Advice for writers—(usually) not about writing.

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Thursday, March 22, 2018 

Sitting Still & Being What You've Become

I recently took part in a master’s writing workshop, where I spent five hours, over the course of two days, talking with ten writers about their personal essays and memoir excerpts, sharing our thoughts on what each of them was doing really well and where each of them could refine their prose just a little bit further. As part of the deal, I also had to give a presentation before the entire class of fifty writers, which meant that I had to figure out what I could talk about for forty minutes or so in a relatively clear through-line.

“Welcome to the Writing Life” ended up being a series of thoughts, one flowing from the next, about why anybody would choose to be a writer, and the ways in which we have to change our lives to make it happen once we’ve made that choice. (I came up with the title nearly two months ago; if I had to do it all over again, I’d probably have called it “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives,” just like this newsletter.)

The first thing I talked about was the why—how you can become a writer for the money or the fame, if you want to, but that’s actually a terrible decision, because there are so many easier ways to make a lot of money quickly, or to become famous quickly. So the reason I ultimately hit upon is that we choose to become writers because there’s something that we feel compelled to share with the rest of the world. It might be an insight gained from personal experience. It might be wisdom acquired through study and research. It might be a creative imagining of people and situations that don’t exist in our world, but can still tell us something about it. It could be an attempt to recreate an instance of perception and consciousness in a poem.

It could be a combination of some or all of those things.

In an ideal world, we’d know before we ever started writing what that thing we’re compelled to write is, and for some people it actually does work that way. For a lot of us, though, we start with a fuzzy notion of our “theme” (or “mission,” or “vision,” or what have you) that becomes clearer only after we’ve take the time to write around it. And so, I told my audience, we have to keep making the conscious decision to work toward better understanding our theme, so we’ll ultimately be able to express it as clearly as possible to the rest of the world.

That’s the end goal of every decision we make about writing, beginning with when we’re going to find the time to do it, up to putting the manuscript through one more draft because we know we can fix that one thing that’s still bugging us. It takes time, but it’s worth it, because it makes us better writers.

Then, a few days after coming home from the workshop, I found this Thomas Merton quotation in the book I was reading:

“Life consists in learning to live on one’s own, spontaneous, freewheeling: to do this one must recognize what is one’s own—be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid.”

And that just seemed to sum up perfectly what I was striving to get across in my presentation. Writing is a way of learning who we are, of better understanding ourselves precisely in order to then be able to communicate with everyone else at a meaningful level. To do that, we need a certain amount of self-comfort—which is not the same thing as being free from anxiety. I don’t think any of us is ever completely free from the notion that we’re getting something wrong on the page, whether it’s that we’re not being clear enough or we’re being pathetically blatant and obvious. But we get comfortable enough to recognize that anxiety for what it is, look at what’s on the page (and, ideally, have someone else we can trust to look at it and speak honestly with us about it), then fix what’s wrong and trust in what’s right.

In the larger project of living one’s life that Merton was talking about, meditation and contemplative prayer played a major role in this developing self-awareness, and he believed not only that the mind “finds best when it stops seeking,” but that “the graduate level of learning is when one learns to sit still and be what one has become.”

Here, too, we can draw parallels with the writing process; in fact, it’s not any kind of stretch to see writing as a form of contemplation. Sometimes, when we start out, we find ourselves “writing to the theme,” and then becoming frustrated when what’s on the page doesn’t seem to fit what we want to say, but we’re not quite sure how to fix it so it will, because we’re still not quite really sure what we want to say. But the more we get these raw ideas out of our head, the easier it may become for us to recognize the fundamental concepts behind them, and we may find that they begin to emerge more clearly not because we’ve beat ourselves over the head trying to succeed, but because we’ve kept putting in the time.

We make a deliberate effort to open ourselves up to the writing process, and that turns out to mean paying attention to both the thoughts we’ve consciously shaped and the ones that emerge unbidden, testing them all, and building upon the ones that ring true. Over and over again, repeating as often as necessary. And that’s the writing life.

A reminder: This issue of the newsletter is going out to everybody, but the next few issues will be available only to paid subscribers. Look for the next all-access article on or around April 20. (And if you like what you’re reading, I hope you’ll consider subscribing for $5/month or $50/year.)

And, as always, if you’re looking for somebody to go over your work with an editorial eye, I offer a range of developmental editing services, covering either your first fifty pages or your entire manuscript.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 

Two Words for Me: Inclusion Rider

This literary culture isn't going to diversify itself.

In a few days, I’ll be headed to Arizona for the Tucson Festival of Books, a two-day literary shindig on the University of Arizona campus. I’ve been there before; it’s a really fun weekend, and I’m looking forward to returning. One of my first official duties will be to moderate a panel called “Living in the Extreme,” with three authors: Chris Bohjalian, Jamie Ford, and Brendan Mathews. It’s a sort of “rich people follies” theme, or, as the official festival description puts it, “Get swept away in luxurious lifestyles as characters try to have all the riches that life has to offer until it starts to quickly crumble away.”

It should be a fun hour: I’ve had the good fortune to meet Chris and Jamie before, and they’re both fun interviews as well as great writers, and I’m loving Brendan’s debut novel, The World of Tomorrow, so I can’t wait to meet him and ask him about it. But, as somebody pointed out to me recently, between the three of them and me, it’s rather a testosterone-laden panel.

That’s doubly mortifying, not just because I care about diversity and representation in literary culture, but because I’ve actually vocally complained about such imbalances when I’ve seen them perpetuated at other events. And pointing to the overall diversity of the Festival is worth a great many points, but there’s still this panel to address.

Like many of you, I watched Frances McDormand accept the Best Actress Academy Award Sunday night—that electric moment when she invited all the women who’d been nominated for any award that evening to stand up and be seen, and left the stage with this declaration: “I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.”

As you’ve probably seen a couple dozen times since then, an inclusion rider is a clause you can demand in your contracts, when you’re a big enough star, that requires the production that’s hired you to maintain an agreed-upon level of diversity in its hiring across the board. It’s a great idea, and on a non-contractual level, people have been doing this with panels at book festivals and other types of conferences for a while now.

So, if I’d recognized the problem early enough, I could have asked the festival organizers to find at least one woman writer who’d be a good fit for the panel, perhaps even made my participation contingent upon achieving that diversity. And maybe, even though I don’t feel like I grasped the situation in time, I still should have done that. My take, though, is that, having made the commitment, I should honor it. (Again, the festival overall is very diverse, and there are a number of women-only panels, so I feel a little less guilty and mortified.)

I’ve been thinking lately about a phrase in 2 Corinthians; the King James version has it as “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ,” but more modern translations tend to cast it along the lines of “taking every thought captive.” People generally interpret Paul’s statement as saying we should take our sinful thoughts and stamp them down, but I think there’s more to it than that. It might just be about corralling our stray, loose thoughts—all the mental and emotional energy that gets diverted into superfluous, superficial matters—and redirecting that energy toward “the obedience of Christ.” And, perhaps, learning to see in every situation the ways in which that obedience is needed and can be enacted.

But you can take that principle and apply it to other missions, like diversity in literary culture. You can—and, here, I mean I can—do a better job of being truly aware of how the dynamics of diversity (or the lack of diversity!) are playing out in a given situation, and of using that awareness to make consistently proactive steps to remedy the situation when it needs remedying and to celebrate the situation when it deserves celebrating. As Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians, “See the things right before your face.” Don’t fall prey to frivolous distractions; focus on what matters.

Recognize, too, that no matter how sincere you are about that mission, you’re going to screw up occasionally. When that happens, figure out where you went wrong and what you need to pay attention to moving forward, and then move forward. If you need to make amends, make amends. If you just didn’t do all you could, do all you can the next time around—and then try pushing yourself a bit further than that.

As for my panel this weekend, here’s what I’m planning to do: Before I invite the audience to ask the three authors questions, I’m going to tell them about some other great “rich people’s follies” novels they should read. Books like Stephanie Clifford’s Everybody Rise, Randy Susan Meyers’ The Widow of Wall Street, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, Anna Pitoniak’s The Futures, or Susan Rieger’s The Heirs. Oh! There’s also a really wonderful novel from a few years back by Clare McMillan called Gilded Age, a reboot of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth set in modern-day Cleveland. It’d be fun to steer people back to that one.

My reading list doesn’t have to be limited to gender diversity, either. I should encourage people to read Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and Rich People Problems, or Rumaan Alam’s Rich and Pretty. I’ll have to think of some others. There’s so many great books I could recommend to folks…

Anyway, if you’re in Tucson for the Festival of Books this weekend, I hope you’ll come say hello! You’ll have an opportunity to hear from a lot of great writers, and you’ll probably walk away with a couple books, or at the very least a reading list to carry you over through this spring and beyond.

(Note: This edition of “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives” is freely available. Soon, the newsletter will take up a $5/month subscription model. You’ll still be able to get the occasional free edition, usually about once a month, but paid subscribers will receive two additional mailings each month—approximately one mailing every ten days. The next mailing, then, should be around March 20th; that one will be free, too, so everybody gets a chance to see what’s available. I hope you’ll consider subscribing!)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018 

So You Hate Your Book Cover, Huh?

Here's what you SHOULDN'T do about that.

A few days back, I saw someone on Twitter talking about the fantasy writer Terry Goodkind, and how he’d written a Facebook post in which he described the cover to his latest novel, Shroud of Eternity, as “laughably bad.” Which, as you might imagine, is a rather remarkable thing for an author to say publicly. Here’s the cover, so you can judge for yourself:

Now, Terry Goodkind’s particular brand of “epic” fantasy isn’t my thing, so I make no claims for the goodness or badness, laughable or otherwise, of the novel’s contents, but I will say that this artwork seems fairly representative of the field—not exceptionally compelling, but not substantially worse than anything else in the genre.

Anyway, enough people—including the cover artist—took umbrage at Goodkind’s insulting comments that he backpedaled ever so slightly, issuing a “sorry you didn’t get the joke” non-apology, then suggesting that he hadn’t meant to slam the artist by calling his work “laughably bad.” No, Goodkind insisted, what he really meant to do was “to instead encourage my publisher to devote more thoughtful consideration with the artwork they wrap around my books.”

Right, because if there’s one thing that’s sure to make your publisher to pay more attention to you, it’s when you piss all over their efforts for your book in public.

Goodkind says that he didn’t see the cover art until just before the book went to press, and he told the folks at Tor Books he didn’t like it, and they overruled him and went with this artwork anyway. And I don’t doubt that’s what happened. Lord knows, when I was an acquiring editor, I sometimes had to inform my authors that the cover art they had voted for wasn’t the cover art my boss decided to go with. In some cases, I had to tell authors that the cover art everybody had loved had been dismissed by the buyers at a certain book chain, and we were going with a backup choice because we wanted that chain to like the cover enough to order many, many books for its stores.

In at least one case, the first cover was the better cover.

The authors I worked with never complained to their social media followings about it, though. Because they were grown-ups. Yes, they were disappointed. Hell, I was disappointed. But we commiserated privately, and then got back to talking about what we could do to get people excited about their books. That’s what you do.

If I were Terry Goodkind’s publisher, I’d be taking a very close look at his sales figures. I know he’s fairly popular in the genre, with a couple bestsellers to his credit, but I’d be thinking very carefully about what direction his sales have been going in over the last few books: Is he still growing an audience? Is his audience stagnant? Is he losing readers over time?

And if the Terry Goodkind train has started to lose momentum, I’d give some serious thought about whether it might be time to jump off that train once the current contract comes to an end. Because even though a publisher is willing to go through a certain amount of grief if there’s enough money coming in to compensate for it, there are limits—and those limits get even tighter if the money isn’t coming in.

There are enough non-assholes in the book world that nobody wants to work with an asshole if they can help it. Be one of the non-assholes. And if you’re fortunate enough to get a book deal, and it turns out you hate the cover your publisher designs for you, tell them about it when they show you the cover. If you’re not able to change their mind, take the hit and keep moving forward. You might just find that it makes them that much more willing to hear you out the next time something comes up.

Saturday, February 17, 2018 

Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives...

Welcome to my newsletter. The title comes from one of my favorite Mekons songs.

I’ve been working around books for my entire professional life. I’ve been a bookseller, a book reviewer, a journalist covering the publishing industry, a digital marketing director, a writer, and an acquiring editor. These days, I’m writing book reviews and essays, and doing developmental editing for other writers who are looking to whip their manuscripts into publishable shape.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that there’s only so much you can read about writing itself—ultimately, the key to becoming a better writer is just to keep writing. But if there’s only so much any of us can say about the craft of writing, there’s also so much to be said about everything around it, whether it’s about the business side of publishing or about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing life.

And that’s what I’m hoping to do with this newsletter. Some of the short essays I write for this newsletter will be free, but you can also sign up for a subscription—$5 per month, or $50 for 12 months—for all the essays. There will be still be roughly one free essay a month, but paid subscribers will receive an essay every ten days or so.

I hope you’ll read some of the free essays that will appear here in early March—and, if you like what you see, I hope you’ll consider subscribing!

Advice for writers—(usually) not about writing.

$5/month or $50/year