Conference Networking: A Newcomer's Guide

    With conference season just around the corner, it’s time to prepare for all of the exciting networking and development opportunities ahead. The AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference is in Washington, D.C. this year, which means that many local writers and students in the DMV will have the opportunity to attend the biggest literary conference in the world for the first time. What’s the best way to use the conference to expand your network?  How do you avoid imposter syndrome as a first timer?  Michelle Webber, Communications Director at Stillhouse Press and resident conference guru, has some helpful hints about how to grow your network and get the most out of the experience.

Know Before You Go: Do Your Research

Spend some time investigating what writers and organizations will be there. This may sound simple and intuitive, but it can be more work than you think! One scan of the list of 2017 exhibitors will show you just how overwhelming your “to do” list could be, but don’t freak out!  Print out the list, grab a highlighter, and start annotating. Once you’ve done that, prioritize based on your individual needs. If you’re an author looking to make a personal connection with the editors of a literary magazine that you love, flag them. If you’re an undergraduate looking into MFA programs, make sure they are high on your list. This cheat sheet will help you craft a schedule that will take you everywhere you want to be.

 The book fair floor at the 2016 AWP Conference in L.A. 

The book fair floor at the 2016 AWP Conference in L.A. 

Plan a Loose Schedule That Includes Breaks

Do the same thing you did with the exhibitor list with the conference schedule. Pick out the events that sound interesting, then the ones that you cannot miss. Prepared to be disappointed: the two panels you want to see most will almost certainly be at the same time. You’ll have to make a choice, but that’s okay: the conference is long and there’s always something just around the corner.  Scheduling breaks (even if it’s just thirty minutes for coffee) is absolutely essential.  If you’re a first-timer, you will be tempted to fill every single time slot in your day. DON’T DO IT!  It’s really easy to burn out, and if you over-schedule yourself, you’ll miss out on one of the most important parts of conferences: being there! It’s also a good time to make some notes for yourself and reflect on what you’ve seen.

Take Notes

Don’t be afraid of looking rude if you scribble notes in the middle of a presentation or panel. Write down quotes from authors you love, pieces of advice that you find particularly helpful, any books that you want to add to your “to read” list. After each day of the conference, go back to your hotel and do a little journaling. Write down your impressions from the day; make lists of the people you met and how they fit into your network.  You’ll collect a lot of free swag and pieces of paper—write on these too! Write deadlines on bookmarks, notes about the conversation you had on the back of business cards, throw away any fliers or inserts that you don’t need.  Culling one day at a time is much easier than trying to remember the details of a conversation you had three days ago.

Don’t Be Shy — Say Hi!

Introduce yourself to one person at every panel you attend. You may be surprised at how few degrees of separation there are between writers, especially at a big conference like AWP.  If you’re a member of a lit organization, invite them to swing by your table or come to your offsite event. Every face-to-face conversation is an opportunity to grow your network!

The same goes for presenters. Attend a panel that was helpful? Watch a keynote that really unlocked something for you? See a reading of an emerging writer you really admire? Stay behind afterwards and interact with them. Introduce yourself, ask questions, tell them what you enjoyed about their lecture. This may be difficult for the bigger events, but many presenters expect and even enjoy interacting with audience members after their events.  The same goes for the bookfair!

Authors, Agents, and Publishers are People, Too!

Last year, without meaning to and without even knowing who he was until he said it, I met Chuck Palahniuk’s agent at the LitReactor booth. I also had drinks with the Poet Laureate of New York at my hotel bar. These experiences taught me a valuable lesson: the best way to make meaningful connections is putting your respective literary positions behind and focus on the person standing in front of you. At AWP, you’re all on even footing. You’re writers attending an event to listen to and meet other writers. When you meet your literary hero at an after party or shake hands with the editor of your favorite literary magazine, remember that they’re people just like you. Conversations lead to connections; fangirling leads to restraining orders.

BONUS ADVICE: Don’t forget to keep in mind the context in which you’re meeting these people. If you’re at a panel and the agent mentions she’s taking pitches, go ahead and do it. But don’t be that guy who shoves his manuscript under the stall door or gets too drunk and pukes on Sherman Alexie’s shoes (true story from a friend of a friend—seriously, don’t do it).

Follow Up

After you’ve done all the networking legwork at the conference, meeting people, shaking hands, and exchanging cards, it’s absolutely essential to follow-up when the event is over. Believe it or not, most people who say, “I’ll shoot you an email,” never do. Pursue the leads you worked so hard to attain. If you said you’d send that editor a query letter, do it! If you talked to another literary organization about throwing a joint event, get in touch! Making a connection without follow through isn’t really making a connection. Once you’ve made contact, you have to maintain it. If you don’t have anything immediate that you need to address with someone, but your work may bring you to their doorstep later, send them a “nice to meet you, hope we get to work together” note. If you got an emerging author’s contact information, send them an email saying how much you loved their reading.  We all like a little affirmation that we made a difference. Going the extra mile is what will take these casual interactions from isolated incidents to nodes on your personal and professional network.

We want to know: what’s your best piece of conference advice?  Leave a comment or ask a question on our blog through February 8 and you will be automatically entered to win a signed copy of Christina Olson’s "Terminal Human Velocity."

Michelle Webber has worked as a reader, an Editorial Assistant, and Social Media Editor for Stillhouse Press and currently serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications.  She is currently working on a collection of linked short stories and will graduate with a BFA in Fiction from George Mason University in May.


Poetic Narrative: A Conversation with Christina Olson

By Alexandria Petrassi

The sky outside my building in Chicago is slate-gray, heavy with a promise of snow, as I settle into a coffee shop booth for my phone interview with Christina Olson, author of the forthcoming book of poetry from Stillhouse Press, "Terminal Human Velocity." She is calling from Kentucky, where she teaches at the low residency MFA program at Murray State University. Of course, the weather is at least a little better there in January, but nonetheless our conversation starts with winter. I learn that winter is one of the many images threaded throughout her latest collection. “When I was writing the early poems, it was the coldest winter on record, so one of the things that happened after I moved to Georgia is that I started romanticizing winter,” she says. Despite our talk about winter and the miles between our phone lines, our conversation is warm and engaging; a welcome break to my Monday afternoon.

As we begin our introductions, it becomes apparent that Christina Olson has a different background than most poets. “This is a bit of an over-simplification, but I always introduce myself as a poet who comes from a family of engineers,” she tells me. She found poetry in college, though she originally intended to study Interpersonal Communication. “Surprisingly—even to myself—I’ve fallen into a pretty traditional academic path,” she says, “but there has been a couple little detours here and there.”

One such detour? After graduating with her MFA from Minnesota State, she found herself working in healthcare marketing. It’s here that the earliest poems from Olson's collection and some of the mindset behind "Terminal Human Velocity" took root. “Two things happened in that job: even though I enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of the work, I realized I had to do something more creative. And my head was filling with this random flotsam about death and disease and things that will kill you,” she remembers. “It got me do we reconcile the big fallible machine that is the human body? And then how do we make sense of it? What can we learn about what it means to be human when we look at science and the natural world?” These questions manifest themselves throughout her latest book, though she didn’t set out to write a collection on the topic. She says her approach was more: “How do I feel about my life? Complicated! Let’s write a poem. Do you want to write it about you? No! Let’s write about Ernest Shackleton.”

"Terminal Human Velocity: the book for the person in your life who doesn’t know they like poetry,” she jokes. “And who also maybe wanted to know something about horseshoe crabs." - Christina Olson

So figures from history, both large (like Ernest Shackleton, an eighteenth century Antarctic explorer) and small (Elvita Adams, who jumped from the Empire State Building only to be blown back inside after falling one floor in 1979) grace the pages of her collection, along with what Olson calls “last love” poems (poems written to dead people) and poems that recognize the beauty in the scientific. “Fact is not inherently interesting; stories are,” Olson says. “Even when I think I’m not telling a story, I realize it is a story.” Her skill with narrative in poetry is showcased in "Terminal Human Velocity," which looks at both macro and micro narratives, working to tell the story of everything in between. These poems are interested in what it means to be human, and approaches their questions through narratives of other people discovering the grand scale of our world. It’s a collection where the mind is firmly grounded in the body; it’s equal parts wonder and fear of what it finds.

As we move on from "Terminal Human Velocity," I ask Olson about the best writing advice she has for other writers. Her best advice is to remember patience: “You need to practice craft, but you also have to respect the amount of time that process takes. I don’t think a writer should be project driven, I think they should be process driven. Process takes time. Craft takes time.”

Before we wrap up our conversation, I ask her if there’s anything else she wants readers to know. We spend a minute talking about the at-times seemingly elusive accessibility of poetry for some readers, and how she hopes the narrative in her poems offer an access point. “'Terminal Human Velocity': the book for the person in your life who doesn’t know they like poetry,” she jokes. “And who also maybe wanted to know something about horseshoe crabs.”

Alexandria Petrassi is Stillhouse Press's Moonshine Murmurs Blog Editor and a first year MFA student at George Mason University.  She's also the founder of Floodmark, a poetry blog that focuses on prompts, craft features, and interviews. 

We're taking a brief break...

... to cozy up with a warm beverage, 
put our nose in a book,
and forget about the world for awhile.


We'll be back January 18th with
some fresh and exciting content.


In the meantime, don't forget to visit
the Stillhouse Store and stock up
on all your holiday gift needs
for the literary folk in your life.


Enter "HOLIDAY_20" for a 20% discount on all Stillhouse Press titles ($20 minimum purchase; excludes presale titles). All presale titles are $1 off through the end of year, with discount code "PRESALE_LOVE"

Revise and Conquer: Advice From Our Authors

Revision can be one of the most difficult parts of writing.  Creating a story, essay, or poem has its own challenges, but revision requires patience, persistence, and flexibility. Whether you're revising your NaNoWriMo project or gearing up for the spring submission season, we're here to help!  We asked our authors to give us their best in revision advice.  Don't forget to share yours in the comments! 

“A story should be exciting to read. It should pull us in and not let go. It shouldn't meander unless meandering is its thing. It shouldn't bore unless boring is its thing. And if boring is its thing, it should bore with intensity. What I mean is that stories should be bright and fresh. They should be something we've never read before and that we're compelled to read now. They should make us lean in, lean closer. They should make us want to explore. In revision, this often means cleaning. Wipe away needless words, sentences, images. Knock the dust off old phrases. Heighten contrasts between characters, between images, between emotions. Make the world of the story more vivid and interesting. Make a story that's never been read before and that must be read now.” 

 Matthew Fogarty, Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely (Sept. 2016)

“I was recently discussing revision with my husband, Seth, and he said that the act of revision is the act of removing oneself from the poem, which is absolutely true. Early drafts are so often so close to the poet, too close, which is why we often love those early drafts to the point of craft being obscured. Revision is the act of standing outside oneself to make the best choices for the work.”

Bryan BorlandDIG (Sept. 2016)



“I’ve (perhaps sadly) come to see writing from the publisher’s POV. I think so many people keep their writing too close to them. They fear revision, they struggle with criticism, they’re exhausted by the process, they lack the patience to refine and hone their voices. To commit something that comes from such a secret, private place to the editor’s pen can be horrifying, yes, but necessary. My advice has always been to let go. Most instructors will tell you that 'writing is revision.' It’s also a business.”

Andrew Gifford, We All Scream (Forthcoming May 2017)


“I tell students to open their journals and start salvaging. Pick over the writing, find the bits worth saving. Don’t think of them as poems, not as even drafts. But as piles of scrap, something to sift through. Scrap it for parts, I tell them. Salvage the images and the metaphors.  I use the language of labor because it is labor. Their journals are workshops, places to tinker. Take the line worth saving, plug it into some other failing poem. Pump the pedal a few times, try the engine. Every once in a while, something will suddenly roar to life.”

Christina Olson, Terminal Human Velocity (Forthcoming Jan. 2017)

Now that you've read our advice, we want to hear yours!  What's the best revision advice you ever received?  Tell us in the comments below or Tweet at us using the hashtag #RevisionAdvice. 

A Letter From The Editor

Hello Moonshine Murmurs Readers!


My name is Alexandria Petrassi, the new blog editor. I’m a poet and first-year graduate student in the MFA program at George Mason University. Although I focus primarily on poetry, I also dabble in nonfiction, fiction, and the hybrid forms between genres. I am a reader for Stillhouse Press and GMU's literary journals, Phoebe and So to Speak—all of which I highly recommend you check out.  I’m also the Lead Editor over at Floodmark, a blog devoted to providing eclectic inspiration for creative writers via writing prompts, think pieces, and humor. I’ve been in Digital Media for almost three years, both professionally and through personal projects. I’m a constant traveller, and while I love adventure, there’s nothing like curling up on your couch with a good book. (Perhaps even a book from Stillhouse Press if I may be so bold?)

I’m excited to join the team and I’m ready to work behind the scenes here to bring you the latest and greatest on issues in craft publishing, perspectives from our authors and poets, and the happenings in the D.C. literary community. I’d like to take this moment to talk about what you can look forward to in the coming months, but first I want to say a huge thank you to the previous editor, Evan Roberts, for his commitment and hard work on Moonshine Murmurs.

So, what can you expect in the future from Moonshine Murmurs? We’ll continue our work exploring the D.C. literary scene and providing you with reviews of bookshops, events, and features on visiting and local writers. We’re also going to open up a dialogue on the craft of writing and publishing: there’s so much hard work that goes in on both ends of the process, and we’re committed to supporting both aspiring authors and committed readers. You can look forward to interviews with our authors, Andrew Gifford (We All Scream, May 2017) and Anna Leahy and Douglas Dechow (Generation Space, April 2017) and frequent updates on the happenings at Stillhouse Press. We also want to hear from our readers about issues that are important to you.  If there’s something you want us to talk about, feel free to send me an email (  Let’s keep the conversation going!

Of course, there will be so many other surprises along the way, especially as we head into AWP 2016 in D.C.. I hope you’ll join us in what’s sure to be an eventful year at Moonshine Murmurs. And if you’re looking for something in the meantime, don’t forget about our latest post about NaNoWriMo.

All the best and brightest,

Alexandria Petrassi

After working for a year as a marketing and editorial intern, Evan Roberts took over Moonshine Murmurs in June and worked through the summer months to develop and manage a robust calendar of content, including our independent bookstore series and our publishing process series, "From Still To Shelf."  He will graduate in December, and while we’re sad to lose him, we are so grateful for all of the work he’s done and wish him the best on his future endeavors.  

A Veteran’s Guide to NaNoWriMo

It’s finally November and change is in the air. In addition to the cooler weather and falling leaves, thousands of people across the globe have begun a writing challenge of epic proportions: to write 50,000 words of a novel during the 30 days of November.  National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, for short) began as a challenge between five friends with frustrated writing aspirations, but has become a major creative campaign for writers all over the world. Why do people subject themselves to this writing frenzy? What is the point of just churning out 50,000 words? Check out this realist writer’s guide to what NaNoWriMo can bring to your writing life.

Revitalize Your Writing

To keep on pace, participants must write 1,667 words a day. For many of us with jobs, kids, and school, this is probably more than we write creatively in an entire month. But having a formal challenge can be a great motivation to finally tell that story that’s been sitting in the back of your mind for months. Participating in NaNoWriMo is a tangible way to “write every day,” and even gamifies the process with fun infographics. Knowing that there are thousands of others undertaking this challenge with you (and reading the weekly pep talks from authors and the program staff) can help, too. This is an opportunity to write experimentally, to become Betty S. Flower’s madman and steep yourself in the primordial ooze of pure creative energy. It’s low risk and the work is yours alone—there’s no impending workshop, no prying eyes, no concern for continuity or perfection. It’s an excuse to write what you want, not what you should. What sticks might just surprise you!

Start Something Awesome

On average, the standard novel is between 60,000 – 100,000 words, give or take a few thousand. NaNoWriMo likely won’t give you a full manuscript, but that’s okay! What it does give you is a start, one you can revise, tweak, extrapolate, explode, deconstruct, and reassemble. Your NaNoWriMo project doesn’t even have to be a novel; it can be a short story collection, a memoir, or a series of linked essays. Even if you don’t make it across the 50,000-word finish line, you will have more words than you did at the beginning of the month, and that is a victory.

 Sara Gruen's  Water for Elephants  began as a NaNoWriMo project (photo courtesy of  Workman Publishing ).

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants began as a NaNoWriMo project (photo courtesy of Workman Publishing).

Quality vs. Completion

NaNoWriMo critics complain that writing 50,000 words in frenzy mode will only create bad content. The sheer amount of published books that began as NaNoWriMo projects (including Erin Morgenstern's "The Night Circus" and Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants") have proven them wrong, but the criticism is a valid one. Some of the content you make will be filler: there will be flat characters, plot holes, and plenty of unnecessary dialogue. The good news is you have 11 months to sift through that content and decide what fits your project, what doesn’t, and what might make another, even more compelling story. For every component you find that doesn’t work, there will be one that does—but that’s not a question for NaNoWriMo.  December through October is for revising. November is for writing.

The Value of a Minute  

One of the best lessons NaNoWriMo teaches writers is just how valuable those “transition” times of the day can be. Sitting in a lecture hall waiting for class to start?  Bang out a couple hundred words while the professor sets up. Commercial break during your favorite show? Challenge yourself to see how many words you can churn out in those seven minutes. Waiting for your kids to get out of practice?  Pull up the Notes App on your phone and get to work. This anytime writing practice may just stick with you for the rest of the year.

You’re the Only One That Can Tell Your Story  

Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo founder and former program director, gives a pep talk every year in the first week of November, and one pearl of wisdom is always the same: no matter what you’re writing, the only person that can tell your story is you.  Every writer has received a critique that claims a work is “derivative,” that it’s “too close” to what already exists. Well, guess what? We all live on the same planet, and the realms of human experience are not infinite. Narratives are culturally ingrained, perhaps even tied directly to our identity as a species. But nobody is going to tell that story the way you will. Nobody will choose the language that you choose or create the characters that you create. The only person that can tell your story is you. So go out and write it.

New to National Novel Writing Month? Ready to write a novel? You can participate on your own, or by creating an account on the NaNoWriMo website, where you’ll also find forums, pep talks, a way to track your progress, and more.

Copy of Copy of Webber_ProfileImage-2.jpg

Michelle Webber has worked as a reader, an Editorial Assistant, and Social Media Editor for Stillhouse Press and currently serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications.  She is working on a collection of linked short stories and is a fiction candidate in George Mason University's Creative Writing BFA Program.


Adventures on the Indie Bookstore Route, Pt. 4

It's fall and like any true book lover knows, it's time to cozy up with your favorite blanket and relax with a good book. Whether you're picking up the latest book of the season or a classic from the canon, we're here to show your the best places throughout the D.M.V. for scoring fresh reads—our fantastic indie book shops, of course!

Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café


 Photo courtesy of  Drink DC

Photo courtesy of Drink DC

By Madeline Dell'Aria

Wedged in like the keystone of the Dupont Circle arch, Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café is an amalgamation of culinary and literary worlds. Restaurant, bar, and bookshop, Kramerbooks is not your standard independent bookstore. It has been a fixture of the community since 1976 and offers more than most other bookstores, with a large café peering out onto 19th St. NW that provides an impressive diversity of items and a full-service bar with literary-themed cocktails like “Catcher in the Rye.”

Bookshelves showcase the usual suspects: the bestsellers, the trending authors, and a whole lot more. The small store doesn’t offer used books, its new titles so densely packed into different sections that they seem almost to blend together. Proud of its local heritage, Kramerbooks devotes a large selection to the city that hosts it, which no doubt pleases history fans and tourists alike.

Wanderlust is not lost on the inhabitants of the bustling Dupont Circle and certainly not on Kramerbooks clientele. The Circle is surrounded by embassies from all over the world and gazing upon the brightly colored spines of travel books will have you pining for adventure, from a cheese tour of Vermont to the tropical beaches of Phuket. Like many independent bookstores, Kramerbooks also stays quite busy. Few event calendars can rival the raw frequency of Kramerbooks’ lineup, with an author reading, wine tasting, or music event nearly every night.

Because the bookstore is also café and bar, its hours range from early morning to the very early morning. In other words: it caters to early birds and night owls alike and is easily accessible via metro. Take a gander at the clientele and you’ll see architects scribbling down drawings, lobbyists making friends, and the [rare] government official perusing a government docket. For those seeking respite from the hurry of D.C., you won’t find it here. From the bustle to the price of beer, it's clear you're in the city.

Madeline Dell’Aria, a Northern Virginia native, is a graduate of George Mason University's BFA Creative Writing program. Growing up she wanted to become a tree, a witch, or an explorer; so she became a writer.

Tania James at Fall For the Book

By Evan Roberts

 Photo courtesy of  Knopf Doubleday

Photo courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

In Dewberry Hall during George Mason’s annual Fall for the Book festival, Harvard alumnus and new Mason professor Tania James spoke to a packed crowd of eager, rain-soaked undergraduates. I was privileged enough to be one of them.

“I really was expecting to read to only two people,” joked James, author of the well-received novel The Tusk That Did the Damage. And while I was prepared to pester her with questions about the unique perspectives in her latest novel, she made clear that she had turned the page to the next section of her life, moving beyond this latest piece.

For one, she’s a recent mother, and is more recently escaping a year-long writer’s block following childbirth. With less time on her hands, now she writes in “short bursts,” as opposed to forcing herself to write for extended hours. James recounted that previously she spent long periods of time writing “because [she] had to,” but now believes that time wasn’t used efficiently. It’s a predicament I believe every writer can relate to: the desire to produce, or else face the chest-gripping sense of guilt. “It’s a waste of time to work on one thing if you’d rather work on something else,” she said. Amidst all these exciting life changes there is one writing ritual James still abides, one from before her days as a mother: the first two hours of each morning are dedicated to the craft.

Currently, James is interested in what she calls the “weirdness of early motherhood.” In this transitory period of her life, now she’s drawn towards writers who have a surrealistic take because she feels surrealism speaks to her own experiences of past events – specifically to her own experience with motherhood. This new perspective captivated me. It seemed to provide a new source of inspiration, a way to dwell on the most confusing of reflections, and to appreciate them not necessarily for how they actually occurred, but for how they are remembered. When asked how she balances surrealism in otherwise realistic stories, she said that the voice should not be trying to “convince;” it should not linger in trying to explain or rationalize the science of the world, and should instead state what is occurring with authority. By explaining the inner workings of our worlds, we bring unnecessary attention to the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

In the concluding moments of the reading, James spoke on the dichotomy between a novel-length work and a short story. To her, a novel is the culmination of life lessons and perspectives gleaned over a period of several years of the author’s life. A novel is essentially the product of “countless inspirations,” and I truly believe this to be evident in her works. In contrast, James said that a short story has an intense focus – such an intense focus that it’s impossible for her to see past the borders that this single inspiration has framed for her.

Before the applause of damp hands and the formation of a queue by the author’s desk came the inevitable question during any reading: What inspires you?

Said James, “Every day seems to offer something.”

Evan Roberts is the coordinating editor of Moonshine Murmurs, and has worked as an editorial assistant, reader, and media contributor for Stillhouse Press. He will graduate from George Mason University in December, 2016 with a BA in English.

From Still to Shelf Pt. 4: Book Marketing For Artists

By Michelle Webber

When students want to enter the publishing industry after college, most of them picture themselves as editors. The leap is a logical one: those of us who pursue a BFA or MFA in writing spend so much time inside the manuscript that we forget the work must reach readers to achieve its true value. Many consider marketing and advertising the antithesis of artistic creation, that marketing’s only goal is to make money for the publisher, and that this process ignores the art of the book itself. But for Stillhouse Press, this notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

 From a marketing brainstorming session for Mark Polanzak's  POP!  (March 2016)

From a marketing brainstorming session for Mark Polanzak's POP! (March 2016)

Our marketing process begins only after we have first read the book in its entirety. We believe that to build an effective promotional strategy, there are several things we must know about the book that are best discovered by stepping into the shoes of the reader. The most important component of marketing is audience. So we ask:What is its genre? What kind of person would enjoy this book? To whom will it appeal? What other books does it remind us of?  Another crucial element is the book’s unique appeal. What about this book is different from others in its genre? What is its greatest strength? If I had to pitch this book to someone in less than 60 seconds, what would I tell them about it?  Answering these questions allows us to approach our promotional plan as readers and book lovers as well as marketing professionals.

Once we’ve read the book, our next step is to coordinate our timeline with Editorial.  As soon as we acquire a book, we work backwards from the date of publication to plan deadlines, the first of which is the printing of Advance Review Copies (ARCs, or galleys).  Publishers send ARCs to a number of contacts, including review outlets, trade publications, and potential blurbers (other authors who will read the manuscript and offer up a quote) to arrange media coverage and cultivate buzz. Each market has its own lead window (an industry term for the minimum amount of time before publication that an outlet will consider a book for review or coverage). At Stillhouse, we aim to prepare and begin shipping galleys four to six months in advance of publication.

After we’ve formed our timeline and the editorial team for the book has begun their developmental edits, we schedule a meeting with the author to talk about their publishing and writing contacts, their list of potential blurbers, and the use and development of their social media platforms.  We also discuss any upcoming publications, plans to submit new writing, and career or occupation changes so that we can leverage every advantage and increase an author's visibility. Every author brings something new to the conversation and every book is different, so we refine and tailor our marketing strategy accordingly.

Over the next several months, the marketing team works closely with the author and managing editor to build an exhaustive list of contacts for media and reviews. Each list is pulled from a central database that we continually update with new markets and publication staff changes. Once every contact, email address, and mailing address has been vetted and approved, we begin querying. This is largely the same process that authors go through when querying agents and publishing houses, only in reverse.

As soon as galleys are printed, proofed, finalized, and shipped to us, we begin sending packages to media.  In this package, we include an ARC and relevant publication data. We prefer to include all publication info in the form of a postcard, rather than the industry standard press release, which is often discarded, unread. We strive to ensure that the concept driving the artwork and marketing materials is consistent between the galley and the product. This process often continues on a rolling basis until the month of publication.

Once we begin to receive notifications of coverage from some of the outlets that read the book and want to feature it either in a review or in an interview with the author, the marketing team coordinates timelines with the market and the author, and adds items to our roster for social media.

While cultivating media coverage is one of our most important responsibilities, there are several more obscure components of our department that are just as essential to the success of the press. Our Social Media Editor is responsible for writing and scheduling weekly posts on Facebook and Twitter that not only increase awareness of our titles, but that also participate in a dialogue of literary citizenship. Successful media campaigns aren’t paved with purchase-centric posts. The most effective strategy is to participate in relevant conversations, share the successes of your friends in the publishing industry, and comment on recent events. The best way to maintain a strong follower base is to engage the target audience’s community.  

  Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely  book signing at the 2016 Brooklyn Book Festival. From top left to right: Editor, Marcos L. Martínez; Managing Editor, Justin Lafreniere; Communications Director, Michelle Webber; bottom: author, Matthew Fogarty.

Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely book signing at the 2016 Brooklyn Book Festival. From top left to right: Editor, Marcos L. Martínez; Managing Editor, Justin Lafreniere; Communications Director, Michelle Webber; bottom: author, Matthew Fogarty.

The marketing team also plans book tours and promotional events, both in the local area and across the country. Some of our events are recurring each year, including readings at Fall for the Book, AWP, and other literary conferences. If the event is local, the marketing team services and coordinates logistics.

Marketing is perhaps the most collaborative process at Stillhouse Press. Members of our team work closely with authors, managing editors, stakeholders, and industry professionals to ensure that our titles not only sell but that they also reach readers who value them. By taking into consideration the strengths and audience of the work, the network and media presence of our authors, and the literary climate into which each project is released, we are able to construct a plan that pleases all parties. Marketing, then, isn’t just about making money for the press. It’s about making happy authors, too.

Michelle Webber has worked as a reader, an Editorial Assistant, and Social Media Editor for Stillhouse Press and currently serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications.  She is working on a science fiction novel and will graduate with a BFA in Fiction from George Mason University in the spring of 2017.

Flash Magic: An Interview with Matthew Fogarty

By Evan Roberts

“I've always wanted to write and I've always written,” says Matthew Fogarty, author of Stillhouse Press’ forthcoming Maybe Mermaids & Robots Are Lonely. More than half a decade ago Fogarty practiced law during the day and squeezed writing into his schedule in the wee hours of the night, though writing proved far more fulfilling and enjoyable; eventually this manifested in his decision to leave his job and pursue an MFA in creative writing. “It was the hardest, riskiest choice I've ever made, to go from a comfortable living in a promising career to earning next to nothing devoting my time to trying this thing I could only hope I'd get good at.”

Fogarty says he didn’t consciously develop his writing style. “As a writer, you're the product of what and who you read, [and eventually] you reach some kind of critical mass when you stop emulating individual writers and you feel the freedom to just start writing like yourself.” He praises George Saunders’ preface to Civilwarland in Bad Decline (Random House, 1996) for instilling in him this sense of freedom and individuality, for granting him permission to write what he personally loved to write, and not what he was expected to.

On the topic of other influential works, Fogarty credits Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977)—and later her other stories—with refining his approach to story-making. “[It's] the way she plays with words and sounds and constructs sentences and rhythms and how she teases out meaning, how she builds characters out of these things, how everything feeds the work as a whole,” says Fogarty, who clings to his own storytelling dogma, a complementary dichotomy formed from the works of Stuart Dybek and Etgar Keret: where Dybek said “anything can be a story,” Etgar Keret said “a story can be anything.” To Fogarty, they’re both right.

The very beginning, the first five or so minutes upon sitting down to start or resume a story, this is the moment Fogarty finds the most difficult, the most precarious. But sometimes, even after he’s worked up a rhythm, there’s an even greater challenge to overcome. Fogarty says there are times “when [writing] feels silly or unnecessary or wrong, or when words don't feel strong enough or when I don't feel strong enough. It's not failure I'm afraid of in those times. I don't know what it is. Maybe something scary about laying the world bare.”

Fogarty is a unusual writer. He believes that traditional realist stories have been written before, and the genre is withoutfor lack of a better wordmagic. “I just refuse to believe there's no magic in the world. To me, there's something very real about the magic in my stories and the magic in the stories of writers like Amelia Gray and Etgar Keret. Stories are opportunities to explore and to dream and to be wowed and to feel new emotions, to think new thoughts, to meet new people or animals or aliens or what have you.”

But for Fogarty the goal of writing isn’t necessarily to write a superb story. Instead, he suggests “the idea is to get something unrecognizable onto the page—something that's bigger than the sum of whatever parts I can collect. I know I’ve done something right when I start to feel some emotion from the story, when it hits me in a place I didn't expect.” In his debut collection, filled with stories containing magical realism, characters like Elvis, Bigfoot, and Zelda exist in our collective unconscious. “These characters are all already created in our minds, and we can all experience these stories in whatever way we want, and while whoever may read these stories can also make these characters their own, there’s something about them that is shared, and in this way we can be bonded." And that, says Fogarty, "is the fun of it all."

Matthew Fogarty is a Co-Publisher of Jellyfish Highway and author of Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely: Stories (forthcoming from Stillhouse Press Sept. 16, 2016). His work has appeared in Passages North, Fourteen Hills, PANK, The Rumpus, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. He has twice been a finalist for the Write-a-House residency, and has received scholarships from the New Harmony Writers Workshop, the Wesleyan Writers Conference, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Evan Roberts is Moonshine Murmurs Blog Editor. He has worked as an Editorial Assistant, Reader, and Media Intern for Stillhouse Press. He will graduate from George Mason in the fall of 2016 with a B.A. in English.

From Still to Shelf, Pt. 3: The Ins and Outs of Book Design

When a manuscript has finished its journey through developmental editing, substantive editing, and copyediting, it’s still just a text document. The actual process from manuscript to book involves more than just slapping on a copyright page and cover. Hundreds of tiny choices must be made along the way: what font should be used for chapter titles, body text, the epigraph?  What kind of symbol or image should provide scene divisions?  How much white space should the book contain? What should the color scheme of this book be? Artistic and highly specialized professionals guide Stillhouse Press in these decisions, making up the core of our design team. 

We rely primarily on two people for the bulk of our design work: Kady Dennell, a freelance designer develops our interior layout and design, while our Art Director, Doug Luman handles cover design and brand development. Like each aspect of Stillhouse, book design is a collaborative process between. It’s important to us to not only develop an aesthetic and marketable product, but also to create a book that serves as a visual archetype to its literary content. For this post, we invited Kady to share some of the intricacies of this process.


Kady Dennell

The interior design process begins with design inspirations (interior layout and font choices used in other books that are either market matches for the current project or just well-designed products) from the author, the book's managing editor, and Stillhouse's Editor in Chief, Marcos L. Martínez. After the team decides on a direction, I browse through my library of fonts or research online for typefaces that will achieve the desired look. There are many aesthetic “families” that exist in typography, each with its own aesthetic consequences. The style of a font and its placement on the page, while it seems a simple thing, can completely alter the meaning of the content.  Consider a sign for a hardcore workout bootcamp written in delicate cursive, or an entire novel presented in bolded comic sans. Neither of these properly evokes the genre, purpose, or central aesthetic of the content that the physical language is meant to represent.

 A mid-process design mock-up for the cover element of  POP!

A mid-process design mock-up for the cover element of POP!

Once I’ve found a set of typefaces that match our intended aesthetic, I then propose two or three layout concepts to the publishing team for their input. These concepts will consist of ideas for page number placement, text size, font, headline placement, and body copy font and leading (the actual justification and margin work of copy on the page). From there, I adjust the layout design and prepare style guides and master pages in Adobe InDesign, an industry staple for publication design. The next step is styling the text for the whole manuscript, which is usually done with two main fonts (one for chapter titles and another for body copy). After all of the type is stylized, I adjust spacing to minimize orphans and widows—the design term for words left dangling across lines or left on lines by themselves. Once the manuscript is laid out in its entirety, I submit the file to the editorial team and they do a comprehensive review of the now fully designed book. Once their comments return, I implement any final changes and design edits, and then the final is ready for print.


Michelle Webber

The cover is the face of the book.  It is the first and often only chance to grab the attention of readers and encourage them to investigate what’s inside.  A bad cover—one that is ugly, busy, or confusing to its audience—can lose sales, regardless of the quality of the content within. Alternatively, a good cover aims to convey key elements of that content and inspires the reader to take a closer look. 

Our design process varies from book to book.  Some manuscripts immediately suggest a strong design direction.  For example, the design concept for Matt Fogarty’s Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely emerged more or less as soon as our editorial team began discussing it (for a detailed look, read designer Alex Walsh’s post).

While the exterior design process is constantly evolving, it always begins with a conversation between our art director, Doug; the book's managing editor; the author; and the marketing team.  Some authors are more opinionated about the content of their cover than others.  Many come to the table with a list of things they absolutely do not want, which gives Doug a good place to start, though the beginning mock-ups are usually born from the manuscript itself.  Once a general aesthetic for the cover has been developed, it's up to the designer to produce three or four concepts, which are then presented to the editorial and marketing staff for fine-tuning. The concepts are the narrowed down to one or two options. Usually, the agreed upon cover concept goes through three or four drafts before reaching its final state, which includes the placement of our logo and branding, the cover copy, and the final spine design.  At that point, the marketing team signs off on the cover and it returns to Doug for final adjustments and rendering.

Once the interior and exterior designs have been finalized, the manuscript is then submitted it to our printer and a proof is ordered.  If everything looks as it should, advance review copies (ARCs) or "galleys" are ordered. These are sent to media and used to proof the book before it is sent out for final printing.

Kady Dennell is a freelance designer living in Portland, OR. She enjoys working with typography, (loads of) color, and photography. You can find her work at


Michelle Webber has worked as a reader, an Editorial Assistant, and Social Media Editor for Stillhouse Press and currently serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications.  She is working on a science fiction novel and will graduate with a BFA in Fiction from George Mason University in the spring of 2017.

Adventures on the Indie Bookstore Route, Pt. 3

It's summertime and like any true book lover knows, it's time to kick up your feet, soak up the sun, and relax with a good book. Whether you're picking up the latest book of the season or a classic from the canon, we're here to show your the best places throughout the D.M.V. for scoring fresh readsour fantastic indie book shops, of course!

Idle Time Books


By Madeline Dell'Aria

Along a street of hookah bars, dives, head shops, tattoo parlors, and boutique restaurants, Idle Time Books seems an incongruous addition, yet it resides harmoniously. Just three doors down from the prominent hot spot Madam’s Organ, Idle Time Books quenches the community’s literary thirst.

Outside the bookstore, the sidewalk is littered with carts full of one dollar books, discounted due to overstock or light wear. Visitors are first greeted by unique event cards (Hallmark doesn’t stock these) and stacks of vintage magazines spanning several decades. Beyond, the meticulously organized collection of used books rise not just one, but two and a half stories tall. Fiction occupies a large swath of the first floor, but there is so much more tucked away in this unassuming store. A glass case of first editions sits by the stairs: The Hobbit for the fantasy collector, The Fountainhead for the libertarian, an antique copy of the now out-of-print music magazine Creem with rock and roll supernova David Bowie emblazoned on the cover.

The well- kept landing carries biographies and other non-fiction. And upwards, on the second floor, section after section of non-fiction is featured; women’s studies, queer studies, racial studies, and the sciences, whittled down to subsections of biology, technology, chemistry and the like, military and foreign history divided by country. And then there is the fiction: sci-fi, fantasy, and vintage pulp books wrapped in cellophane like candy.

The most appealing aspect of Idle Time Books is that it invites its guests to linger. Folk music plays softly from the speakers. Hand-written signs like “YES WE CAN! Put Books Back Where We Found Them” and other vintage posters are cozily appropriate for a bookstore nestled amongst the politically savvy, witty populations of northwest DC. As the name suggests, visitors will want to have ample time to visit Idle Time Books and let their minds and attentions wander. 

Madeline Dell’Aria, a Northern Virginia native, recently graduated from George Mason University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Growing up she wanted to become a tree, a witch, or an explorer; so she became a writer.


From Still to Shelf, Pt. 2: A Relational Approach to Editing

By Justin Lafreniere

What an editor should do is often the subject of debate and disagreement. It is a role that changes based on era, economics, the size of the press, or the individual personality of the author or the editor. Editing requires teamwork and cooperation, but what makes an editor talented, successful, or effective for an author? There isn’t a single right way to be an editor, but developing an editorial identity takes time and opportunity, both of which we strive to provide at Stillhouse Press.

Once the author has signed his or her contract, our Editor-in-Chief selects an editorial team for the book, choosing experienced staff who would best fit the project. Each team is made up of two or three Editorial Assistants and a Managing Editor.  Usually, Managing Editors are in their second or third year of the MFA program and have worked as Editorial Assistants on other books.  It is not uncommon for staff members to speak up for projects they are interested in developing when they encounter them as readers.  As a teaching press, we encourage staff members to work on projects that excite them and have found that the editor/author relationship progresses smoothest when both parties are passionate about the project.  

 Managing Editors and Editorial Assistants meet to discuss future projects. 

Managing Editors and Editorial Assistants meet to discuss future projects. 

The Editorial Assistants (usually MFA or BFA candidates) assist the Managing Editor in performing two or three editorial passes on each manuscript.  The first is for developmental improvements and to alleviate points of confusion, the second for organization and structure, and the third for line-level concerns.  This process varies from editor to editor as manuscripts come to us at various levels of publication readiness, and some require more work than others.  All of these comments are sent to the Managing Editor, who filters through them, adds remarks, and passes the suggestions along to the author.

At Stillhouse Press, we believe that a successful editorial relationship hinges on two things: editorial identity and respect for the author and his or her project. An editor must come to a book not as a writer, but as a collaborator with the author.  Every writer is an editor in some capacity, but becoming a Managing Editor means abandoning personal stylistic quips and writing biases and embracing the author’s voice and project.  MFA students, who are still smack-dab in the middle of their program and their most intensive workshop experience, have the added challenge of recognizing the influence of the pervasive workshop mentality. When editing in workshops, writers provide feedback and give authors suggestions for revision, but these suggestions are given in a theoretical mode.

Editing in a publishing house does not  have that nicety. Sometimes things must be done. But other times, things that an author composes must be left to stand on their own. People wearing that double-hat of MFA student and editor must be aware of which is dominant when they discuss their editorial projects. Workshops are prescriptive. It’s the subtext to the name: a manuscript is only brought to a workshop if it needs fixing. Editorial relationships are not like that. So much more must be going right for it to come into an editor’s hands. Even if it isn’t a book that an editor finds exciting, he or she must be able to look at it from the perspective of the imagined reader, not from the standpoint of a fellow writer or even as a craft-oriented MFA student. Editorial relationships that are the strongest are built on a positive notion: “This is already good.”

Respecting the author and the project may seem like a no-brainer, but this fundamental component of the editor/author relationship has the most far-reaching consequences of all.  One of the most difficult things as an editor is knowing when and how to suggest large changes to a manuscript: the presence of a character, the deletion or rearrangement of scenes, or large-scale structural or organizational changes.  This is where respecting the project comes into play.  Our memoir POP! was experimental, and in any experimental work, there are going to be conversations on structure. But that book knew what it wanted to be from the outset; it was just a matter of making sure each chapter or section lined up with that vision.  When we discussed our first round of comments with Mark Polanzak, we learned that acquisition editors from other houses had resisted the book’s hybrid identity, which is what we loved most about it.  At Stillhouse, we have many conversations with our authors to discover their vision for their work before we even begin the editorial process to get a sense of the project from the author’s perspective.  We strive to present the best versions of their stories, to help them become the best books they can be, and the only way to do that is with respect for authorial vision.

There is no right way to edit, but there are certainly wrong ways.  Stillhouse strives to build a constructive relationship with our authors and their projects, one where the author is always free to reject or resist our suggestions.  Our team structure allows for multiple voices and points of view on what’s working or not working in a manuscript, which ultimately means a more thorough reader’s perspective.  Our Managing Editors distill that information and keep an open dialogue with authors from first read to final draft. We’ve found in many instances that authors and editors continue to stay in touch even after the journey has finished and the book is in print. There's no better indicator of a successful working relationship than that. 

Justin Lafreniere is the Prose Editor at Stillhouse Press and worked as the Assistant Managing Editor for POP! (Mark Polanzak, March 2016) and the Managing Editor for Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely: Stories (Matthew Fogarty, September 2016).  He graduated with an MFA in fiction from George Mason University in 2016, where he also served as the Fiction Editor for So to Speak, GMU's feminist literary journal.  His work has appeared in Charlotte Viewpoint, The Western Online, and Frostwriting.


Adventures on the Indie Bookstore Route, Pt. 2

It's summertime and like any true book lover knows, it's time to kick up your feet, soak up the sun, and relax with a good book. Whether you're picking up the latest book of the season or a classic from the canon, we're here to show your the best places throughout the D.M.V. for scoring fresh readsour fantastic indie book shops, of course!

One More Page Books


By Madeline Dell'Aria

Tucked away beneath sprawling condos near the East Falls Church Metro, One More Page Books is a relatively new addition to its lovely Arlington neighborhood and is quickly becoming a community hub for authors, bibliophiles, and pleasure readers alike.

Inspired by her time working on a book truck during her college days, former consultant Eileen McGervey quit her job and founded One More Page Books on Jan. 21, 2011. The bookstore exhibits McGervey's love of mystery and fiction, but also harbors a small wonderland of children’s books, and most intriguingly, wine, beer, and locally-crafted chocolates—such natural complements to a good book, that it’s a crime other bookstores don’t do the same.

Buying inventory for a small store can be tricky. Staffer Lelia Nebeker calls it a negotiation between what the staff loves and what the community wants. Gauging a community's preferences takes time. Over the years they have found that political books are in surprisingly low demand for a shop only six Metro stops west of DC. What does sell well, beyond their ample mystery and fiction collection, is humor, followed by biography and historical books. One More Page Books often stocks recognizable names, but not exactly the best-seller list. However, if a customer wants a book they don’t carry, they can order it and have it available within 24 hours.

Instead of a contemporary Staff Favorites section, the staff write their suggestions on heart-shaped sticky notes and attach them to the cover of their favorite books. This practice is more organic for the staff, as they’re encouraged to add a note whenever the store stocks a book they love. Even the wine and chocolates are peppered with these bright little papers. Behind the cash register, a cabinet is so plastered with Post-its from books they’ve sold that the wood underneath is masked entirely.

One More Page Books also encourages customers to return by hosting an extensive series of community events, such as wine tastings, author readings, and even karaoke. Five events are forthcoming in July alone: the first, a reading from author David Krugler on July 9th.

With a selection of complimentary food and drinks, a colorful, laissez-faire approach to staff suggestions, a host of quirky and entertaining events, and a visit from President Obama to boot, One More Page may be a young bookstore, but it has quickly established itself as a venerable hub in the metropolitan area.

Madeline Dell’Aria, a Northern Virginia native, recently graduated from George Mason University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Growing up she wanted to become a tree, a witch, or an explorer; so she became a writer.

From Still to Shelf: Reading Like an Artist

By Benjamin A. Rader

Reading slush is a difficult job: most of our readers are writers themselves, so evaluating manuscripts for publication often involves quieting the aesthetic we apply to our own work and letting the new manuscript tell us how to read it.

"One part restraint, one part literary potential, and two parts education, the manuscript selection process at Stillhouse aims to find that wholly new, original piece of art, while pushing readers to revise their ideas about how art works."

Whether they work for Media or Editorial, every staff member at Stillhouse begins as a reader. Readers assess manuscripts from a craft perspective, yet also aim to somehow quantify the emotional experience of reading the book.  Striving to maintain a reading staff with a diverse range of creative backgrounds and editorial styles is essential. A collection of diverse voices and selective eyes is part of what makes the selection process nuanced and thorough.   

Our selection process begins with the Submittable portal. Once a writer submits his or her manuscript, the Submissions Editor assigns it for first reads. First readers perform a close reading of each work to evaluate its voice, story, structure andmost importantly—literary potential. Readers are required to read at least the first 30 pages or three chapters of a manuscript before rejecting it, though they may not recommend any manuscript for publication without reading it completely. Each reader must use the  Reader Response Sheet to record the page at which they stopped reading and an explanation, rank the manuscript on a scale of 0 to 10, and indicate whether or not they think the book has publication potential, using examples of the text to support their decision. Readers also provide notes about the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript to aid their justifications.

  Stillhouse Staff (left to right): Madeline Dell'Aria, Kate Lewis, Hannah Campeanu, Katie Ray.

Stillhouse Staff (left to right): Madeline Dell'Aria, Kate Lewis, Hannah Campeanu, Katie Ray.

Occasionally, we find a manuscript with a voice and concept readers love, but that needs significant developmental editing. Because Stillhouse is a small operation, we work with writers to develop their manuscript over the span of (at least) one year before publication, and occasionally longer than that. In first reads, readers are tasked not only with evaluating the manuscript for what it is, but also imagining what the book could be. They are asked to imagine what the work will look like in one year, its potential for evolution.

If the majority of readers assigned to a manuscript think it should be published or if the manuscript is designated as a “maybe” (a consistent score of 5 or 6), it’s sent to another group of readers for second reads. Second readers have often worked for Stillhouse for several semesters, proving their ability to critically analyze work at the sentence and developmental level. The process for second reads is the same, albeit more stringent; second readers almost never use the “maybe” designation. If a second reader recommends the manuscript, it moves on to the prose or poetry editors. Three different categories of readers must agree on the work before Stillhouse's head editor, Marcos L. Martínez sees it. 

The measured selection process, in addition to providing a pool from which to draw books, serves another crucial function: education and artistic maturation, the Stillhouse ethos. Every time a reader disagrees with another reader, they are growing and evolving their own literary voice and their craft.  Since readers inherently understand the importance of artistic development, they actively work to push against their own aesthetic. By pushing and pulling, with each manuscript they argue for or against, readers hone their editorial eye and further develop Stillhouse's collaborative aesthetic. One part restraint, one part literary potential, and two parts education, the manuscript selection process at Stillhouse aims to find that wholly new, original piece of art, while pushing readers to revise their ideas about how art works.

It is difficult to quantify the type of work we look for, though perhaps one of our greatest strengths is that we aim to offer writers a safe place for work that other publishers challenge; those works that are impossible to sell to the big publishing houses because they “aren’t marketable” or easily categorized.

Can't place it in a genre, or fit it in a box? Yeah, we love that.


Benjamin A. Rader is the Submissions Editor at Stillhouse Press and an MFA candidate in the fiction program at George Mason. A year prior, he was awarded a teaching fellowship for his short fiction and poetry at Seton Hall University. His work is forthcoming or has appeared in The Northern Virginia Review, The I-70 Review, filling Station, The Tulip Tree Review, and others.    

Adventures on the Indie Bookstore Route, Pt. 1

It's summertime and like any true book lover knows, it's time to kick up your feet, soak up the sun, and relax with a good book. Whether you're picking up the latest book of the season or a classic from the canon, we're here to show your the best places throughout the D.M.V. for scoring fresh readsour fantastic indie book shops, of course!

Hole in the Wall Books




By Madeline Dell'Aria

Hole in the Wall Books is located right in the middle of placid Falls Church, VA at 904 W Broad St. The quaint bookstore’s azure door is a gateway to a different time: specializing primarily in science-fiction, fantasy, and comics, books at Hole in the Wall are stacked, squeezed, and pigeon-holed in overlapping arrangement. This overabundance of fiction, the must of buried tomes thick in the air, harkens back to literature’s tactile, page-flipping, pre-Kindle origins. While its name implies a tightly packed space, this bounty of books is hardly stifling, creating instead an entrance to infinite worlds and spaces ripe for exploration.

The concatenation of literary sources is curated by the knowledgeable and affable founders, Michael and Edie Nally. In 1979, Michael began running a small book section of what was then Record and Tape Exchange. This store would later move, but Michael’s "Hole in the Wall" would remain, eventually occupying the entire space of the original store.

Besides the collection, which has certainly expanded over the years, little has changed since 1979; there is no computer system, reference books are used instead of Google, and cell phones are seldom spotted. The only exception to the owners’ pursuit of antiquity is the store’s website, and (naturally) their up-to-date collection of comics and a miscellany of geek genres. Particularly strong are the science fiction and fantasy collections, which reflect the taste of the founders. This bookstore is largely operated on a buy-sell-trade basis, and the collection similarly reflects the diversity of the Washington metropolitan area.

The store is accessible via MetroBus on Broad Street and has a surprisingly large parking lot, given the diminutive size of the store. For those avid genre-fiction readers seeking escape in fantasy, adventure, or just a bygone era, there may be no better locale than Hole in the Wall Books.

Madeline Dell’Aria, a Northern Virginia native, recently graduated from George Mason University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Growing up she wanted to become a tree, a witch, or an explorer; so she became a writer.

Pop Culture and Poetry: A Conversation with Sass Brown

This week on Moonshine Murmurs, we interview Alexandria, VA-based poet, Sass Brown. A D.C. native and a former George Mason University professor, Brown is avidly involved in the local literary community and the author of USA-1000, a book of poetry that won the 2014 Crab Orchard Series Poetry Award. Now she is currently at work on her next manuscript, but she took some time to talk with us about USA-1000 and her experiences as a poet in the nation’s capitol.

In your interview with Southern Illinois University Press (SIUP), you talked about the challenge of submitting USA-1000 to contests for seventeen years before it was accepted for publication. How did you approach the submission process, and do you have any advice for other writers?

  USA-1000  (Southern University Illinois Press, 2014)

USA-1000 (Southern University Illinois Press, 2014)

Sass Brown: I sent USA-1000 everywhere in the beginning. Eventually, I realized that some places consistently chose my manuscript as a finalist, while others never responded with a positive note. It sounds obvious now, but the best strategy is to keep sending to the presses that like your work and publish writing like yours. In order to do that, you have to be familiar with their aesthetics, which requires a lot of homework.

A few other things I learned from the submission process: if a press' website doesn't look professional, the press may not be professional either. I learned this the hard way, when my book was accepted twice for publication prior to SIUP, but the editors didn't follow through. And if you're getting good feedback, don't be afraid to keep sending the same manuscript to the same competitions. I was worried that my book would get stale, but the final judge is different every year. Ironically, after all those years of submitting my manuscript everywhere, my book won another publication competition just three weeks after it was accepted by SIUP! Sometimes it just takes tenacity and a little bit of luck.

How did USA-1000 evolve over the years from when you first started submitting it to contests to when it was published?

SB: I probably removed and replaced about a dozen poems in the manuscript, but the rest remained essentially the same. The main difference is in the order; instead of grouping poems chronologically or strictly by theme, eventually I ordered the manuscript instinctually. I looked at the last line of each poem and let it guide me to the first line of the next. I also put what I considered to be some of my strongest poems first.

I was surprised by how much I learned from the editing process once the manuscript had been accepted. I reworked passages in a few poems, but mainly I tightened the language. Having to read it over so many times, I noticed connections between poems that either were unconscious or I had forgotten. The editing process taught me so much about what I was trying to say.

MM: You’ve discussed the themes of USA-1000, which included consumerism, longing for connection, and the difference between image and reality, in previous interviews. Do you feel that you've said all you have to say about those subjects, or are you still coming back to them in your poetry today?

SB: I'm not as focused on the longing for connection anymore, now that I'm married... or rather, many of the new poems are about negotiating the intimacy of marriage. I don't think I ever will have completely exhausted the themes in USA-1000; I have to keep writing about my obsessions because passion makes for heartfelt poetry.

But the way I approach the subject matter today is different. My new manuscript is darker. I have been struggling with chronic illness for the past five years, and it has changed the direction of my writing.  Now I am researching and writing about my experience, as well as medical oddities, experimental medicine, perfectionism, and the strange otherness of the body— especially the aging, decaying, or sick body—and the risky things we do to keep it well and beautiful.

My favorite poems are those with a complicated tone, one that shuttles back and forth between humor and tragedy. One of my friends said that the experience of reading my poems is like having been slipped a mickey; they appear harmless and amusing on the surface, but by the end, they are deeply unsettling.

You've worked as a professor of creative writing and composition at several universities, including George Mason. How has your experience teaching affected your writing, and vice versa?

SB: From my days as a counselor at UVA's Young Writers' Workshop, teaching reminded me to pay close attention to detail, to see how poems ticked on a micro level. Often, I brought in other artistic mediums (film, visual art, music, and advertising) as prompts, since I draw much of my inspiration from popular culture. I really miss teaching because it allowed me to share my favorite writing. Unfortunately, I found that I spent so much time commenting on student work that I neglected my own. It can be difficult to silence my internal teacher, editor, and proofreader when writing a first draft, but it's absolutely necessary.

Are you currently writing full time, or do you have a separate job as well?

SB: I work at the Arts Club of Washington as their award administrator of the Marfield Prize, the national award for nonfiction arts writing. It's the ideal job for a writer—part-time, so there's plenty of time to work on my next book, and a great opportunity to interact with artists in different genres. What could be better than reading books and promoting the arts for a living? We just announced this year's winner, Michael Riedel, for his book Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway. I’ve been planning his upcoming visit to D.C., including a school visit and an interview with Washington Post drama critic Peter Marks on May 18.

You’ve spent a lot of your life living and working in and around D.C. When people not from the around here think of D.C., they probably don’t think of a thriving literary community. What has your experience working and writing in the D.C. area been like?

SB: I moved back to the D.C. area after receiving my MFA from Indiana University. I worked as a Visiting Writer-in-Residence at what was then Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, VA for one semester, and then I moved back to my hometown of Alexandria.

Growing up I had a misconception that the D.C. area was a cultural wasteland, but I was completely wrong. This is a great place to be a writer; the only drawback is that our area is so spread out that some events require a car. Some of my favorite places to hear readings are the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress. Split This Rock just hosted an incredible line-up of speakers at their biannual festival devoted to social justice poetry. And with all of the universities in the area, you can attend a different writing event every night of the week.

Sass Brown will give a reading at Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD on May 12th at 7 p.m. She will also read at the Beatley Central Library in Alexandria on May 25th at 7 p.m. More information can be found on her website,





The New Leaves Writers’ Conference: An Outsider’s Perspective

By Hailey Scherer

There are few things more enchanting than watching an author read his or her work aloud. They give voice to their narrator—something which Stillhouse Editor-in-Chief, Marcos L. Martínez defines as style, syntax, cadence, and tone, "but more like pheromones; something you know only when you feel it." The author fleshes out their work, their narrator's voice, with their own, making it sink into your bones. To hear the phrases fit the voices, to see the facial expressions, the unconscious body movements, is to experience their work on another level.

 Mark Polanzak, reading from his debut hybrid memoir,   POP!   (Stillhouse Press, 2016).

Mark Polanzak, reading from his debut hybrid memoir, POP! (Stillhouse Press, 2016).

As a visiting intern at Stillhouse Press and a high school senior with little experience in the professional writing world, I felt excited but largely unsure of what to expect from a "writers' conference." Would the discussions be stiff and formal? Would I feel excluded or in the way? Would I get to meet an actual author, those superhuman beings behind all my favorite books? As the conference began, however, I was immediately swept up in the words of the very real, very human writers and their readings.

I watched authors affiliated with Northern Virginia's small publishing community read from their recently published and award-winning works. I sat in rooms filled to the walls with George Mason students, Stillhouse Press and Gazing Grain editors, and others like me—lovers of the literary world who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The energy was palpable. It shifting in flavor from reading to reading, but was always charged with a positive, fascinating intensity.  

By reading from their work or answering questions, each writer had the opportunity to instill in the audience some message, about themselves, their work, the world, or all three. Gazing Grain's Nora Brooks infused emotion and personality into the practical affair of cooking, using it to explore things that make us uncomfortable, while Heidi Czerwiec discussed the socioeconomic, political, and environmental issues of western North Dakota in her work Sweet/Crude. Czerwiec's poems read like a report, but with lovelier words, poetic phrasing, literary organization, and curious anecdote, which serves to simultaneously further her points and to make her work all the more interesting and beautiful.

 Gazing Grain authors Heidi Czerwiec and Nora Brooks (left to right).

Gazing Grain authors Heidi Czerwiec and Nora Brooks (left to right).

Mark Polanzak’s enthusiasm was particularly apparent, and rightly so, as part of the conference was dedicated to celebrating his first book POP!, a hilarious work about a decidedly un-hilarious subject, the death of his father. Polanzak described his book, quite fittingly, as “factually unreliable but emotionally true,” a work that really speaks to “the absurdity and integrity of memory," and his reading brought the audience to life. Listeners let out genuine, full-voiced laughs, sighing at the more poignant lines. Hearing him read from his book while the sun set on George Mason’s blooming cherry trees and the wind-rippled pond remains one of my favorite memories from the conference.

The collaborative, enthusiastic, supportive atmosphere of the New Leaves Writers’ Conference reminded me that writing is not as individual a career as one might think. Or if writing is an independent affair, the sharing of that writing—the part that makes it all worth it—is decidedly not. Authors may give a solo performance, may use their writing to untangle unprocessed trauma, like witnessing a devastating global event or experiencing the death of a parent, but it’s the collaboration between writer and editor, the interaction between author and reader, that gives writing its texture. This is where it all comes together, where you get to feel and see and hear a writer's work. It's in the exchange that the words take on meaning.

Hailey Scherer is an intern at Stillhouse Press and a senior at Flint Hill High School. As an aspiring author/poet, she aims to learn as much as possible about writing and publishing during her internship this spring. She will be attending Dartmouth College in the fall.