Autumn Stephens is uniquely qualified to judge the ANA entries as an author, writing instructor, co-editor of The East Bay Monthly magazine, and former book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also written for The New York Times, SF magazine, and numerous Bay Area publications. (More about Autumn at The Jury.)How important do you think promotion is for an author nowadays?
It's quite important, which is unfortunate in that what a writer really ought to be doing with her time is, you know, writing. Nobody made Emily Dickinson go on a book tour or post declarations of "shameless self-promotion" (moving into pet peeve territory here) on her Facebook page.
What are some of your guilty reading pleasures?
Mysteries by Robert B. Parker. I used to live in Boston, so I'm a sucker for all the local references, plus Spenser, the very literate detective who is the main character in all the Parker books, is so wonderfully quirky, in a stylized way. One minute, he's punching someone out or escaping from incredible danger; the next, he's cooking a gourmet meal for his girlfriend and discussing theories of modern psychology. I handle these books about as well as I handle a jumbo bag of M&Ms--my plan is to just read a bit at a time, but in the end I just buzz through the whole thing in one sitting, and the hell with what I'm actually supposed to be doing.
Which social media outlets do you like/dislike?
Kickstarter--that is genius, and I have heard of a zillion projects, ranging from a publishing company for children's books to a gourmet doughnut shop, that have had success with it.
Which do you prefer: reading ebooks or paper books?
Paper books--or better yet, books that are written on papyrus. Being approximately 5,000 years old, I am addicted to books that are actual tactile objects.
What are your favorite genres and authors right now?
Junot Diaz, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Haruki Murakami, Lydia Davis. Short stories, short short stories, flash fiction, experimental fiction. I'm also awestruck by the work of contemporary poets like Matthea Harvey and Anne Carson--wait, where are you going?
Why are author photographs often ridiculously outdated?
A better question might be, why do we care what the writer looks like at this particular moment in time, as opposed to some previous moment? Better yet--why do we care at all? Writers are writers, for god's sake. They're not supermodels.
Do you have any writing-related pet peeves?
Are you kidding?
Typos. Poor grammar. Repetition of words or phrases through negligence rather than design. Fiction that incorporates email—too tedious for words! Fiction where everyone is drunk (unless Raymond Carver or Edward Albee wrote it). Fiction where the ending is not surprising. Fiction where the ending is too surprising. A no-noun-left-behind policy about adjectives. Triteness. Stories in the first person, present tense, that don't cut to the chase. "I walk to the window. I look out at the back yard. I walk back to the couch. I go into the kitchen. I open the refrigerator. I look for the peanut butter." If you want to write this sort of thing, use Catcher in the Rye as a model, not a flow chart of your apartment.
How do you discover new authors and books?
Through reading magazines (The New Yorker is a great source, as is The Believer), and through talking to friends (I believe the accepted phrase for this is "word of mouth," but that always sounds to me like something that should happen at the hospital or possibly in the barn).
What is the single most important factor in achieving writing success?
What is writing success? Is it getting published? Is it getting published somewhere classy? Is it writing something that wows your friends and family? Or is it something more personal, like a week/day/hour of writing that you feel good about?
Do you have any closing advice for people struggling to get published?
The received wisdom is that it's a numbers game. The more you send your work out, the more likely it is to be published. And it seems to be much easier to get published online than off. But first things first. Write something you care about. Write something worth publishing.