Monday, January 8, 2018

Novel Courtship: The University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Gives Grad Students a Crash Course in Birthing Books

For the last three years, UNO Press Editor-in-Chief Abram Himelstein has led a class of graduate students on a journey to fall in love.

2018 UNO Publishing Lab Prize is Now Accepting Manuscript Entries

What: We are looking to publish the best novel or short story collection written this year. Contest is open to all authors, regardless of publishing history.

Submission fee: $18.00.

Manuscripts accepted: Jan. 1 to Aug. 15.

For more info:

Relationship terms like “emotional investment” and “shotgun marriage” pepper his instruction as he works with UNO Press Managing Editor GK Darby and about 14 Creative Writing Workshop and English master’s degree students to select a manuscript they believe in and then work to make it a compelling—and hopefully successful—work of published literature.

So far, their University of New Orleans Publishing Lab course has been prolific, producing two books with a third in process. As of Jan. 1, the lab also started accepting submissions for a fourth book through its 2018 University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize contest—a fiction contest with an $18 submission fee that has grown exponentially in popularity, from 75 submissions its first two years to a whopping 577 in 2017.

The results to date have been exciting. Margo Orlando Littell’s “Each Vagabond by Name,” was a gold-medal winner in the 2017 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was long-listed in the 2017 Tournament of Books. UNO Press has sold more than 3000 copies of the paperback and e-book, and has nearly sold through the first print edition. Since the September release of Melanie McCabe’s “His Other Life: Searching for My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams,” the 2016 UNO Lab Prize winner has been featured in The Washington Post and garnered favorable reviews.

Much like love and courtship, however, the process of finding the right manuscript and working through issues that arise while building something meaningful doesn’t come without its challenges. That’s part of the reason Himelstein and Darby created the class. They wanted to give University of New Orleans writing students a first-hand look at what it means to be a publisher.

His Other Life“GK and I realized a lot of MFA students were learning how to be writers but didn’t understand much about the world they would be working in,” said Himelstein, who has led UNO Press since 2013. The tiny university outfit typically publishes about 12 books per year out of a small office on the first floor of the Liberal Arts Building, not far from the classrooms where students in the Creative Writing Workshop, UNO’s MFA program in creative writing, assemble daily.

Himself a product of the Creative Writing Workshop, Himelstein felt the press was well-positioned to offer a course that delves beyond the craft of story into the business of selling the story. In addition to leading UNO Press, Himelstein is also founder of the Neighborhood Story Project, on faculty in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education and is himself a published author who 13 years ago took an unconventional route to marketing his first novel: He sold it out of his car trunk.

“We felt there was a large amount of professional knowledge that our students could gain while they were still in university that would make them better equipped for the world—and hopefully more successful as writers,” Himelstein said.

The result has been popular. The class immediately filled the first two years it was offered and, by the third year in the fall of 2017, some students had to be turned away.

* * *

Fourteen students gathered around a desktop computer screen in the offices of the UNO Press. They were quiet, fidgety and a seemingly a little nervous as the Skype screen finally opened to a smiling, bespectacled woman.

Until this moment, Meghan L. Dowling was a name on a page to these students. She was one of the 577 authors who sent in manuscripts for consideration.

For months, the students had been working to whittle the finalists down to one. Just two days before, after considerable discussion, several hand votes and the unexpected withdrawl of one of the finalists, the students agreed that Dowling’s novel, “A Catalogue of Small Things,” would be their winner.

The work tells the story of three generations of women by weaving together a tapestry of their memories that eventually illustrate a web of family secrets. Like other UNO Lab Contest winners, Dowling would get a $1,000 advance on royalties.

The students agreed that they liked the work. Yet unknown as they Skyped her for the first time was whether Dowling herself would be an affable partner on the journey to making this a book. Her online presence suggested she had a sense of humor as well as a level of comfort with the digital space. That was promising.

But would she be open to editing and suggestions from graduate students?

The students said hi and waved toward the computer screen. Then they took turns introducing themselves and telling her their hometowns.

“It’s really great to meet all of you,” Dowling replied from her home in Bangor, Maine, where she teaches writing and literature at Husson University. “I want to say I’m deeply honored that you chose this. But also I really love the project that you’re doing. It’s just so exciting to me to be a part of it.”

The students went on to ask Dowling some of their burning questions—or, at least, the ones that seemed appropriate for a first-time conversation.

How did you come up with this story? What was your inspiration? How did you go about organizing the book? And, because the manuscript included a series of illustrations that some of the students liked and others were not so sure about, What’s your relationship with the illustrator?

The conversation seemed to be going great. Then Himelstein asked Dowling if she had any questions of them.

The author looked out of the screen toward the many students, all of whom would be presumably editing her and smiled.

“How does this work?” she asked. 

* * *

Margo Littell remembers when she first got an email from Himelstein in 2015 notifying her that her manuscript had been selected as a winner.

Each Vagabond by Name“It was one of those emails that you always hope for,” she said. “You hoped it would happen but never believed it would.”

Littell had been looking for a publishing home for “Each Vagabond by Name” for a long time. For a while, she had an agent for it. She shopped it around to larger publishing houses and had started entering contests, hoping something would emerge. She said she’d been a finalist several times, but had no luck in the end. Then she heard about the UNO Publishing Lab contest through an online women’s community.

“Luck was on my side this time,” she said. “It was really exciting.”

Littell was thrilled but still slightly anxious about how the editing process would go with so many different people touching her manuscript.

“The worry, I think, for any writer is that you are going to have an abundance of voices trying to give feedback,” she said. “And trying to get feedback from a group of disparate voices is a daunting idea because inevitably critiques will contradict each other.”

Some might want to change sentences and others might want to alter the plot.

“It was a relief,” she said, “when things didn’t go that way at all. One of the great things about the lab is how smoothly Abram is able to work with them and their criticism and feedback before he even communicated that to me. So by the time I got the editorial letter, everything was very clear and very streamlined without 15 contradictory voices requesting or suggesting different things.”

The edits made sense, she said, big and small.

Small: One student in the class was a deer hunter and pointed out that the gun she had one of her hunters using would never be used in the context she had described.

Big: The editors also encouraged her to draw out a character who, until then, played a smaller role in the story.

Biggest:  The students suggested she rewrite her ending.

“I’d given my main character this wildly happy ending that was completely improbable,” she said. “And I knew that. I knew it was. So, I revised the ending. It didn’t change it in a way that undercut what I was trying to do … But it brought it back down to earth, which was a good ending ... It had to be done.”

Other contributions that Littell loved: Cover design and art produced by one of the students; the chance to present her work at The Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans; and the lab’s tight publishing timeline—less than a year turnaround compared with the one- to two-year process common with traditional publishing houses. From the time she got the editorial letter outlining suggested changes in fall 2015, she had a month and a half to two months to make the changes. The book was published by the spring of 2016.

“Once I found out it was going to be published. I just wanted it to be out there in the world,” she said.

Littell is currently shopping her second book while working on another project set in the same area of Pennsylvania as “Each Vagabond by Name.” She said she is pleased to hear the word is getting out about the UNO Publishing Lab contest and said she encourages other writers to enter.

“I feel like they truly loved the book and supported it and that was a great experience,” she said. “They did such a good job of it.”

* * *

Himelstein, Darby and the students filed back into the workshop classroom after their Skype conversation with Dowling had ended.

“That went so much better than I could have hoped for,” Himelstein said.

“She’s awesome,” a student said.

Student Ellie Lindner, 25, smiled broadly.

Lindner had liked “A Catalogue of Small Pains” from the beginning, but in the midst of the class’s first face-to-face conversation with its author, she learned Dowling and she had a mentor in common. Both had studied under Selah Saterstrom the University of Denver.

“I could definitely see DU’s influence on her writing because DU tends to be a bit more experimental—genres are blurred quite a bit,” she said.

“I think it’s crazy we have someone in here who has had the same mentor,” Darby said. “It’s great.”

“I’m delighted,” Himelstein said, standing before the class as they gathered around a conference table. “We had this book and now we enter into a shotgun marriage with a writer. We know we’re going to consummate this book with the writer but we don’t know what he or she is going to be like. And it was great. So, we can move on to editing. Some of you have already begun.”

Immediately, the class started discussing next steps. It’s not a typical novel, one student said. Should we start at content? Grammar? Organization? another asked.

“I think we start with organization,” Lindner responded.

Dowling had said in the Skype conversation that she had experimented with various organizational structures in an effort to bring clarity to the storyline, so Lindner felt signs were good that she would be amenable to continuing that work.

After the class, Lindner said she was excited to work with the poetry-infused prose for many reasons.

“Publishing is really what I want to end up doing,” said Lindner, a Sacramento, Calif., native who expects to graduate with her MFA in May. “I like identifying the weaknesses in somebody else’s work and trying to figure out different options—I like to think about it as a big puzzle and try to explore how the pieces can best fit together.”

Enrolling in the publishing lab class was a no-brainer, she said. She is an editor for Bayou Magazine, UNO’s literary magazine, and self-publishes zines, in addition to working as a writing coach in the UNO Writing Center.

She was looking forward to dipping her toe in the business side of the publishing business and helping to devise a marketing plan for the book, an area that felt more foreign to her. So far, so good, she thought.

“It was so great having that conversation,” she said. “What really helps is meeting the book on its own terms instead of trying to push your own perspective on it.”

Himelstein said Dowling’s book is expected to be published in the fall of 2018. And while the students and UNO Press are working on that, the publishing lab will be accepting manuscripts for the 2018 contest through Aug. 15.

For more information, visit

Read More

UNO Press
Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans
UNO Graduate Studies in English
Margo Orlando Littell
Melanie McCabe