Screening Room: ‘Non-Fiction’

In Non-Fiction, the newest movie from Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), a clutch of Parisian intellectuals have affairs, drink wine, and talk about the state of publishing and reading in the modern era. One of them is Juliette Binoche, who always makes things better.

My review is at PopMatters:

“Fewer readers, more books.” “I reject this materialistic society.” “These are narcissistic times.” Those are just a few of the cheery bon mots being lobbed around in the opening minutes of Olivier Assayas’s argumentative but thin wannabe literary salon of a movie…

Writer’s Desk: Listen to Your Editor

In the current publishing environment, one thing remains the same as in years past: Nearly all writers with a publishing contract have an editor. However, not all editors and not all publishers are made the same. Often, whether due to intent or time or budget (often all of the above), all that an editor can do is fix errors, make some suggestions, and generally guide the manuscript through the pipeline.

For those writers and editors who are lucky enough to be given the time and support to really work on a book together, though, the results can be revelatory. Take this essay by Thomas Ricks, in which he describes in some detail the lengthy, painful, and ultimately rewarding journey he went on with the editor on his (incredible) book Churchill and Orwell:

I asked Scott why he had been so rough on me the previous winter. ‘Sometimes my job is to be an asshole,’ he explained with equanimity. I wasn’t startled at this. At one point on an earlier book, when I told him how stressed I was feeling, he had replied, a bit airily, I thought, ‘Oh, every good book has at least one nervous breakdown in it.’

Near the end of our lunch, Scott offered one more wise observation about the writing process: ‘The first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the editor. The last draft is for the reader.’

Negative feedback, especially from a trusted editor and/or friend, can be crushing.

But it can also save your book.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be Afraid of the Block

hitchhikersguideEvery writer gets blocked. The words don’t flow. Or they do, and you simply can’t stand them. Nothing works out.

But you have to work through it. There is no other option. Except, well, giving up writing. And since no writer ever wants to become a civilian, when the block sits in your head like a slug of granite, there’s nothing for it but to chisel your way around it.

Douglas Adams had one of the more infamous (and consistent) cases of writer’s block ever witnessed. It became one of his running jokes: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” After spending seven years not writing a contracted manuscript called Starship Titanic, he called up his old Monty Python writing buddy Terry Jones and asked him whether he could help out. Sure, Jones replied, how much time do you have left? Five weeks, Adams replied.

In a more famous case, Adams spent years not writing the fourth Hitchhiker’s book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. His publisher, Sonny Mehta, finally came up with a solution: Lock Adams in a hotel room and not let him out until he produced pages. Mehta kept him on a schedule—a swim in the morning, write, room service lunch, write, dinner around the corner, sleep, repeat—that went on for days, Mehta said:

Douglas would sit down at this small desk with a typewriter, and I would sit in an armchair at 45 degrees from that, my back facing him, and I’d read a manuscript. I’d wait for the sound of those fingers on his typewriter keys–which sometimes would kind of happen, sporadically, and then there’d be long periods of silence, and I’d turn around to check him out and see that he hadn’t croaked on me or something. He’d be sitting up, staring out the window at this roof terrace. And every now and then I’d say, ‘How’s it going?’ And he’d say, ‘Fine–fine.’ And you’d hear paper being crumpled and thrown into a dustbin.

Each of us have to figure out our anti-blocking tools. Because we don’t all have a big contract to fulfill and Mehta there to help us do it.

Writer’s Corner: The Patterson Factory

James Patterson is seen at times as more machine than writer. There’s good reason for this. His advertising background; those couple dozen credited co-writers; a happy malleability when it comes to genre (romance, YA, mystery, whatever); multiple books a year; nearly $100 million in annual revenue.

thomasberryman-coverAll that being said, it’s helpful to remember that at one point even Patterson was a wannabe, just another unpublished novelist trying to get his book out there. From Todd Purdum’s profile for Vanity Fair:

His first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, about a Nashville newspaperman on a murderer’s trail, was rejected by 31 publishers before Little, Brown published it, in 1976. It won the Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America, but sold only about 10,000 copies…

Selling 10,000 copies of anything would be a dream come true for most authors. Still, success as a writer is never guaranteed. Even for the man who accounted for one of every 26 hardcover novels sold in the U.S. during 2013.

Readers’ Corner: J.K. Rowling and Pseudonyms

jprowling-popupThere’s a piece of mine that published at PopMatters today about the recent kerfuffle over J.K. Rowling being unmasked as the real author of the little-noticed mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Clock, previously credited to one “Robert Galbraith.”

It’s called “What’s in a Pseudonym?“:

It’s not as though Rowling hadn’t branched out from her Harry Potter success. Last year’s novel, The Casual Vacancy was set in real-world Britain, with nary a spell to be found. Why would she put that out under her own name and not The Cuckoo’s Calling? The easy answer probably goes back to the old literary / genre divide that one would have thought had disappeared in a time when people aren’t embarrassed to be seen reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the train and adults happily own up to reading YA fare like The Hunger Games

Previous to this news being broken, The Cuckoo’s Clock (well-reviewed, by the way) had sold 1,500 copies when attributed to Galbraith. The publisher just ordered a rush printing of 300,000 copies.

Reader’s Corner: London Book Fair

Solid advice, always

Neil Gaiman gave the keynote talk at the start of the 2013 London Book Fair, where—after, before, and while doing the actual business of publishing—everybody will again go through many rounds of amateur and professional prognostication about where the industry is going.

Gaiman declined to make any grand pronouncements on the issue of whither-digital, noting that it will continue to change the landscape in many dramatic and unexpected ways. He did share a conversation he had with the late, great Douglas Adams years before e-books were a reality (remember that Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide was really just the sci-fi prototype for the iPad) where they talked about what would happen once that came about:

“I asked him if he thought the inevitable e-book would mean the end of the physical book,” Gaiman said. Adams replied by noting that sharks existed alongside dinosaurs, and yet sharks are still around. “That’s because nothing has ever come along that was quite as good at being a shark as a shark is,” Gaiman said, adding that books, too, are very good at being books.


Writer’s Room: Regarding Editors

editorWriters need editors, and vice versa. Of course, from the vituperative correspondence between the two sides, you might never know it. Some writers see editors as meddling parasites, while there are more than a few editors who like writers as long as they shut up and do what they’re told.

Consider this anecdote, courtesy of Scott Stossel:

Michael Kinsley, a longtime editor at magazines like Harper’s, the New Republic and Slate, is reputed to have said that the ideal writer is the one who files his piece and then gets run over by a bus, so the editor can rewrite with impunity.

Department of Reading: Pete Townshend, Book Guy

whoami1Besides smashing guitars and banging out beautiful noise on world stages for the past few decades, The Who’s Pete Townshend is something of a reader. This would be surprising in and of itself, classic rock gods not being known for their love of cozying up with a good read, but Townshend (who, after all, did create an entire rock opera around a Ted Hughes poem) takes his appreciation of literature a little further.

According to this interview from the New York Times, Townshend could be termed something of a book nerd. When asked for his likes and dislikes, the list is truly comprehensive, ranging from Les Miserables and Scandinavian crime fiction to lesser-knowns like William Boyd and Paul Hendrickson. He also opened up his own bookstore a few years ago, called Magic Bus.

But get this: Pete Townshend even worked in publishing as an acquisitions editor for the London house Faber & Faber:

That was the best job I ever had. I had lunch with the old chairman, Matthew Evans, this week, and we both went dewy-eyed about the old days. He’s in the House of Lords trying to stay awake, and I’m pounding stages like an aging clown.

Some people like books and others have a passion for books. It seems safe to say that Townshend is the latter.