Tag Archives: literature

From Child Prodigy to Self-Publishing Expert: A.G. Billig’s Amazing Literary Journey

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series on author/entrepreneur A.G. Billig, and how she is bringing her vast media, publishing branding experience to thousands of authors through SelfPublishingMastery.com. Here, she discusses her professional background, writing experiences, and her vision for the world’s most diverse self-publishing online platform.)

She wrote her first short story as a child. At age 13, the Romanian media dubbed her a child prodigy. Three years later, she was writing professionally for a popular national newspaper on teen issues. Then, at 17, she became a radio host — which led to producing a TV show for an independent Romanian network. Finally, when A.G. Billig entered her twenties, she became editor-in-chief for a variety of teen magazines.

Author, self-publishing and branding expert A.G. Billig

How’s that for the start of a writing career? A career seemingly predestined at birth? What happens if you add to that a Master’s Degree in public relations and communication and a sharp, incisive entrepreneurial mind?

Now, this captivating, multi-talented author, and international media and branding expert has established herself in the U.S., imparting her knowledge and insight to benefit thousands of authors. She is the creator of SelfPublishingMastery.com, a multi-channel platform that brings writing and business tips, consulting, books, writing and editing services, resources, online summits, professional referrals, the best writing instructors, a publishing imprint and much more. In 2017, it was named one of the Top 100 self-publishing blogs online. It’s only going to grow.

In an announcement I’m very proud to make, the editorial services wing of my company, Word Journeys, is shifting to SPM in a new partnership agreement.

As a writer, A.G.’s work is extensive in the journalism world, and growing in books. Her two books, Four Doors and Other Stories and I Choose Love, are award-winners. Her deep, thoughtful soul and incisive mind merge in her works to provide delicious prose that informs as it invokes feeling and thought, giving us insight into ourselves. Interestingly, that is what the greatest mentors do: show the way, often without stating it in those terms.

A.G. Billig presenting a workshop on branding and marketing for self-published authors at the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference. Branding and marketing are central themes _ and features — of  SelfPublishingMastery.com

A.G. is a mentor to authors throughout the world, and has caught the attention of writers conference directors. She has presented at the Greater LA Writers, Genre-LA and Digital Writing & Self Publishing conferences, and recently conducted a Master Workshop on author branding. In this two-part interview, she unveils the full scope of SelfPublishingMastery.com, a huge author asset in a self-publishing market that saw an estimated 900,000 titles published last year.

WORD JOURNEYS: Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you to begin writing?

A.G.Billig: When I was 8, my parents bought a brand new car. My excitement about the prospect of future summer trips across Romania translated into a short story, the first in a long series. My father, an avid reader and aspiring author, loved my writing and encouraged me to pursue it. By 13, I was winning national literary prizes for short stories. I wrote my first novel, a teenage love story, at 15 —and then took a break from writing fiction until 2012.

WJ: What was one of the biggest takeaways of your early journalism career, when you had years of top professional experience by the time you reached your twenties?

A.G.: It was a beautiful way to meet extraordinary people and share their amazing stories with the rest of the world, stretch my comfort zone, and learn new skills. It felt good whenever someone would stop me on the street to tell me they enjoyed my shows.

WJ:   What books did you read as a teen and young adult? How did they inform and shape the stories and book ideas you wanted to pursue?

A.G. Though Romania was still under Communist rule in my early years, I was fortunate to grow up in a house filled with books. My father was born in Paris. He loved French culture as well as universal literary giants. The moment I learned how to read, I started devouring writers such as Honore de Balzac, Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Lev Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Giovanni Boccaccio, Jane Austen, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. These authors and readings shaped my literary tastes and taught me how to write. I learned how to use description, write dialogue, and build solid characters from them. I also learned the type of emotional and cognitive experience a book is supposed to create for the reader, that essential element that stands the test of time. Although I never wanted to be like these authors, I always aimed at giving my best in my writing. We can all do that by being authentic and passionate about what we do.

WJ:   When did you start considering working with self-published authors? What need did you perceive?

A.G.: In 2015, at the London Book Fair. It seems like this event changes my life every three years — I wonder what’s going to happen in 2018! I attended as a journalist (I was a contributor to the Romanian edition of Playboy). I was already following podcasts on self-publishing and wanted to know more about it. The free talks and panels proved to be of great help. The success stories of self-published authors such as Mark Dawson and C.J. Lyons, making six-figure incomes on their books, gave me an A-HA! moment. I realized that the publishing game was changing and self-publishing opened a global market for authors, provided they had the necessary skills. Since I have an entrepreneurial mind, I seized the opportunity, not only for myself, but also for my fellow authors. I realized that they needed support with branding and marketing their books. They would needed resources, information, and education. “Why not use my passion for journalism to serve these people?” I asked myself.

Early in 2016, just about the same time I self-published I Choose Love, Self-Publishing Mastery was born.

WJ:   Let’s go back to your creative love – writing books. First, tell us about I Choose Love – certainly a timely read in this day and age.

A.G.: I never thought I would write a non-fiction book, but a lot went on in 2015 — terror attacks, natural disasters. The world was (and still is) governed by fear. The only way out was choosing love, again and again, every second of our life. At that point, I Choose Love came to me as what some would call a “download”. It took about a month to complete. It was easy for me, because it stemmed from my heart. I also had a clear structure from the beginning, and a thorough knowledge of the topic based on seven years of spiritual practice and personal experiences. It offers practical tools for overcoming fear and attracting love into one’s life.

WJ: Can’t think of a subject more purposeful! You also mentioned you shelved your teenage love of fiction writing until 2012. Typically, when we leave our story writing youth, we rarely find that thread again, but you did. Tell us about Four Doors and Other Stories.

A.G.: This book shows what can happen when we are in the flow. It marked my return to writing fiction, and it brought me a contract with a U.K. publisher.

I created this short stories collection about love, because love represents the foundation of who I am and everything I do, including helping other authors become successful. My vision was to portray love as our true essence, which can be expressed in so many different ways. Once I had this concept clear in my mind, I just allowed the inspiration to flow in.

WJ: What is your vision with SelfPublishingMastery.com? What are the features? How do you, and the platform, assist writers in their journeys?

A.G. My original concept for Self Publishing Mastery was to be the Billboard magazine for the global self-publishing industry. My vision was to support and empower indie authors from around the world to self-publish, and help them master the publishing process.

We began by (and are still) covering book marketing, the writing craft, the right mindset for success, writers’ conferences, success stories, writers Facebook groups, podcasts, and book blogs. After the past year of getting a chance to talk to authors, we decided to add an educational component. Now we will also have workshops, online courses, books, and an online academy. We’ve just further expanded the range of our services for authors through the full-service portfolio, twenty years’ standing, that Word Journeys is bringing in. We have evergreen content, constantly refreshing. We’ve also got some goodies for those who subscribe to our newsletter such as “The top 20 Amazon book reviewers list” and “The successful book launch checklist.” Authors can and will find all that they need for successful self-publishing on our site. Please stop by!

(NEXT: A.G. Billig breaks down SelfPublishingMastery.com, and the particular challenge self-published authors face with branding, distribution, and lifting their work above the growing mass of titles and voices — and how to reach their world of awaiting readers in the process.)

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Action Fiction, Adult Literacy, Author Platform, Books, Creativity, Digital Publishing, E-books, Editing, Education, Featured Websites, Fiction, Ghostwriting, Hybrid Authors, Interviews, Journalism, literature, Marketing, Memoir, Mysteries, Online Media, poetry, Promotion, Promotions, Reading, Self Publishing, Teen Literacy, Thrillers, workshops, writers conferences, Writing, Writing Education, Writing History, Young Writers

Snapshots from the Frankfurt Book Fair, Munich & Austria

It’s already been three weeks since a remarkable and, in some ways, magical trip to Germany for the Frankfurt Buchmesse. The journey morphed into an unforgettable few days of hiking and sightseeing in Austria, and then returning to my old home in Munich and seeing my dearest friends.

2015-10-16 14.09.46

Martha signs book cards at the Frankfurt Book Fair. She was a big hit with adults and kids alike.

I traveled to Frankfurt last-minute to  support my loving friend (and so much more) of 50 years, Martha Halda, there for the world release of her memoir, A Taste of Eternity, in its German-language version, Der Duft des Engels (The Wings of Angels). Watching Martha  sign autographs for thousands of festival attendees was truly divine, as we spent three years turning A Taste of Eternity from an idea into the life-affirming memoir it is. The same publisher that picked up Martha’s book, sorriso Verlag, also published Just Add Water in German translation — also launched at Frankfurt.2015-10-16 14.41.09

2015-10-16 15.09.56

A moment that warmed the teacher’s heart inside me: Kids hanging in the patio of the Frankfurt Book Fair, sitting in hammocks, reading … refreshing.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is an amazing conglomeration of publishing nations, their authors, and the hands that work the levers behind global publishing. I checked out books and publishers from dozens of countries, including wonderful exhibits at the Indonesia, Vietnam, Ireland, China, and Australia-New Zealand pavilions. (Also had to see When We Were The Boys and Just Add Water in two different booths in the English-language pavilion; that definitely fulfilled a life dream!)

Frankfurt also made a great effort to promote young adult and children’s reading through an outdoor reading area and a weekend nod to Comic-Con. Thousands of kids turned out. The way young reading has gone south in the U.S., I never thought I’d see thousands of teenagers in one place for the sake of books. I didn’t see anywhere near so many at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, whose overall crowd was comparable.

2015-10-16 16.11.11

A few of the earthly treasures at the Antiquarian Book Fair. Most of these titles are older than the U.S.

2015-10-16 16.13.02

One of the books that got Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei into hot water with the Catholic Church. The book was originally written in his hand.

The other highlight was the Antiquarian Book Fair, 48 exhibits and vendors. First of all, “antiquarian” in Europe carries a far different meaning than in the U.S.; jump on the timeline and go back several centuries. The fact that the inventor of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg, lived and worked not 10 miles away, added to the intrigue. Books dated back to the mid 15th century, but my favorite was De Systemate Mundi, a book on the planets by Galileo, likely among the volumes that got him booted from the Catholic Church for heresy and placed under house arrest. So much history in these 48 exhibits … I will be writing more on this.

2015-10-20 17.47.42

Mist, light, snow-covered mountains, and tight, steep roads in small mountain resorts… what’s not to love about this part of Europe?

Afterwards, Martha treated me to a huge “thank you” for helping her with her book — some hiking and sightseeing above the gorgeously rustic, small Austrian resort of St. Johann im Pongau, Austria. I’d driven though this town 30 miles south of Salzburg while living in Munich, but not like this: two days of long hikes, culminating with a random visit to Kreistenalm (Christ’s alms), a ski lodge in the Austrian Alps. While I got us around in my very broken German, Martha reveled. Ever seen a grown girl cry during lunch in a ski lodge? The reasons were clear: Her book concerns meeting angels and the Divine after she was pronounced clinically dead in October 1999, she’s coming off a Frankfurt launch (every global author’s dream) in October 2015, we’re in the Alps, and the lodge’s name is the center of her spiritual path. Wonderful, wonderful moment.

2015-10-20 14.48.24

A view of St. Johann im Pongau from the sky box seats (actually, beginning of the steep trail to Kreistenalm)

2015-10-20 13.29.45

The ski lodge that served up a magical moment: KreistenAlm: Hearty Welcome. And, it was.

2015-10-21 13.13.07

50 years to the month after we first saw ‘The Sound of Music’ in Carlsbad, we joined forces again in Salzburg, where most of the movie was filmed.

We had one more surprise, this belonging to our lifelong friendship. We spent a day in Salzburg, which I knew from having played tour guide to family and friends while living in Munich. Martha waxed nostalgic, and wanted to go on the Sound of Music bus tour. My idea of a tourist bus tour is to get to a destination, put on my pack, jump off at a random stop, and do my thing. Especially in a European city with a strong musical connection — outside America, Salzburg is revered not for Julie Andrews, but for Mozart, who grew up and began performing there. This time, I played nice. The reason? You’re going to accuse me of being a creative fiction writer, which I am, but follow this very true bouncing ball:

2015-10-21 14.53.04

Our ‘Sound of Music’ tour guide was brash, Austrian, and filled with the spirit of the tour. This is the gazebo where the love scene between Maria and Col. Von Trapp was shot.

Fifty years ago, in 1965, The Sound of Music opened and toured select theaters nationwide, among the last blockbuster movies to be roadhoused before chains and massive screen openings took over. A month after first grade began, in October 1965, Martha and I joined a class field trip to see the movie at San Diego’s Loma Theatre. Now, exactly 50 years later, we were touring the movie’s sets, both inside and outside Salzburg, after watching the film again to reacquaint. Let’s just say more than a few people were blown away when they heard this.

Afterwards, we did see a Mozart chamber concert, in one of the chamber rooms in which Mozart performed fairly often at the Festung Hohensalzburg, the 1,300-year-old white fortress atop Salzburg. The Sound of Music is awesome, but there is nothing like hearing a maestro’s music where he performed and conducted. The walls really do start talking…

2015-10-22 15.32.47 HDR

A quick return to my old Munich home on Oberlanderstrasse (yellow section, bottom 2 floors of windows).

2015-10-22 13.03.10

The Rathaus in Munich, one of the world’s most amazing buildings.

Finally, my friend Tobias Groeber, the director of the massive ispo trade fair (which I served as U.S. communications liaison for six years), and my closest friend in Germany, magazine publisher Wolfgang Greiner, threw a barbecue in Munich never to be forgotten. We feasted on fishes and meats from Spain, Turkey, and Germany, cuisine from a few other countries, first class all the way.

2015-10-22 16.26.49

How to keep a 6-foot-tall blonde with German blood happy: Bier und obatzda mit brez’l!

What amazed me, though, was talking about Just Add Water with 13-year-old surfing twins. Nothing unusual, except this: they were German surfers, locals who rode those frigid (but sometimes good) northwest swells in the North Sea. Chilling. Impressive. These hearty souls had no trouble connecting tall, blonde, California girl Martha with a place to stay on the Southern California coast. Smart kids!

Enjoy the photos and pictures … and get ready for an incredible next blog, an interview with British author and novelist Ann Morgan. Her book, The World Between Two Covers, may well change the way you read and regard world literature. Her novel, Beside Myself, is equally amazing. We’ll let her take it from there, in this special preview of a longer interview we will be publishing in The Hummingbird Review next summer.

1 Comment

Filed under Adult Literacy, Ancient Civilization, Author Platform, Books, Creativity, Digital Publishing, Education, Featured Websites, Fiction, Ghostwriting, History, Journalism, literature, Marketing, Memoir, Music, Promotion, Promotions, Reading, Spiritual Subjects, travelogue, writers conferences, Writing, Writing Education, Writing History

The Intersection of Literature & Free Expression  

The motto that symbolizes freedom of written expression

The motto that symbolizes freedom of written expression

Whenever I travel to San Francisco, one of my favorite cities in the world, I make sure to pay homage to the roots of my craft near the intersection of Columbus & Grant, where North Beach and Chinatown intersect.

It is a simple little tour, really: just three places. The first, City Lights Books, is a wonderful patchwork of angles, stories, perches, step-ups, cellars and basements loaded with books you may not find anywhere else. It is also home base to celebrated poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who spent the 1950s writing poetry collections, turning a half-dozen unknown writers into the famed San Francisco Renaissance crew (or West Coast Beats), and taking on the U.S. Supreme Court when they censored his publication of Henry Miller.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the maestro of poetry and City Lights

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the maestro of poetry and City Lights

Now 95, Ferlinghetti is a hawk of a man, tall, imposing and imperious when crossed. He and my old friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, still read together once every October. Every time we write a page, article or book with anything we want to say, and then publish it, we’re reminded of who won that landmark censorship battle that culminated in 1961. It wasn’t the Supreme Court.

City Lights is my favorite bookstore, the bookstore that City Lightssparks me every time I walk through its doors. Now 60 years old, it is what an independent bookstore is all about — distinct character and personality, books carefully chosen by a well-read staff, a sanctuary of the written word, and the hub of a great writing community and movement. It is the best store to buy Beat literature in the world. Its selection of poetry, novels and literature reflects an open-minded, story-crafting, intelligence-promoting approach that is, well, the only approach that should ever matter in a society.

My favorite City Lights moment came in 2001. I walked into the store with Marty Balin, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame lead singer (and founder) of Jefferson Airplane, as well as Jefferson Starship. During their San Francisco concerts in the wild 1960s, bands used to ask poets to open their shows — celebrations of light, spoken word, dancing and music. Ferlinghetti was the Airplane’s designated poet on several occasions. As we walked inside, there was Ferlinghetti, perched in the checkout area. Marty and Ferlinghetti hadn’t seen each other in twenty years. Immediately, I felt like the luckiest fly on the wall as they caught up and discussed music, literature, and reminisced about those early concerts at Longshoreman’s Hall, the Matrix and The (original) Fillmore.

If the walls of Vesuvio's could talk, who would ever leave?

If the walls of Vesuvio’s could talk, who would ever leave?

Across the street from City Lights is Vesuvio’s, the colorful two-story pub that served as Jack Kerouac’s watering hole during his trips to San Francisco. Hemingway had Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, Henry James had the White House Tavern in New York City, and Kerouac had Vesuvio’s. He percolated large parts of On The Road, The Dharma Bums and other novels while sitting inside. Now, the place is lined with classic photos from the Beat generation, along with posters of Mae West, Janis Joplin, and other adornments that were part of the bar Kerouac knew. It looked like a few patrons and bottles of ancient booze on the shelves had never left, too.

The patron saint of Kerouac Way, which splits City Lights & Vesuvio's and leads to Chinatown.

The patron saint of Kerouac Way, which splits City Lights & Vesuvio’s and leads to Chinatown.

After that, we took our haul of books a hundred yards to Vital Tea Leaf, located in the middle of Chinatown. (Gotta love the way ethnic neighborhoods run into each other in San Francisco, so effortlessly, without fences or borders.) Our old friend, the 83-year-old proprietor with a sailor’s tongue and a sage’s wisdom, greeted us with hugs at the door. We then spent the next 90 minutes tasting teas made of nectar and gold (so it seemed), and listening to him mix insightful history and preparation tips with playful poking at customers as they walked inside. I find Chinese tea opens up the creative pores in a way that makes verse and prose pour from mind, body and soul; it is always my chosen drink when writing. So, I loaded up with pu’erh, milk oolong, cloud mist and lapsang souchong (the smoky tea), heard our host’s stories about each (cloud mist grows at 8,000 feet, for example), and headed off to write a few of my own.

To me, Columbus & Grant is not only the junction of ancient and modern literature, or the crossroads of shih and Beat writing and poetry. It is also the shining beacon that reminds me of two endangered species — the independent bookstore and freedom of written expression. As we move into National Poetry Month, we’re reminded of the treasures men and women have written for thousands of years. And the inalienable right and freedom to do so. That’s worth honoring in the best way possible — by writing.Kerouac sign

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Adult Literacy, Author Platform, Books, Classic Novels, Creativity, Education, Featured Websites, Fiction, History, Internet, Journalism, literature, Memoir, poetry, Reading, Social Issues, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing Education, Writing History

15 Common Points Between Writing & Running Marathons (part 2)

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the conclusion of my two-part series that compares 15 points in common between the writing process – particularly book and extensive projects – and running marathons. Actually, it’s 18 points in common, but who’s counting?)

“The race begins at 20 miles”: Years ago, a friend, journalist and veteran marathoner said this to me. While most people might crash and burn at 20 miles (or before), serious marathon racers dig in the final 10K. So it is with book writing. The last leg is often the hardest. You’re tired, you’ve lived with the subject for months or years, and you want to be finished. But this is the most vital part of the book, next to the first chapter. Focus more intently than ever, tap emotional and creative reserves, and power through to the finish.

Enjoy the solitude: If ever four groups of people know and understand solitude better than the rest of the population, they would be runners, writers, artists and monks. We spend countless hours alone with our words. Enjoy the quiet time; enjoy the ideal atmosphere it provides you to create, think deeply, and work. Not everyone gets this chance. Ask someone who works in a cubicle or workstation all day. The material percolates in solitude. The more you can enjoy it and immerse in it, the more you can produce – and the more cohesive it will be.

Push the hills: One of the best road racing strategies is to push hills hard – and then surge for 30 meters or so at the top. All authors know there are many uphill climbs in the long course of writing a book – struggles with scenes, characters, getting the right information, fluid narrative description, etc. Some days, we feel like we can write anything; on others, our sentences feel like back roads clunkers. We all hit them; we all wonder how we’re going to get to the top. The answer: one word at a time. Push past the obstacles, while holding to the greater vision for your work. Write hard to keep the momentum going.

Increase focus as the race progresses: The same thing has happened in every marathon I’ve raced. For the first eight miles or so, runners talk to each other, compare strategies, talk about favorite runs they’ve ever taken, maybe shoot photos of the crowd (if they carry smartphones, which many do — not me!) and truly enjoy being out there. For the next eight miles, the focus tightens, paces become locked in, and the talking lessens. For the final ten miles, there is very little talking and very deep focus. Good authors take us deeper and deeper into their stories, a reflection of their increased focus as they deliver the goods. Focus, focus, focus.

Don’t hit too many aid stations: One of the myths (and, actually, physical dangers) of long races is that it is important to drink at every aid station. NOT SO. When I run marathons, I only drink six times – roughly once every 4½ miles. Everyone has their number, but point is: don’t take too many breaks. This applies directly to writing. Momentum and rhythm are everything; when you’re on a roll, stay on it. If you must, take only small breaks when writing books to recharge, but never more than a week or two. Long breaks are a no-no, unless you’re between drafts.

There will be pain: To borrow from a surfwear manufacturer’s 1980s ad campaign, Every marathoner knows the feeling. It starts at about 15 miles, hits fully at 18 to 20 miles, and envelops you the final 6 miles. PAIN. We know it’s coming when we toe the starting line, but we know how to handle it – by reaching down and taking the race one stride at a time. Likewise, book writing can be (and often is) emotionally painful and mentally taxing, especially tell-all memoirs and novels with characters exhibiting emotions that grab you from the page. When you read scenes like this, you know the writer is feeling it. Embrace the pain, and turn it into your ally. Use it to drive more deeply within yourself, opening new thresholds of possibility for your writing – and greater perspective as a person. The more you can work with writing pain in all its forms, the more deeply touched readers will be.

Head down; one step at a time: This extends from the last comment. I ran the 2009 Boston Marathon with moderate plantar fasciitis. In other words, the last five miles were hell. However, I nearly held my earlier race pace because I pulled my cap over my eyes like I was in the ‘hood, looked down at my toes, and took it one step at a time. That’s exactly how I write books; by adopting that technique, I’ve gone from being a good starter to a good finisher. Keep your head down and write one chapter at a time, one paragraph at a time – and one sentence at a time. This approach becomes especially important when revising and self-editing, when you make sure every word fits and every word counts.

Finish strong: One of the best ways to ensure good race results is to finish strong in each training run, picking up the pace at the end. Likewise with book writing. Good final chapters sew up the story or subject, and leave readers feeling: a) like they want more; b) wholly satisfied; or c) Googling you for more books, or for more perspectives based upon the great book you have given them. Reach down and give it everything you’ve got in the last chapter – just like a good racer.

Celebrate!: When we finish something as monumental as a book, or a marathon, it’s time to celebrate! Then take at least a week off from writing of any kind … your batteries will definitely need to be recharged.

Leave a comment

Filed under Adult Literacy, Books, Creativity, Education, Featured Websites, Fiction, Journalism, literature, Memoir, Reading, travelogue, Writing, Writing Education, Young Writers

The Man Who Made Poetry Cool Again: A Few Words with Billy Collins

How many of us remember learning poetry in high school? Quick: name one poem that you studied.

Now that I have stumped most everyone, I confess: I was lucky to have two teachers who loved the lyrical word. One (Tom Robertson), freed a bunch of freshmen from their cluelessness by bringing in rock music lyrics and records, and going over them for a month, before returning us to our regularly scheduled program: the dead poets collecting dust in our literature textbooks. It worked. The other (Dr. Bev Bosak), gave me the job of co-editing the Carlsbad High School literary journal, Spindrift. I’ve been writing poetry since, along with newspaper, magazine and web journalism, fiction and non-fiction books, along with a lot of editing and ghostwriting.

Former Poet Laureate of the US and bestselling poet Billy Collins (photo by Martha Halda)

Former Poet Laureate of the US and bestselling poet Billy Collins (photo by Martha Halda)

Most of us weren’t so lucky. We caught up on sleep or gossip, got our weekend party schedule together, or played folded paper football or, as the century turned, with our cellphones while our teachers tried to analyze and interpret the poems of long-dead poets who, as Billy Collins says, “lived on a different verbal planet.”

Then Collins, the nation’s most popular and one of its most beloved poets, came along to make poetry cool. Cool for who? Us? Our parents? Librarians? The neighborhood bookworms?

No: for high school students nationwide. Seriously. When he was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003, Collins developed the Poetry 180 program, which changed the face of how teachers taught poetry and students learned it. All of a sudden, kids not only read works from poets who were still alive – but, in some cases, just a little bit older than themselves.

“After becoming Poet Laureate, I immediately thought of what an awful time I had in high school,” Collins recalled during an exclusive interview for The Hummingbird Review I conducted earlier in the week, while he was in San Diego for a reading at Point Loma Nazarene University. “If you wanted to get beaten up in the parking lot, announcing you’re a poet would be a shortcut to that. Also in high school, the poems that were taught were hundreds of years old. I wanted to present poetry that would be cool, because being cool is the objective of high school – and it continues to this day.”

51qp-0dSdlL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

Experience it they did. The Poetry 180 program was the biggest thing to happen to contemporary poetry entering American schools since the Beat Generation. Featuring very contemporary poets of all ages  like Jane Kenyon (“The Blue Bowl”), Ron Koertge (“Do You Have Any Advice For Those Of Us Just Starting Out”), Laurel Blossom (“Radio”), Geraldine Connolly (“The Summer I Was Sixteen”), and Daisy Fried (“She Didn’t Mean To Do It”), the two print anthologies have sold a quarter-million copies. The website that started it all (http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/) has received millions of visits. Not only did reading poetry become cool for students, but so did writing it. Last time I visited my Twitter feed, I was following more than 1,000 literary and poetry journals, most started in the last five years, and most run by young adults. I would bet nearly all of them have benefitted from Poetry 180.

“It actually works, much to my surprise,” Collins said. “All these teachers said, ‘It changed how I teach. It changed my students’ whole idea of what poetry was. They like it.’ They ask, ‘Where’s the poem for the day?’ They remind the teacher, ‘Give us one of those poems.’”

Collections such as Picnic, Lightning, Sailing Around the Room, The Trouble With Poetry and Ballistics make Collins the most-read poet today. He’s transcended the niche of hard-core poetry readers, in largecollins2 part thanks to three events: appearances on NPR and A Prairie Home Companion, followed by his appointment as the Poet Laureate of the United States.

“That was kind of a booster rocket on this whole thing,” he says.” All these things oddly fell into place. Believe me, world poetry domination was not my objective here!”

Collins’ humorous take on the world – including himself – has added to the persona of Poetry 180. Not only does he give poetry a sense of present-day coolness, but he’s also one of those very cool people you love to hang around with as they pass through their 70s, dispensing wisdom and great humor, often in the same sentence. His poems convey the same feeling, finding extraordinary perceptions in ordinary moments, yet coming across with a simplicity that draws people in for what has become an enduring relationship with his words.

Which is exactly why he created Poetry 180 – to keep kids coming back for more, for the rest of their lives.

(You can read a full-length interview and profile on Billy Collins in The Hummingbird Review, which will be on sale in April.)

collins-plnu

1 Comment

Filed under Adult Literacy, Books, Education, Featured Websites, Interviews, poetry, Reading, Teen Literacy, workshops, Writing, Writing Education, Young Writers

A Royal Farewell to Harry Potter

Since today is the premiere of the final Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this book and movie franchise’s contributions to literature, entertainment, culture and reading. Then, this morning, I saw an article from GalleyCat, “Harry Potter Lives Forever in Fan Fiction,” with a statistic that stunned me: Fanfiction.net now hosts 420,000 fan-written stories inspired by Harry Potter.

That’s four hundred twenty thousand stories.

Time to share my deepest appreciation for J.K. Rowling and the most important series of books to grace the children’s publishing world since Dr. Seuss (although, of course, Harry Potter books are for grades 5 and up). While grossing billions of dollars in book and film sales and selling books by the hundreds of millions, plus earning its own theme park at Universal Orlando, the numbers behind Harry Potter only make us sit up and pay attention. Especially those 63 publishers who passed on Rowling’s first manuscript before Bloomsbury gave Rowling a $20,000 advance. Seems pretty crazy now, doesn’t it?

My appreciation for Harry Potter began in 2001, when I was talking with a schoolteacher and artist who was home-schooling her 11-year-old son because of her differences with a school system that had cut compulsory reading by 50%. She handed me a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second book in the series, and said, “These books are making children want to read again. One day, we’re going to be crediting J.K. Rowling for making reading enjoyable for millions of kids like it was for us.”

What a prophetic comment. The combination of adventure, sorcery, danger, fantasy, compelling stories, teen romance, villains, and main characters just as dorky, intelligent, curious, silly and courageous as all kids in their awkward years created a fan base just as ravenous as Trekkies or Star Wars fanatics … only younger. Rowling’s magical storycrafting and her populating of characters in these worlds was just as meticulous and well thought-out as George Lucas’ creation of the alternate universe of Star Wars.

In an era when we were losing kids (and the printed book itself) by the millions to endless TV, video games, mobile devices and, at the end of the run, Facebook and Twitter, Harry Potter gave them a reason to read, imagine, dream and fantasize.

But what I really like about Harry Potter’s impact is the second component — the writing. It’s one thing to read books, but it’s another to sit down with a piece of paper and write creatively — something that seems to be phasing out of more and more schools as students approach high school age. As the GalleyCat post makes clear, the Harry Potter franchise has sparked writing by young people big-time.

I submit that today’s incredible number of highly talented, highly determined fiction, memoir and narrative non-fiction writers in the 14 to 25 age range were directly or indirectly influenced by reading Harry Potter books. All of the popular genres of this group — graphic novel, horror, fantasy/supernatural, romance and adventure — are “grown up” offshoots from Rowling’s narrative premise. I’ve worked with a lot of these kids in various schools and writer’s conferences, and seen some incredible works along the way — works of incredible depth, imagination and emotion.  In addition, some of these writers illustrated their own books and already know how to brand them through social media, blogs, websites and the like.

Yes, today is the grand finale of an incredible youth literature franchise. While I admit to only reading four of the books, and seeing five of the movies (I’ll see the new release, for sure), I just want to be sure we always hold J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books very high in our hearts as writers, readers, parents, teachers … and the young writers who were sparked creatively for life by a band of pesky students with supernatural powers at Hogwart.

Indeed, as the GalleyCat article proclaims, Harry Potter Lives Forever.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Education, Featured Websites, literature, Online Media, Reading, Social Media, Teen Literacy, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing Education, Young Writers

Picking Favorite Authors — One Writer’s List

We’re rolling into the busy winter-spring writer’s conference season now, so thought I’d spend the next several blogs sharing materials that, hopefully, will stir the literary blood of writers, readers and editors alike. I’ve got a number of big events coming up, most prominently the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego Feb. 18-20, the Tucson Festival of Books March 11-13 and the Hummingbird Review Poetry Revue in Vista, CA March 20, so I’ll definitely be in the sharing mood for the next six weeks.

So we’ll start by putting the head on the chopping block and seeing what happens — a list of my 50 favorite authors (plus 10 VERY honorable mentions). Here’s the caveat on this list: It only includes people who wrote extensively in the 20th or early 21st centuries. So some other all-time favorites, like Catullus, Archimedes, Sappho, Goethe, the Shelleys (Percy and Mary), Keats, Blake, Tennyson, Thoreau, Emerson, the Rossettis (Dante and Christina), St. Francis, Petrarch, Chaucer and others, won’t be on this list.

Since I write and read in multiple genres, “writer” to me breaks out as novelists, memoirists, essayists, journalists, poets, short story writers, non-fiction authors and even songwriters with particularly poetic styles.

But a fair question deserves a fair answer. These writers have greatly touched my heart and mind and inspired my work, regardless of genre. In all cases, I’ve read many, most or all of their books. They are not necessarily in order — that would be too difficult — although I’d say the top 30 are pretty accurate:

1. Gary Snyder — Poet, Essayist, Translator (Turtle Island, A Place in Space, Practice of the Wild)

2. Paramhansa Yogananda — Spiritual Memoir, Poet (Autobiography of a Yogi is a classic, but his Whispers from Eternity is a poetic gift from heaven)

3. Anne Rice — Novelist (The Vampire Chronicles)

4. Tom Wolfe — Literary Journalist, Novelist (The Right Stuff, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)

5. Anais Nin — Diarist, Essayist, Novelist (Delta of Venus, Diaries of Anais Nin)

6. Jim Harrison — Novelist, Memoirist (Legends of the Fall, Call of the North)

7. T.C. Boyle — Novelist, Short Fiction (Drop City)

8. Jack Kerouac — Novelist, Poet, Memoirist (The Dharma Bums, On The Road)

9. Jeanette Winterson — Novelist (Written on the Body)

10. Joyce Carol Oates — Novelist, Short Fiction, Journalist (Blonde)

11. Henry Miller — Novelist, Essayist, Short Fiction, Memoirist (Tropic of Cancer)

12. Annie Dillard — Memoirist, Essayist, Novelist (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

13. John Gardner — Novelist, Short Fiction, Educator (The Sunlight Dialogues)

14. Don Eulert — Poet, Scholar, Translator (Field: A Haiku Circle)

15. Joy Harjo — Poet, Musician, Memoirist (How We Became Human)

16. Tim Winton — Novelist, Short Fiction (Breath)

17. Hunter S. Thompson — Literary Journalist (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

18. Luis Alberto Urrea — Memoirist, Journalist, Novelist (The Hummingbird’s Daughter)

19. J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda) — Spiritual and Topical Non-Fiction, Musician, Memoirist (The Path)

20. Jane Smiley — Novelist, Journalist (A Thousand Acres)

21. Tom Robbins — Novelist, Humorist (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues)

22. Michael McClure — Poet, Essayist (Of Indigo and Saffron: New and Selected Poems)

23. Joan Didion — Memoirist, Journalist, Essayist (White Album)

24. Diane Ackerman — Non-Fiction (A History of the Senses)

25. Elmore Leonard — Novelist, Screenwriter (Get Shorty)

26. Michael Blake — Novelist, Memoirist (Dances with Wolves)

27. Jimmy Santiago Baca — Poet, Essayist, Memoirist (Healing Earthquakes, A Place to Stand)

28. Anne Lamott — Novelist, Memoirist (Lessons on Faith, Bird by Bird)

29. Ernest Hemingway — Novelist, Journalist (For Whom the Bell Tolls)

30. Ray Bradbury — Sci-Fi Novelist, Short Fiction (I Sing the Body Electric)

31. John Barth — Novelist (Giles Goat-Boy, The Sot Weed Factor)

32. Isabel Allende — Novelist (House of the Spirits)

33. Natalie Goldberg — Novelist, Memoirist, Education (Writing Down the Bones)

34. Taylor Mali — Poet, Educator, Spoken-Word Artist (What Learning Leaves)

35. Mary Stewart — Novelist (The Crystal Cave)

36. Laurel Corona — Novelist, Children’s Non-Fiction (The Four Seasons)

37. Jim Morrison — Poet, Musician (Lords and the New Creatures)

38. Ernest Gaines — Novelist, Essayist (A Lesson Before Dying)

39. Cameron Crowe — Journalist, Screenwriter (Rolling Stone, Jerry Maguire)

40. William Least Heat Moon — Travel Memoirist (Blue Highways)

41. Jack London — Novelist, Journalist (Call of the Wild)

42. Kurt Vonnegut — Novelist, Satirist (Cat’s Cradle)

43. Laura Hillenbrand — Topical Non-Fiction (Seabiscuit)

44. John Steinbeck — Novelist, Short Fiction (Grapes of Wrath, Travels with Charlie)

45. Robinson Jeffers — Poet, Essayist (Women at Point Sur, Thurso’s Landing)

46. Sarabeth Purcell — Novelist (Love is the Drug)

47. Wendell Berry — Poet, Essayist, Novelist, Short Fiction, Educator (Leavings, the Unsettling of America)

48. Muriel Rukeyser — Poet, Essayist, Activist (The Life of Poetry)

49. Anne Tyler — Novelist (Breathing Lessons)

50. Liu T’ieh Yun — Novelist (The Travels of Lao Ts’an)

 

My VERY Honorable Mentions:

Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Poet, Essayist (Coney Island of the Mind)

Erica Jong — Memoirist, Novelist (Fear of Flying)

Maya Angelou — Poet, Essayist (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)

J.R.R. Tolkien — Novelist, Essayist (Lord of the Rings)

Sandra Cisneros — Novelist, Short Fiction (The House on Mango Street)

Bob Shacochis — Literary Journalist, Novelist (Swimming in the Volcano)

Carson McCullers — Novelist (The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Ballad of the Sad Cafe)

William Faulkner — Novelist, Essayist (A Rose for Emily)

Christina Baldwin — Topical Non-Fiction (Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives)

May Sarton — Poet, Novelist, Memorist (Journal of a Solitude)

Since this blog was always meant to be an open forum, would love to see some of your lists as well — or how you would modify this one.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Adult Literacy, Books, E-books, Featured Websites, Journalism, literature, Memoir, poetry, Reading, Teen Literacy, travelogue, Writing, Young Writers