Small Press Pick: The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self Defense

Before getting into a review of the book itself, I have to comment on its design. The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self Defense looks, on the surface, like the kind of book you’d find left in a rental home — something published in the early eighties and left behind at the shore or by a lake and read (at least in part) or otherwise used by dozens and dozens of casual passers-by. Even the spine looks threadbare and well-thumbed. And appropriately so, because this book is about the used and the threadbare, not to mention the well-thumbed. Throughout the novel, author Tim Kinsella takes us down the dark rabbit holes of his protagonists’ desperate lives: a father embarrassed to the point of aggression at his son’s performance on the football field, a son’s questionable participation in his mother’s death, and a daughter trying to sort through the remains of her mother’s life are just some of the struggling, ambivalent creatures Kinsella offers. His prose is lyrical in a sardonic kind of way, lending the novel the air of George Saunders short story, while the sweeping scope and emotional depth of Kinsella’s work is reminiscent of John Irving. It’s the perfect book to read over the course of a rainy vacation and then leave behind for someone else to discover.

-Review by Marc Schuster


Finding the Right Small Press

Last month, I wrote about the pros and cons of publishing with a small press. If you’ve given the matter some thought and decided that publishing with a small press might be right for you, the next logical question might be how to go about finding a small press that will be interested in publishing your work. Here are a few things that have worked for me:

  • READ small press books and find someone who’s publishing the kind of work you write. To get a taste of what’s out there, visit a site like Small Press Reviews.
  • Volunteer to help out. Since many small presses operate on limited budgets, many are always looking for people to help get the word out about their books.
  • Correspond with small press authors. Talk to them about writing. Ask for advice. Get a dialogue going. Doing so won’t guarantee anything, but it doesn’t hurt to be able to say, “I’m friendly with so-and-so whose books you’ve published and I’ve enjoyed immensely. In fact, he’s helped me out a lot with my novel…” I should note, however, that it’s probably a good idea to get permission from an author before engaging in any name-dropping.
  • And, of course, write an awesome book.

Small Press Pick: Stargazer

Fans of indie comics might be familiar with Von Allan’s debut graphic novel, The Road to God Knows, a lovingly wrought tale of a young Ottawan’s quest to attend a pro wrestling match in an effort to escape from the doldrums of her otherwise dreary life. Allan’s latest effort, Stargazer, explores similar themes but sees the writer/artist expanding his artistic palette to include strong elements of science fiction and fantasy–and succeeding wildly in his creation of an emotionally complex and touching imaginary realm.

This time around, a young girl named Marni is bequeathed a mysterious artifact that transports her to a mysterious realm along with two of her best of friends. Grieving over the recent loss of her mother, Marni finds herself on a quest that is as much about self-discovery as it is about finding her way back home. Along the way, Marni and company encounter a race of gentle satyrs and their robotic guardians, uncover the mystery of an apparently lost civilization of three-armed lizard men, and confront a terrifying monster straight out of their darkest nightmares.

While Stargazer certainly evokes “little girl lost” tales a la Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, Allan puts a new twist on the formula by sending three friends into the mysterious realm on the other side of the proverbial looking glass. In so doing, he gives his characters the opportunity to come of age even as they bump up against the limits of their friendship. In this sense, the graphic novel is a spiritual and emotional cousin to Stephen King’s “The Body” in that it’s as much about growing up as it is about exploring the unknown.

Of special interest to those interested in the process of creating a graphic novel are the books’ “extras” in which Allan walks readers through his early brainstorming sessions and provides sample pages from the script that eventually evolved into the finished product.

Overall, Stargazer is an excellent graphic novel by an artist whose talent is only rivaled by his heart. Perfect for readers of all ages, particularly those with a love for the fantastic.

-Review by Marc Schuster

The Small Press Experience

I’ve been very fortunate to have several books published by small presses. My first experience working with a small press was with McFarland Publishing, a company based in North Carolina that publishes academic nonfiction with a focus on popular culture. They published the book I wrote with Tom Powers on Doctor Who. Shortly thereafter, another publisher of scholarly texts called Cambria published my book on Don DeLillo.

While I was certainly excited to have both of these books published, my real passion has always been writing fiction, so I was especially pleased when PS Books and then The Permanent Press published my first novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. I’m even more pleased to report that The Permanent Press has just published my second novel, The Grievers.

For the most part, my experience with small presses has been extremely positive, but I also know that publishing with a small press isn’t for all writers. Knowing a few things about small presses can help you decide whether or not they’re the right kind of publishers for you to pursue.

Small presses are publishing companies that put out somewhere between one and twenty titles a year and aren’t imprints of larger publishing conglomerates. Most of these presses have small print runs or, with increasing frequency, use print-on-demand or POD technology to produce their books. Frequently, a small press will have a specific focus, like promoting the work of regional authors or exploring specific social issues or themes.

Depending on your point of view, there can be several drawbacks to publishing with a small press. Small presses, for example, frequently can’t afford to pay advances or for other expenses like publicity and marketing. Indeed, small presses might ask you to take care of publicizing your book out of pocket. Likewise, distribution can be a problem; small press books rarely make their way into chain bookstores. Finally, since small presses print so few titles, they can be a difficult market to crack.

Given all of these drawbacks, seeking small press publication might not sound especially enticing. One question I usually encourage writers to ask, however, is a fairly basic one: Why do I write? If the answer has more to do with being part of a community than becoming rich and famous, then seeking a small press to publish your work might be the right move for you.

Because a small press generally has a specific mission or goal, the fact that they choose to publish your book suggests that you share the same goal. What this means in practical terms is that you and your press are in the publishing game for reasons other than selling a lot of books. Yes, you and your publisher would like to sell a lot of books, but you’re writing and they’re publishing for other reasons as well.

Along similar lines, the definition of “success” is usually different for a small press than it is for a large publishing conglomerate. To a small press, a successful book might be one that received excellent reviews and sold a respectable number of copies—“respectable,” of course, being a relative term. To a small press, selling 500 copies of a book might not be so bad—depending, of course, on the press and the numbers of copies of each title they’re accustomed to selling. To a big publishing house, by way of contrast, 500 copies would definitely be the kiss of death.

Another great thing about working with a small press is that you’re usually dealing with “real people” rather than a faceless corporation or a series of interchangeable editors, and you don’t have to use a literary agent as an intermediary. As a result, there are opportunities for real dialogue with the people who are making decisions about your book. For example, if I have a question or concern about one of my books, I can call my publisher and ask. His name is Marty. He’s a great guy. He even invited me and my wife to his house in the Hamptons for a weekend a couple of summers ago.

So if you’re looking to quit your day job and making a living off your book sales, then publishing with a small press probably isn’t for you. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but the odds aren’t really with you. If, however, you write because you want to be a part of a community and you value the personal attention that an independent publisher can offer, then working with a small press might be the way to go.

Small Press Pick: The Playgroup

About halfway through Elizabeth Mosier’s The Playgroup, the narrator describes the struggle involved in turning the events of real life into fiction: “What intrigued me was reality: Sarah’s guilt over her brother’s death, Linda’s postpartum depression, Bryn given up for adoption, Maggie’s son found blue and still in his bassinet. Was it even possible, I wondered, to capture their losses in words?” Fittingly, it’s Mosier’s own gift for turning such losses into a sense of yearning that makes this work of fiction so compelling. Her characters are a handful of mothers whose uncertainty and ambivalence about motherhood is rivaled only by the pressure they feel to put on their best happy faces and pretend for the world that they know exactly what they’re doing at all times. Yet when a member of the group learns that the child she’s carrying may have developed a cancerous mass, the facade of perfection becomes almost impossible to sustain. The resulting crisis forces the members of the group to take stock of their lives and to come to terms, each in her own way, with the myth of the perfect mother.

The Playgroup is one of several titles in Gemma Media’s new Open Door series, a line of books designed to promote adult literacy. Participating in this endeavor, Mosier is in good company. Other Open Door authors include Roddy Doyle, Nick Hornby, and Maeve Binchy. While the narratives are short and the prose straightforward, the subject matter and themes of these works offer much to consider, as evidenced by Mosier’s honest, complex treatment of motherhood in The Playgroup. Indeed, if Mosier’s writing is any indication of the quality of other titles in the series, then the Open Door library is definitely worth checking out.

Review by Marc Schuster

Getting the Most Out of a Writing Group

I know a lot of people who are interested in started writing groups, but one issue that frequently comes up is how to ensure a productive meeting. Here’s a worksheet I usually use in order to get the most out of any writing group I attend:

Hand a copy of your manuscript to each of the other members of your group. Read through all of the manuscripts that you have been given. Pay special attention to the following issues.

1. Who should I care about? What do they want?*

  • Put a star in the margin when you figure you who you, as a reader, are supposed to care about.
  • Put two stars in the margin where you figure out what they want.

2. Engagement/Distractions

  • Put an exclamation point next to any passage that pulls you in. Briefly explain why.
  • Put a question mark next to anything that gets in the way of your full immersion in the story. What breaks the illusion? Briefly explain.

3. What’s at stake?

  • In your own words, explain what’s at stake in this story.

4. What’s lurking?

  • Where is this story’s untapped potential? What remains to be explored? How might the author draw out some of this “lurking” material?

5. Where’s the sense appeal?

  • Make a note wherever the author does a good job of appealing to the senses.
  • Make a note wherever the author has missed a perfect opportunity to appeal to a particular sense.

Once you’ve had a chance to read the manuscripts of everybody in your group, report your findings to the author. Discuss the work of one author at a time. Go around in a circle until everyone has spoken. The author may take notes but may not comment until everyone has had a chance to speak.

*I lifted these questions from Steve Almond’s This Won’t Take But a Minute Honey. If you’re interested in writing, this is a great book to read on the subject.

Small Press Pick: Working Class Represent

The first dozen or so poems in this charming collection by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz read like something a slightly more urbane version of Pam from NBC’s The Office might write if she lived and worked in New York City. Topics in this portion of the book range from the poet’s love for her morning cup of coffee to an odd talent for answering all phone calls with a sunny disposition. But then the collection takes a turn when a poem about 9/11 recasts all of the previous poems in a new light; there used to be something light and bouncy about working a dead-end job in NYC, this poem and those that follow seem to say, but in the wake of 9/11, it’s time to for the poet to get her priorities straight. In this case, it’s a matter of deciding to leave the relative comfort of a steady paycheck and health benefits in favor of the poet’s hand-to-mouth lifestyle. Needless to say, there’s no moment where the poet says, “And then I decided to focus on poetry because 9/11 put everything into perspective for me,” but the structure of the collection makes the lasting effect of that pivotal moment in both world and personal histories difficult to ignore. What follows, then, is a series of meditations on the place of the poet in society: poems about being a touring spoken word poet, poems lauding the efforts of baristas to hold off on making steamed beverages until there’s a pause between poems, poems lamenting the failures of other poets, and ultimately poems about falling in love with Shappy Seasholtz (no poetry collection is complete without at least a handful of these). Other topics covered in this collection include the “outsider” art of Henry Darger, college cafeterias, first words, abandoned words, and the exquisite sense of schadenfreude involved in seeing a rival poet fail. From tragedies both global and personal, Aptowicz expertly milks equal amounts of pathos, humor, and self-awareness. What’s more, there’s a story in this collection, a subtle narrative about priorities, about anxiety, about the myriad performances we put on throughout the day. And, ultimately, about finding one’s place in the world.

Oh, and also rejection:

Book Review: The History of My Body

The thing that struck me most about Sharon Heath’s The History of My Body is the deep authenticity of the protagonist’s voice.

The story is told in first person by Fleur Robins–daughter of an extravagantly wealthy fundamentalist nutjob politician father and alcoholic mother–who, at first, exhibits signs of being touched neurologically (never officially diagnosed, her disengaged parents and their far-more-engaged staff assume that she’s autistic).

Though we meet Fleur when she’s barely pre-pubescent, and she recalls her early childhood for us, including her propensity for list making and journal keeping, her friendship with a small, imaginary man named Uncle Bob (from the phrase Bob’s your uncle), with her comatose grandfather, and with language and increasingly difficult books.

When she’s eleven, after her grandfather’s death, she gets a seventeen-year-old male tutor, called Adam, who is also the son of a politician and so a kindred spirit, who turns her on to physicists and philosophers and literature, and from there, Fleur’s life improves, with some wrecking ball detours that I’ll leave to you for the reading.

As the story unwinds, Fleur supplants her masochism with masturbation, finds a remarkable mentor, solace in Campbell’s Chicken Soup body odor, doubt, a relationship with her mother, and finally friendship with a girl her own age.

Somehow, the protagonist’s voice is so genuine that it manages to obliterate any potential pretension in her precociousness, or in her love and grasp of quantum physics, or in her references to Sartre and any number of other famous (and not-so-famous) philosophers, scientists, and authors.   Even as the story lands her a highly prestigious scholarly award at a very early age, Fleur is chronically sympathetic.

I will attribute this unlikely success to Sharon Heath’s unbelieveably graceful rendering of Fleur’s very believable cadence, even despite her unthinkable intellect and constant personal and social blunders–at least as she perceives them–, her unique personal lexicon which includes such semantic doppelgangers such as tweeter, flapping, ugga-umphing, voidish, Sister Flatulencia, etc–endears her to the reader again and again.

Too, the vividness with which Heath conjures the emotional experience of being an adolescent female is unfailing.  The book is often funny, even when dealing with the dull ache of adolescence, rejection, death.

Heath weaves in social issues like abortion and alcoholism and political issues like war and big oil with equal light-handedness.  The narrative never gives the reader a sense of being judged, nor does it indict anyone.  Heath manages to garner good will for parties on both sides of each issue (if not for each issue).

Fleur often finds herself personally sullied on both sides of issues, but she does not whine.  She introspects.  She wallows a little. Then she emerges stronger and just as clever.

Heath manages the crass and the philsophical, the olfactory and mundane with equal aplomb.  I have rarely read a book that was so consistently beautifully rendered, and I would implore you all to order a copy today.

Sharon Heath, image used with permission

I leave you with the following passage:

For the next week or so, I was forced to go about my daily routine with the handicap of keeping at least one hand covering my chest (which is not so easy to do when you need to eat, drink, pet Jillily, and wipe your poo and pee) just to make sure Grandfather’s ghost didn’t leak out and float over to Father’s house to haunt him forever for killing our tree–in some respects not such an unsatisfying prospect but for the fact that it would leave me with a chasm in my heart I could never hope to fill.

Sharon Heath is a Jungian analyst and novelist residing in California.  Visit her online at 

Click her name to listen to the Writers Talk Podcast with Heath.

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April Fool’s Day Prank: Pulitzer Prize

I’m posting a day before my usual first-Monday post in order to take advantage of April Fool’s Day and to share an incredibly bad joke/pun I came up with:

  • First, as grandiosely as possible, say, “Did I tell you about my Pulitzer Prize?”
  • Wait for someone to say, “No! Please, tell me about your Pulitzer Prize!”
  • Hold out your index finger.
  • Say, “Pull it!”
  • When the person pulls your finger, fart proudly and say, “Surprise!”

To ensure maximum impact, eat plenty of beans and raw vegetables before attempting this joke.

Writers Talk Podcast with Debra Brenegan

Debra Brenegan

Debra Brenegan is the author of Shame the Devil.  Visit her online at

Enjoy our talk about writing, teaching, books, and social media.  Debra teaches at Westminster College in Fulton, MO.