Writer’s Corner: Selling Your Book

(Library of Congress)

(Library of Congress)

Ted Thompson’s first novel, The Land of Steady Habits, will hit stores in January. In his funny, honest essay for Salon, “I Sold My Book for $25,000,” he talks (a little) about the process and (a lot) about what he learned. It should be required reading for anybody new to the publishing game who’s got a novel in their head or hard drive and wants to know what awaits them.

tedthompsoncover1Firstly, Thompson brings a well-needed slap of reality to new writers’ often starry-eyed wishes, particularly the notion among many writers and lovers of quality work that a book is only as good as its writing:

Subject matter matters … Once a manuscript leaves your desk, subject matter is the primary (and often only) way it is discussed. So if you haven’t figured out a quick way to answer that cringe-inducing question “What’s your book about?” in a way that interests other people, somebody else will.

Though you wouldn’t know it from hearing all the self-publishing fanatics (the Hugh Howey types who insist that self-publishing is the only way to go) foam at the mouth about elitist publishers, Thompson insists quite correctly that the average publisher wants to like your book:

Every book they publish, especially if it’s by a first-time writer, is a risk to them and their reputation, and it’s one they take because they personally responded to the book. This was a revelation to me, the fact that the grand faceless facade of New York publishing turned out to be a collection of surprisingly normal people, all of whom were looking to fall in love with a manuscript.

And lastly, a point that can’t be made enough: Don’t expect to strike it rich. Thompson signed with a major publisher and even sold some foreign rights. Still, he made about $75,000, and that’s before agent and other fees.

So, even if you’re one of the chosen few who actually gets published by one of the major houses, it’s probably wiser to splurge a little on a new laptop and a few weeks at a writer’s colony for the next book, and bank the rest. In other words: Don’t quit the day job.

Writer’s Corner: Oates on Oates

In a mostly successful attempt to undermine and interrogate the whole concept of author publicity, the writer as an identity, the interview process itself, Joyce Carol Oates interviews herself for the Washington Post.

One key takeaway:

Is there something frankly embarrassing or shameful about being a “writer”?

The public identification does seem just a bit self-conscious, at times. Like identifying oneself as a “poet,” “artist,” “seer,” “visionary.”

Also, this:

Let’s get back to the crucial question: Are you, or are you not, the “writer”?

The point of James’s remark is that the “writer” is embodied in his — or her — writing. The place to look for James, for instance, is in his books.

Points to Oates as well for referencing both Henry James and Paula Deen in the same piece without straining.

In Memorium: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)

onehundredyearssolitudeThe Nobel Prize-winning novelist, journalist, fabulist, realist, radical, magical Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away today at his home in Mexico City, at the age of 87.

You will read many books in your life without coming across one with a more perfect beginning than that of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, fragrant as it was with the promise of the wild and ravishing pages to follow:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Many novelists from Isabel Allende to Mark Helprin worked from a similarly evocative template as Marquez’s, what became known as magic realism. But almost none were able to marry as Marquez did the ravishing heights of imaginative leaps with that bone-deep fatalism born out of his study of Latin American history and politics.

In other words, Marquez proved that in fiction sometimes a flight of fantasy tells the truth better than purported realism. The fact that he wrote like his life depended on it was just a bonus for us readers.

Quote of the Day: Churchill on Government

churchill1In 1906, Winston Churchill was a mere Undersecretary of State for the Colonies. By that point, the 32-year-old had already been taken prisoner as a journalist during the Boer War and published four of the books that would later win him the Nobel Prize in Literature.

That year, the future Prime Minister gave a speech in Glasgow where he laid out a philosophy of what liberal government means.

We want to draw a line below which we will not allow persons to live and labor, yet above which they may compete with all the strength of their manhood. We want to have free competition upwards; we decline to allow free competition downwards. We do not want to tear down the structure of science and civilization but to spread a net on the abyss.

It’s an eloquently stated argument, given the current debates over what exactly government is for.

Reader’s Corner: Tolkien Family Correspondence

tolkien1

In late 1944, J. R. R. Tolkien’s son Christopher–who would later prove so industrious in the keeping-up of his father’s legacy—was away from home, serving with the Royal Air Force in South Africa. J. R. R. had published The Hobbit seven years earlier, and was still in the process of writing his Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring wouldn’t appear in print until 1954). J. R. R. would post draft pages to Christopher as he wrote.

tolkien1

In this letter sent three days after Christmas, J. R. R. talks about his new chapters:

I am glad the third lot of Ring arrived to date, and that you like it—although it seems to have added to yr. homesickness. It just shows the difference between life and literature: for anyone who found himself actually on the stairs of Kirith Ungol would wish to exchange it for almost any other place in the world, save Mordor itself. But if lit. teaches us anything at all, it is this: that we have in us an eternal element, free from care and fear, which can survey the things that in ‘life’ we call evil with serenity (that is not without appreciating their quality, but without any disturbance of our spiritual equilibrium)… I am afraid the next two chapters won’t come for some time (about middle of Jan) which is a pity, as not only are they (I think) v. moving and exciting, but Sam has some interesting comments on the rel. of stories and actual ‘adventures’. But I count it a triumph that these two chapters, which I did not think as good as the rest of Book IV, could distract you from the noise of the Air Crew Room!….

More of the letter can be found at the American Reader‘s “This Day in Letters” feature.

Reader’s Corner: David Foster Wallace

When David Foster Wallace took his life in 2008, among other painful echoes he left behind a gaping void in the American literary landscape. He was arguably the brightest star in that roughly defined gaggle of writers like Jonathan Franzen, William T. Vollmann, and Jeffrey Eugenides who broke through in the 1990s with styles that were entirely different and yet felt of a piece with all their emotional chaos and stylistic verve. (Check out Evan Hughes’s fantastic piece on that group here.)

For many readers, of that group, Wallace was the guy who people would still be reading in a hundred years. As one of Wallace’s editors said afterwards about the devastation so many people felt, “A lot of people are really sad for all the books we’re not going to get to read.” That’s not an entirely selfish thought, it’s more of a mourning for the beauty and intelligence that had gone out of the world with that shocking act.

D.T. Max’s biography on Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, is coming out later this year. There’s an excerpt from the book over at The Daily Beast, which includes this vivid scene about Wallace’s courtship of the memoirist Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club), when he was wracked by writer’s block and indecision, and was just coming out of rehab:

Wallace did not hear subtle variations in no; he knew only one way to seduce: overwhelm. He would show up at Karr’s family home to shovel her driveway after a snowfall, or come unannounced to her recovery meetings. Karr called the head of the halfway house and asked her to let Wallace know his attentions were not welcome. Wallace besieged her with notes anyway…. One day, she remembers, he arrived at a pool party she was at with her family with bandages on his left shoulder. She thought maybe he had been cutting himself and wouldn’t show her what was underneath—a tattoo with her name and a heart. He clearly felt he had made a commitment there was no retreating from. The details of the relationship were not clear to others though: Wallace told friends they were involved; Karr says no. She too steered Wallace to a new course in his fiction. “His interest in cleverness was preventing him from saying things,” she remembers. She told him not to be such a show-off, to write more from the heart. One time when he told her that he put certain scenes into his fiction because they were “cool,” she responded: “That’s what my f–king five year old says about Spiderman.”

Later, Wallace would write Infinite Jest and many other novels and shorter pieces in which he showed off as much as possible, but still managed to write from the heart.