The Writing Room: Two Must-Have Craft Journals for the Literary Writer

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

When the pile of periodicals on the kitchen counter at our house gets to be about a foot high and the magazines, slippery and slick as most of them are, begin their inevitable slide into the kitchen sink, I know it’s time to toss some of them in the recycling bin or find a home for them on the magazine rack up at the gym.

I could start a second stack of magazines, of course, but then it would become all too apparent to me, and to my long-suffering husband, that magazine greed has gotten the better of me again.

I love to read. I love magazines. I could read every one of them, cover to cover. Oprah. The New Yorker. Image Journal. Christian Century. Tricycle. More magazine. Fourth Genre. Hinduism Today. You get the picture. There simply isn’t time to read them all, but I can’t bear to throw them out. There might be some amazing gem in that stack, some shred of light that will transform my life or better yet my writing.

That said, I notice that there are two magazines that never quite make it to that stack on the kitchen counter: Poets & Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle. If one of them shows up in our mailbox around lunch time, instead of plopping it onto the pile, I open it up and read. On those days, it can be an hour or more before lunch is over and I find my way back downstairs to my writing room and my keyboard.

It seems that, above all things, I love to read about writing. I’ll read everything, from the formulaic but knowledgeable pages of Writer’s Digest to my husband’s splashy copies of Creative Screenwriting, even though I don’t write screenplays . . . yet. But for me Poets & Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle are by far the satisfying periodicals on the subject of writing. They have me hooked.

Poets and Writers, just for starters, has the best listing of upcoming deadlines for writing conferences, residencies and contests I know of. (But if you know of a better source – let us know!) It’s got insider tips on MFA programs, literary magazines, interviews with authors, poets, agents and publishers, solid literary writing advice, and help with leading a successful, serious writing life.

Just recently, I tore two articles out of the November-December 2008 issue of Poets & Writers. One discusses the book trailer, the online video book marketing tool that’s gotten so popular in the last few years. The other was an interview with Chuck Adams of Algonquin Books, who makes the (to me vital) point that “books are not about writers, and they’re definitely not about editors – they’re about readers.”

“You’ve got to grab the reader right away with your voice and with the story you’re telling,” Adams tells his interviewer. “You can’t just write down words that sound pretty. It’s all about the reader. You’ve got to bring the reader into it right away.”

Adams also points out that a large, well-known publisher is not always the best option for a little-known author; often it’s the big books that get the most attention at those houses. At the typical smaller house, on the other hand, “a lot of effort goes into every book  . . . because the smaller houses can’t afford to bury anything.”

I’d never heard of the Writer’s Chronicle until a member of my writers group, Patricia Dove Miller, went off to do a low-residency MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and came back to tell us about this magazine, published six times a year by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

Its articles, which include interviews and craft essays, are written by and for the academic writing program community, so they tend to be long and thorough. My writers group adored a 2006 article by Noah Lukeman entitled “The Comma.” It was one of the most insightful, liberating essays on the nuts and bolts of English grammar I’ve ever read. The take-away: The comma is not an item on an eleventh grade grammar quiz. It is not something that must always be used correctly. It’s a tool to be used by you, the thoughtful writer, as you see fit . . . as is every other tip thrown at you by these two journals — and this blog.

What are your favorite writing books and periodicals? What do you hope they will teach you?

Poets & Writers Magazine, PO Box 543, Mount Morris, IL  61054. Email poet@Kable.com or visit www.pw.org.

The Writer’s Chronicle, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA  22030. Email awp@awpwriter.org or visit www.awpwriter.org.

Suffering writer’s block, find out about “The Toxic Reader.”

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