The Times They Are a-Changin’. I see it again and again. I’m no longer worried so much as bemused (or amused) at the wriggling that the entire book industry is doing right now, trying to find a comfortable fit in so many new and unfamiliar positions. I am wriggling, too, growing The Writers Circle even as I finish the fifth (YES, FIFTH!) draft of my latest novel. Clearly I’m not the type of author who can churn out a book every year. Teaching and supporting writers has become a vital, beloved, and invaluable part of my journey.
In the meantime, here are just a few of the curious and inevitable adjustments being made in every corner of the bookish world.
First, if you don’t already know it, self-publishing is no longer the taboo “vanity” publishing it used to be. It’s first mega-star, Amanda Hocking, is making every struggling writer start to think, “Hey, I can do it myself, too!” Whether or not that’s true, be sure to read Storyseller, for a look inside the industry-changing success of this author who got there the wrong-way-round.
Next, there’s the squirming of independent booksellers. Whether they’re trying to make a profit or just trying to stay alive, they’re starting to charge admission for readings. This extremely controversial act of desperation is explored in Come Meet the Author, but Open Your Wallet from today’s New York Times.
On the pre-publication front, digital is now the way to go for galleys. A galley, for those who don’t know, is an uncorrected proof – a copy of a book that’s just about, but not quite, final. These used to go out to booksellers, reviewers and librarians in unexciting single color covers that you’d sometimes find on the used book rack or down in the basement at The Strand. When I published my book, they’d already gotten pretty fancy. My galley looks like a paperback copy of my hardcover, cover art and all. Well, now you can get galleys on your iPad or Kindle. It makes sense. Why pay for printing and shipping when the book’s “not quite ready for primetime” but you’re hoping to drum up interest? Check out NetGalley where “professional readers” can request titles before they are published for review purposes. (And if you think, “Hey, aren’t we all ‘professional readers’?” check out their publisher requirements to see if you qualify.)
All of that said, I’m forever a traditionalist. And my focus more and more is on the how and why of writing, and less and less on the how and why of publishing. First, it all makes me anxious. Life’s anxiety producing enough. (I have two young sons… Need I say more?) Second, most of this is completely and utterly outside my control. But I can gain much wisdom and solace from good reading, good writing and good writing advice. So I turn to an old master – believe it or not Stephen King, whose books I cannot read (remember, life’s anxiety producing enough, per above?), but whose writing on writing is as direct and accurate as one can get.
I was as tickled perhaps as he to find his short story, “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” in May’s issue of The Atlantic. And I know that he was pleased because he said so at the end of the accompanying Atlantic interview, Stephen King on the Creative Process, the State of Fiction, and More.
For him, as for any of us, seeing our work in a high-end lit-mag like The Atlantic or The New Yorker is a bit of a dream come true. Even he got rejected: “I can remember sending stories to The Atlantic when I was a teenager, and then in my 20s and getting the rejection slips.” Of course, he wasn’t “Stephen King” back then…
In any case, read the story first, because the interview gives a few minor spoilers. In both cases, I appreciated in his work, his candor, his characterization of writers, especially those who are past their prime and yet still working to express what cannot be expressed, and most especially his characters’ recognition that sometimes even the power of words is not enough.
As I read her guest post, I particularly paused at the self-admonishment she shared: “I can almost literally hear my acting teacher clap his hands to interrupt the action: ‘Sandra, don’t play the end of the scene at the beginning.'”
If you read it, you’ll realize she’s discussing bigger issues than just writing. (And yes, there are such things!) Still, I can’t help but take it down to our usual topic and point out that we often do the same thing when we write.
Sandra continues, “Sometimes actors enter a scene prepped for what they know is coming – the emotional breakdown, the knock-down drag-out – and they bring that negative energy into the scene before the conflict has even begun. It lends an unnecessary weight and edge to what is actually happening in the moment.”
Be in the moment – Be here now – cliches in acting, writing and life, but they’re also true. I’ve seen several manuscripts this week that fit the mold, with scenes that carry the weight of their climaxes before the full circumstances or characters have been laid bare. Anticipating the ending kills the inherent tension of the tale. Hold back, I keep writing in the margins. We don’t fully understand yet. Let your characters live it first. Then we will live it with them.
One of my own teachers called it telegraphing – sending a message ahead to let everyone know what’s to come. It’s an impulse of an anxious or inexperienced writer (or actor) not to trust, to feel compelled to leap ahead to the crux of the matter. But our readers will be patient. Just like our characters, they want, should and must experience the building excitement, anxiety, curiosity, hope or despair. Jumping ahead only destroys the authentic moment of the scene or, in Sandra’s essay, the full, fresh experience of life itself.
So take Sandra’s wise advice whether in writing, acting, or life. Allow your characters to be in the moment and walk with them, step by step, day by day, through their experiences. Don’t let them get ahead of themselves. They don’t know what they will face anymore than we do each morning when we roll out of bed. Whatever conflict we or they must contend with, when it comes, it will bear its own levity or weight, whether tragic, comic, aggravating or joyful.
Thanks, Sandra! And everyone, if you have news to share, please let me know. I’ll be happy to post! Good writing, all.
Sandra Joseph, as most of you know, spent nearly a decade on Broadway as the female lead in Phantom of the Opera. She’s now working on a new self-help book idea while awaiting good news (pray, everyone!) from her agent on her memoir. She’s also teaching a workshop at the Omega Institute this summer: Performing as a Path to Presence, July 10-15 during Arts Week. Check it out and go. I’m sure she has lots more wisdom to share.
It’s a well-known fact that writers rarely make a lot of money at their work. OK, there are exceptions, but most of us can barely afford to buy a blouse with our royalties, never mind J.K. Rowling and her impressive Scottish mansion.
Most of us are just regular folks – OK, regular folks with an odd quirk of imagination that won’t hush up like nice, normal people. We’re just trying to get by, pay our mortgages and educate our kids.
I found this great chart on Lapham’s Quarterly that shows how historically consistent our situation is:
Even the greatest of us rarely make a lot of dough!
So why do we do it, if it’s clearly not for money? Mostly because we can’t help it, and wouldn’t even if we could. Take Janet Burroway‘s advice in Narrative Magazine. (You’ll need to log in to read it, but it’s worth the trouble for all the great work they publish.) Most of us realize after a while that we can’t write for the market. Burroway says: “The trouble is that… the muse is likely to grow dull and depart. …Writing for the masses is like marrying for money, an exhausting way to become a hooker.”
Some of us have commercial voices and others simply don’t. We each simply must write our own true work and stick to it, thick or thin – mostly thin, mostly for ourselves and, if we’re lucky, for a small audience of others that occasionally lets us know that our efforts have not been in vain.
More and more in this bold new publishing environment, we’re simply one pebble on the beach, shining and new just as the tide recedes. But soon enough our gloss will evaporate and we won’t look any more beautiful or interesting that the millions that surround us. As the scary numbers of books published in 2009 show, our odds of being noticed just get smaller and smaller. More than likely we’ll be left lying there in the sand and forgotten.
So why do we do it? Because we must. Because we’re destined to speak. Because there’s an essence in writing that helps us figure ourselves out that comes only from this kind of exploration and expression.
Most of us eventually accept that we might never become famous or rich or even published unless we publish ourselves (which apparently these days isn’t the vanity taboo it once was. But that’s an entirely different story – check out the links above).
Even well-published authors come to realize what they’re up against. Burroway quotes Adam Gopnik: “Every writer’s life can be summed up, in sequence, by the Four Permanent Titles: Great Expectations, A Sentimental Education, The Way of the World, and, finally, Lost Illusions.” Meanwhile publisher and editorial director at Writer’s Digest Jane Friedman tries to explain what many newly minted authors often agonize about, Why Don’t Publishers Market & Promote the Books They Publish?
With all this going against us, why do we do what we do? Because we must. Because we’re forever dissatisfied with the dull reality of our lives. Because we’re dying to know what it’s like to be inside someone else’s head. Because we’re desperate to record the fleeting wonder that comes to us in the middle of the night or in the shower or when we’re walking the dog. We do it because we hear voices and we can’t shut them up unless we listen and carefully write down every word they say.
That’s why we write. If we get paid for it, all the better. If a few of us get rich from it, God, I’m jealous! But when that rare success happens, remember again what Burroway writes, “that the joy of publication, prizes, prestige, money is never adequate and always fleeting. It is taken away every time such successes fail to be repeated…. But the moment of ecstase, ecstasy that comes usually at the end of a period of effortful and perhaps despairing concentration, and yet comes ‘out of nowhere,’ not as an apparent reward but apparently as a gift, that moment stays and is present every time I remember it or reencounter the passage in which it occurred, or reencounter the reluctance that precedes it or the grace as it descends—because this is my only religion, and it is ‘grace,’ and it does seem to ‘descend’—and these moments accumulate into an awareness of power in the sense of capacity, which cannot be taken from me—except, of course, by dementia or death.”
In the end, success is never about us or our work, it’s about happenstance and timing, the frivolities of taste and commerce. Completely separate from the power of passion, imagination, obsession, “ecstase”.
That’s why we do it. Those are the forces that drive us on.
The rest, whether we like it or not, will take care of itself.
Guest blogger Susan Barr-Toman comes to us as real family. Though I personally haven’t met her yet, most of us know her sister Mary Mann from her time with The Writers Circle and now in her new, all-consuming capacity as the editor of Maplewood Patch.
As Susan’s blog post shows, she too struggled and doubted and finally, indeed at the very last moment, found acceptance and success. But Susan has come to realize that, even without that bound volume with her name on it, writing has given her a lot. I’m sure we can all relate to that.
Be sure to come to Susan’s reading next Friday, May 7, 7:30 PM at Maplewood’s Words.
Finding my Tribe
A few years ago, I was about to turn forty. Naturally, as for most people, it was a time of reflection. What had I done with half my life? What had I accomplished? And the big one, should I still be a writer?
I’d spent the last years working on a novel and for a long time I’d tried to capture the ever-elusive short story on paper. Still, I’d never been published, with the exception of a small article in a local weekly about there being too much dog crap in my neighborhood. Not something I necessarily wanted to hang above my desk.
With the birthday looming, I decided to do a massive mailing of my novel and a few short stories. A concerned friend said not to psyche myself out, not to make this push my last push and give up writing to take up some career in the service industry that paid. I told her that was not my intention, but deep down I thought about giving up and doing something else. Of course that brought a new question, What else would I want to do?
Sure enough, the rejections came in, and as always each and every one stung.
When my birthday came, I was surrounded by friends and family. Four grad school friends traveled from the West Coast just for my birthday. It got me thinking.
Writing had not given me publication, but it had given me so much else. Ten years ago in a workshop, I met one of my best friends. I received a scholarship to Bennington College’s MFA program where I found a whole group of people who loved writing and books and music and film, etc. After graduation, I was invited to join a local writers group that a fellow alumna hosted. That group became my anchor, the reason why I kept writing. Each month, I needed to show up with work and good work. These people were really talented and I wanted to show that I belonged. Through this group I found my first teaching job.
Being a writer requires a lot of ass-in-chair time, alone with your thoughts and characters. But along the way I’d found friendship, community, inspiration, discipline, and even a job. Writing had given me a lot.
I realized the writing life is a good one. I’d discovered my community, my tribe, something I didn’t find in Corporate America, or in indie film, or my various incarnations in the work world. Maybe engineers feel this way. They like to get together and critique a structure just for fun. Maybe podiatrists sip coffee in outdoor cafes and watch the feet walk by, or arms specialists — well who knows? Maybe other professions love what they do and love to socialize around their vocations, but just don’t feel the urge to blog about it.
There’s something about writers – maybe our desire to figure out life, to make sense of it –that makes for strong, supportive friendships.
Two weeks after my birthday, Alan Davis at New Rivers Press called. Ann Hood had selected my book When Love Was Clean Underwear to be the winner of the Many Voices Project prize.
Finally publication. Who were the first to buy my book, to come to my book launch? Friends, family, and my entire writers group!
Susan Barr-Toman was born and raised in Philadelphia where she still lives with her husband and two children and where she teaches writing at Temple University. When Love Was Clean Underwear, her debut novel, was selected by Ann Hood as the winner of the Many Voices Project’s Fiction Prize 2007.
From the look on people’s faces, I can tell everyone really enjoyed Stuart’s book launch on Friday night.
Thanks for a terrific showing and a terrific night. I felt like a proud old aunt! Thank you, Stuart. Thank you everyone.
I walked rather blindly into writing historical fiction. Or perhaps it walked into me. For example, I was ignorant to its stigma as a genre, kindred to those other literary stepchildren, science fiction and fantasy. I had never read what Hilary Mantel, winner of this year’s Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall, calls, “chick-lit with wimples”. Instead, my imagination was formed on books like The Secret Garden, Little Women and Black Beauty. As I grew older, I sank my teeth into Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. I never really worried that these authors, for the most part, weren’t writing about the distant past. In many of their works, they were portraying fairly contemporary worlds.
But for me, their stories spoke of history, different values, different customs and lifestyles, different ways of thought. If these novels and plays which so captured my imagination at very impressionable times in my life formed my eventual passion for writing about history, then call it a curse or a gift. What I’ve learned is that we rarely choose our stories or even our genres. More often than not, they choose us.
Hilary Mantel writes in a recent article in The Guardian: “A novel arrives whether you want it or not. After months or years of silent travel by night, it squats like an illegal immigrant at Calais, glowering and plotting, thinking of a thousand ways to gain a foothold. It’s useless to try to keep it out. It’s smarter than you are. It’s upon you before you’ve seen its face, and has set up in business and bought a house.”
There is no invalid topic, style or genre. There is only what bangs loudest at the door of our minds, that forces us to pick up a pad and pen or open a computer file at odd hours of day or night, tapping out nonsense that somehow coalesces into meaning for us and hopefully for others.
Each writer is unique and so is the “immigrant” that bangs at the door. Let’s welcome each of them in, make up a bed and be grateful when they stay a while.
From the start of The Writers Circle, I made it my weekly habit to share interesting readings about writing, publishing and the writing life. The very first one, I recall, was Francine Prose’s Atlantic Monthly article “Close Reading” which introduced the core topics of her equally wise book, Reading Like a Writer. Prose’s premise – that to learn to write well, one must read not only well, but closely – invited all of us to read for details of technique, voice, character, plot development and more. By doing so, we all become students of the true masters of literature.
I find myself enlightened and amused once again by an Atlantic Monthly essay, this time Tim O’Brien’s “Telling Tails“. O’Brien points out a blunt but inescapable truth: that unsuccessful stories don’t necessarily lack of technique. Sometimes, they are simply boring.
Many writers workshops harp endlessly on the need for truth portrayed in full detail. But lacking imagination, all the exquisite detail in the world won’t hold a reader’s attention.
O’Brien lists several things that a well-imagined story is NOT (I’m paraphrasing here):
- It is not predictable, or not wholly predictable;
- It is not melodramatic, relying on purely villainous villains and purely heroic heroes;
- It is not formulaic or cliche;
- It does not rely on coincidence to achieve dramatic effects;
- It does not use purple prose to attempt to elevate events beyond their due.
But what IS a well-imagined story?
O’Brien’s answer: a story that is “…organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary.”
This doesn’t mean that all good stories must dip into the supernatural or superhuman. Everyday people often face unexpected events that shape and reshape their understanding of the world. How each person handles them, with all the idiosyncracies of character, history and circumstance, are the stuff that make extraordinary fiction.
A well-imagined story must force us to pay attention. It tries to reach into the rich complexity of existence, even as it might be destined to portray very ordinary lives. Each sentence must be crafted to build upon that last, begging us to read just a little bit farther. And within those sentences that depict our characters and their struggles, we are helped along immensely by vivid, engaging and believable detail.