Writer’s Desk: Going Your Own Way

So, your book is done. Awesome. Now you’ve got to make sure it gets sold. It’s not an easy thing these days, with thinner marketing budgets, digital clamor, and thousands upon thousands of books blooding the marketplace every year. As many authors have discovered, getting your book noticed often falls on their shoulders, even if they were lucky enough to be picked up by a real publisher.

blackmile1Social media marketing helps, among other things. But all that time spent marketing your way takes away from the job at hand: writing. As Jay McGregor writes for Forbes, self-published author Mark Dawson decided to risk doing the thing that is often recommended but is nevertheless hard to do: Give it away. That’s just what he did with The Black Mile, a heavily researched historical thriller.

There was the good news. He “sold” tens of thousand of copies over a weekend.

But:

… he was immediately presented with two problems. The first was that he’d made no money whatsoever from The Black Mile, a book he’d poured hours of research and travel into. The second was that he had no follow-up book for his new fanbase to dig in to.

Now, Dawson is a self-publishing machine, making a living writing, selling, and promoting his work. Of course, a lot of that is possible due to exciting new self-publishing technologies available from a host of companies.

But it still boils down to writing a good book to begin with. You know, the kind of thing that people snap up 50,000 copies of over a weekend. Next, be prolific. Very, very prolific.

Writer’s Desk: Posterity and the Lack Thereof

Yes, Nebraska has writers.

Yes, Nebraska has writers.

Used to be, once a writer’s books went out of print, that was it for most of them. There might be a few copies moldering in a library’s backshelves somewhere, but generally not being out there in a bookstore or taught in a classroom meant that your work was going to be forgotten.

It would be nice to think that in the era of digital publishing, that nobody’s work will ever be forgotten. It will just sit there in the cloud, each bundle of bytes ready for download just in case anybody ever wants to read that 1960s coming-of-age novel or 1920s society-lady memoir or 2010s zombie romance (first in a tetralogy).

That’s not going to be the case for most of us, of course. The average writer lucky enough to get a chance at getting her or his book published will get that one moment of attention (maybe) before returning to the anonymity from whence they came. And that’s okay; one has to make room for the next chap coming down the way.

For some writers, there may be something like this great project from Nebrasksa’s PBS affiliate on “The Lost Writers of the Plains.” Using written and audio essays, they cover everyone from black intellectual activist Bertram Austin Lewis (who fought the good fight on minority inclusion in the academy decades before it was au courant) and Margaret Haughawout (a poet who brought modernist literature and a taste for men’s clothing to her obscure little country college).

Even those lost to time may eventually get one more shot at being remembered.

Writer’s Desk: But is it a Job?

Thomas Mann; he wrote.

Thomas Mann; he wrote.

In his essay for the Times on whether or not being a writer is a job or not (as opposed to a calling, hobby, or what have you), Benjamin Moser comes down very firmly on the side of, well, maybe.

He knows what it is: Grueling, exasperating, time-sucking, unavoidable.

He knows what it is not: Easy to define or easy to do.

Then there’s this:

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” Thomas Mann said; and it is good that no beginner suspects how torturous writing is, or how little it improves with practice, or how the real rejections come not from editors but from our own awareness of the gap yawning between measly talent and lofty vocation. Fear of that gap destroys writers: through the failure of purpose called writer’s block; through the crutches we use to carry us past it.

It gets easier, of course. For some of us, at least. But easy or hard, there is rarely a choice in the matter. As Moser says, writing is simply what one does. Whether or not it’s a job is in the end irrelevant.

Writer’s Desk: Poe

It’s safe to say that whatever else one thinks about Edgar Allan Poe—besides inventing the mystery story and giving sneaky people in Baltimore something to do for many years—his mastery of setting and mood is unassailable.

edgarllanpoe1So when Poe, in The Philosophy of Composition, decides to proffer some ideas on writing, it’s best to listen up. His advice has less to do with inspiration or imagineering than it does with planning, plotting, and mapping the whole thing out beforehand. Not one for winging it, Poe. That’s how you end up with The Fall of the House of Usher, or The Raven, which he dissects in detail.

A couple highlights:

Figure out the ending — “Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.”

Keep It Short — “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression — for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed.”

What Poe doesn’t say, after all this, is: If you don’t have a story worth telling, none of this will mean much of anything. But it’s worth remembering.

(h/t: Open Culture)

Writer’s Desk: Being Careful

Nobody, particularly writers and artists, want to be told to go slowly when pursuing their dreams. Reach for the stars and damn the consequences! That seems more in line with what a lot of us want to hear.

renataadler1That’s why it’s helpful to hear somebody like Renata Adler, one of the great magazine writers of our time, sound a note of caution in this interview from The Guardian:

Her advice to writers is: cling to your day job – wherever it happens to be – for as long as you possibly can. “I’ve said it all along, in my even way: if you’re at Condé Nast, and they’re cutting your pieces to shreds, just hang on. Do your art in your own time, but don’t quit because then you’ll be out there, vulnerable.”

A day job can make things difficult for some writers; they need the time to concentrate on their work. But economic insecurity will ruin your concentration every time. As Adler says, “One needs an apartment and a job.”

Writer’s Desk: Finding a Nook

Brooklyn's Central Library - a sweet place to write (Library of Congress).

Brooklyn’s Central Library – a sweet place to write (Library of Congress).

Finding the right space to write in is always a challenge. Some people could write in a highway median; others need dead silence. Most of us are somewhere in that Goldilocks in-between.

For all those New York-based writers (or just those coming through), here’s some ideas for great writing spaces that the Times culled from some local playwrights:

Dan Lauria (Dinner with the Boys) — “All the rewrites on my play were done sitting at the Westway Diner in a booth late at night. It’s 24 hours. I get all the coffee I want.”

Michael Weller (Doctor Zhivago) — “I tend to write on subways.”

Laura Eason (The Undeniable Sound of Right Now) — “… the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. The third floor has a music and art room where there are these great tables … You’re surrounded by humanity that I find inspirational and beautiful and sad and complicated.”

Writer’s Desk: Getting Paid

There are many satisfactions in the writing life; though they all come with caveats. Setting your own hours—unless you’re on deadline. Being your own boss—unless you have to work closely with a narrow-minded editor. And so on.

hereisnewyork1But one of the truest joys that comes with being a writer is when you start to think that you can actually make a living at putting words onto paper.

Longtime New Yorker scribe E.B. White recalled that moment of realization for The Paris Review:

I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight before anything happened that gave me any assurance that I could make a go of writing. I had done a great deal of writing, but I lacked confidence in my ability to put it to good use. I went abroad one summer and on my return to New York found an accumulation of mail at my apartment. I took the letters, unopened, and went to a Childs restaurant on Fourteenth Street, where I ordered dinner and began opening my mail. From one envelope, two or three checks dropped out, from The New Yorker. I suppose they totaled a little under a hundred dollars, but it looked like a fortune to me. I can still remember the feeling that “this was it”—I was a pro at last. It was a good feeling and I enjoyed the meal…

Writing itself is of course a good feeling. Being paid to do so is an acknowledgement from the outside world that you’re not wasting your time doing so.