April 2016 Third Thursday Wrap-Up

Keeping it Brief: Writing and Publishing Short Stories


by WLT Intern Kelsey Williams

How does a writer know when a short story should end? What form should a short story take? Answers to these questions, like short stories themselves, can differ tremendously. As Third Thursday panelist Chaitali Sen, author of the Pathless Sky, put it, “With short stories, the engineering can be so varied. It’s a great form for experimentation. You can spend a whole lifetime figuring out the ways it works.”

April Third Thursday panelists Michael Barrett, Jill Meyers, Chaitali Sen, and Kirk Wilson all had slightly differing approaches to publishing and writing short stories, yet there was one common point on which all agreed—the form of the short story is something to be admired. Kirk Wilson, author of The Early Word elegantly describes a short story as “a drop of water that implies all five oceans.”

“From a journal’s perspective,” Michael Barrett, editor of The Austin Review, said, “short stories provide an outlet [for writers], and a diversity of perspective.” Readers can enjoy the brevity of the short story and discover perspectives they may never have noticed in a less efficient form of storytelling. Jill Meyers, cofounder of A Strange Object, praised the “economical” form of short stories, and believes that through a short story, readers “gain a new experience of the world.”

Short stories, like novels, provide a good basis for readers to explore another world but do a more succinct job than novels in providing the reader with questions to consider. As Meyers put it, “Short stories are good for inquiry—they set up questions, and have you asking questions…without a sense of incompleteness.” Of the time frame of short stories, Barrett said, “They die at the right time. They end where it feels right.” The beauty of this inquiry, this sense of dying, of ending at the perfect, most beautiful moment comes from what Sen calls good “engineering.” When it’s done right, short stories should “end with a lovely pause,” said Meyers. Unlike novels, short stories, Wilson said, “have more intuitive leaps. They are more participatory.”

In addition to their more philosophical insights on the topic of short stories, our panelists had plenty of concrete advice on submitting work for publication. Wilson, for example, provided many helpful tips for making the submission process smoother, the most important being to submit only your best work. Work that has been through multiple drafts or even workshopped in a writing group has a better chance of acceptance. Once you have a solid piece, according to Wilson, it’s best to submit in bulk to improve your chances— but only after you’ve done your research. He suggested creating a spreadsheet to organize the literary journals that you want to submit to and noting what feedback you get. Barrett and Meyer also stressed the importance of doing your research, advising writers to remember that there may only be a few readers for the hundreds of submissions at any one journal. Becoming familiar with the journal and the type of short stories that they tend to publish, and following every specific guideline provided by the journal, can be tremendously helpful in getting a piece considered for acceptance. Our panelists also mentioned some specific software that short story writers might want to familiarize themselves with and consider using, including Duotrope, and resources for writers such as Writers’ Relief and Poets and Writers.

The magic of short stories may be shrouded in differing approaches to the form, but one thing is certain—short stories make you think. And, as our panelists agreed, there is a definite beauty that draws people to the eloquence of short stories.

Join us at our next Third Thursday, where we will discuss the art of writing the personal in non-fiction and memoir.

Kelsey Williams is a full-time bookseller and part-time short story writer. She loves art, literature, and the little smiles people get when they text someone that they love.


March 2016 Third Thursday Wrap-Up

Writing About the Military


by WLT Intern Kelsey Williams

When Leila Levinson, author of Gated Grief, asked the audience at March’s Third Thursday whether they had a loved one who is a veteran, nearly every person in the room raised their hand. The military has a huge, broad impact on us and our families—but as Brandon Caro, author of Old Silk Road, mentioned, fewer than 1 percent of the population today has actually served in the military, even in the wake of some of America’s longest wars.

For Caro, it’s important for him to share his experiences as a Navy corpsman (combat medic) in the military through writing, first because writing is a personally satisfying pursuit, but also because people want to read these stories. And out of the small percentage of people who have served in the military, even fewer have shared their story. “And it’s a great story,” Caro said, “it seemed like a no brainer [to write about my experiences].”

Jack Woodville London, author of A Novel Approach, similarly has experience serving in the military as a U.S. Army Captain. London’s unique personal experience in the military allows him to write about things such as the problematic elements of the command structure in the military—something most of us don’t think to consider. “It’s what I know best,” London said, when asked how he started writing about the military. “You write what you know, and you go out and learn about what you don’t know.”

Research is one the most important aspects of writing, in general, but especially about the broad experiences of the military. Caro and London have firsthand experience serving in the military as a foundation, but for Levinson and Jonathan Wei, founder of The Telling Project, interviews become the core of their research. As Levinson puts it, “war is the story of all of our families.”  Levinson, the daughter of a WWII veteran, believes listening to veterans speak and tell their story in their own way is essential to the interviewing process.

Wei’s The Telling Project is a theatre piece that tells the stories, verbatim, of veterans. The stories are interwoven to create an emotional, personally charged narrative. The three-act act play structure works to combine the stories into a full arc with a beginning, middle, and an end—from entrance into the military, to basic training, duties stations and deployments, to return and reflections. “You have to let people talk, and let them encounter silence,” Wei says of interviewing. Interviewers, in Wei’s view, bring a lot of misconceptions with them, and it’s best to stay “objectively curious” and respond to the veteran’s story in an open-minded way, realizing the complexity of “trauma” and the military experience.

Writers will always grapple with research, and what shape that research takes can have many more faces than we anticipate. We persevere because we know all stories are important.

Join us at next month’s Third Thursday to see what our collective research tells us about the art of short story writing.

Kelsey Williams is a full-time bookseller, and part-time short story writer. She loves art, literature, and the little smiles people get when they text someone that they love.



February 2016 Third Thursday Wrap-Up

Fictionalizing True Stories: Mining Real Life for Plots and Characters

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photo credit: WLT Member Bernadette Nason

by WLT Intern Kelsey Williams

The essence of fiction is make believe—a world all its own. Why, then, is the fiction we write so deeply rooted in our own life experiences? February’s Third Thursday panelists—novelists Charlotte Gullick, Varian Johnson, Ruth Pennebaker, and Mary Helen Specht—all agreed: We cannot escape the influences of our daily lives, our unique and curated perspective on the fiction we create.

The audience’s positive reactions throughout the event further grounded the universal understanding of the link between true experiences and fiction, though each panelist’s approach to channeling their lives into their work provided insight into the ways we can work with our memories.

For Charlotte Gullick, author of By Way of Water, it’s good to first establish what is true fact—hard fact, such as the five senses—and use this to cultivate fiction. Ruth Pennebaker, author of Pucker Up! The Subversive Woman’s Guide to Aging with Wit, Wine, Drama, Humor, Perspective, and the Occasional Good Cry, thinks in a similar vein—fact based on life’s experiences are the “germ” of the story, the inevitable spread and beginning of an idea.

Mary Helen Specht, author of Migratory Animals, while ultimately agreeing that true-life experiences and fact have an important place in the fiction she writes, is more interested in the “What Ifs.” Specht uses fiction to explore what might have happened in life—the avenues which in real life existed but were not ultimately the paths taken. It’s in the woven nature of fiction where details have their home.

Varian Johnson, author of The Great Greene Heist, believes in the “kernel” of real life—the spark of true facts that mold our stories. Through this molding and shaping, we eventually find themes that work to represent our lives—themes that may not have yet been apparent as patterns in our psyche. For Gullick, these themes that unlock in our writing represent what’s from the heart, and expose what we may have been avoiding. Pennebaker brought up that this may be dangerous—other people can start to see themselves in your work.

Specht spoke about these themes in terms of “Big T” and “Little t” truths. There are Truths in your fiction that exist to function as a core learning experience. “Little t” truths are the sensory experience—both experiences matter in your work, but it’s the “Big T” truths that are the most important take aways that one can use in their fiction.

Truth and fiction seem to not be able to exist in the same mode—and yet we have stories, like the stories our panelists have created, that show us that truth and fiction can coexist, and, like wine and cheese, they work only to maximize beauty when put together.

Join us next Third Thursday where we can continue to examine truths (both “Big T” and “little t”) together.

Kelsey Williams is a full-time bookseller and part-time short story writer. She loves art, literature, and the little smiles people get when they text someone that they love.

January Third Thursday Wrap-Up

Beginning Again: How to Start (or Restart) a Writing Project

January 3rd Thursday

by WLT Board President Tony Burnett.

The inaugural Third Thursday Panel for 2016 began with an appreciative shout out to legacy and lifetime members of the Writers’ League of Texas. This being the League’s 35th year of service to the literary community of Texas, each Third Thursday in 2016 will honor folks who have volunteered time and services to promote the organization’s mission.

With a New Year’s theme of resolution in mind, the all-star panel’s topic was “Beginning Again: How to Start (or Restart) A Writing Project. Moderator Jennifer Ziegler led the discussion by first asking how the featured panelists came to be writers.

Suzy Spencer, the only nonfiction writer on the panel, initially wanted to be a photographer. The only path Baylor University offered for photography was through the School of Journalism. Once introduced to writing she saw a niche in fiction, a stylistic mix of Jackie Collins and Larry McMurtry. Unfortunately the world wasn’t ready for that combination. Her training in journalism won out with a succession of true crime novels followed by Secret Sex Lives, an award-winning memoir about her research into the fringes of American sexuality.

Panelist Greg Levin, author of the novel, The Exit Man, claimed to be born with the inability to shut up. When people quit listening to him talk incessantly he figured if he put his thoughts on paper folks might pay more attention. He credits Woody Allen as being his inspiration for melding humor with more serious literary topics.

By the time she was 12 years old Lindsey Lane felt she was living in an older world that would benefit from her enlightenment. She began by writing actual letters that you put in the mailbox. No immediate gratification for this girl! Her first excursion into creative writing was as a playwright in the booming late 20th-century theater scene. As that scene folded she became a crime-beat journalist for the Austin Chronicle. As is typical of many children’s book authors, having children pulled her toward the genre. She is the author of the YA novel Evidence of Things Not Seen.

Edward Carey grew up in England where he attended the Royal Naval Academy. He was the shortest in his class, not imposing enough to be a naval officer. He went back to University to study theater and enjoyed every aspect of the craft. He concentrated on writing plays but his plays tended to have a cast numbering more than 30 and lasting 12 hours. The other downside was answering to so many people. He wanted total control over the story, hence he became a novelist, authoring the YA series, The Iremonger Trilogy.

Then Jennifer got down to the crux of the topic by asking, “When you begin a project what comes first?”

Edward, because he is also an illustrator, draws pictures of the characters. He prefers “settings that don’t exist” so he can make it up. Plus it saves time on research.

Lindsay’s works are dark. Her characters have done something bad. She asks, “What situation caused them to take this action? What happened that made it crash in that particular way?”

Greg swears frustration led him to “at least try” to write a book. He wakes in the middle of the night with “the character knocking on my head” saying “I want you to tell my story”.

Suzy’s inspiration is “the desperate need for money.” You have to love her honesty! She goes on to say that her books require “some element of insanity and some element of sex”, all the things she repressed growing up. Ideas come from various sources; strangers, her agent, even stories she’s followed on the news.

Jennifer asked the panelists about the writing process. Edward noted that he dove right in, saying it could be dangerous to spend too much time thinking about it. “At least get four or five chapters in to see where it’s taking you”. One of the major decisions is the narrative point of view. He writes his novel length works in the first person. “You have to get into the voice. Never plan too much.”

Lindsay preferred to tell herself the story. The first draft is a skeleton of what the novel will be. Then the work of “slowing it down, deepening it” comes into play.

Greg has to begin with a title, maybe not the final title, then he writes the back cover material. That said, he never knows the ending until the first draft is finished. He gets to know the characters, the characters write the story. “Let it run wild.” You can always go back and edit.

After trying her hand at fiction, Suzy was surprised her nonfiction characters didn’t take their own path. She credits that to the massive pile of research she does to prepare for the first draft. When she transcribes the many hours of interview tapes she begins hearing the voices and getting to know her subjects intimately. Jennifer asked how she knew when to stop researching and start writing, Suzy’s one-word answer: “deadlines”.

All of the panelists admitted to having abandoned a project at some point. Edward is back working on a project that he abandoned five years ago due to being overburdened by complex research. Lindsay says it’s healthy to “let things go” as she recently has. If it’s not working move on. Greg abandoned an earlier project because the protagonist was a writer and his first novel was about a poet. He felt it was too soon but may go back to the project later as many of his writer friends have encouraged. Suzy worked on a project spending hours of research and even getting the subject’s family’s permission and encouragement. When unable to place the finished product with a publisher she felt as though she let the family and the subject down. Though she regrets it, she made no indication she would pursue it further.

All the panelists suggested that new writers keep their efforts to themselves until they have finished the first draft of a project. Edward said to stay true to yourself. The more you share the story the more it dies or changes. Lindsay encouraged the writers not to criticize themselves and suggested when you have a first draft read it aloud to yourself before sharing it. She also recommended side writing to develop a character or when you get stuck in the story. Greg said if you love writing don’t share it until you have a final product. He doesn’t even share his draft with his wife until he feels it’s complete. Suzy agreed, “hold it close” but added “don’t give up”. Determination and perseverance often exceed talent.

The panelists fielded a few well-considered questions from the audience. Then there was cake for everyone.

Join us next Thursday at 7:00 pm on the third floor of BookPeople for “Fictionalizing True Stories: Mining Real Life for Plots and Characters” with panelists Charlotte Gullick, Varian Johnson, Ruth Pennebaker, and Mary Helen Specht. Hope to see you there!

Tony Burnett has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since 2010 and currently serves on the Board of Directors. His story collection, Southern Gentlemen, is available everywhere and his first full length poetry collection, The Reckless Hope of Scoundrels is set for a spring debut. He resides with his trophy bride, Robin, deep in the heart of Texas.

Third Thursday Wrap-Up

Write Fright Night!
Dealing with Spine-Tingling Writerly Anxieties

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By WLT Intern, Hailey Clement.

This month’s Third Thursday was about a deeply personal but universal subject—writerly anxieties. To those who care as much about words as writers do, there are many types of powerful mental mires to slough through. But our panelists openly shared their experiences about facing difficulties, and what helps them get through it.

At the beginning of the discussion, authors Amy Tintera, Jason Neulander, and Anne Bustard talked about what led them to writing, and how they came to see themselves as writers. The discussion flowed smoothly through the process of self-acceptance and creation, to the ups and downs of actually getting published.

Amy’s trajectory snaked through her childhood, education, and early career. The author of Reboot and Rebel began writing as a youngster after being so unsatisfied with the ending of a book that she chose to write her own ending. Although she wrote six complete manuscripts before the end of high school, she ultimately went to Hollywood to try her hand as a screenwriter but ended up hating it. She eventually returned to her first love – writing fiction.

Jason has an iron in every fire. The author of the Intergalactic Nemesis is constantly working on multiple projects and across mediums, finding new ways to tell stories. His background in theater informed his writing – he’s written and directed plays, operas, and musicals. After collaborating on numerous projects he felt, similarly to Amy, that he could do better by writing on his own.

Anne, author of the middle grade novel Anywhere but Paradise has always been a book lover. With her background in education (both as a teacher and an “eternal student”) and as a book store owner, she’s always managed to surround herself with one of her greatest loves, books.

For all of them though, the struggle to “identify as a writer” was real. It was a stepping stone to admit it internally before ever voicing it, or at least voicing it seriously. “Writer” is a weighty title and it takes a while to be completely comfortable claiming it, especially for people who care so much about the written word. It was a matter of finding ways to work up the confidence just to say it. They had to get inside their own heads and force themselves to stop holding back. One of the first steps, as Jason put it, was to realize that “identifying as a writer doesn’t mean identifying as a good writer,” or, as Anne pointed out, a published one. Doing the work and having the dedication makes someone a writer well before they’re published, or good, for that matter.

Anne’s charm against the fear of being a bad writer came from the self-assurance that doing the work, putting the effort into writing, would ultimately be what makes her a better writer. Being a good writer is a matter of dedication, and once she decided that she was a writer, she only had to push herself to be committed and keep at it. Every draft, all writing in fact, helps improve her as a writer.

But once that huddle had been crossed, Anne found she had a new challenge. Facing thoughts like “can I even call myself a writer?” is particularly difficult in a genre as trend driven as YA can be. Being part of that world, it’s easy to fall sway to voices of other authors and people in the industry that discourage or promote ideas based on singular plot points or setting. Overcoming this was a matter of learning to focus on the idea behind her work and on making that the best she could, while tuning out the nay-sayers on the internet and in her agent-circles.

In fact, knowing when to listen to people opens a whole new can of worms. A critique group or a supportive friend can give perspective or reveal the hidden parts of a work. Often times, getting someone else’s perspective can help a writer move past being stuck. All three panelists agreed that that can be very valuable. But although writing groups can be supportive, it’s sometimes much better to tune them out. Knowing yourself well enough to know when to reach out vs when to tune out is incredibly helpful.

Grad school taught Amy just that. She found critique groups were poison to her idea formation process. She’s found that she works much better sending out drafts that she’s reviewed and rewritten 3-4 times to a trustworthy friend. Jason, however, credits working in theater for forcing him to get over the anxiety involved in sharing. There’s such an element of collaboration and tangibility in testing ideas and running scenes that it became obvious that showing someone early drafts would lead to improvements. He found the immediate feedback incredibly encouraging. Anne goes back and forth, following her feelings in the moment. When she has worked with critique groups, they’ve been indispensable, and said she “couldn’t do it without them.” They help her know what the impact of her work is and what she can do to make her work better.

These relationships help nurture and grow new works. They can also reinvigorate you when the inevitable rejection heartache takes its toll. Learning to deal with rejection without allowing it to stifle you is a useful tool in any career. Amy survived 75 rejections and assured the audience that it gets easier. She’s learned that since writing is what makes her happy, she begins developing another project while she’s in the publishing phase for another. This helps her separate herself from the rejection drama the first piece inspires. Like ripping off a bandage, rejection is just a part of the experience and it’s never as bad as expected. “It’s part of the deal,” Anne said. What hit Anne hardest wasn’t just rejection, but the two times she’s been told to start over completely. After putting years of effort into a book, it can be devastating to be told to keep the idea, but throw everything else out. And although it was a difficult situation, it was those rewrites that got published.

But getting published is never the end of the story. A whole new set of confusing and overwhelming feelings come from that stage of a piece’s life. Instead of relief, there’s sometimes doubt. The journey to getting published can be so full of potholes and torn maps, that actually getting published can be empty or anticlimactic as Jason pointed out.

Maintaining creativity and being a part of sympathetic circles are the best mental balm for these overwhelming experiences. There’s always a way to recuperate from the negative feelings. Anne has noticed a pattern within herself that every time she starts working on a new project, it takes her about two weeks to really get into the groove, but only about one week to lose all hope. Having a friend who knows this and who can comfort and encourage her has helped her tremendously.

Wandering through the sometimes nail biting experience of being a writer, there are so many things that can trip us up on a daily basis. But soldiering through and attempting to create something—to write something—is what matters. Join us on November 19 at BookPeople for our next Third Thursday panel. Authors Meg Barnhouse, Owen Egerton, Greg Garrett, and Donna M. Johnson will discuss writing about religion and spirituality. See you there!

September Third Thursday Wrap-Up

The Look of the Book:
How Design and Layout Influences the Reading Experience


by WLT Intern, Eloise Kirn.

On Thursday, September 17, 2015, the Writers’ League of Texas enlisted four graphic designers to debunk the age-old myth that readers should never judge a book by its cover. “A book cover is like an interview outfit,” founder of TLC Graphics and award-winning book designer Tamara Dever said. “If you don’t take your cover seriously, how can you expect your readers to take you seriously?”

The message of the evening: If readers care about cover design, you should too.

So, how does an author put his or her best foot forward and dress the part? How graphic artists design a salable book? Our panelists, Tamara Dever, Shelia Parr, Kathy Sargent and DJ Stout, brought their diverse expertise to the conversation, discussing how the elusive elements of book design can be boiled down to a replicable skill. “People aren’t aware of why they like what they do. But there’s a hidden architecture,” Stout said. “Layout is the great skill of a publication designer, and it’s a learned behavior.” While the panel discussion covered a variety of topics, the overarching theme was examining what these learned techniques are. In short, the group agreed that an effective book cover will:

  • Match the genre. The typography of a textbook varies drastically from that of a children’s book or a thriller. Knowing the standards of each genre and following these proven-to-sell nuances inform and engage your target audience. Failure to comply with industry standards can result in potential readers misinterpreting the content and overlooking your book. For example, Parr discussed how genre appropriateness can be especially important when a book straddles multiple genres, like business and self-help. Using the design of a business book, in this case, might boost sales by attracting readers who wouldn’t usually venture into self-help.
  • Engage. Short title. Visually appealing. Reflects the content. “A cover has to grab attention immediately, within 3-5 seconds. It’s like a billboard. Each piece of the cover has its own purpose, the back is more like an advertisement, but once you get on the inside, the purpose of the design is to get you to read it,” Dever said. The designers all agreed that while catching a reader’s attention with the cover is imperative, so is maintaining their interest with the interior. Stout added, “A book is like a movie: you go from page to page to page. If all the pages are the same, it gets very boring. There needs to be a structure and pauses and the beginnings of the chapters, changes of scale, breathing room. If everything looks the same then there’s a lack of visual hierarchy.”
  • Communicate. Effective book covers catch the reader’s eye and tell a story. “It doesn’t matter how good your magazine or your book looks,” Stout said. “If it doesn’t communicate, if it doesn’t work with real content—and that content can be writing and typography and photography all working together—but if there’s not real content there, if it’s not saying something vital to whoever your constituency is, then that’s just decoration.” A book design should reflect what lies between its pages: subject, tone and genre, among others.
  • Brand. Not only should you book brand itself as part of a larger genre, but it should create its own, recognizable trademark. “Once you decide on your cover, that’s your logo, your identity, your ad,” said Stout. The panelists were adamant that a book should maintain the same cover across all mediums as well: print, e-book, marketing collateral, etc. Sargent was concentrating on the e-book promotion of her first novel, when she realized the true importance of an intriguing, thought-provoking cover online, “It’s counter-intuitive because it’s even more important when you’re selling e-books to have a good cover […] You get very little other information about the book. It’s the cover, the cover, the cover.” The panelists stated the print and e-book covers must be the same, however. Brand recognition is key to sales.
  • Sell. “First and foremost this is about selling products,” said Dever. In order to sell, a cover has to attract the attention of a reader, engage them in opening the book, then hook them with an inside design that is approachable. Often the sell happens after this browse on the inside. So the panelists each pointed out aspects of interior design people often fail to consider: spacing between lines, the margins, the difference between chapter title typography and the rest of the text. “You don’t want the interior of the book to be in such dissonance with the text that it’s jarring,” Sargent said. Readers may gravitate toward flashy covers, but they fail to buy if the content doesn’t look easy to process.

Our panelists each brought in books cover designs that demonstrate the ability to stick out in a bookstore and resonate with the reader. Their selections varied greatly in style and genre. Parr spoke to her love for Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. On the simple, text-only cover, the letters “J O H N” are bolded. Parr found this symbolism chillingly beautiful, as the book is about the author’s first year after the death of her husband, John. Dever included the children’s book The Mischievians by William Joyce, for its playful text, vibrant colors and clever communication, while Sargent applauded the cover of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Here Sargent brought up another important aspect of book design, “What’s left out of the cover is as important as what’s in them.” She is drawn toward Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s nod to magical realism and the fantasy his cover sparks. Finally, Stout spoke to The End of the Game by Peter Beard, which is a constant source of inspiration for him with its striking photography, shifting layout scheme and simple typography.

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez

These beautiful covers made us wonder what exactly differentiates graphic design from other of visual arts. The panelists began using the somewhat outdated term ‘commercial art’ to convey the difference on a fundamental level. “Communication. It’s visual communication,” Stout said. “Fine art can have emotions. It can be vital to people. The difference between what we do as publication designers is we are trying to convey content.” The difference is to sell, which has a plethora of its own considerations, other than to simply please. Dever went further to say the process is not artistic as it is scientific, “Authors don’t like [the commercial aspect] because writing is such a beautiful craft, as opposed to making laundry detergent, but a package is a package and its purpose is to communicate what’s inside and also to make you buy it.” When approached by writers, designers are essentially given two problems to solve: 1) How do I visually get people to pick up the book? and 2) How do I visually allow them to digest the text? Dever added, “If it were for decoration only, we could make it as frilly and beautiful and cool looking as possible, but you probably won’t be able to read it.”

While many writers share the panelists enthusiasm for superb book covers, affording a decent graphic designer can often be a challenge. Audience members had questions regarding designing their own self-published books and hiring cheaply. Dever struck to the heart of the matter when she said, “You get what you pay for.” While there are ways to get around spending thousands on a design—such as reaching out to design students or learning online programs—Dever advises, “If you can’t afford a cover, wait to publish your book until you can.” The consensus was that the cover is a books face to the world and it’s worth the investment. Even in the case you are able to get a solid cover image from an inexperienced source, the technical aspects can end up ‘nightmarish.’ Often cheap designers or students don’t know how to set up files for the printer right, so books will return with the completely wrong format. The panelists agreed that it’s more cost effective to spend the money up front then have to redo the entire design a second time.

By the end of the night, we were convinced that book design is both fine art and an integral part of publishing sales; it’s the place imaginations begin and it’s the author’s greatest marketing tool. Like an author’s words, a designer’s graphics must hook and engage.

What do you think? Can you judge a book by its cover after all?

Please join us for our next Third Thursday on October 15th at 7:00PM on the third floor of Book People! Authors Anne Bustard, Greg Levin, Jason Neulander, and Amy Tintera will lead “Write Fright Night! Dealing with Spine-Tingling Writerly Anxieties”, sharing with us their tactics on combating the fears, doubts and insecurities inherent in the writing process.

August Third Thursday Wrap-Up

Picture This: Creating Illustrated Children’s Books

August Third Thursday Panel

by WLT Board President, Tony Burnett

If you are reading this, it’s likely your first encounter with the written language was picture books. More than likely, your parents, or often a grandparent, read them to you. As you became infatuated with words, you read them back; first from memory, then sounding out the words. It happened when you had a child’s heart and the innocent concerns of youth.

The four panelists at the Writers’ League of Texas’ August Third Thursday have managed to retain their child’s innocent fascination from when they first encountered picture books. It was obvious by the joy in their voices as they explained the process. Though the four panelists have varying approaches to the craft and came to their success through widely different channels, their art resonates with children and those who can see with a child’s eye.

Liz Garton Scanlon received a degree in journalism then moved to Austin to study poetry at the Michener center. Though her paychecks came from corporate communications, having a child resulted in her desire to write picture books. She claims to have no talent for visual arts. With a creative writing degree, she took the traditional route to writing for children in which she wrote the narrative and her publisher found an illustrator to do the artwork.

Mary Sullivan began drawing early. Even as a child she dreamed of being an artist. She grew up in a family of artists and musicians but had no formal training. She spent her youth drawing and printmaking, learning as she went. She illustrated books for other authors, both picture books and works for inspirational writers, before attempting to write a book of her own. A unique book of hers, a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor award winner, titled Ball, has only one word. When she creates a picture book she imagines a child in her lap. When that imaginary child laughs she knows she’s on the right track.

An interest in dog breeds prompted Jeff Crosby to try his hand at children’s literature. With a degree in graphic design, years of experience as an illustrator and a supportive significant other who has literary skills, he decided to create a series of acrylic paintings of dogs. After trying unsuccessfully to market it as a collection of prints, an editor suggested adding text. The book sold, as did a subsequent similar book on horse breeds. His latest release, a new take on an old fairytale titled The Rockabilly Goats Gruff, has been a huge hit with the young fans at Hot Rod shows and music festivals. He suggests finding a niche market for your work and building an audience from there.

Perhaps Emma J. Virjan has the most dramatic tale of success in picture books. She began creating books with stories and pictures as a child to fill her alone time. She loved making the little stories but never showed them to anyone. Of course her parents knew of her projects. When her father was dying he encouraged her to show them around. She promised she would. It turned out to be a “father knows best” moment. She’s had several books published since.

If you think genre literature has specific rules, they’re nothing compared to the template for picture books. Ideally, picture books run 32 pages, including the title page and front matter. In rare cases they can be longer but always in multiples of eight pages. Text is rarely more than 500 words though it can be as few as one repeated word as in Sullivan’s Ball.

If you choose to write or illustrate a picture book, try to put yourself into the heart and mind of the child, but remember it’s the parents who purchase books. All four authors agreed that the ease of creating a picture book is the most common misconception. Most of the panelists went through a dozen to 40 rewrites prior to submitting to an editor. Unlike most adult and middle grade books, it’s apparently not a requirement that you have an agent. Choosing to write for young children may be difficult but it has its rewards, as these authors demonstrated through the joy shown when discussing their projects.

Join us for our next free Third Thursday panel on September 17 at 7:00 pm on the third floor of BookPeople for “The Look Of The Book” where book designers will discuss how design and layout influence the reader’s experience.

July Third Thursday Wrap-up

How to Be Good A Literary Citizen


by WLT Intern Hailey Clement

July’s Third Thursday focused less on writing techniques and instead covered how to be part of the writing community. Creating and finding a place in the writing community is both important and fulfilling, but how to do so isn’t always obvious. To help us navigate this social and professional group, our panelists discussed a variety of topics, advice, and stories. But most of all, they described what it means to be a literary citizen, and how to be a good one.

Reflecting the diversity of writers in the audience, the panel consisted of a varied collection of writers, no two coming from the same background. But despite that, the message was clear: To be a good literary citizen, you must be above all, an authentic human. That may sound a little strange, and sometimes it is a little strange to do, but it is key.

Being part of the literary community involves contributing something, somehow. That can manifest in multiple ways depending on personality and availability. For some, it will be having engaging conversations on Twitter, going to writing events in town, or writing reviews and raving about books to friends.

Jennifer Hill Robenalt, tapping her wisdom as an experienced communications professional, emphasized being authentic. Even over the Internet, it’s clear when someone is lying or just doing something for the attention. So, it means a lot when posts or reviews are sincere and personal. That touch of humanity does come across and helps connect authors as people.

Adding to this sentiment, Cory Putman Oakes asserted that “networking doesn’t have to be creepy!” Done successfully, it’s a great way to make actual friends and connections. These relationships can be personally fulfilling and may lead to professional help from friends, perhaps in the form of blurbs or reviews. Oakes also emphasized that an important part of being in the community is being thankful to those who are helpful and supportive. Just like in real, face-to-face life, common courtesy goes a long way toward building connections with other writers.

François Pointeau brought forth his twofold opinion of bringing people together, and respecting when they want their distance. A good citizen pays it forward constantly, creating or engaging in spaces for writers. For him, this is often through his radio show on KOOP Radio, “Writing on the Air,” but also through attending local events. Meeting someone in person is often the first step to an actual relationship, and events are great ways to find like-minded people. But there will be times when someone declines an invitation or a manuscript. That’s not a problem; it’s just part of the process. The best way to react is respectfully and to move on.

Perhaps the easiest strategy discussed was Michael Noll’s. He strongly believes in reading more books. It is a straightforward and enjoyable way to support fellow writers. Not only do sales help, but that creates the opportunity to write reviews or recommend books to friends. Reviews on GoodReads and Amazon show solidarity with authors, can help with metrics, and or can help a book find a good spot on those virtual bookshelves, but they can also simply make the author feel good. A well written review coupled with tangible support is one of the most direct ways to be an outstanding literary citizen.

What do you do to be a good literary citizen for your community?

Join us at Book People on August 20th for our next Third Thursday panel “Picture This: Creating Illustrated Children’s Books” where Jeff Crosby, Liz Garton Scanlon, Mary Sullivan, and Emma J. Virján will discuss the intricate and delightful world of writing a picture book. See you at 7 pm!

Third Thursday Wrap-Up

Writing About Poetry:
Passion, Process, and Publication


By WLT Intern, A.R. Rogers.

For May’s Third Thursday, The Writers’ League invited four poets to define poetry and the practice of their craft. When we bring authors from the same genre together, often we find a rose called by another name, as the world of poetry is, perhaps, the most eclectic of literary arts. Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz (The Year of No Mistakes) and Derrick C. Brown (Our Poison Horse) shared ideas from the slam and spoken word traditions. Their lives have been interweaved for nearly two decades since they were both young slam poets, touring the country and sleeping on various couches. They have come a long way since 1996. Aptowicz was the recipient of an NEA, the 2014 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award for Poetry, as well as numerous other awards and residencies; Brown was the winner of the 2013 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award for Poetry, and now runs Write Bloody Publishing.

Sasha West (Failure and I Bury the Body) and Carrie Fountain (Instant Winner) spoke on growing up with poetry in the home and growing up with the absence of poetry respectively, and how each of these environments continue to affect their practice. Though West was surrounded by poetry, it took her well into her adulthood to acknowledge poetry as more than a hobby. Fountain grew up in a blue collar family where poetry was virtually nonexistent.

When asked to define poetry, each poet provided their own unique and insightful answer, but all agreed that poetry involves both the acts of noticing and then distilling something larger from life’s everyday smallness. When prompted to outline their personal writing routines, Fountain spoke of her 5:00 am discipline, which she arrived at by means of necessity as a mother of two small children. West admitted that she doesn’t write every day, and doesn’t know if that will ever be her path. Concerning the actual act of creation, Aptowicz dared to go there: get off of Facebook. While the crowd laughed at this, it’s something we all need to be reminded of. Fountain warned of finding “too much footing” in a poem, and encouraged poets to, instead, teeter on the edge of a poem, while West gave some of the most intriguing advice of the evening, telling us to push every poem as far as we can, and suggested when we think a poem is complete to ask ourselves, “Can you break the poem open?”

Join us at BookPeople for our next Third Thursday on June 18. Our topic will be practicing your pitch with panelists Ellie Scarborough Brett, Tracy Sutton Schorn, and WLT’s own, Becka Oliver.

Third Thursday Wrap-up

Funny Business:
Writing That Makes Us Laugh



by WLT Intern, Max Friedman.

As the humidity finally began to break in Downtown Austin, the third floor event room of BookPeople began to fill with writers and comedy lovers. Tonight’s topic of discussion was writing humor, and as the panelists settled into their seats, they already had smiles on their  faces. To get the ball rolling, the first question was simple: What do you think is funny? Wendi Aarons, an award-winning contributor to McSweeney’s and US Weekly, has always found comedy in ordinary things. “I like comedy that is relatable and pointed, but not mean.” Growing up, she admired the comedic musings of James Thurber and the antics of Carol Burnett. Les McGehee, a comedian and improv pioneer, was quick to make the distinction between “humor” and “comedy.” “Humor is something you have inside of you, and it’s not always a part of comedy.” He went on to say that he admired humor more than comedy, and that interactions with people around him were often funnier than professionally produced content. Neal Pollack, an acclaimed author and journalist, took a more basic approach to answering the question. “I like poop, burps, farts, sex — really anything to do with genitals.” He went on to add that he loved satire, and grew up watching Monty Python, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen. Susan Schorn, an author and self defense advocate, said she actually finds comedy in violence. “Most humor is inherently violent if you think about it — that’s why they call it a punchline.” She believes that a joke is funny when it works against some larger social structure, taking a large problem and reducing it to a simple perspective.

The discussion then moved to the idea of humor writing as a career, and how each panelist developed over the years. Wendi said that she has always looked at the funny and absurd aspects of life, and that the desire to write about them was natural. Les remarked: “I’m insufferable, and I never saw an alternative. I saw that I could make some money out of it, and so I kept doing it.” Neal agreed, saying that nothing else ever occurred to him. When asked what he would be doing otherwise, he responded “Only drugs.” As a martial artist and self defense advocate, Susan stated that writing is just one of the three things she does. “I write because I never shut up. I think of things that would sound odd in conversation a lot of the time, so I write them down instead.”

Though the writers all work in similar territory, each of them described different writing processes. Wendi likes to use social media, where she can work with other writers that are alone in their offices too. “I can put jokes out there, and tell right away if they’re duds or not.” Les takes an ordered approach, blocking out time early in the day to work, often relying on deadlines for motivation. Neal agreed with this idea, stating that he forces himself to write at least 5,000 words a week, adding: “If I miss a couple hundred one day, I’ll add it to the next.” Susan relayed a more frantic process, saying that she mostly writes little notes down on scraps of paper. “When the time comes, I’ll force myself to put it all together, and hopefully some kind of cohesive idea begins to form. I can usually clean it up, and they never know how messy it originally was.”

Each of the panelists expressed an affinity for a humorous take on life, but came to writing comedy on different paths. Wendi was a movie producer at Warner Bros until she realized how much she disliked the business. “People always told me I was funny in e-mails, so I decided I’d try to be a copywriter at an advertising agency instead.” After getting laid off from that job she began writing for a magazine in Austin, which led to blogging and writing for McSweeney’s, and eventually to a book deal. Les was a comedian from day one, getting his start by filling time in a high school talent show. He then went on to perform improv around the country, which led to researchers at UT performing a study on him. “They saw me perform improv, and found it fascinating enough to make it the subject of research.” The attention the study garnered led Les to a publishing career as well. Neal found his way to humor writing through journalism, as he started off writing for a newspaper in Chicago. “I began writing humor pieces for the newspaper, and I would read them aloud in theaters around town.” He ended up compiling them and mailing them to Dave Eggers, who then published four of the pieces in the first issue of McSweeney’s. This process led to a long career in book publishing. Susan followed a similar path, beginning to find her comedic voice in graduate school. She found McSweeney’s and began sending work there, which actually led to a publisher contacting her for a book deal — an unusual occurrence in the industry.

As it came time to wrap up, each of the writers offered up pieces of advice for the crowd. Wendi suggested that writers read as much humor as they can. “You need to find what you relate to, and practice writing until you find your voice. But don’t force a joke. Don’t try too hard.” Les suggested that budding writers test their material on Twitter, and that they look to classic comedians to get the timing of comedy right. “Sometimes a bit will be funny just because of the rhythm, you need to be able to deliver jokes in that format.” Les also went on to add that comedians should never rely on using profanity. “No comedian has ever made money from repeating one word over and over again, and swearing is no exception.” Neal echoed Wendi’s sentiment, emphasizing that writers need to find a voice. “You have, if you’re human, something specific about you. Hone in on that.” Susan focused on the aspect of testing material in front of an audience, but also on having a expansive knowledge of comedic writing. “You need to go back to the classics: Thurber, Vonnegut, Jack Handey. You can’t just focus on current, relevant comedy because it’s too watered down. You need to rely on timeless jokes to develop a true comedic voice.”

If you enjoyed this discussion, come to our next Third Thursday panel at BookPeople on May 21 at
7:00 PM. Our topic will be “Writing Poetry: Passion, Process, and Publication.”

See you there!