can be, and I can’t imagine that I will ever retire.