Writers taking care of their backs (and other wonders we’d never thought we’d see in our lifetimes) by guest blogger Annemarie Monahan, chiropractor extraordinaire

Writing spine-1

Hello, campers —

No, the doc have no yet cleared me for post-crash keyboarding, one-handed or otherwise — so if any medical type should happen to ask you about it, ix-nay on the log-blay. (And if the first part of that statement seemed cryptic to you, you’ll find an explanation of last week’s festivities here.)

My left hand (i.e., the currently working one) could not resist volunteering to write a glowing intro for this very timely and magnificently useful guest blog by novelist, chiropractor, and Author! Author! community member Annemarie Monahan. After I hurt my back in April, Annemarie very kindly offered to give all of us writers some much-needed tips on how to set up our work spaces (hint: that foot-wide shelf between the oven and the refrigerator is not an adequate writing desk), how and when to take breaks during those long writing sessions (you know, the ones where you snarl at your SO in hour four, “I’ll just be a minute for dinner — I want to finish this paragraph,” and then are astonished when s/he comes back three hours later to inform you that it’s midnight), and generally take much, much better care of our backs than most of us do.

Although Annemarie is here today at Author! Author! wearing her chiropractor and general medical wise woman’s hats, I can’t resist telling you a bit about her women’s fiction work-in-progress, THREE. She describes it as “Think Jeanette Winterson meets Sliding Doors.” As we’ve discussed at such length in the past, it’s genuinely hard to pitch a multiple-protagonist novel well, so I’m delighted to show you her teaser:

Three women. Three strangers. Yet all were the same seventeen-year-old girl on a yellow April morning, wondering, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Three different answers sent one life in disparate directions. Now, at forty-one, their parallel lines are about to intersect again.

Ántonia searches the sea-horizon every evening. In the last light, she can glimpse it: a feminist Utopia built on an abandoned oil rig, led by her charismatic and bipolar lover. Her lost Eden made by Eves.

For Dr. Katherine North, the memory of two women chafes her like a hair shirt. After the death of one, she contacts the other — only to discover that she has been renounced in the name of God.

Kitty Trevelyan has been happily married twenty-three years. Happily enough. Until her professor asks her for coffee and kisses her.

Piques the interest, doesn’t it? To read more, check out Annemarie’s website.

And now, without further ado — hey, my left hand is new to all of these ks and ls — please join me welcoming Annemarie in her capacity as back care guru. Take it away, Annemarie!

Writing spine-1Writing spine-1Writing spine-1

Do you have a shelf of books about writing? I have a stack of them upstairs. So much good advice about the craft, the business… but so little on the physical process and its challenges. Our gracious hostess, Anne, has asked me to talk about writing and our low backs. It’s a subject dear to her… well, spine. Regular readers of this blog will remember that she recently had a bout of low back pain, like nearly half of working Americans any given year, one severe enough that she had to take some time away from amusing and educating us.

Whether we’ve never had low back pain or have a long history, we as writers are particularly susceptible because we sit. And sit, and sit. However, susceptible does not mean doomed. There are simple steps you can take to protect yourself. Let’s talk about a few.

Where do you write? In a home office? In a recliner? At your son’s cast-off kid’s desk? At a cafe? Probably like many of you here, I wrote most of my novel at my kitchen table. Not a bad choice, biomechanically.

Wherever you work, make sure you’re facing your screen or typewriter dead on when you’re relaxed. No twisting. The desk or table should be high enough to allow your chair to be pulled under it while you’re seated, and leave few inches of wriggle room above your thighs.

Now let’s take a closer look at your work space ergonomics. Sit down in your favorite writing position and take a look at your legs.

Do your heels rest on the floor? Or do they dangle in the air? Are you on tip toes? Your feet should reach the ground comfortably and fully. If they don’t, lower your chair or invest in a foot rest.

Next, look farther up. If you drew a line from the front crease of your thigh to your knee, would the line be flat, sloping down, or sloping up? You want either flat or sloping down a little. If the line slopes up, as it does when you sit in a recliner, you’re putting a lot of strain on your low back. Raise your seat (making sure your heels can still rest on the floor!) or add height to it with a firm cushion or support.

Are you writing sitting in bed, or on the couch, feet up? Stop that. Sure, it feels cushy at first, but the softness allows your behind to sink below the level of your knees. Sooner or later you’ll pay for that momentary pleasure as surely as the naïf in the old public health film who keeps questionable company.

Even if we have the perfect work station, our low backs take a beating. How many hours did you put into that first page alone? That first chapter? How many hours are you sitting at your laptop without getting up or even moving?

Writing is a long slog across rough terrain, not a frolic. A marathon, not a sprint.

The human body isn’t designed for marathons. As I say to my patients, look what happened to the guy who ran the first one. But we can strengthen ourselves to achieve feats of endurance, either active or sedentary.

Fortunately, training for the butt-in-chair marathon doesn’t have to take much time or effort. No yoga among the spandexed, no sweaty weight equipment at the Y. Just a few quiet moments at home between paragraphs.

In the over twenty years I’ve been in practice, I’ve learned that no-one– no-one!– will do a long or complicated back exercise program. It’s just not human nature. And it’s always smart to work with human nature rather than against it. With that in mind, please meet…

The Two-Minute Routine to Keep a Happy Low Back*

1. The Hamstring Stretch
Stand up. With one foot firmly supporting you, put the other heel up on the seat of your chair. You shouldn’t feel any pulling in the back of your leg at this point. If you do, use something lower and sturdy. Now rest both your hands on the knee of the leg you have up.

hamstring ready

Keep your knee completely straight — bending it ruins this stretch. Don’t worry about where your foot points: just relax. Lean over, nose towards those toes.

hamstring stretch

You’ll feel a stretch in the back of your thigh, near the knee. Don’t bounce, don’t yank. Right, in the days before the glaciers retreated, your gym teacher taught you to bounce when you stretch. Mine, too.

But don’t do it. It’s a great way to pull a muscle. Just lean gently and firmly. If there’s pain, back off.

Breathe. Count to ten leisurely.

Come out of the stretch gradually. Repeat for the other side. Don’t be surprised if one side is tighter than the other; that’s normal.

2. The Piriformis Stretch
Next, find a spot where you can lie down comfortably. On a pad or carpeted floor is fine, as is a firm bed if you have a hard time getting up and down.

Lie on your back with one leg bent at the knee, and one flat.

piriformis ready

Now, grab that bent knee with both hands. Pull it up and across your body, towards your opposite shoulder. Right, not straight up. Towards the opposite shoulder.

piriformis stretch

You’ll feel a deep stretch in the side of your behind. Pull gently but firmly, backing off if you experience pain other than that hurts-so-good feeling. Now, read your manuscript aloud in its entirety…

No, wait. Sorry. Breathe! Count to ten.

Again, come out of it gradually and repeat for the other side.

3. The Abdominal Crunch
I heard you whimper. Don’t fuss, these are not the sit-ups you dreaded as a kid.

Stay on your back after the piriformis stretches. Put both your feet on the floor, knees up. Cross your arms over your chest.

crunch ready

Take a breath. As you exhale, come up only about 30 degrees, enough to get your shoulder blades off the floor.


There should be no pain in your low back or neck, only the sensation of muscles working in your belly. Hold for just one beat, then lie down again. Don’t flop. Repeat, making sure to breathe, breathe, breathe!

There’s no ideal number of these crunches, but I tell patients to do as many as they can comfortably, plus one. Always use good form; it’s better to do fewer than to use sloppy technique. This exercise should never hurt.

Don’t worry if you tire quickly. I have patients that can’t do a single crunch. If you can’t either, instead just flatten your low back against the floor by tightening your belly muscles.

Unlike writing your novel, this is process, not goal. You’ll get stronger bit by bit, page by page.

That’s it. It may not seem like much, but with daily small effort, your low back will stay strong and flexible as a well-bound book.

Here’s to your health and writing success!

*I’m sure my attorney would want me to mention this, so here goes: the information provided in this post, such as text and images, is for informational purposes only. It is not to be construed as medical care or medical advice and is not a replacement for medical care given by physicians or trained medical personnel.

Writing spine-1 Annemarie Monahan is still able to read the Latin of her diploma from Bryn Mawr College, a skill as practical as her degree in English. Belatedly realizing she had to eat, she earned her professional doctorate from Northwestern College of Chiropractic.

Dr. Monahan has been in private practice for twenty-one years. She writes in western Massachusetts, surrounded by chickens and stone walls.

An inside view of a formal writing retreat: an interview with Kerry Eielson and John Fanning of La Muse


Since I had been contemplating quite a few posts on the joys, trials, and logistics of formal writing retreats for, well, the entirety of my most recent writing retreat, I have been busily jotting down questions I wanted to address for a couple of months now. After I returned, it occurred to me: instead of attacking the resulting raft of issues entirely from the retreater’s perspective — which, let’s face it, has been my approach every time I have blogged about retreats in the past — why not hand this excellent list to some kind people who actually RUN an artists’ retreat, so my readers could have the benefit of a less-often-heard perspective?

So although I am not much in the habit of packing up my troubles in my old kit bag and handing it to other people, I instantly got busy blandishing my favorite retreat organizers, Kerry Eielson and John Fanning of La Muse in Labastide Esparbaïrenque, in the remote Montagne Noir of southwestern France.

If that sounds pretty far off the beaten path, that’s because it is. La Muse is concealed in a miniscule village nestled onto a mountainside far, far away from both the madding crowd and anyplace that it would even occur for a tourist to visit, despite the fact that you can’t drive for fifteen minutes in any direction without stumbling upon some ruined castle so picturesque that I kept walking up to touch the stonework to reassure myself that it wasn’t just a painted backdrop for a romantic film about the Knights Templar.

It is, in other words, the material embodiment of the concept of getting away from it all. When my phone is ringing off the hook while I’m trying to polish off that last chapter of a novel, I automatically start looking for a place like La Muse.

So Kerry and John don’t just operate a retreat; they operate a retreat.

Who better, then, to ask to enlighten us on the ins and outs of serious writers’ retreats, or to answer my questions pertinent and impertinent? Or, to continue yesterday’s discussion, to enlighten us on what differentiates a successful fellowship application from an unsuccessful one.

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you are now or ever intend to apply for a residency, you’re going to want to take some notes on this extended interview.

Welcome, John and Kerry, to Author! Author!, and thanks so much for agreeing to share your insights with us!


Anne: Let’s start with the basics. What made you want to open La Muse in the first place?

Kerry: The first reason we started La Muse was because WE needed a retreat to go to, as did other writers like us: young people with full-time jobs that didn’t allow much time for writing.

Anne: Oh, I know so many aspiring and established writers who fall into that category.

Kerry: We were not all that connected, not all that pedigreed, not established in the world of creative writing. We were “writers” working in stimulating and exciting jobs but without time or space for our own creative writing projects and ambitions. There was nothing out there in terms of retreats that was simple and affordable, that focused on the process of writing without lots of talks and readings and workshops, without the groupie-vibe of some conferences.

We just needed a place to go to be able to write: La Muse!

Anne: It’s astonishing how seldom time to write seems to be built into workshops. I often come away all excited about my writing, but too exhausted to do any of it for the foreseeable future.

But enough about me: why not pursue the standard great big institutional artist colony route?

Kerry: We also felt the Catch-22 of not being established writers, and so not being able to benefit from grant-funded institutions or retreats that are more accessible to established writers or writers in the MFA system or cottage industry. We weren’t on “the track” and, believe it or not, it is mighty difficult for two full-time staffers at relatively high-powered magazine jobs in NYC to get on it.

We were lucky to have great jobs, which we appreciated and took seriously, were working more than that great American standard of 60 hours a week. I got up at 4:30 AM to have two hours of my own writing, and time to jog every day. John did the opposite, staying up until about that time to get his writing done. We didn’t sleep, didn’t see each other and though we were happy, motivated and exhilarated, we knew we couldn’t keep it up forever.

We wanted to write. We wanted to have a family life with the kids we hoped to have some day, AND we wanted to own our home–not an option with our low publishing salaries in New York City.

Anne: I see; you wanted to write AND have a life.

Kerry: And so, two newly-weds, we were talking about how we could make it all work. We decided to leave NYC and in dreaming about where we might go from there, we went online and found La Muse, then a huge run-down old manor house for next-to-nothing. We started dreaming out loud, planning this hypothetical life and next thing we knew; it was ours!

Anne: Wait — you bought a retreat online?

John: Kerry pretty much summed it up there, except for the fact that we did it all on credit cards. We also stripped layers of wallpaper from the ceilings, threw out about ten truckloads of junk — I mean truck truckloads, not van loads. You wouldn’t believe the amount of stuff that was in here.

Anne: For the benefit of those who have not yet been there, I should point out that I’ve lived in towns with smaller courthouses than La Muse’s main building. Some of the rooms are immense. And didn’t you lay the stones of the patio yourselves?


John: Let’s just say the renovation process was an experience.

Anne: Given how beautiful both the building and the locale are, I’m sure that it wasn’t easy at first to establish La Muse as an artists’ retreat, rather than just a gorgeous vacation spot. Just to nip in the bud any possible misconceptions, how is a residency at La Muse different from a vacation?

Kerry: The focus of a stay at a writers’ retreat is on writing, not tourism.

John: Exactly. A writer’s retreat is just that, a retreat. You retreat from all the bustle of telephone calls, email, appointments, work etc. to connect with whatever it is you need to connect with to get your project finished, started, researched.

Anne: That last is why La Muse has wireless internet access, presumably. As much as I love a get-away-from-everything retreat, I actually couldn’t have done the necessary research on my novel without the occasional web crawl.

Since you’re both writers yourselves, I understand the impetus to create a writers’ retreat. So why does La Muse welcome many kinds of artist, instead of just writers?

Kerry: We saw no reason to limit our attendee to one kind of artist, and it happened organically. Visual artists asked if they could come. I love painting and drawing, and this place, with its rich light, is a heaven to visual artists. In fact, I’m more often inspired to draw here than write.

Anne: Having run a mixed retreat for a while now, what do you think different kinds of artists get from retreating together? Or, perhaps more to the point for my readership, what do writers gain from sharing retreat time and space with other types of artist?

Kerry: There is a nice exchange between the visual artists, composers and writers; a lot of artists are multidisciplinary-talented and they come away from conversations with artists in other mediums feeling inspired.

John: Artists generally regard the world around them more than writers. They have to concentrate on the colors, the shapes, on the lines all around them, not the ones inside their heads, so both groups really add to each other’s process.

Anne: Is that why you have been expanding the studio space?

Kerry: The same kind of informal, small-scale retreat seemed to be missing for visual artists. So, we made a studio, and then another studio.

Anne: I suspect that most people have a pretty easy time picturing the kind of studio space that might appeal to a painter or a sculptor, but I’ve noticed that there isn’t really a strong cultural conception of what kind of space might be conducive to writing, other than a desk and a chair in someplace quiet. How do the facilities for writers differ from those for other kinds of artist at La Muse?

Kerry: Writers work in their own rooms. Artists working on drawing projects do, too. But artists working in oil paints or mediums that smell, make noise, stain or need lots of space use the studios.

John: Writers also use the library and artists will go out into the woods to paint or photograph a lot.

Anne: I know from personal experience that the weather also plays a role in where the residents choose to work. The weather was gorgeous for the last few weeks I was there, and there were hours at a time when I seemed to be the only one writing inside.


Anne: But as tempting as it is to dwell on the physical environment, let’s talk about the less concrete part of the retreat — or at any rate, less of what is literally set in stone. What do you think writers retreating at La Muse find there that they couldn’t possibly discover anyplace else?

Kerry: It’s a serious yet familial setting. Attendees can’t help but to get to know each other and us, and that creates a great opportunity for exchange.

John: Yes. We’re not a huge institution like Yaddo or the Doris Duke Foundation. We are small and we like it that way. It’s what people always tell us they love about La Muse.

Kerry: We are accessible, affordable, multi-disciplinary and non-institutional but also professional about what we do.

Anne: Since most of my readership lives in North America, I suspect that some of them might be surprised to hear a retreat on a remote mountain in France described as accessible. What does that mean, precisely?

Kerry: The intimate, familial setting is unique. Normally, La Muse has between four to eight attendees of a wide range of ages, backgrounds, nationalities and artistic mediums, at different stages in their careers, and they have a lot to offer each other. The shared kitchen and meals allow for unique exchanges. People forge friendships and collaborations here. People help each other on their work, and support each other in other areas.

Former attendees have said that the fact La Muse is structured (due to the quiet hours) but not rigid (there’s no other structure in place) actually creates time, more time than at other retreats.

Anne: We should probably explain to everyone about the quiet hours. Technically, attendees are supposed to limit noise-making within the house — talking, playing music, Skyping — to a very limited number of hours per day, so that 9 am to noon, 1 to 5:30 pm, and 10 pm to 7 am are quiet times, designed for devotion to work or sleep.

I’ve never attended a retreat that didn’t maintain at least the pretense of quiet times or spaces, though; I don’t think they could attract writers otherwise. Because the claims are so similar — I mean, doesn’t every retreat’s website claim it’s the least distracting place on earth? — it’s really, really hard for writers honestly looking for uninterrupted writing time to tell them apart.

The difference to work time, it seems to me, usually lies less in whether such rules exist than in how they are enforced — and in how many other distractions there are. In a village like Labastide, where you might bump into perhaps three residents on a heavy traffic day, there’s not a whole lot of ambient noise or activity to interrupt one’s work. And I just loved that you didn’t clutter up residents’ weeks with a whole lot of structured events, as so many of the larger retreats do.

John: We leave people to do what it is they have come here to do as opposed to having workshops and classes, etc.

Anne: Personally, I found that very respectful of my decision to retreat in the first place. But you do occasionally host groups that come together for a workshop, right? (Note to readers: this was not an entirely fair question; I’ve been toying with the idea of teaching an intensive novel seminar there.)

John: Although we have hosted Study Abroad programs, such as Iowa University’s, we leave the teaching to the organization that comes to organize. We help set up guidelines and orientation, but most of the time we leave people to their own process.

Anne: Which can make for some pretty intriguing interactions, since every artists’ process is different. Is that why you accept writers at all stages of their careers, rather than just the established — as many of the ritzier artists’ colonies do — or only those starting out?

Kerry: We accept attendees based on the seriousness of their intent and the quality of their application. Period.

John: Yes, and it really works out well for both parties. One rubs off the other, just the way those of different disciplines help each other.

Anne: Not to mention making it more fun for everyone concerned. Although I spent the vast majority of my waking time at La Muse writing, I’ve noticed that when I talk about it now that I’m back home, I often dwell on the social aspects, the trips out into the countryside, the cherries that were in season while I was there, and the like. It’s definitely unusual for a writer’s retreat to offer as many cultural exchange opportunities for retreatants who want to take advantage of them.

Kerry: We arrange French lessons, art-hikes with a local watercolor artist. We introduce our attendees to local artists whose work may inform theirs. We bring attendees on a wine-tasting, and a visit to nearby towns. So maybe on a logistical level, too, the “extras” make us unique.

Anne: You took one of my groups (note: I was there for two retreat sessions) to a fabulous traditional book town called Montolieu, where practically every building housed a book shop, library, or museum devoted to some aspect of printing. I’ll have to do a post on that, so more traveling writers know about it; I never would have made it there as a tourist on my own.


Kerry: There’s also an emphasis on well-being for those who are interested; we supply yoga mats, blocks, straps, and books, and arrange sessions for our attendees with a variety of therapists in the area.

Anne: Including massage and chiropractic for writers prone to repetitive strain injuries. Because I’m on my keyboard so much of the time on retreat — it’s not at all unusual for me to write 50 hours per week at an artists’ colony, although I think I averaged closer to 60 at La Muse — I always budget for some sort of bodywork.

It’s also kind of a fun way to meet the locals. Most of the villagers I met were very into the La Muse concept; a lot of them seemed to be artists themselves.

John: La Muse has a work ethos and a relaxed, community based structure that people have found very beneficial.

Anne: Since I’m guessing that most of my readers probably won’t have spent much time in 12th-century villages, let’s talk a bit more about Labastide Esparbaïrenque. What about it is conducive to retreating?

John: Labastide lends itself perfectly to a retreat because of its location off the main road – most villages have a main road going through them – as well as the fact that it hasn’t been tarnished by over modernization. The fact that it’s in a beautiful part of Southern France has got a lot to do with it, too.

Kerry: It’s a quiet village in a special place. The village is snuggled into a very curvy little valley, and there are no bars or cafés or boutiques to tempt people away from their work tables. With only 72 full-time habitants, there’s no noise except the elated screeching of diving swallows and a helpful rooster or two during the day and, at night, the muffled flow of the river and the rustling of leaves in the trees.

Anne: That’s such an evocative image that I’m going to leave it hanging in my readers’ minds and sign off for the day. Thanks, Kerry and John!

Next time, we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty of what is actually involved in running a writers’ retreat like La Muse — and just what kind of application package it takes to land a spot in a retreat like this. Happy daydreaming, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Some fellowships may be expensive to win, or, how many times per week could you eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

writers' retreat sign
Yes, sharper-eyed readers, that is a gnome sitting on top of the retreat sign — the famous Norcroft gnome, in fact. The Norcroft retreat has gone the way of all flesh, alas, but its basic principle lives on: no matter how well-organized a writer is, from time to time, it’s helpful to the productivity to cut oneself off from the myriad demands of quotidian life, go someplace strange, and just write.

And before any of you get your hopes up: neither your boss, coworkers, friends, nor family will understand this time to be work, rather than a vacation. No, not even if you spend 18 hours a day writing on retreat. Sorry about that.

That remains true, incidentally, no matter how thoroughly you become established as an author. As my sister-in-law put it only this weekend upon seeing me still blear-eyed from 13-hour days of writing and lingering jet lag, “Oh, five weeks in France. Hard to have much sympathy for that.”

She’s one of my more sympathetic sisters-in-law, incidentally.

Because I’ve just been on a lengthy I’ve been chattering off and on for the last couple of months about the joys and drawbacks of formal writing retreats — the group kind, organized by other people — as opposed to the informal type where you find a peaceful place and lock yourself in for a week or two along with a crate of apples, gallons of coffee, and the makings of 150 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. While the latter type tends to be significantly less expensive, particularly if you happen to know someone who is willing to let you house-sit for a while, the former have many inherent advantages.

Not the least of which: many of them award fellowships to writers. So, perversely, a month at a formal fellowship at an artists’ colony could actually end up being less costly than a week at the Bates Motel, munching Power Bars. Not to mention making for better ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy).

A whole bunch of eyebrows just shot skyward, didn’t they? “Okay, Anne,” eager beavers everywhere shout. “What is a fellowship, and how do I go about landing me one?”

Fellowships vary quite a bit, offering everything from work space at universities (like Stanford’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship, which pays fellows $26,000/year, plus tuition and health insurance, to attend one 3-hour writing seminar per week for two years) to actual apartments and a living stipend (like the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown) to financial aid so writers can attend well-respected workshops (like the Squaw Valley Writers’ Workshops reduced-cost or free week- or month-long residencies at artists’ colonies (too numerous to pick just one example).

A great place to look for reputable fellowship opportunities is the back of Poets & Writers magazine. Before you start tearing through their listings, you should know that a few things are true of virtually all of them:

(1) All require fairly extensive applications, so plan to devote some serious time to filling them out prior to the deadline.

(2) Even for a residency for which you pay (or pay in part), you will almost certainly have to pass through a competitive process, known in the biz as writing your way in.

(3) Any merit-based fellowship (as most that accept previously unpublished writers are) will require a writing sample, so do burnish the first chapter of your book, a representative short story or two, or a collection of poems to a high gloss before you start applying.

(4) There will be heavy competition for any that offer serious money or substantial retreat time, so it’s generally not worth the sometimes-hefty application fee for a new writer to submit a first manuscript. Although of course some absolute beginners do win occasional fellowships, unpolished work tends to get knocked out of consideration early in the competition.

(5) Yes, I said application fee — most fellowships require them, and they’re not always cheap. (If you’re a US-based writer who files a Schedule C for your writing business, these fees may be tax-deductible, even in a year that you don’t actually make any money from your writing; consult a tax specialist familiar with writers’ — not just artists’ — returns to see if you are eligible.)

(6) Some ask for references, so if you happen to be a nodding acquaintance of a relatively well-known writer or writing teacher, you might want to be extra-nice to them right about now.

(7) Most residencies and the more prestigious fellowships look more kindly upon applicants who already have some publications (surprisingly, even if they say they are specifically looking for up-and-coming writers), previous contest wins, or have already done a residency. Think about applying for something small, then working your way up to the more prestigious and lucrative residencies.

(8) In comparing fellowships with residencies for which you would have to pay outright, be sure to factor in expenses that a fellowship would not cover. Virtually no fellowship will cover airfare or other travel expenses to get to a far-flung retreat, for instance; some feed residents and some don’t. This is why, in case any of you have been wondering, one of the first questions an experienced retreater will ask about a residency is, “Do they feed you?” (Don’t worry; more on that last part follows below.)

And remember, unless a fellowship provides a stipend, you still will be responsible for paying your bills while you’re taking time off work to go on retreat.

(9) Most mixed artists’ colonies — i.e., those that welcome both writers and other sorts of artists — will harbor at least a slight institutional bias toward a particular kind of art. Even if it is equally hard for every type of artist to win a fellowship or a residency charges every type of artist the same, the work spaces available may differ widely. So if the resources for sculptors are spectacular, triple-check that the writers aren’t just shoved in a windowless basement and told to get on with it. (Yes, I’ve seen it happen.)

I’ve been sensing some uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs as I’ve been running down that list. “Um, Anne?” I hear some of you pointing out timidly. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but this doesn’t sound like any less work than submitting to an agent. Or to a literary contest, for that matter. Isn’t the whole point of this to gain more time for my writing, not to sap energy from it?”

Congratulations, timid question-askers: you’ve got a firm grasp of the dilemma of the fellowship-seeking writer. Well, my work here is done, so I’ll be signing off for the evening…

Just kidding. Just as when you are seeking out an agent or small press, it’s in your interest to do a bit of checking before you invest too in pursuing any individual fellowship opportunity. I’m not merely talking about entry fees here, either — it will behoove you to ask yourself while those dollar signs are dancing in your eyes, “Will applying for this fellowship take up too much of my writing time?

To assist you in making that assessment, let’s go over some of the potentially most time-devouring common requirements, shall we?

Unfortunately, there are few fellowship out there, especially lucrative ones, that simply require entrants to print up an already-existing piece of writing, slide it into an envelope, write a check for the application fee, and slap a stamp upon it. Pretty much all require the entrant to fill out an entry form, which range from ultra-simple contact information to demands that you answer essay questions.

Do be aware that every time you fill out one of these, you are tacitly agreeing to be placed upon the sponsoring organization AND every piece of information you give is subject to resale to marketing firms, unless the sponsor states outright on the form that it will not do so. (Did you think those offers from Writers Digest and The Advocate just found their way into your mailbox magically?) As with any information you send out, be careful not to provide any information that is not already public knowledge.

How do you know if what is being asked of you is de trop? Well, while a one- or at most two-page application form is ample for a literary contest, a three- or four-page application is fair for a fellowship. Anything more than that, and you should start to wonder what they’re doing with all of this information. A fellowship that gives out monetary awards will need your Social Security number eventually, for instance, but they really need this information only for the winners. I would balk about giving it up front, unless the organization is so well-established that there’s no question of misuse.

As I mentioned above, it’s surprisingly common for fellowship applications (and even some contest entry forms) to ask writers to list character references — an odd request, given that the history of our art form is riddled with notorious rakes. Would a fellowship committee throw out the work of a William Makepeace Thackeray or an H.G. Wells because they kept mistresses…or disqualify Emily Dickinson’s application to spend a few months locked in a sunny room near a beach somewhere because her neighbors noticed that she didn’t much like to go outside when she was at home?

Actually, residencies often don’t actually check these references, even for fellowship winners; they usually merely ask for names and contact information, not actual letters of reference. My impression is that it’s usually a method of discouraging writers who have not yet taken many writing classes, gone to many conferences, or otherwise gotten involved in a larger writers’ community from applying, on the theory that they might not be as likely to respect other fellows’ working boundaries. I suppose it’s also possible, though, that they want to rule out people whose wins might embarrass the fellowship-granting organization, so they do not wake up one day and read that they gave their highest accolade and a $30,000/year stipend to Ted Bundy.

I guess that’s understandable, but frankly, I would MUCH rather see mass murderers, child molesters, and other violent felons turning their energies to the gentle craft of writing than engaging in their other, more bloody pursuits; some awfully good poetry and prose has been written in jail cells. I do not, however, run an organization justifiable fearful of negative publicity.

I sense that the more suspicious-minded among you have come up with yet another reason a fellowship or contest application might request references, haven’t you? “Yes, I can,” a few voices reply. “If an applicant lists someone who has already won that particular fellowship as a reference, or someone on the staff of the artists’ retreat, is the application handled differently? If I can list a famous name as a reference, are my chances of winning better?”

Only the judging committee knows for sure. But if you can legitimately manage to wrangle permission from a former winner, staff member, or Nobel laureate to use ‘em as a reference, hey, I would be the last to try to stop you.

You can also save yourself a lot of time if you avoid fellowship applications that make entrants jump through a lot of extraneous hoops in preparing a submission. Specific typefaces. Fancy paper. Odd margin requirements. Expensive binding. All of these will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s being truly indicative of the quality of your work – all conforming with such requirements really shows is that an applicant can follow directions.

My general rule of thumb is that if a writer can pull together an application or contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of writing time, I consider it a reasonable investment. If an application requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special forms, or wacko binding, I just don’t bother anymore, because to my contest-experienced eyes, these requests are not for my benefit, but theirs.

How is that possible, you cry? Because — and this should sound familiar to those of you have perused my posts on preparing a contest entry — the primary purpose of these elaborate requests for packaging is to make it as easy as possible to disqualify applications in a large applicant pool. By setting up stringent and easily-visible cosmetic requirements, the organizers have maximized the number of applications they can simply toss aside, largely unread: the more that they ask you to do to package your application, the more ways you can go wrong. (For a plethora of disturbingly common ways in which fellowship applications and contest entries DO go wrong, please see the CONTEST ENTRY BUGBEARS category on the archive list at right.)

I’m happy to report, though, that this weeding-out strategy is less common in fellowship applications than in literary contests. However, in a tight competition, a professionally-presented manuscript excerpt will almost always edge out one that isn’t. (If you don’t know the cosmetic differences between a professional manuscript and any other kind, please see the posts under HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED on the list at right before you even consider applying for a literary fellowship or residency in North America.)

And for the benefit of all of you who just rolled your eyes at that suggestion: I’m just trying to save you some money here. Including a writing sample that isn’t technically perfect — spell-checked, grammatically impeccable, and in standard format — is virtually always simply a waste of an application fee.

Speaking of saving some money, most fellowship- and residency-seeking writers automatically assume that a retreat that provides its residents with regular meals will automatically be less expensive to attend than one that doesn’t. However, that’s not always the case. Having been in residence at both artists’ retreats that fed their residents and those that left them to their own devices — as well as one that marched the middle ground of asking residents for a shopping list and buying us food for us to prepare ourselves — I can envision several reasons you might want to give the gift horse of three cafeteria meals per day a pretty thorough dental examination before you agree to pay extra for it.

“Wait a minute,” some of you just exclaimed. “What do you mean, pay extra for food? Aren’t we talking about retreats where meals are just included in the price — or as part of the fellowship?”

Well, it all depends upon how you choose to look at it. Retreats that provide meals usually do include them as part of a fat fee. They also tend to charge residents more per day than those that do not.

And not necessarily in cash; many artists’ colonies require residents (yes, even fellowship winners) to participate in meal preparation, serving, and clean-up in addition (or instead of) charging for food. So if you’re looking forward to a retreat as a break from cooking for your kith and kin, you will want to read the fine print in its entirety.

If you are seriously interested in a retreat with a pitching-in requirement, e-mail the retreat’s organizers and ask for an estimate of how many hours per week residents are typically expected to contribute. Since many kitchen tasks involve repetitive motion and hand strain, if you have any history whatsoever with repetitive strain injuries, you might want to ask if there are alternative tasks you could do instead, in order to reserve your hand use time for the writing you went on retreat to do.

Here’s the good news for those with aching hands: surprisingly often, residencies that require chores are open to residents buying their way out of them, provided that not everyone in residence has the same bright idea, and the price tag isn’t always particularly expensive. In fact, I’ve attended residencies where I was downright insulted at just how little the organizers evidently thought my time was worth.

How little, you ask? Well, they expected me to rearrange my writing schedule so I could be awake enough to wield a chef’s knife at 6 am four days per week for a month-long residency, regularly requesting my shift to stay on until lunch was served, so we’re talking about a half-time job. Even if they’d calculated it at minimum wage, it probably would have been worth my while to scrape the bottom of bank account to save myself the wrist strain. But in their excellent judgment, digging that deeply into my writing schedule was worth about a third of that.

I would just love to answer that question that half of you just howled at your computer screen, but it’s against my policy to use Author! Author! space for undeserved free advertising. Suffice it to say that if you ask writers who have won fellowships to this particular artists’ colony, most say that they would not consider returning, even though I understand that now the writers’ building does boast some windows, and not all of us had to buy air mattresses to render the mattresses on top of plywood bed frames possible to sleep upon. My bedroom was the only one that had an active hornet’s nest in it, but honestly, I only needed to worry about being dive-bombed when the heater was working.

But that hardly ever happened.

None of that is exaggeration; see my earlier comment about how much fellowship offerings vary. You’d have thought that the fact that it was an expensive artists’ retreat — one of the largest in the United States; it may now actually be the largest — would have dictated better conditions, but believe it or not, the competition to put up with these conditions was extremely stiff.

Incidentally, that particular retreat looked very, very good in its brochures, as well as on its website. As I recall, the food situation was described to potential fellowship applicants a little something like this: Our chef provides three meals per day. Meals feature fresh breads, homemade desserts, soups and a full salad bar. Fresh produce from local, organic farms is used whenever possible. Vegetarian main courses are offered several times a week, but not daily. Regrettably, we are not able to provide for special dietary needs.

Did those last couple of sentences startle some of you? You might want to keep an eye out for similar statements in we-feed-you residencies, but such sentiments provide a clue that been fed might prove more expensive for some attendees than others. Not only were vegetarians and vegans reduced to relying almost exclusively on a not especially exciting salad bar (the object of my early-morning chopping efforts, so I became intimately familiar with its never-changing options), but anyone with problems digesting wheat, dairy, sugar, gluten, peanuts, soy, MSG (present, as nearly as I could tell, in every soup served), or any of the other most common food allergens simply had to eat someplace else.

Why? Because when the chef assumes that anyone who can’t eat something in the entree he’s serving twice per week will simply make himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk, anyone with any of the first five restrictions listed is left without an option that won’t make her ill. And although the fresh bread was tasty, the chopping board was immediately adjacent to the salad bar, so the greens were continually dusted with crumbs. (If that last sentence didn’t make you instinctively clutch at your entrails, you probably neither have nor know anyone with celiac disease.)

Would you have guessed all that from a quick glance at the blurb above? Or budgeted for the necessary additional meals?

Even if you don’t have any dietary restrictions, unless a retreat is well-known for yummy food, being fed doesn’t necessarily mean being fed well. Although retreat food is almost invariably cafeteria-quality food (washed down with, alas, cafeteria-quality coffee), it may not be priced accordingly; if you are not a three-meal-per-day person or not a great lover of dry lasagna, you might actually save money by opting out of the meal plan — or by choosing a residency that doesn’t insist upon feeding you.

Feeding yourself does have its drawbacks, of course: it can be time-consuming, especially if there isn’t a well-stocked grocery store or inexpensive restaurant close to the retreat. (Since retreats are often plopped down in remote places, not having a store or café within easy walking distance is not out of the question.) Even if residents have access to a kitchen, it may not be well-equipped, so you may end up needing to import basics like a good chopping knife — I’ve never known a retreat to be home to a decent one — or a whisk.

Interestingly, good cooks can find feed-yourself retreats a bit trying. Due to some divine oversight, cooking skills are not equally distributed across the human population, so the culinary gifted often find themselves and their plates on the receiving end of puppy-like stares from fellow residents incapable of boiling water successfully. After three or four straight days of watching a nice fellow resident dine on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, I usually can’t stand it anymore and start cooking vats of vegetables for communal consumption.

Time-consuming? Potentially, but at least it’s a matter of personal choice. If I don’t feel like helping the cooking-impaired stave off imminent malnutrition, I can always just walk away from the kitchen whenever the peanut butter jar is open.

Which brings me to one of the main reasons I’m not a huge fan of we-feed-you residencies: you have to eat at specific times. If you are feeding yourself, you don’t have to interrupt your work to rush to the dining hall.

To be fair, for writers who already habitually eat at the predetermined hours, this may not represent much of an interruption, but I usually find the mealtimes inconvenient. I suspect that I’m not alone in this. Although a hefty percentage of writers are at their most creative at night, for some reason beyond my ken, meals at retreats tend all to be during the daylight hours, say 8-9 am for breakfast, 12-1 for lunch, and 6-7 pm for dinner. Great if you happen to arise at the crack of dawn and hit the hay by 10 pm, but downright disruptive should you be a night owl.

The fact that I’m posting this at midnight should give you some hint into which category yours truly is likely to fall. Hoot, hoot — and what do you mean, my pitching-in shift starts at 6 am?

More on the day-to-day practicalities of life at a formal writing retreat follows in the days to come. Keep up the good work!

Dealing with that notorious writer’s wrist ache, by guest blogger Janiece Hopper

Happy day, campers –

As a well-deserved reward for all of the hard work you’ve all been doing on your query letters for the last couple of weeks, I’ve got a treat for you today: novelist , blogger, and FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Janiece Hopper has very kindly agreed to share her experience and wisdom on that topic of perennial interest to writers, repetitive strain injuries.

Often misdiagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries (RSI) are the bane of many a keyboard-loving writer’s existence. As a group, we are particularly prone to it, as we tend to couple long hours working on our passion with long hours on a computer at work. It can be a very dangerous combination.

Janiece has further tips on dealing with RSI on her website, , but for now, rest those wrists and learn from her experience. Enjoy!

Hello again! I am happy to be guest-blogging for Anne and sharing what I’ve learned along my path as a writer, in the hopes that you can be spared a similar story.

Several years ago, I purchased life insurance and had to answer a series of questions so the company could determine my risk factors. After I adamantly replied “No!” to skydiving as a hobby or profession, the agent asked how I spent my free time. “Writing,” I said.

We both chuckled. What could be safer than sitting at a desk in the comfort of one’s own home, sipping coffee, and typing streams of consciousness across a computer screen? A lot! Being a writer can be hazardous to one’s health. Despite the warning stickers on our keyboards, I’m not sure authors are fully aware of the physical costs associated with our intellectual and creative endeavors.

So I am glad Anne asked me to discuss Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) with you. Joseph Hunton, a Hellerwork Practitioner and owner of the Seattle-based company Repetitive Strain Injury Solutions, says, “RSI is an umbrella term for a variety of soft tissue injuries occurring in the hands, arms, neck, and shoulders. These conditions can be extremely painful and even debilitating. RSIs are common among computer users and other occupations involving repetitive use of arms and hands.”

If you have sore wrists or hands that hurt, tingle, or don’t work well, take note, dear friends. If you have chronic neck and shoulder pain or any combination of these symptoms, you are on the road to Repetitive Strain Injury. Please don’t brush it off until you finish that next chapter, no matter how enchanting your storyline is.

Hunton says, “The nasty thing about RSI is that once it actually shows up in your body, a cycle of tension, strain, pain, more strain, more pain spirals your body downward. Because we use our arms and hands in just about every activity, this cycle is extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to break.” Just like your muse, pain becomes a part of your life that you have to learn to manage.

Of course I didn’t know any of this. I just kept on keyboarding away and invested in lots of heating pads and ice packs. When these became ineffective in quelling the pain in my arms, neck, shoulders, and back, I tried traditional physical therapy, massage, chiropractic, medicinal, and acupuncture treatments. For me, Hellerwork is what finally helped get my RSI “under control.”

Hunton says, “The keys to preventing Repetitive Strain Injuries are self awareness, self care, and an ergonomic writing station. Stress, physical or emotional, contributes greatly to muscle tension. When muscles work under tension they have to strain. This strain reverberates through the body forcing compensations, imbalances, eventual breakdown and chronic pain.”

As writers, we are immersed in our imaginations, playing our hearts out with language. Just like little kids forget to go to the bathroom until it is too late, it is easy for us to lose track of time and ignore our body’s signals.

Once my RSI hit full force, it was obvious how sitting at my computer for hours on end led to it. As my treatment progressed, I learned to stretch, to take breaks. One break was about six months. When I started writing again, preparing my manuscript for submission, I became tense again, but I was doing everything right!

It never occurred to me how the stress generated by the desire to get published in today’s market contributed to my RSI. I stumbled across this by accident.

Choosing to publish Cracked Bat myself suddenly freed me from trying to craft the “perfect” pitch and produce the stand-out query letter. I noticed how much lighter I felt, proofing my own galleys from the printer. It was incredible to just stop worrying about how an agent or editor would receive my work.

By getting to bypass “them,” my focus became the readers I had actually written the book for.

Sure, I felt some positive tension around making my book the way I wanted it to be, but that energy was very different from the stress generated by writing to appeal to an unknown, very distant critic who would probably take my work from the middle of a six-foot pile and judge it in seconds. Once I knew my book would be published, I was able to drop the barely conscious niggling fear that my years of labor were for nothing. Freeing myself from the desire to get published has given me a whole new level of relaxation around writing.

This newfound relaxation is so delicious, I want to maximize it. I’ve become more attuned to how I am feeling about writing while doing it. Before I decided to self-publish, I really only paid attention to the emotions I was writing about or the emotions my writing elicited. Now I acknowledge and honor how the act of devoting time and energy to writing affects my body and emotions. Am I tired, forcing myself to write because I won’t have another chance until a week from Wednesday? Or am I frantic and frustrated because I don’t want to lose the words or images that came to me in a dream and I have to leave for work in twenty minutes…and I’m still in my pajamas? I used to grieve these lost opportunities. Grief causes stress!

Do I feel guilty about writing? Shouldn’t I be doing my part to preserve property values in the neighborhood by pulling those weeds in the front yard? And, I have to do the laundry or go to the market, so that my kids and I are well-prepared for school Monday morning. I used to push myself too hard. I still do, but I pay attention to all these conflicts and make more balanced choices.

Surprisingly, self-publishing has shifted the stress factor in my RSI equation and I’m very grateful. If you are feeling tension in your body from writing, please check out the blog on my website for more tips for writers.

To get you started from here, Hunton recommends warming-up before you spend any time keyboarding. Here are two of the stretches he shared with me.

The Torso Twist:
(This one releases deep tension in the shoulder joints and muscles in the back)
Let your arms hang loosely at your sides. Let them be very, very heavy. Twist your torso fully to the right and then to the left. Let the centrifugal force carry your arms around your body. Do this for 10 seconds and then stand still, letting your arms hang at your sides for 10 seconds. Repeat and then sit down and rest with your hands in your lap until all sensations have disappeared.

I find this one helps me “twist” away from daily life and slip into my writing space. When I’m done writing, it helps me leave my story in the room and return to my family with a clearer head.

The Head Turn:
(This one is for your upper chest and back and neck, so they don’t all get stuck together)
This stretch can be done sitting or standing. Keep your chin level. Slowly turn your head to the right as far as you comfortably can. I’m serious about the comfortably part. If you hurt your body, it won’t trust you to know how to take care of it and will lock down. Hold that position for 5 seconds and slowly return to starting position. Rest for 5 seconds and then slowly rotate your head to the left. Hold for 5 seconds and return to center to rest for 5 seconds. Do this a total of 3 times to the left and 3 times to the right.

End facing forward, resting until all the sensations from the movement disappear.
Keeping your neck relaxed, keeps your voice box open. Since writers are all about having a voice, this stretch can be an affirmation for you as you begin a writing session. But, it is very important not to overdo this one, 3 times a day, max. When it comes to the neck (or the throat chakra, if you’ll go there), the spirit may be strong, but the flesh likes it subtle.

Anne and I would love to hear from you about all this. Please post comments and take really good care of yourself!!

PS: I will be at the Monroe Psychic and Healing Arts Fair on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008 at the Best Western Hotel in Monroe, WA. (19233 Highway 2, Monroe, WA, behind Burger King). I will be doing readings from my newly created Cracked Bat Oracle. Don’t miss it your chance to interact with Intuit-Lit! May the good fortune of Ten Pentacles sparkle through your very next reading!

Janiece Hopper lives in Snohomish, Washington. She met her first garden dwarf on an island in the Pacific Northwest when she was four years old. Thirty years later she met a witch in the same place. As an elementary school teacher, librarian, and book reviewer with an M.Ed. from the University of Washington and a B.A. from California State University, she always struggled with calling fairy tales fiction. Intuit-Lit has resolved her conflict nicely. If Janiece ever goes to another baseball game, she’ll be the woman in the stands, trying to drink a mocha while wearing full catcher’s gear.

Details, details…

There’s nothing like trying to write on somebody else’s computer set-up to make you understand the value of ergonomics, is there?  While my beloved laptop is in the shop, I’m working on the system of a kind soul who is 6’2″, and boy, does his workstation reflect it.  I’m not tiny, certainly, but women whose genes hail from small Mediterranean islands inhabited primarily by goats and basil are not infinitely stretchable, after all.

No matter what your cheapskate boss has been telling you:  it’s bad for the human body to type in a workstation designed for a much larger body.  Or a much smaller one.  If you have to look down to see your computer screen, for instance, rather than straight ahead, it is absolutely predictable that your neck is going to start taking exception to it after a while.

Fortunately, I know a good chiropractor, one who deals often with writers and other computer-users stuck in ergonomically trying situations.  (Yet another potentially tax-deductable business expense for those who file Schedule Cs as writers; ask your tax advisor about it.  You see, I’m already thinking ahead to April for you.)  It would, however, probably be a better investment (and equally tax-deductable) for a serious writer to hire an ergonomics expert for an hour or two to personalize the workstation, to eliminate problems before they start.

Maybe, if you ask nicely, Santa will stick an ergonomist in your stocking this year.  I’ve certainly asked Santa for stranger things.

I seldom plug products here (in fact, I think this may be the first time I’ve done it), but if you use a laptop, or even a computer with a detachable keyboard, and you think Santa might be, well, persuadable, Levenger carries a floating keyboard/laptop desk that’s adjustable to absolutely the perfect height for anyone.  This desk positively saved my wrists when I had repetitive strain injuries — I rely upon it so heavily that I once had it shipped to an artists’ colony where I was shortly to be in residence, because I couldn’t imagine writing for a whole month without it.  (For those with less blandishable Santas, Levenger also carries good, not-very-expensive lapdesks, for those who prefer to work on their laptops in easy chairs.)

Enough about furniture.  On to gloating:  one of my dissertation editing clients just passed her doctoral exams today.  Congratulations, Pam!

Writing a dissertation is a tremendous exercise in rule-following:  every margin, every footnote has to conform with an absolutely inflexible set of formatting rules.  (Sound familiar?)  And, to make the process more exciting, dissertators are frequently not TOLD what these rules ARE until after they’ve already taken their books through several professor-reviewed drafts — and sometimes not until after the final draft has been approved.  It is not unheard-of, for instance, for a dissertation to be rejected at the last minute because its maps were on the wrong kind of paper, or its bibliography was in the wrong format.

Admit it:  doesn’t it make you feel just the teensiest bit better to hear that there are luckless souls out there whose pages are given even tighter scrutiny than agency screeners give yours?

If it does, then the final stage of the disseration process should make you feel downright lucky.  Picture this:  after jumping through every other hurdle to earn a doctorate (and there are plenty, believe me), the dissertation-writer is forced to sit in a room with a fiend incarnate who flips through the dissertation in front of the writer, searching for minute formatting flaws.  If even a single one is found, BOOM, back it goes to the writer for revisions.  Diplomas have been known to mold, or even crumble into dust, during such revisions.

You, however, do not have to be in the room when minions of nit-picky powers pore over your manuscripts, looking to find reasons to reject them: you merely have to live with the results.  And because you do, and because PLENTY of good manuscripts, like well-argued dissertations, get rejected on technicalities, I am going to walk you once again through the rigors of standard manuscript format.

Stop groaning, long-term readers; I know I did it only a couple of months ago.  But contest-entry season will shortly be upon us, and since the publishing industry is more or less shut down until after New Year’s, anyway, what better time to make sure YOUR work does not suffer from these common maladies?

So, for those of you who do not already know: standard manuscript for manuscripts is NOT the same as standard format for books, and agency screeners, agents, editors, and contest judges tend to regard submissions formatted in any other way as either unpolished (if they’re feeling generous) or unprofessional (if they’re not). In either case, an improperly-formatted manuscript seldom gets a fair reading by the aforementioned cabal of literary power.  In fact, improperly-formatted manuscripts are often not read at all.

Why? Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that their PRIMARY goal is to weed out the one they are reading at the moment. The faster they can do that, the better for them.

Don’t give ‘em half a chance. The more professional your manuscript looks, the more likely it is to be taken seriously by people within the industry. Period.

Don’t be surprised if not all of these rules are familiar to you:  my extended family has been writing professionally since the 1930s, and there were a couple of them that were news to me when I first started submitting.  I, for one, don’t think it’s fair to judge writers by standards that are not widely known, any more than it’s fair to judge a dissertation’s success by the width of its margins.  But I, as I believe I have mentioned once or twice before, do not run the universe, and thus do not make the rules.

Those of you who have lived through my harping on them before, please do not skip over the rest of this post.  I promise, you will learn something new this time around.  These restrictions honestly do need to sink into your blood, so you won’t make a mistake someday when you’re in a hurry.

A word to the wise:  the more successful you are as a writer, the more often you will be in a hurry, generally speaking.  No one has more last-minute deadlines than a writer with a book contract.

Here are the rules of standard format — and no, NONE of them are negotiable.  Santa Claus himself would have extreme difficulty sneaking a non-standard manuscript past an agency screener, even though he undoubtedly has the world’s best platform to write a book on flying reindeer.  (If that last quip didn’t make you groan, if not chuckle, it’s time to brush up on your agent-speak.)

(1) All manuscripts must be typed in black ink and double-spaced, with at least one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

No exceptions, unless someone in the industry (or a contest’s rules) SPECIFICALLY ask you to do otherwise. No ecru paper, no off-white.  Yes, it can look very nice, but there’s a strategic reason that bright white paper tends to be taken more seriously:  very sharp black-white contrast is strongly preferred by virtually every professional reader, probably as a legacy of having read so many dim photocopies over the course of their lifetimes.  You’d be amazed at how poor the printing quality is on some submissions.

So make sure your printer cartridge is relatively full, okay?

Why the heavier paper? Well, they won’t reject you outright for this, but it’s prudent.  A submission often passes through three or four hands in the course of its road to acceptance — often more, at a large agency or publishing house. Lower-quality paper will wilt after a reading or two; 20-lb or better will not.

(2) All manuscripts are printed on ONE side of the page (unless you are specifically asked to do otherwise).
Yes, this IS criminally wasteful of paper, especially when you consider the millions of pages of submissions that run through the agencies and publishing houses every month. Most agencies do not even recycle; the only reason agencies started accepting e-mailed queries at all was because of the anthrax-in-envelopes scare. (I swear I’m not making that up.)

I assure you, if I ran the universe, paper conservation would be the norm, and recycling mandatory. Also, writers would all be given seven hours each week more than other mortals, free domestic help, and a freshly-baked pie on Truman Capote’s birthday every year. But since the unhappy reality is that I do NOT run the universe, we all just have to live with the status quo.

The entire publishing industry is one vast paper-wasting enterprise. Sorry.

(3) The text should be left-justified ONLY.
A lot of writers squirm about this one. They want to believe that a professional manuscript looks exactly like a printed book, but the fact is, it shouldn’t. Yes, books feature text that runs in straight vertical lines along both side margins, and yes, your word processing program will replicate that, if you ask it nicely. But don’t: the straight margin should be the left one.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New.  These are not mandatory, but experience has shown that manuscripts in these fonts tend to be taken far more seriously.
Translation:  a manuscript in one of these typefaces looks more professional to agents and editors than the same manuscript in other typefaces.

The industry’s affection for these plain, not-too-pretty fonts, as those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know, is a throwback to the reign of the typewriter, which came in only two typefaces, pica (a Courier equivalent, 10 letters per inch) and elite (Times; 12 letters per inch).

If you write screenplays, you may ONLY use Courier. Most screenplay agents will not read even the first page of a script in another typeface — which means that most contest judges will follow suit.

If you are a writer who likes to have different voices presented in different typefaces, or who chooses boldface for emphasis, a submission is not a forum where you can express those preferences freely. Sorry. (See my earlier disclaimer about proprietorship of the universe.)

If you want a specific font for your finished book, you should NOT use it in your manuscript, even if you found a very cool way to make your Elvin characters’ dialogue show up in Runic. The typeface ultimately used in the published book is a matter of discussion between you and your future editor — or, even more frequently, a decision made by the publishing house without the author’s input at all. If you try to illustrate the fabulousness of your desired typeface now, you run the risk of your manuscript being dismissed as unprofessional.

Don’t run that risk.

(5) No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type, keep the ENTIRE manuscript in the same font and size.

Industry standard is 12-point. Again, no exceptions, INCLUDING YOUR TITLE PAGE.  I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term in the industry for title pages with 24-point fonts and fancy typefaces.

It’s “high school book report.”

(6) Do not use boldface anywhere but on the title page.
You may place your title in boldface, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be in bold.

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.  The first page of the first chapter is page 1.
Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional manuscript reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission — it ranks right up there on their rudeness scale with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, “Dear Agent.” It is generally an automatic rejection offense, in fact.

Why do they hate it so much? Gravity, my friends, gravity. Because manuscripts are not bound, and they have been known to get dropped from time to time.  Trust me, no one currently working within any aspect of the publishing industry is going to be willing to waste twenty minutes figuring out from context which unnumbered page you wanted to follow which.

The standard way to paginate is in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page…about which, see point 8.

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should a standard slug line in the header, listing AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/ABBREVIATED TITLE/page #.

Colorful term, isn’t it?  But it doesn’t have anything to do with the beasties wiggling around in your flower beds: in typesetter jargon, a slug is a 30-character collection of type, bound together for multiple uses. (See?  I told those of you who had gone through this list before that you’d learn something new.)

If you have a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep it to that 30-character limit (yes, I know, printing isn’t done this way anymore, but we’re talking about a very tradition-bound industry here).  For example, my latest novel is entitled THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB — 26 characters, counting spaces.  Since my last name is short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:


If, however, my last name were something more complicated, such as Montenegro-Copperfield — 22 characters, including dash, I might well feel compelled to abbreviate:

Most professional slug lines are left-justified (i.e., in the upper-left margin), but you can get away with right-justifying it as well. Just make sure that it is not much longer than 30 characters in length, and the header, for those of you who don’t know (hey, I’m trying to cram as much information into this as possible), is the 1-inch margin at the top of the page.

Whoa, I got so carried away trying to cram new and interesting information into this list that this post is becoming positively Dickensian in length.  More rules of standard format follow tomorrow.

Keep up the good work!

The blessings of Ataraxia, or, How to be a dream client

I sat down to write about agencies again today, but to be absolutely honest with you, I had to stop halfway through, because I’ve been having a genuinely upsetting day. Since we writers have to be so tough to make it in this business, it’s easy to forget that we are actually finely-balanced musical instruments. It’s hard to create when we’re thrown for a loop. Today’s loop-generator was a fairly common one for givers of feedback, professional and friendly both, so I think it would be useful for me to write about it. (And if not, hey, I blog pretty much every day, so if it turns out that I’m just being self-indulgent today, I can always be purely useful again tomorrow, right?)

Because I am EXTREMELY selective about whose work I read (I have been exchanging chapters with my first readers for years, and professionally, I will only work with clients I feel are bursting with talent, but even then, if the subject matter or genre is not a good fit with my tastes, or if I don’t think I can help a writer get published within a reasonable amount of time, I will refer him on), the vast majority of the time, my interactions with other writers are a joy. Really. I enjoy giving feedback quite a bit, even when I am charged with the task of helping a client incorporate not-very-sound advice from an agent, editor, or dissertation advisor in such a way that it will not destroy the book.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t SOUND like a whole lot of fun. But usually, it is: I love good writing, and like any competent editor, the sight of anything that detracts from good writing’s presentation makes me foam at the mouth and reach for a pen.

Every so often, though, I’ll run into someone who thinks I’m just making up the rules of standard format, or norms of academic argumentation, or even the usual human expectation that within a story, each subsequent event will follow logically upon the one before it. (Blame Aristotle’s POETICS for that last set of rules, not me.) This morning, I was lambasted at length for having had the gall to point out that someone’s Chapter Two might not be utterly clear to a reader that did not have the author reading over his shoulder, explaining verbally the choices made on the page.

Long-time readers of this blog, sing along with me here: when you submit a manuscript, all that matters is what is on the page. If ANYTHING in your first 50 pages is not perfectly comprehensible without a “Yes, but I explain that in Chapter Four”-type verbal clarification, rework it.

Please. Thank you.

Now, since it’s my job – or ethical obligation, in cases of volunteer feedback-giving – to point out precisely this sort of problem wherever it appears in a manuscript, I am always a trifle nonplused when I encounter a writer who thinks I’m only flagging it out of some deep-seated compulsion to be hurtful. Again, I am very selective about whose pages I read, and I burn to be helpful: it’s not uncommon for my commentary on a book to be longer as most of the chapters. I try to be thoughtful, giving my reasons for any major suggested change with a specificity and completeness that makes the Declaration of Independence look like a murmur of vague discontent about tea prices.

Obviously, this level of feedback is not for everybody; one of my best friends in the work refers to me affectionately as a manuscript piranha, but still, she lets me read her work. Because, honestly, is there anything worse than handing your work-in-progress to someone who just says, “Oh, it was fine,” or “Oh, it just wasn’t my kind of book,” without explaining WHY? I think completeness of feedback implies a certain level of devotion on my part to making the manuscript in question the best book it can possibly be.

Yet I was told this morning that, to put it mildly, I was incorrect about this. Apparently, I only suggest changes as a most effective means of ripping the author’s heart from his chest, stomping upon it, pasting it back together, sautéing it in a nice balsamic vinegar reduction, then feeding the resulting stew to, if not the author, than at least the neighbor’s Rottweiler.

Imagine my surprise.

This was for a manuscript I LIKED, incidentally. I had made a grand total of ONE suggested change, in the midst of oceans of praise.

So what did I do? What editors and agents moan privately to one another about having to do for their clients all the time, be preternaturally patient until the “But it’s MY work! It MUST be perfect!” tantrum petered out. Until then, further discussion was simply pointless.

Because, in the first moments after receiving critique, creative people are often utterly, completely, fabulously unreasonable about it. They not only want to shoot the messenger – they want to broil her slowly on a spit over red-hot coals like a kabob, and THEN yell at her. Fear of this stripe of reaction, in case you were wondering, is the most common reason most people will give only that very limited “Oh, it was fine” feedback after reading a friend’s manuscript. They’re just trying to keep their heads attached to their bodies, rather than skewered upon some irate writer’s pike.

It’s also the usual excuse — which you may believe or not, as you see fit, considering the source — that most agents give for why they send out form letter rejections, rather than specific, thoughtful replies to requested submissions. Their stated reason for form letter responses to queries, of course, is sheer volume: they don’t have time to reply to each individually. But obviously, if they have the time to read 50 pages, they have time to scrawl a couple of lines about how it could be improved. The fact is, they don’t want to: they don’t want to engender an angry response that might turn into an endless debate about the merits of a book they’ve already decided, for whatever reason, that they do not want.

Since most writers are peaches and lambs and every other kind of pacific, cooperative kind of entity you can think of most of the time, this fear is perhaps overblown. Most of us are perfectly capable of taking a little constructive criticism in the spirit it is intended. But every so often, some author loses it – and for that author’s display of temper, alas, we all pay.

That’s the official logic, anyway.

So now you know: if you want to establish yourself as a dream client in the eyes of the average agent or editor, who tends to hide under a chair after giving even the mildest feedback to her clients, greet the first emergence of any feedback with apparent tolerance; give yourself time to calm down before you argue. To buy yourself time, say something like, “Wow, what an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks.” Then take the rest of the day off, and don’t so much as peek at your manuscript again until you’ve had a chance to calm down.

Say this, even if in that moment, the suggestion proffered seems to you like the worst idea since Hannibal decided to march all of those elephants over the Alps to get at Rome. Because at that precise second, you are not just an individual writer, concerned with the integrity of your own manuscript: you are representing all of us. Show that, contrary to our stereotype in the industry as touchy hotheads unwilling to consider changing a single precious word, most of us really are capable of taking a little criticism.

Admittedly, my readers all acting this beautifully in the fact of critique probably sounds better to me right now than it might had I not just been scathed for trying to help out. Whenever I am confronted with a defensive critique-rejecter, I must confess, I seldom think of cooperative, thoughtful revisers with any abhorrence.

Feedback, though, and the revision process in general, ought to be treated with more respect by everyone concerned. There really ought to be a muse, if not an ancient Greek goddess, of manuscript revision, someone to whom we can pray for patience and tolerance in getting feedback on our work.

A muse of revision might conceivably make better sense to court than a muse of inspiration. Few of us writers like to admit it, but if we write works longer than a postcard, we all inevitably worship in private at this muse’s altar. Why should the initial inspiration gals get all the credit, when so much of the work that makes a book wonderful is in the re-editing?

Editing gets a bad rap, and self-editing even worse. You can’t spend half an hour in a gathering of more than three serious writers without hearing someone bitch about it. Oh, it’s so hard; oh, it’s so tedious. Oh, I’m sick to death of revising my manuscript. If I have to spend another instant of my life reworking that one pesky sentence, I shall commit unspeakable mayhem on the nearest piece of shrubbery.

We don’t describe the initial rush to write that pesky sentence that way, though, do we? Our muse leaps out at us, flirts with us, seduces us so effectively that we look up a paragraph later and find that six hours have gone by. Our muse is the one that gives us that stunned look in our eyes that our loved ones know so well, the don’t-call-me-for-breakfast glaze that tells the neighborhood that we will not be available for normal human interaction for awhile.

Ah, but the muses of initial inspiration don’t always stick around, do they? No, the flighty trollops too often knock you over the head with a great idea, then leave you in the lurch in mid-paragraph. Do they call? Do they write? Don’t they know we worry ourselves sick, we writers, wondering if they are ever going to come back?

Not so Ataraxia, the muse of revision. (Hey, I came up with the notion, so I get to name her. According to the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus — I know, I know; you can’t throw a piece of bread at a party these days without hitting someone chatting about Sextus Empiricus, but bear with me here — ataraxia is the state of tranquility attained only at the end of intense self-examination. Ataraxia is the point at which you stop second-guessing yourself: the ultimate goal of revision, no?)

Ataraxia yanks you back to your computer, scolding; she reads over the shoulder of your dream agent; editors at major publishing houses promise her their firstborn. While being a writer would be a whole lot more fun if completing a good book could be accomplished merely by consorting with her flightier muse sisters, party girls at heart, sooner or later, we all need to appeal to Ataraxia for help.

Best to stay on her good side: for starters, let’s all pledge not to scream at the kind souls who give us necessary feedback. Yes, I suspect Ataraxia would really enjoy that sort of sacrifice.

I’ll confess, I have not always treated Ataraxia with respect myself. How tedious revision is, I have thought from time to time, inventing reasons not to sit down and put in a few hours of solid work on a project. What a bore, to have to go back to a book I consider finished and tweak it: hour after hour of staring at just a few sentences, changing perhaps an adjective or two every ten minutes. Yawn.

Over time, though, I have started to listen to what I was actually telling myself when I complained about revision. It wasn’t that I objected to putting in the time; there have been few days in the last decade when I haven’t spent many hours in front of my computer or scribbling on a notepad; I’m a writer, so that’s what I do. It wasn’t that I felt compelled to rework my novel for the fiftieth time, or, in cases where I’ve been incorporating feedback, that I thought the changes would be bad for the book.

No, my real objection, I realized, is that I expected the revision process to bore me to tears. Am I alone in this?

But Ataraxia watches over even the most ungrateful of writers, so she whacked me over the head with an epiphany: a manuscript is a living thing, and to allow it to change can be to allow it to grow in new and exciting ways.

So now I know: whenever I start procrastinating about necessary revisions, it is a pretty sure sign that I had been thinking of my text as something inert, passive, a comatose patient who might die if I inadvertently lopped off too much on the editing table. What if, instead of thinking of revision as nitpicking, I used it to lift some conceptual barriers within the book? What if I incorporated my first readers’ suggestions about my memoir in a way that made the book better? Not just in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of content?

Just a suggestion: instead of regarding feedback as an attack upon the book, a foreign attempt to introduce outside ideas into an organically perfect whole or a negative referendum upon your abilities as a writer, perhaps it would be more productive to treat critique (your own included) as a hint that maybe the flagged section could use an influx of fresh creativity.

Try to move beyond just making grammatical changes and inserting begrudging sentences where your first readers have asked, “But why is this happening here?” If you have stared at a particular sentence or paragraph for hours on end, changing it and changing it back — c’mon, you know we all do it — naturally, you’re going to get bored. Naturally, you are going to loathe that kind of revision.

But the next time you find yourself in that kind of editing loop, set the text you’re working on aside for a few minutes. Pick up a pen (or open a new document) and write that section afresh, in new words, as if for the first time. No peeking at your old text, and no cheating by using sentences you recall writing the first time around. Allow yourself to use different analogies, to reveal character and event differently. Give yourself time to play with your ideas and the way you want to say them before you go back to the original text.

Then walk away for ten minutes. Maybe you could do some stretching exercises, to avoid repetitive strain injuries, or at least take a stroll around your house. Feed the cat. Plot a better way to get legions of elephants over the Alps. Anything to get your eyes off the printed word for awhile.

And then, when you return, read the original version and the new. You probably will not want to substitute one for the other entirely, but is there any part of the new version that could be incorporated into the old in an interesting way? Are there sentences that can be switched productively, or some new ones that could be added to the old? Are there arguments or character points in the new that would enliven the old?

What you’re doing with this exercise is transforming revision from a task where you are fine-tuning something essentially finished into an opportunity to infuse the manuscript with fresh ideas at problematic points. Conceptually, it’s a huge difference, and I guarantee it will make the revision process a lot more fun.

As Ataraxia wants it to be, I suspect.

Okay, I feel less self-indulgent now: I think I have wrested some good, practical advice out of my very, very bad day. And naturally, unlike your garden-variety agent or editor, I’m not going to give up on this writer because of a single loss of temper. Nor, unlike the average writer’s friend with a manuscript, am I going to let the one writer who implied that my feedback on his work was the worst idea since Stalin last said, “I know! Let’s have a purge!” discourage me from giving feedback to others.

But please, the next time you are confronted with feedback that makes your blood boil, take a deep breath before you respond. Think about me, and about Ataraxia, and force yourself to say, “Gee, what an interesting notion. May I think about it, and we can talk about it later?” Then go home and punch a pillow 700 times, if you must, but please, don’t disembowel the messenger.

She may be bringing you a news flash from Ataraxia. Keep up the good work!