In Conversation with Michael Martone

Interviews, Writing Tips

Thoughts on the creative process and the shifting publishing landscape

by Tara Smith

Martone hat

We’re delighted that Michael Martone, award-winning author, teacher, and judge of this year’s Philadelphia Stories’ Marguerite McGlinn National Prize for Fiction, will be our keynote speaker at Push to Publish. In anticipation of his visit with us here in Philadelphia, Martone shares a few thoughts on publishing, writing for contests, and a writing technique called “collage.”


TS: Writers generally come to a conference called “Push to Publish” carrying a jumble of hopes, expectations, and questions about being published. What did it mean for you to first be published? And how would you suggest that unpublished writers allocate their time and energies between writing and working at being published?

MM: I always ask my students if they want to be published. I will ask the participants at the conference that as well. And all will say, I imagine, yes. And then I will say, “I have an incredibly powerful typesetting machine, the same layout software used by Knopf, and electronic connections to printers in Iceland, China, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. I can publish you right now.” And what I expect to hear is, no, that’s not what we mean by “publishing.” What is it we mean when we want to publish? So a conference about publishing, I think, should not be so much about the “How to” material that has snap and pat solutions, but should address that “jumble” you mention and how specialized and individualized the notions of successful publishing are for each of us. I consider my contribution of a story to a workshop of 12 people to be an act of publishing. I have published a story in a magazine that probably had fewer than a dozen subscribers. I have written and sold poems on the spot on subject matter suggested by the reader on the streets of Philadelphia. I have published in journals subsidized by universities or by Karastan carpets. I have published myself in books. As an editor, I have published others in magazines and books. For me, more and more, it is harder to compartmentalize the me who is the writer and the me who is the contributor of his writing. I find myself living in a horizontal world of publishing. I don’t spent much time at all thinking in the vertical.

TS: I ask my writer friend, whose only experience of collage was an unfortunate incident in second grade involving scissors, paste, and her parents’ wedding photos, to come along to your Push to Publish master class, “The Four C’s: Context, Cutting, Compression, and Collage” ( How would you suggest I word the invitation?

MM: Well, I think you could actually cut and paste. That is to say Google the word “collage” (let me just point out that when we “Google” we are making, with our computers, collages) and then, going to the various result pages, cut out interesting snippets of text and/or graphics and paste them into your invitation. The hardest part of collage for prose writers, I think, is giving up the feeling of control of the text. In collage one creates interesting environments, arranges things, invites the reader to make something from these disparate pieces but does not invite them to specific results, specific conclusions, meanings. It is not about the point but the spread. The technique would not be the best for the form of writing we call an “invitation” as specific information needs to be transmitted. But it is great at creating a sensation, a mood, a tone. It is the sublime in plain sight. There is no way to take notes as the thing itself looks as if it is nothing but notes. Ah, “nothing but notes!”

TS: You read the top stories for Philadelphia Stories’ Marguerite McGlinn National Prize for Fiction ( this year and selected our winner, Che Yeun’s “One in Ten Fish Are Afraid of Water.” You’ve been both winner and reader for many writing contests (though presumably not both for the same contest!). What advice would you give to writers submitting a story for next year’s Marguerite McGlinn contest?

MM: Tough to give advice as that implies that such judgment remains static and unchanging. Remember, I selected from a pool of ten finalists. I am not even sure who made the initial cut through all of the submissions. What were the stories I did not even see? I might have really admired many of the stories in the first round but did not see them as the first readers’ taste just differs from mine. Remember, too, that it is sheer luck when and how a submission is read. If you are read first of the day or last after the judge has read 25 stories before yours, that placement could deflect the reading. We make a mistake in contests if we proceed in the belief that there are objective standards that everyone understands, agrees upon, and can attain. My advice? Think of contests as a lottery with much better odds though a lower payout. It is always nice to have someone read your work either in the setting of a contest or in an attempt to have that work published, but the writer cannot surrender his or her feeling about that work to the judge or editor. Not being selected or published is and should be considered very low stakes. Writing success, for me, is not tactical but strategic. It is about the long game, the lifetime of writing. Contests and publishing are dangerous, then, if the writer grants these immediate snap judgments the power to divert his or her individual work from the long-term life’s project.

TS: What one truth, idea, or inspiration would you hope that Push to Publish participants take back to their writing desks after the conference is over?

MM: Quantity has a quality all its own.

TS: You’ve travelled widely and taught in many different contexts, including Philadelphia and Rosemont College. What particular opportunities and challenges do you see for us as a community of writers here, in 2013?

MM: I am not sure I would locate the challenge in Philadelphia. The challenge has to do with the construction of authorship and audience. The models of both are in rapid flux in this time and place. The categories of author, editor, publisher, agent, reader seem to be collapsing. When I started writing, if I published myself it was considered “vanity” publishing, but that word has now been replaced by “self” and we suspect (we fear?) that “self” itself will disappear altogether. I am writing this on an incredibly powerful typesetting and publishing machine that is connected to a seemingly infinite network of other machines. So maybe the challenge is to figure out what is “network” which is to say what is community itself? Maybe the community here isn’t negotiating challenges and opportunities but the notion of community itself is the challenge, is the opportunity.

TS: Do you have a “most embarrassing publishing moment” (real or imagined) that you could share with us?

MM: In the late seventies, I went to a reading given by George Plimpton, the founding editor of The Paris Review, a magazine I had been submitting stories to unsuccessfully. Mr. Plimpton as a writer was famous for his books of participatory journalism. He trained and played football with the Detroit Lions. He played professional baseball, hockey, golf. Played in a professional symphony. He wrote about being an amateur in with the professionals. After his reading during the Q&A that followed, I asked if he would allow me, an amateur, to edit The Paris Review for an issue. He was not amused.


Michael Martone is the award-winning author of Four for a Quarter, Not Normal, Illinois: Peculiar Fiction from the Flyover, and many other titles. Martone has won two Fellowships from the NEA and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. His stories and essays have appeared in The Best American Stories and The Best American Essays anthologies. He is currently a professor at the University of Alabama, where he has been teaching since 1996.

When and where can you meet Michael Martone?

In addition to the keynote address at Push to Publish on Saturday morning, Martone will be giving a reading at Rosemont on Thursday evening, October 10th (, ( and a master class on Friday the 11th (

The Author-Agent Relationship

Interviews, Writing Tips


As Philadelphia Stories prepares for another fun Push to Publish writing conference coming up on October 12, we asked literary agent Rita Rosenkranz to share her tips on what an author should look for when shopping for an agent. Below is a sampling of her tips. We are happy to report that Ms. Rosenkranz will also be sharing her insights at both the speed date and the “meet the agents” panel discussion at the Push to Publish event.

What should authors look for in an agent?

I advise authors to “know thyself,” because there is a spectrum of agents with different personalities, strengths, level of experience, connections to the film world, etc. Depending on the author’s publishing history and/or ambitions, she might benefit more from a well-established agent, whereas another author will connect better with a hungry, new agent. Do you want a New York-based agent? Some—but not all authors—do. Some authors prefer to have an agent close to where they are based. Will the author be working with the agent or mostly with an assistant or intern? What are the agency’s commission and agency charges (and is there a cap on charges)? I advise authors to review the questions listed on the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) Web site to help determine the best fit.

Finding the right agent can mean different things to different people. What suggestions do you have for writers who want to gain a deeper knowledge of the agents they are pitching?

I think many authors don’t consider the nuances of the agent/author relationship beforehand. More than to simply know they want an agent, authors should identify what matters most to them. Do they want an agent who will simply get them the most money or one who will help them become better writers and who will be available for matters large and small? More than ever, writers can learn about agents thanks to the Web. On many sites authors exchange experiences––offering recommendations, sob stories and everything in-between––undiluted and uncensored. Writer’s Digest, as well as other print and online venues, regularly profiles agents, offering writers a deeper sense of the agent’s personality, taste and approach to the author/agent relationship.

Where you do you find your authors?

I find authors every which way: through queries, conferences, word-of-mouth, and my own active outreach campaign. I read my mail closely and with anticipation. I have found wonderful projects through query letters. Only a fraction of the projects I ask to see end up being right for me. But I sometimes will offer feedback even if I end up turning down the project, and the author presumably benefits from this exchange. Sometimes a writer whose work I’ve turned down will reconnect with me later with a new project that in fact does interest me.

If you fall in love with a project, will you simply take it on, or do you run it through a marketability grid? Do you take on projects you think will sell even if you don’t love them?

If I fall head-over-heels in love with a project, I’m willing to move forward even if the market is small. I’ve handled niche projects and sometimes if it’s a rich niche with a renewable market, one can be rewarded over time. I don’t feel I have to love the project so much as respect its purpose and its market. How wonderful though when I do love it. Those occasions especially help keep me buoyed by my work.

Once a writer signs with an agent, what type and what frequency of contact can she or he expect?

It’s impossible for me to generalize, since writers have different needs and agents handle business differently. I personally want my authors to be in the loop in a real-time way, whether it involves rejections or other matters that can play a part in their wellbeing. At the same time, I’m sensitive to authors’ individual personalities and preferences. While maintaining my basic approach to the relationship, I’ll adapt wherever I can. This might mean not sharing rejections but only letting the author know when there is an offer.

What are your biggest frustrations when working with a client?

It’s easiest for me to do my best work when an author is dependable, respectful of deadlines, proactive in terms of generating publicity for themselves and promotion for their books, thanks to their speaking circuit, podcasts, etc. The more I am preoccupied about these points the less time I will have for higher level efforts, for instance, discussing the author’s next book project. Also, too often I am making excuses for delays in the publishing process—for instance in getting contracts or payment of advances to the author—and it can be frustrating to spend so much time on what should be automatic. I am most thrilled when a project introduces me to a world I hadn’t realized would interest me, and where the author is a well-paired partner to the work.

What is the most important thing for writers to know about agents?

There is great variety among us, in the kinds of writers we’re attracted to, our approach to the author/agent relationship, our editorial sense, our publishing connections, and our stick-with-it-ness, even when a project doesn’t win a publisher’s interest right away. This should give authors hope that within the large and diverse community of agents, there will be a perfect match. I think the most successful writers manage to persevere and show great fortitude no matter what the circumstance. Agents need to demonstrate this too, of course, and the journey together is much more sturdy and rewarding when the agent and author can stay the course through the difficult spots, too.

Rita Rosenkranz founded Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency in 1990 after a career as an editor with major New York houses. Her non-fiction list includes health, history, parenting, music, how-to, popular science, business, biography, sports, popular reference, cooking, spirituality and general interest titles. Rita works with major publishing houses, as well as regional publishers that handle niche markets. She looks for projects that present familiar subjects freshly or lesser-known subjects presented commercially.


11th Annual DFH Poetry Contest

Author Events, Writing Tips

Summer is here, and if you’re over 21, we might have just the thing to keep you cool and occupied: The 11th Annual Dogfish Head Poetry Prize. It’s a full mid-Atlantic poetry contest with some great prizes. Obviously you have a little under two months to write up some poetry, but don’t slack! The guidelines are as follows:


 The Eleventh Annual Dogfish Head Poetry Prize for the winning book-length manuscript by a poet residing in the Mid-Atlantic states (DE, MD, VA, PA, NJ, NY, WVA, and NC) will consist of $500, two cases of Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Beer*, book publication by Broadkill River Press,  and 10 copies of the book (in lieu of royalties).

The rules are: Manuscripts must be received by midnight, September 2, 2013 (Labor Day).  Manuscripts received after Labor Day will not be considered.  Eligible poets must reside in the above listed states and be twenty-one years of age or older by the date of the award. *  The manuscript is to be submitted electronically in one MS Word document attachment.  Send to Prize co-ordinator Linda Blaskey at  Snail mail submissions will not be accepted.

Send two title pages with each submission: one with the title of the manuscript, your name, address, phone numbers and e-mail address; the second with just the manuscript title.   No manuscript is to have any author-identifying information other than the one title page and will be rejected if it does.   The manuscript should have an acknowledgement page of poems previously published, and in which publications and/or web-sites they appeared.  Judging is blind and double-tiered.

The manuscript must be book-length (between 48 and seventy eight pages of original work – no translations) and no more than roughly  thirty lines to a page, including the poem’s title and two line-spaces between the title and the body of the poem.  A poem may be more than one page.  The book’s dimensions will be 8.5 inches by 5.5 inches, with a minimum of half-inch side margins, and printed in 12 point type, so avoid very long lines.

The award will be presented to the poet on Sunday, December 8, 2013 at the Dogfish Head Brewpub and Restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  The winner must agree to attend this event and to read from their winning book at a reception honoring the winner.  The prize will be officially awarded by Sam Calagione, Founder and CEO of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and Distillery, or by another company official.

The author of the winning manuscript also agrees to provide, within ten days of notification, a color head-shot photograph for the back cover and a dedication for the interior of the book.  The winner agrees to travel to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware at the winner’s expense for awarding of the prize.   Dogfish Head will provide the winner one night’s lodging in Rehoboth Beach where Dogfish Rehoboth Brew Pub and Restaurant is located.

Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales retains the right to use any of the winning work in promotional materials.

For questions and more information contact Linda Blaskey, Prize co-ordinator, at

Good Luck!

Writing Prompt Wednesday

Writing Tips

Many writers discuss the same themes in their work. This
writing exercise is to help you sort out what are your major themes in your own

Take about ten minutes and think about who or what you
believe in.

After the ten minutes have passed, start writing down your
beliefs in this format:

I believe in…

I believe…..

Come up with about twenty of them. Do you see a common
theme? Think about what makes you connect to those things. Why do you believe
in that person? What does he or she mean to your life? Look at the things you believe
in. Think about why you are attracted to those things.

Keep this list near you when you write. As you begin to get
stuck with a character’s motive or maybe an overall theme, look at your list.
These are things you most likely want to talk about. Think about how those
things on your list can make it into your work.

Defining New Words: Watch The Traffic!

Writing Tips

Stay on the crosswalk!

I blog about technology and psychology, and occasionally about the writing life. Sometimes the worlds of Internet culture, behavior and language meet. When it does, it ain’t pretty. Recently, a “comment war” started on my blog at that intersection. It was an accident waiting to happen; Imagine Cottman and The Boulevard with no stoplights.

The Internet, the World Wide Web, mobile phones, etc. all require new terms. Naturally, technology and social networking terms come up in my writing often. Neologisms are the red-headed stepchild pioneers of language, pushing boundaries of usage, staking claims on new concepts, and gaining the fascination and at times the hatred of the more traditional writer and speaker. This is my area of expertise. I early-adopt technology neologisms before your text-happy teen has typed them. By the time you’ve seen them, I’ve found a way to abbreviate or render the terms obsolete. After all, this is my job. I’m a techie geek: I’ve held jobs as a systems administrator, a web master, and a beta tester for new applications. I’ve been online since 1988. I now write for online and offline publications about how technology influences our lives.

As writers, we all keep our eyes on the language. We detect its changes, we embrace its nuances. I see tech terms come and go. Some terms stay exclusively in the developer community (“hacker” was an esteemed label for them). Some terms exist for specific applications, (e.g. “friend” as a verb in Facebook, “Tweet” as a noun and a verb for Twitter). Some terms so truly capture a cultural concept that both the concept and the term leak into the mainstream (read: “offline” if you’re over 35). “Meme” is one of those words. I’m here to warn you: Define it at your own risk.

The comment war on my blog began when a post of mine went a bit viral. As of this writing, the post has over 20,000 views. In the article, I outline how a popular Facebook phenomenon called “100 Books” is based on urban legend and not truth. The meme states that the BBC claimed people have read, on average, only 6 books of the best 100 books in all of Literaturedom. It turns out that the BBC never made any such claim, and the list’s origin is quite suspect at best.

I used the phrase “a chain-letter like game” to quickly define the word meme (pronounced meem, rhymes with dream) for my readers. Commentors began to take issue with my definition. Arguments ensued, mostly because I believe in a descriptivist approach to language, and some picky end-users of English are sticklers for the “law”. As a descriptivist, I don’t agree with the idea that there exists a “Proper English” to which we are all inescapably bound. Basic grammar exists so we can communicate with the least amount of ambiguity, but even basic grammar changes over time. The end-users I prickled are people under the (false) impression that words have perhaps one or two definitions, and that using the words in any way divergent from those definitions is unacceptable. Even the people at Google hate it when people use “google” as a verb to mean “search the Internet.” (I would think they’d be pleased as punch, like “Kleenex” “Aspirin” and “Band-Aid” are to cover their categories, but to each quirky company its own). I don’t feel like there is much room for the prescriptivist approach in tech or internet culture neologisms. We just have to use the terms, throw them out into the bits and bytes traffic of the Internet, and see what survives. The Internet culture moves too fast to do otherwise.

I won’t outline the details of the comment war; you can go witness that car wreck for yourself (links at end of post). I would just rather bring your attention around to your own struggles with words, or rather, your struggles as writers to get people to see your vision when they read your work. I know I’m tempting fate when I try to diagonally cross the intersection of Internet culture, end-users, language and theory, but when it comes to the information superhighway, I don’t wait for the light. If I see an opening, I take it. I run like the Dickens. Sometimes I reach the other side. Sometimes I’m smushed like an old lady dressed in black at 2 a.m.on a Friday night. When the Word Police leave me for dead, maybe you, my fellow writers, can come and scrape me up, dust me off, and send me on my way to dodge the traffic once more.

Let me know of your own run-ins and fender benders in the world of writing in the comments. I’ll friend you on Facebook if you do, I promise.

-Christine Cavalier

100 Books Meme on Facebook

Meme Definition from Merriam-Webster