About our panelists:
Yona Zeldis is the author of six novels for adults, including You Were Meant for Me, which came out from New American Library/Penguin in October, 2014. She is also the author of 25 books for children and is the Fiction Editor at Lilith Magazine. Visit her at: www.yonazeldismcdonough.com.
Dr. Nora Gold is a writer, activist, and the creator and editor of the prestigious online literary journal, Jewish Fiction .net. Her first book, Marrow and Other Stories, won a Canadian Jewish Book Award and the title story was praised by Alice Munro. Gold’s second book, Fields of Exile, the first novel about anti-Israelism on campus, received enthusiastic praise from Cynthia Ozick, Ruth Wisse, Phyllis Chesler, Irwin Cotler, Steve Stern, Thane Rosenbaum, Naim Kattan, and Alice Shalvi. Dr. Gold is the Writer-in-Residence and an Associate Scholar at the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education (CWSE), at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto (OISE/UT), where she coordinates the Wonderful Women Writers Series. noragold.com.
Michelle Caplan, Editor-in-Chief, brings her extensive experience as a successful freelance editor, consultant and ghost writer of fiction, creative non-fiction and film scripts to Fig Tree Books, having been the founder and senior editor at Core Writing Literary Services. She has mentored both aspiring and established writers, many of whom have gone on to publish their work and achieve considerable success. Her academic and professional background includes a Bachelor and Master of Arts from Tufts University as well as certifications and credentials in creative writing, mind-body therapies, and coaching. Michelle’s psychology training complements her work as an editor and writing coach. She is a former dancer and choreographer, who still loves to dance. She lives in the Greater NYC area with her two young children.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What trends are you seeing in Jewish fiction?
Yona Zeldis: I’ve been seeing more short-shorts and flash fiction these days.
Nora Gold: There are certain thematic trends I am seeing in the submissions we receive at Jewish Fiction .net. I don’t know how typical these trends are of Jewish fiction in general, but at our journal there are three salient themes that have been showing up increasingly in the stories that reach us.
The first is the Holocaust. The second is sexual abuse by a rabbi. The third is the mikveh as a place of choice for an Orthodox woman to commit suicide. Both the second and third themes started becoming very noticeable at Jewish Fiction .net well before the Freundel affair broke open. This fact — together with the frequent comment that my novel about anti-Israelism on campus, Fields of Exile, “captured the zeitgeist” – got me thinking about the relationship between fiction and the social context from which it springs. Fiction, of course, is not a straightforward reflection of social reality; at the same time it does express something significant about our contemporary social context and some of its trends. I explored this idea briefly in an article I wrote called “‘Mikveh suicides': A motif in fiction that says the unsayable.” This question of the relationship between fiction and social context continues to fascinate me, and I’ll be exploring this further — together with the implications of the trends we’re observing at Jewish Fiction .net — in a course I’m teaching this summer at the National Havurah Committee Institute, titled “Jewish fiction as a prism for examining contemporary Jewish life.”
Michelle Caplan: The e-reader market is breathing new life into short stories and novellas as well as out-of-prints. We all watch the shifts in this increasingly electronic market. Some genres and subgenres seem to be trending up or trending down this year as is always the case in the ever-changing publishing world, but I don’t think it’s possible to truly pinpoint the next major trends. At Fig Tree, we are looking for the highest quality books that will appeal to discerning fiction readers who are interested in the American Jewish experience. I would personally love to see more literary novels that feature female protagonists and contemporary issues. In the end, the appeal of distinct voices telling incredible stories that keep your interest from beginning to end will always be in demand.
TWM: What makes a manuscript stand out for you?
Zeldis: An original voice and fresh, descriptive languages. Clichés put me right to sleep.
Gold: Aliveness. Presence. Honesty. Conscious, skilful use of language. Originality. The sound of a unique personal voice.
Caplan: A unique voice, compelling hook, strong characters, substantial issues and ideas, and a momentum that sweeps you up into the narrative will grab our attention. We are focused but diverse at Fig Tree and want to receive brilliantly written and plotted books that showcase the American Jewish experience with originality and ambition. We are seeking voices that have the potential to become brand name authors.
TWM: What’s the single most common mistake you see authors make?
Caplan: We receive many submissions that don’t fit our mission. Prospective authors should spend some time on our website so that what we are currently publishing is clear. Submissions that are poorly presented and riddled with copy editing issues are also not favorably received.
Gold: Being highly oriented to “the market” and “success.” This can manifest itself in various ways, such as writers (especially beginning ones) gearing their writing toward what they think will “sell,” or imitating “bestselling” books in theme, style, etc. This orientation is deadly to a writer because it squelches the sound and development of one’s own authorial voice.
Zeldis: Including too much information too early on. We don’t need to know the character’s whole bio in the first paragraph; better to let that information unspool gradually, in a more natural and organic way.
TWM: Will having an MFA help an author or does it make no difference?
Gold: I think this depends on the individual, where her/his writing weaknesses lie, and therefore what s/he needs from an MFA program in Creative Writing. There are some things that, in my view, you can’t teach; there are others that obviously you can. If someone has intrinsic talent as a writer, then an MFA program can be useful in helping to refine and develop that natural ability.
Zeldis: MFA programs are helpful in terms of accountability and networking opportunities. But they are hardly necessary.
Caplan: You do not have to get an MFA to be a published writer and getting an MFA does not make you a writer. That said, writers do need time and space to work on their craft and an MFA program does provide focused teaching in a supportive environment to get some serious writing done. The bottom line is that writers need to have a commitment to writing and to continuing to grow as writers and this can be done in an MFA or other immersive environments such as workshops or writing groups.
From my personal experience, I have seen that the writing quality is often higher with authors who hold an MFA and these authors generally have a more professional presentation to their work. Unfortunately the books, just as books submitted by authors without MFAs, don’t always live up to the intelligent prose or the clever pitch. We read many great cover letters and synopses from writers with and without MFAs. Often the intriguing concept or outline isn’t evidenced in the work itself and the readable prose doesn’t add up to great storytelling. We try as much as possible to give specific feedback on our submissions so that writers who are serious about publishing can revisit their work to better understand where their writing is connecting with an audience and how it is or isn’t serving their purpose.
TWM: What authors and works do you hold up as examples to follow?
Zeldis: That really depends on what kind of work you want to be doing. I love the stories of Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tobias Wolff, Edith Pearlman, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and Flannery O’ Connor and think each of these authors has so much to teach us. Yet their work could not be more different.
Gold: I don’t tend to hold up specific authors or works as examples to follow. I see many beginning writers following, or imitating, well-known authors, and (as mentioned above) I think this can have a negative effect. To my mind, beginning authors benefit most from reading widely (both books and literary journals like Jewish Fiction .net), avoiding worshipping or following anyone, no matter how gifted or impressive they seem, analyzing critically everything they read, and writing from a deep inner place where they can discover their own unique, authentic voice.
Caplan: I am reluctant to answer this question as I don’t want to hold up any book and say that authors should follow that particular book as an example of good writing. The books I adore are wide ranging in style, settings and subject but have intelligent but readable prose; intriguing characters; compelling themes; emotional resonance and an original voice in common. I want to be moved and enchanted and surprised. I love the authors we publish.
TWM: What words of advice do you have for aspiring fiction writers?
Zeldis: Don’t wait around for large, unbroken expanses of time in which to write. Instead, give yourself a manageable goal, like two pages a day, five days a week. If you are faithful to your commitment, the work will get done!
Caplan: Many books that are submitted are good, even publishable, but don’t have the spark that we are looking for. We want authors to submit books that are not only well-written but also persuasive and immediately engaging. I am always looking for the gem in every manuscript we receive and am willing to push through even a very rough draft if I am inspired by the author’s vision and mind. I want to invest in authors and cultivate their talent but in an increasingly crowded marketplace, authors need to need to be clear about the concept of their books and show us what is special and unique about their story and about themselves as writers. Trust your story and your talent, take advice, and don’t give up.
Gold: In addition to my comments in the question above, I would say to aspiring fiction writers: Don’t think about “the market.” Don’t twist your own writing to try and produce a “bestseller.” Write whatever you want to. Write what is real to you and important to you. Do your best. And be true to yourself.