We all hope and pray that the writing we’ve been slaving away at for weeks, months or years is brilliant, publishable, praiseworthy.
Sometimes we’re right. More often than not, it seems, we’re wrong.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re bad writers. I found two links this week that brought home the point that every writer, no matter how skilled, talented, lauded or adored, sometimes misses the mark. And some of us (God help, please no!) have only one really good book within us.
Take note of “Great Writers, Bad Novels” in last week’s Wall Street Journal. I particularly love the honesty in Flannery O’Connor’s quoted letter to a friend: “It appears that I have finished my novel [“The Violent Bear It Away”].…Just in that state of not knowing if it works or is the worst novel ever written.”
We all feel that way, sometimes afterward, but more often than not right in the midst of creation. Some days the words don’t flow. Some days they do, until we go back the next day and realize everything we thought was brilliant really was just a pile of lard!
How do any of us stack up in our earnest efforts to get our hearts on the page? As Robert McCrum muses in his column in the U.K.’s Guardian, “Writers who flourish at the peak of their powers for longer than a decade, or even two, are rare birds.”
Indeed! How many of us struggle just to get a few words on paper, to complete amidst the daily demands of our busy lives, a single short story or a somewhat lengthy essay? Wouldn’t any of us give our right arm (or perhaps more critically, each of our ten fingers) to have written one of the novels in The Huffington Post’s list of “Great Literary One-Hit Wonders“?
Writing is struggle. Perhaps that’s why I witness such incredible reluctance in some of my younger students. Writing IS HARD, especially if you have nothing particular that inspires you, as is often the case with essays that are required for school.
But some of us “rare birds” (in a less rarefied form than above), feel a literal pressure within our bodies as a story forms and pushes upward, forcing itself upon us, demanding with such force that we cannot refuse it.
So we write. We have a passion as powerful as any new-found love. If we neglect it, even for a day or two, we feel guilty as if we’ve forgotten to feed our infant. After a while, we can no longer separate the story from ourselves. We carry it around with us and listen to it, think about it even when we are occupied with something else, take notes at odd hours of the night, in the middle of meetings, when we’re chatting with someone on the train. We know we cannot give it up no matter how tired we are, no matter how bored we are with it, or how frustrated with the awareness that our love, our soul, may never find its way to a wide, appreciative audience, that we are all almost inevitable victims of what McCrum calls “the murderous cannon fire of indifference and critical disdain”.
None of that matters somehow when we’re in the midst of writing. It is creation itself that drives us. If our effort is mediocre, we know we will try again, searching forever for the unforgiving truth that something’s living inside us and we are its slave, not its master. Our stories are our essence. They inform our existence and give us our sense of self. If they were anything less, why would we bother?
We write until the well runs dry. Then we rest until we’re ready to take up the challenge again. We are grateful for our mistakes. We learn from them and slowly, with plodding certainty, we actually get better.
But no writer travels a straight or steady path. This is not a staircase; it’s a mountain. Sometimes we trip up. But that, too, is part of the journey.
In The Wall Street Journal essay, perhaps the most poignant thought comes at the very end: “No writer sets out to produce a mediocre book; sooner or later, most do. Forgiveness is in order. As Aldous Huxley once said, ‘A bad book is as much of a labor to write as a good one, it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.'”
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.
As many of you know, historical novelist Stephanie Cowell and I go way back. We met in a workshop taught by Madeleine L’Engle more than twenty years ago and worked together in a writers group in NYC for over ten years. She’s the “Stephanie” I mention in my usual first class essay – the Stephanie of whom we were all a little bit green when she published her first novel Nicholas Cooke back in 1993. We’ve shared a lot – hopes, frustrations, disappointments, more than a bucket of tears apiece, and finally the joy of seeing her previous novel, Marrying Mozart and my first not only published, but represented by the same agent and edited by the same editor. I’m honored that she’s guest blogging today to celebrate the launch of her latest, Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet.
How long does it take to write a novel? Writing, rewriting and rewriting and…
Sometimes people ask me, “How long does it take to write a novel?” I am never quite sure what to answer! It depends on the novel, the life circumstance, the writer. Three months? Fifty years? The journey can vary considerably. There was an article about this in the New York Times some years ago. A certain novelist confidently promised his editor, “Two more weeks and you’ll have my final draft!” Four years later he was still writing, likely having changed his address, disconnected his phone, and claimed to be missing.
“Still writing that novel?” someone will ask you. “My kid’s in high school. Didn’t you start it when she was just learning how to read?” Argh! Or, “What! You just started your new book last year and already you’ve done? I bet your next one will take even less time!” Well, not necessarily. Novels, like individual children, grow in their own way.
Writing novels can be like wandering in a great forest: the path is straight or crooked. Take a wrong turn and end up two years out of your way. Or it can be like walking across a desert where the wind blows the sand and you have no idea where you came from or where you are going. You run around in circles, shouting for rescue, a little out of your mind.
Of the several novels I have completed, two have each taken only nine months of writing but the story which is showing up April 6th in bookstores – Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet – ran away from completion for nearly five years. My poor husband lived through every draft. Why did it take so long? It was a big story which combined the young Monet’s development as a painter, his great love for Camille, and the birth of impressionism. And all that had to travel along a rising plot line, which it finally did. But that is not my longest creative effort. I have several unfinished novels which I have worked on for a long time. There is one that has eluded completion for 21 years but I keep getting closer every time I go back to working on it. I think one day it will get there.
I guess the only thing to do is enjoy the journey. And maybe buy a t-shirt I once saw for sale and have regretted always not buying. In big black letters across the front it said, “Just working on my novel.”
Stephanie will be here for two local events:
May 1 at 1:00 PM
54 Fairfield St., Montclair, NJ
WORDS of Maplewood
May 13th at 7:30 PM
179 Maplewood Avenue, Maplewood NJ
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’m particularly proud to host today’s guest blogger, Stuart Lutz, who has been a part of our Writers Circle literally since it began.
For four years, I’ve followed the progress of his extraordinary project, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors. It’s been a long, bumpy road, as his blog post below vividly shares. Take heart from his experience, everyone. Today I’m honored to announce that The Last Leaf is available in bookstores everywhere!
So pick up a copy and one for all your family and friends. And be sure to join us at Stuart’s book launch party at Maplewood’s Words Bookstore on March 26 at 7:30 PM.
Thank you for the advice, John Coolidge
Over the last holiday break, I cleaned my Augean office. The first place I started was my large filing cabinet that holds all my papers related to The Last Leaf. The top two drawers have dozens of files holding photographs, audio tapes, interview notes, and drafts of each chapter. These are important files to save. The third drawer was stuffed with everything related to the publication of The Last Leaf, and this was the target of my afternoon’s labors.
I had my first interview for my oral history book in 1998. I drove to Deep River, Connecticut to meet with Mr. Paul Hopkins, the last living pitcher to surrender a home run to Babe Ruth in the Bambino’s legendary 1927 season when he hit a then-record sixty roundtrippers. A slew of meetings with other “Last Leaves” followed. I drove to Vermont to meet with John Coolidge, the son of the President and the last man to live in the White House in the 1920s. I roadtripped to Alabama to meet the last Confederate widow (though she turned out to be the next-to-last Confederate widow). One weekend, I flew to Knoxville to interview the last Union Civil War widow. She gave only two or three interviews ever, and it took me fifteen months of begging and pleading to get her to meet with me. Slowly, the book idea gained momentum as I met more and more people. In Rochester, New York, the last suffragette; in Fort Myers, Florida, the final Thomas Edison employee in Florida; in the Maryland suburbs, the last commissioner from the agency that created Social Security.
In 2004, I mailed dozens of query letters and I found an agent. He quickly sold the book to a subsidiary press of Simon and Schuster. I was delighted to receive my first advance check. I took the money and went on additional trips to meet more Last Leaves. There was the flight to Memphis to interview the real last Confederate widow in Arkansas. A drive to Fort Wayne to meet the final witness to the first electronic television broadcast in 1927 with a stop in Pittsburgh to chat with the last man to play with the country music legend Jimmie Rodgers. There was a flight to Florida to meet with the last living Amelia Earhart passenger and the final survivor of the vicious Rosewood race riot in 1923. A quick roadtrip to Chattanooga and Asheville to interview two more subjects. And a manic three day Indianapolis – Urbana – Ann Arbor – Cleveland voyage that let me meet three more Last Leaves. Sure, I had to borrow from my saving account to pay for some of these trips, but I reasoned the eventual royalties would repay me.
April 19th, 2005 was, I thought at the time, one of the great days of my life. I emailed the final book draft to the editor, triumphantly wrote about it in my journal, and went to see a Bob Dylan concert that night. Starting on April 20th, I finally told people besides my close friends and family about the book. The Last Leaf was scheduled to be out for the holiday season, and it was a great thrill to see it listed on the Simon and Schuster website. The famous Civil War historian Dr. James McPherson gave me a quotation to put on the book’s cover. Dr. Arthur Schlesinger, the dean of American historians, offered to blurb the book once I sent him a galley. Gosh, everything was lining up so well for me…
I didn’t know it then, but the publishing house was in total disarray. They went through three editors, and the last two wanted me to rewrite the book, which I dutifully did. But with the time I spent editing, there was no way The Last Leaf was going to be released for the holiday season. Then, the publisher, in one of the wussier moves in world history, made his unfortunate secretary call me to say they were not going to release The Last Leaf. Ever. She asked for their advance back (a great example of sheer chutzpah). I told them if they wanted it returned, I would see them in court since they were breeching our contract. A few months later, my agent, saying that he could not resell the book to another publisher, released me and The Last Leaf was adrift.
I read when I was younger that it was not how many times you fall off the horse, it is how many times you get back on…
I took a few months off from the book, but then got back in the saddle. I spent one entire weekend mailing out letters to a new batch of literary agents. I mailed them on Monday, and on Tuesday morning, two different agents called me. That afternoon, I sent them the entire manuscript to show them that the completed book was ready for publication. Each called back after getting the drafts and both wanted to represent me. One of them revealed that she is the literary agent for a certain rock star from New Jersey with the first name of “Bruce.” “Listen Stuart,” she said to me, “Bruce keeps me so busy that I do not take on any new clients. But I cried when I read your book last night. I really, really, really want to rep your book.” Wow – now an agent was begging me to sign with her. So I did.
This agent used all her connections at the major publishing houses to sell the book. And she found no interest in my work at all. She released me and The Last Leaf was again adrift. She did present me with a bill for $313 to cover her mailing and photocopying costs.
I dusted myself off again. As I got back on the horse, I felt a couple of horseshoe prints on my tuchus from this last experience. My wife, who had been completely supportive of my writing efforts during this entire time, claims I am one of the most determined or stubborn (depending on the context, of course) people alive. I knew I had an interesting book concept and I was not going to let it die. Not after I put in all that money, time, sweat, typing and mileage. Not after Dr. McPherson wrote a blurb and Dr. Schlesinger offered to compose one too. Not after I told people that The Last Leaf would be released.
While the book was in publishing hiatus, I did more interviews, including meeting America’s last World War I soldier. I sent out letters again to literary agents and not a single positive reply. Those are the letters that are now sitting in my filing cabinet awaiting recycling.
I then tried a different tact. I wrote to some academic publishers, including my alma mater’s publishing house, the largest one in the country. The Johns Hopkins University Press editor told me that he thought the book was “too commercial” for them, and every other academic press rejected The Last Leaf too. I also wrote to some medium-sized publishing houses. One day, I came back to my office and I had a message from the editor at Prometheus Books in Amherst, New York. He said they were very intrigued by my book. He was concerned, however, because he saw an old internet listing that I had already published The Last Leaf in 2005. I painfully explained the entire tortured history of the book and I assured him that it had not been published. Prometheus bought it.
On that December afternoon, my wife took my son out on errands so I could clean the infamous third drawer, as well as the rest of my office. As a perverse form of entertainment, I read some of the literary agent rejection letters. Some were impersonal third generation photocopies, some were photocopies but the agent wrote my name at the top. They went into the blue recycling bin. Others told me that the book was not focused enough and one wrote to me that, while an interesting concept, the book was simply not saleable. “Ha ha sucker!” I yelled at that letter as I put it into the bin. A few agents wrote back kind and encouraging letters, including one man who said that I should start by doing a series of magazine articles on the final survivors and then turn the concept into a book. Into the bin with the other rejection letters. I also recycled all my earlier drafts of the book.
I opened the top drawer, the one with all my important book files, and I flipped through them. I saw the folder for John Coolidge, son of Calvin, and I pulled out the paperwork. He was one of my first interviews, and he invited me in 1999 to visit him in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, one of the most placid areas of the state. I went into his private house where no one who visits the Coolidge Homestead was permitted. He was in a wheelchair at that point, and I gently rolled him onto his sun-drenched porch on a beautiful early spring day. He recounted his boyhood memories of seeing the charred attic timbers in the White House (remnants of the British torching the mansion during the War of 1812) and discussed the death of his brother at age sixteen from blood poisoning. As I was leaving his home, he wheeled himself over to his desk. He opened a drawer and handed me a small card with a quote from his father, the President:
- Press on: nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
It has been eleven years since Mr. Coolidge handed me that card. Neither of us had any idea how prescient the quote was.
Stuart Lutz owns Stuart Lutz Historic Documents, Inc., a firm that sells rare letters and manuscripts. He has written for American Heritage and Civil War Times Illustrated, and appeared on National Public Radio. He has a B.A. in American History from Johns Hopkins. Learn more about Stuart and The Last Leaf at www.TheLastLeaf.com
Many of us come to a weekly writing workshop, a writers group or an MFA program looking for rules, instructions, some correct route to take as we navigate our way through our work.
Let me tell you after years with my own writing and helping friends and students alike, THERE ARE NO RULES.
Sure, there’s the basic grammar we all learn in elementary school. And oh, yeah, there’s a right way to spell most words. But when it comes to creative writing, even these steadfast rules are meant to be bent and sometimes even broken. Any author, living or dead, who’s ever tried to write in vernacular (for better or worse), will tell you that sometimes you just have to write it the way it sounds, even if it’s wrong.
Still we writers long for a few trustworthy guidelines. It’s a lonely job. Most of us never really know if we’re doing it right. But the simple realization that everyone feels like they’re “…driving a car at night” as E.L. Doctorow once put it, is a big step on the journey.
In last week’s Guardian article, Ten rules for writing fiction, a couple dozen illustrious authors offer their own best tips, starting with Elmore Leonard’s classic “Using adverbs is a mortal sin.” (Yes, we all occasionally use adverbs.)
What I found most comforting were the many contradictions:
P.D. James: Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing…
Jonathan Franzen: Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
I also loved Diana Athill’s recommendation: “Read it aloud …because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK.”
Those of you who work with me know that I insist on reading aloud. I’m well aware that details often get lost in the listening. But the things that do stick in our minds – whether a plot point, character detail, an awkward rhythm or something else – are the critical pieces that tell us what works and what doesn’t.
These tips lists intone the need for discipline, hard work and persistence:
2) Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3) Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
Margaret Atwood: Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
Helen Simpson: The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying, “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert) which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”
Also the need for occasional breaks:
Helen Dunmore: A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.
Hilary Mantel: If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.
And then there’s the implicit or blunt futility in their advice. Call it schadenfreude, but it somehow helps to know that we aren’t the only ones who struggle.
Margaret Atwood: Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Will Self: You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.
And finally, my favorite, all too TRUE:
Roddy Doyle: Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
Perhaps it was a mistake to read James Patterson Inc. back to back with Michael Cunningham’s A Writer Should Always Feel Like He’s In Over His Head. For James Patterson, writing doesn’t seem very hard. Of course, I wouldn’t dare disparage him. Honestly, I’m impressed. He has created a literary empire and sells more books than any other author including Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown COMBINED! His output is extraordinary – the article says, “nine hardcovers a year are really only the beginning”! Either he knows something I don’t (obviously he does), never sleeps and writes absolutely perfect first drafts, or he delegates the difficult task of execution to others who are able to imitate his speedy style to a T (which he does).
But these days it doesn’t sound like he’s doing much writing – at least not what you or I would call writing – that meticulous drafting and re-envisioning of characters, scenes, setting and plot, carefully crafting words to flow out elegantly from a page. I’m sure he works hard, but to me what he’s doing sounds more like producing or directing. He has a stable of co-authors who flesh out his outlined plots. In television that’s called a writers’ room. I’m envious, believe me! Plotting is the fun part. It’s the hard effort of what I call “putting flesh on the bones” that makes most writers want to pull their hair out, open the refrigerator, drink, or occasionally contemplate suicide.
Patterson is impressive – no, remarkable. A true literary machine. But for the rest of us without the budget, power or inclination to let someone else write our words, writing is a slow, difficult, sometimes unbearable process.
Nevertheless, in the last few decades, publishing success increasingly requires not artistry but sales. In A Writing Career Becomes Harder to Scale, Dani Shapiro reminds us of another essay, “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years,” (Sorry, I’ll have to find it at the library and get a copy to you – ooh, how old very fashioned!) by legendary editor and founder of New American Review, Ted Solotaroff. The title tells it all – in the cold… the first ten years…. I took ten years. Our own fellow writer Stuart Lutz took even longer. So many of us struggle, trying to fit the difficult craft in between the necessities of life. Even if we could write full time, would we satisfactorily complete our task in, say, three months? Six? A year?
Shapiro writes, “There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years…. The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry …has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. …How, under these conditions, can a writer take the risks required to create something original and resonant and true?”
She is right, whether we like it or not. Things have changed radically. And the James Patterson article gives the most succinct summary I’ve read of exactly why:
“Thirty years ago, the industry defined a “hit” novel as a book that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover. Today a book isn’t considered a blockbuster unless it sells at least one million copies.
“The story of the blockbuster’s explosion is, paradoxically, bound up with that of publishing’s recent troubles. They each began with the wave of consolidation that swept through the industry in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with publishing’s small margins, the new conglomerates that now owned the various publishing houses pressed for bigger best sellers and larger profits. Mass-market fiction had historically been a paperback business, but publishers now put more energy and resources into selling these same books as hardcovers, with their vastly more favorable profit margins. At the same time, large stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were elbowing out independent booksellers. Their growing dominance of the market gave them the leverage to demand wholesale discounts and charge hefty sums for favorable store placement, forcing publishers to sell still more books. Big-box stores like Costco accelerated the trend by stocking large quantities of books by a small group of authors and offering steep discounts on them. Under pressure from both their parent companies and booksellers, publishers became less and less willing to gamble on undiscovered talent and more inclined to hoard their resources for their most bankable authors. The effect was self-fulfilling. The few books that publishers invested heavily in sold; most of the rest didn’t. And the blockbuster became even bigger.”
Like the world of the stage, where I once attempted to survive, creative writing attracts different breeds – the entertainer (e.g. James Patterson) and the artist (e.g. Michael Cunningham). There is certainly a place in the world and an audience for each, just as there are some who like Golden Retrievers and others who prefer Portuguese Water Dogs. (Thank you, Stephanie Staszak!)
Personally, I admit that I strive for the more challenging, less popular brand. Though I envy the sales and luxury that entertainment brings, it’s simply not who I am. I’ve even tried to pull back my style, to simplify my plots, to speed up my pace, to add more sex and violence. (Well, not too much more, for anyone who’s read The Thrall’s Tale…) Even when I do, my work only feels “right” when I add lyricism, description, metaphor, complexity and rich, difficult characters. So my attempt at a 300 page draft quickly becomes 500 challenging, dense pages!
Some of us have the facility for different styles; and we should all work to try new and different things. But at our core we all are who we are and we write what we must write. Perhaps it’s best if we discover what breed we’re born to be, embrace it and nurture it as best we can. Not everyone can be James Patterson, and not everyone wants to be. But each of our unique talents should be used to bring us the immeasurable gift of satisfaction in our work and, if we are lucky, a few readers who will appreciate it.
As an addendum to my last post, Shouting in a Crowd, be sure to read the wise advice of literary agent Nathan Bransford about, yes, promoting your work, but also knowing when enough is enough, focusing on what you’re best at and, most of all not, driving yourself absolutely crazy!
Written in support of Stuart Lutz, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors, Stephanie Cowell, Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet, and all my other friends who have, will, or long to be published.
What’s it like to be an author today? To be sure, the days of rarified literary isolation are over. Authors in the 21st century are expected to be our own biggest advertisement, shouting loudly and clearly from the highest height at the top of our lungs for attention, recognition and, most of all, sales.
No longer is publicity the realm of a professional publicist. Old school publicity methods, like press releases and pitch letters, are losing steam. Blogger Jonathan Fields lays out the new landscape in a strident but accurate gripe in The Huffington Post about the dismally ineffective methods of one unnamed career publicist whose pitch Fields immediately and repeatedly deleted as spam.
Truth be told – no publicist, for almost no amount of money, can dedicate the time, expertise, creativity, energy and intimate awareness of your work to properly promote the creation of your literary heart and soul. Any publicist assigned by a publisher, however well meaning and enthusiastic, is also working on several other authors’ books that are equally pressing (and hopefully just as worthy).
They will promise to do their best, but they will most likely follow a prescribed formula, reaching out to standard media outlets: newspapers (whose review sections have shrunk or disappeared), magazines (whose pages have literally halved to match their dwindling ad revenues), a short list of radio talk shows (God bless and keep you, NPR!), television morning shows (for that solid gold 60-second pitch), and of course, Oprah (ah, to live the dream!).
But beyond that list (which, by the way, nearly everyone uses), publicists simply don’t have time to handcraft a marketing and publicity scheme. Even if you hire someone, you might get a bit more attention, but the bang for your buck is mostly likely going to have to come from you.
Publishers know this and increasingly rely on it. Authors are expected to be expert entertainers, artful networkers, personable, presentable, articulate and with any luck – yes, it counts – attractive. Maybe even funny (no matter if our work is of a deadly serious nature).
Long before our books are ever in print, we find ourselves swimming in the ill-fitting publicist’s shoes, developing our websites, marketing materials, ads, booking library talks, readings and signings for our own mostly self-financed book tours. [The D.I.Y. Book Tour, NY Times, January 17, 2010] We blog for anyone out there who’ll let us. If given the opportunity, we will happily tap-dance naked in Times Square, if only someone would look our way.
How can it help but feel like we are all shouting into the same abyss – like the Grand Canyon itself lined with authors, actors, artists, musicians, dancers, playwrights, TV producers, video game creators, Ipod App developers (anyone I’ve missed?) begging for someone to notice our creation and make it the next big thing.
The likelihood that we’ll get any notice at all feels (is) pretty small, so when we get a little feedback, it’s as if we’ve won the Pulitzer. Yet our interaction with the public is no longer professional, it’s personal. There’s no packet of letters carefully screened by our editor or agent. Instead our inbox is laced with emails requesting advice, correcting our facts, critiquing our work, and once in a while – yes, bless them – praising our words. [The Perils of ‘Contact Me’, NY Times, January 10, 2010.]
We are expected to find time to tweet, social network and blog. We’re expected to be a part of the conversation. It’s a valid demand in the world where virtual socializing is more prevalent than face-to-face. But all of this takes incredible amounts of time. [Memoirist Vicki Forman on Book Publicity, http://lisaromeo.blogspot.com, January 19, 2010.]
Many writers I know simply give up hope of actually writing when they’re gearing up for the book launch. Beyond the strict reality that there are only 24 hours in the day, the effort to be so completely out-in-the-world contradicts the literary necessity of digging deeply inward. The two are incompatible. Better not to fight the split
Maybe it’s a good thing. Most authors I know bemoan their lonely state. (One reason I originally began teaching was, as many of you know, to be around humans other than my family for longer than the time it takes me to drop off or pick up my kids.)
But must the contrast be so extreme? And how many of us – savvy, articulate and ambitious as we are – are really equipped to take on this incredible burden?
Honestly, I’d love to hand over my publicity to someone else. I’d love to trust that it would take care of itself so I could sink down deep into my office chair and slip utterly into my newest tale.
But for all the work I put into my most recent creation, who better to sing its praises? Who better to honestly enthuse about the topic for which I sweated, cried and bled? Who better to know just where to find people with similar passions?
Writing is our agony and our joy. Sharing even that bit of experience draws us together with anyone else who struggles for rare rewards. Every time I cry into the abyss and hear something back, I know that, this time, it’s not an echo. Someone out there has really read and understood what I meant.
Finally, I know I’ve been heard.
In my holiday post, I wished for all of you the gift of time. But time is, as they say, what you make of it.
These last few weeks, between the holidays, family commitments, several articles I enjoyed writing, and preparing for my new schedule teaching a series of classes for children, my own time has been well spent and simultaneously frittered away.
In some ways I’m grateful. The break has given me new perspective on my work. When I finally returned to my new novel for a few solid hours this afternoon, I saw it distinctly more clearly.
But as far as finishing anything (and I’m revising now, not even creating new pages), the progress has been slow to none. So I was thoroughly inspired, chided and comforted when I came across Ann Patchett’s essay, Resolved: Writing is a job.
Each moment that we choose to do everything else – no matter how engaging or critical – is one more moment we’re not doing what we love. Why are we so reluctant to buckle down and write? (Why am I blogging right now instead of opening the draft and picking through another chapter?) I can come up with a hundred logical excuses, but the most honest one is that writing is hard. It takes the kind of time and concentration that requires girding loins and pulling up bootstraps and getting down to business and bucking up, sucking it up and getting things done.
Somewhere in all the procrastination, our neglected love waits. I resolve to do better, to get back on track. I will ignore all those easier, less fulfilling distractions because the story I’m dying to tell is only half told and almost no one has even read it yet.