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Think of a piece of gossip you've heard and identify the least sympathetic person involved. Maybe it's the adulterous mother of two? Or the Salvation Army bell ringer who, during the holidays, pocketed some of the donations he'd collected? Write a story from the perspective of the least sympathetic person with the piece of gossip as the narrative climax. You might also try writing the story with the piece of gossip as the inciting action of the story, as the event that sets everything in motion.
This week's fiction prompt comes from Bret Anthony Johnston, fiction writer and editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer.

Choose a clichéd phrase ("fit as a fiddle," "think out of the box," "running on empty," etc.) and turn it around. Use the new meaning created by this reversal to fuel a poetic meditation.

The winner of the 2011 Story Prize, the annual twenty-thousand-dollar award for a collection of short fiction, was announced on Wednesday night. Idaho author Anthony Doerr received the honor for his fourth book and second story collection, Memory Wall (Scribner), a series of stories investigating memory and its relation to sense of self.

Judges John Freeman, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Marie du Vaure selected Doerr's book from a three-strong shortlist that also included Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Random House) and Suzanne Rivecca's Death Is Not an Option (Norton). Li and Rivecca each received five thousand dollars.

Memory Wall also won the Pacific Northwest Literary Award and made recommended reading lists at the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Doerr has received numerous honors for his previous work, including two O. Henry Prizes, the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award, and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize.

Here's what critics had to say about Memory Wall.

"Doerr is daring, yes, and compassionate, but more than anything, the four stories and two novellas in this collection are imbued with, and fueled by, a deep, almost anachronistic-seeming respect for his twin muses: memory and the natural world." Jeff O'Keefe for the Rumpus

"The impetus of a Doerr story is always a movement toward transcendence, and the process is what matters, not the vehicles: not the metaphors, not the tricky plots, not the local color, not the occasional bursts of melodrama. It’s the flow of experience toward something resembling meaning, a sense of one’s place in time." Terrence Rafferty for the New York Times Book Review

"[Doerr] has a scientist's eye, a lyrical sensibility, and an impressively global canvas." Justine Jordan for the Guardian

In the video below, Doerr discusses books that blew his mind. 

[Correction: Story Prize winner Anthony Doerr received an award of twenty thousand dollars, not ten thousand dollars, as previously reported.]

Make a list of five physical artifacts that seem to lack emotional weight, the more mundane the better. A donut, a vacuum cleaner, a pair of socks, etc. From your list, choose one of the artifacts, and use it as the emotional linchpin of a story. Write a story in which, say, a vacuum cleaner takes on enormous and surprising emotional significance to a character. For an example of how this can work, read Ann Beattie's story "Janus" from her collection Where You'll Find Me and Other Stories (Scribner, 2002).
This week's fiction prompt comes from Bret Anthony Johnston, fiction writer and editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer.

The finalists for this year's PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, which carries a prize of fifteen thousand dollars, were announced today. The shortlisted authors are Jennifer Egan for her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf), which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; MacArthur "Genius" Fellow Deborah Eisenberg for The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg (Picador); Jaimy Gordon for her National Book Award-winning novel Lord of Misrule (McPherson); Eric Puchner for his novel Model Home (Scribner); and Brad Watson for his story collection Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (Norton).

The titles were selected by authors Laura Furman, William Kittredge, and Helena Maria Viramontes from among 320 novels and short story collections published in 2010 by more than 125 publishers.

How does a judge manage to winnow all those entries? "There's a little sound a hardback book makes when it's first opened, not exactly a squeak but almost, and that sound became familiar," says Furman. "When I felt unsure, groggy, or worst, compromising, my fellow judges were there—as were the best of the books—to remind me to keep to the strictest of standards, those of my heart, instinct, and intelligence."

The winner of the thirty-first annual award will be announced during a ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. on May 7.

In the video below, Egan reads from her nominated book at New York City's Franklin Park Reading Series.

Flip through the dictionary and randomly choose ten words. Write a poem with each word in every other line.

The Yale University Library announced yesterday the winner of the one-hundred-thousand-dollar Bollingen Prize for a poet's lifetime contributions to the art. The award goes to "fierce elegist" Susan Howe, author of works of poetry and lyric prose that weave together "history and mysticism, Puritan New England devotional writing and the Irish folk Ballad, visual lyricism and dramatic narrative, scholarship and memoir."

According to judges Peter Gizzi, Marjorie Perloff, and Claudia Rankine, Howe's most recent book, That This, published by New Directions in December, "makes manifest the raw edges of elegy through the collision of verse and prose, visionary lyricism and mundane incident, ekphrasis, visual patterning, and the reclamation of historical documents." Howe wrote the book after the sudden death of her husband, scholar Peter H. Hare, in 2008.

Howe's oeuvre also includes the poetry collections Souls of the Labadie Tract (2007), The Midnight (2003), The Europe of Trusts: Selected Poems (2002), Pierce-Arrow (1999), Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974–1979 (1996), The Nonconformist's Memorial (1993), all published by New Directions, and Singularities (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). She is author of the prose volumes The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (Wesleyan University Press, 1993) and My Emily Dickinson (North Atlantic Books, 1985).

The Bollingen Prize has been given biennially since 1948 to honor American poets. Past winners include John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and Adrienne Rich.

Write a scene for a story, set in a kitchen, with two characters. One of the characters is keeping a secret from the other. (The secret can be as big as, "You're adopted" or as small as, "I forgot to pay the cable bill.") The character with the secret doesn't reveal it, but still the secret bears down on everything the characters say to each other, the way they touch or don't touch each other, the things and places they turn their eyes to. Let the secrets either emerge or disappear, depending on the way the story evolves.
This week's fiction prompt comes from novelist Lauren Grodstein, author most recently of A Friend of the Family (Algonquin Books, 2009).

The Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice will once again award ten-thousand-dollar grants to a poet and a fiction writer, but with a deadline falling a few months earlier than last year's. Entries for the 2011 awards, given to lesbian writers for work with lesbian content, will be due by the end of the business day on March 22.

Two finalists in each genre will receive one thousand dollars each and six honorable mentions will be awarded one hundred dollars each, with at least one of the grants given to a writer west of the Mississippi. A panel of distinguished lesbian writers, which has in the past been populated by writers such as Sharon Bridgforth, Staceyanne Chin, Kristen Hogan, Achy Obejas, and Pamela Sneed, will select the grantees.

For guidelines on what to submit and access to Astraea's online submission system (their preferred mode of entry), visit the foundation's Web site.

In the video below, 2010 poetry winner Lenelle Moïse reads a poem inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat over a montage of his paintings.

Write a sonnet, a fourteen-line poem made up, typically, of three stanzas of four lines, and a fourth of two lines, or a couplet. Use the following rhyme scheme: In each of the first three stanzas, rhyme the first and third lines and the second and fourth lines (a, b, a, b, c, d, c, d, e, f, e, f); and rhyme the lines of the couplet (g, g). For a traditional example, see Shakespeare's "From you have I been absent in the spring...." For a contemporary example, see Denis Johnson's "Heat."

The National Book Foundation (NBF) has begun to roll out its series of conversations about the poetry volumes that have won the National Book Award in the genre over the past sixty-one years. Fifty-one books (the prize was not awarded from 1984 to 1990, which accounts for the discrepancy), from William Carlos Williams's Paterson: Book Three and Selected Poems (New Directions, 1950) to Terrance Hayes's Lighthead (Penguin, 2010), will be covered in short essays by contemporary emerging poets such as Ross Gay, John Murillo, and Evie Shockley.

The project is part of the NBF's Lineage program, celebrating the poetry prize's all-stars since 1950 (two years ago, the NBF published a similar series of essays highlighting its fiction winners). The retrospective, says NBF director of programs Leslie Shipman, is designed "to generate a discussion [about] how American poetry has evolved over the past sixty years and it's current vitality in the cultural landscape."

The foundation is also holding a related panel and poetry reading next Thursday and Friday in New York City. Later this spring the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis will host a Lineage presentation, and one additional event in another city is also in the works.

To read the daily poetry book posts, which include biographical information, excerpts of poems, links, and contextual nuggets, visit the NBF's Web site.

In the video below, Kathy Bates reads 1952 winner Marianne Moore's "Poetry." The NBF essay on Moore's Collected Poems was written by poet Lee Felice Pinkas.

We asked Ryan Fischer-Harbage of The Fischer-Harbage Agency, Inc., whose client list includes Ethan Brown, Courtney Eldridge, Bill Eppridge, Aliya King, Amy Sullivan, and Jackson Taylor, to fill us in on his book proposal writing class at Mediabistro.com.

Do most of your Mediabistro students have a book they’ve started when they sign up for your class?
Most people have an idea, and in addition to the workshop, I also teach an advanced class where people can only sign up if they have a rough idea of a book, or several ideas. I think these classes are most effective for people who are already into something.

Have most of your students received their MFA?
The thing I like about Mediabistro is that they attract working writers so it’s a wide mix of people. Right now I have a class of ten. Three of them have their MFAs and some of them are professionals in other things—there’s even a trainer, and then the others are journalists.

What does a book proposal look like?
So here’s the deal. When you’re selling a nonfiction book you don’t have to write the whole book. You only have to write a proposal. A TV writer writes a spec script, a musician puts together a demo tape, and whether you’re writing a memoir or a health and wellness title or narrative nonfiction, you write a book proposal. Generally speaking, a proposal is forty-five to seventy-five pages.

What is the standard template for a book proposal?
There are five or six components, perhaps the most important of which is the sample material from the book. In eight weeks, if my students do their homework, which probably 75 percent of the time they do, people have a working first draft of their proposal by the end of the course.

What is the success rate for your students getting their book sold?
It’s my experience that in every workshop, whether it’s a regular nonfiction book proposal workshop or an advanced workshop, at least one student from every group sells their book within ninety days of the class. And there are more that come later, but I usually hear about the ones right after the class.

I’m guessing that because you’re an agent you know what other agents are looking for?
I don’t necessarily tell people where to pitch their proposals. I’m more concerned with the actual craft than with the business side of things.

What are your top five tips when pitching a book proposal?
One: The big publishers won’t consider a proposal unless it’s from an agent. Obviously some of the small presses and university presses don’t care, but I always advise people to start at the top. You know, if you have the choice of Random House paying you real money for your book and getting copies in every store in the country, or a university press paying you nothing and getting your book on Amazon and a couple local bookstores, I think, Why not start at the top? Writers should be paid.

Two: Writers need to know to whom they’re pitching, which means having a real familiarity with what an agent does. Writers send agents a query letter, which is a one-page summary of their book, and it also includes a brief bio of the writer. I think this letter should be sent to agents that the writer’s research suggests would be interested in their book. For example, when I get a query letter that says, “Dear Agent,” and I see that fifty or seventy-five of my colleagues are cc’d on the e-mail, I just delete it. I don’t even read it. The writer put no time into sending it to me, and I feel no obligation into putting time into reading it. When someone sends me a letter that shows the writer is familiar with my work, I can’t just delete it because I feel and see that they’ve put a little bit of time into sending it to me, and I owe them time to read it.

Three: People often send their query letters out before their proposal is finished, and if I write back and say, “Great, I’d love to read it,” and I get a response like, “Oh, well, it’s going to be ready in six months, and I’ll send it to you,” I feel annoyed. I could get hit by a bus in the next six months. I think it’s much more professional to have the proposal finished and when someone says they’d like to read it—boom, you send it.

Four: The mistake I see most frequently is people don’t put enough time into their work. They rush things and they don’t engage in a meaningful editorial process of careful revision. Agents are a little more forgiving than editors. Agents will look at something more than once. We’re used to seeing things that are less developed, and a good agent will help develop a writer a bit, but the work has got to be done. We don’t talk about competition in this business, but it’s extremely competitive.

Five: Work finds its place. The market forces work pretty well—not perfectly, and certainly a lot of great work goes undiscovered, but when someone really focuses on his or her craft and does the footwork, whatever’s supposed to happen generally does.

Fischer-Harbage accepts queries via e-mail: ryan@fischerharbage.com. Based on a high volume of submissions, his only request is patience.

Dzanc Books has announced the winner of its 2010 short story collection competition. Jason Ockert, who teaches at Coastal Carolina University outside Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, received the one-thousand-dollar prize, and his second collection, Neighbors of Nothing, will be published in October 2013 by the five-year-old Michigan press that has brought to print works by writers such as Laura van den Berg, Roy Kesey, Terese Svoboda, and Peter Selgin.

Ockert is also the author of Rabbit Punches, published in 2006 by Low Fidelity Press in Brooklyn, New York. In a review of his debut collection, Publishers Weekly says, "Though Ockert's voice is still developing, his beautiful and unexpected imagery make him a writer to be watched."

Take a gander at the author in the video below, in which Ockert previews one of the stories in his forthcoming collection at last year's Virginia Festival of the Book.

Make a list of traditionally happy occasions: Weddings, children's birthday parties, trips to the beach, promotions at the office, etc. Choose one of the occasions and write a story that subverts the reader's expectations by engaging the opposite emotions. How might a children's birthday party turn frightening? (Hint: clowns!) How might a trip to the beach turn sad? Why would someone be angry about a promotion? The answer is always in the story.
This week's fiction prompt comes from Bret Anthony Johnston, fiction writer and editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer.

The shortlist for the fourth annual Man Asian Literary Prize was announced yesterday, marking the first time the relatively new prize has called out titles already published in English. According to an article on yesterday's Wall Street Journal arts blog, the shift took place after organizers found the prize wasn't quite fulfilling its original objective: to seek out and distinguish unknown writers.

The old prize model accepted from Asian writers novel manuscripts that remained unpublished in English, but, despite the proposed aim of the award, did not stipulate at what stage in their careers eligible writers should be. The inaugural winner, selected from more than two hundred and fifty submissions, was Jiang Rong for Wolf Totem, which had already been published in Chinese and sold millions of copies. In 2009, Su Tong, well known for his novel Raise the Red Lantern, won for The Boat to Redemption. Only the 2008 winner, Filipino American writer Miguel Syjuco, was recognized for what would become his debut novel, Ilustrado (and even he had received the prestigious Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature for the same manuscript in the Philippines).

“As we sat down and thought about it, we came to realize that, in fact, the Man Booker [Prize] format of dealing with published novels is a lot better,” David Parker, chairman of the Man Asian Literary Prize, told the Wall Street Journal, referring to the Man Asian Prize's long-running British Commonwealth counterpart. He went on to say that the Booker "is a focus of a conversation about literature that occurs every year. It’s not just about writers and publishers. It’s about readers as well. It’s about the whole culture getting involved in literature.”

This year's conversation-starters are:
Three Sisters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Bi Feiyu of China
Serious Men (Norton) by Manu Joseph of India
The Thing About Thugs (HarperCollins) by Tabish Khair of India
The Changeling (Grove Press) by Kenzaburo Oe of Japan
Hotel Iris (Picador) by Yoko Ogawa of Japan

The winner of the thirty-thousand-dollar prize will be announced in Hong Kong on March 17.

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