Writer’s Desk: Gaming the System

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Some say publishing is rigged. These are often the people who have been shopping their work—whether misery memoir, cozy murder mystery, 11-part zombie erotica series, or finely etched literary short story about quiet people with quiet problems—without success for years and don’t get what they’re doing wrong. Unable to get an agent or magazine to give them the time of day, their conclusion that it’s all a closed loop for insiders is not hard to fault; especially when one considers the quality of much that is published, not to mention the august list of big-name authors who first had to grind through dozens or hundreds of rejections.

It’s hard not to write off a lot of this frustration as sour grapes, the anger of those whose writing simply isn’t good enough to hack it. Obviously a lot of the time that is true—just take a dive through what gets self-published on Wattpad if you need convincing.

On the side that argues it’s all a racket comes a rare voice from the inside. In the New Republic, Theodore Ross writes with winking candor about what happened when he got sick of his rejection slips and decided to stop following submission guidelines and game the system:

At the time of these submissions, I was a junior editor at an established magazine, and I decided to use this to my advantage. I typed up a cover letter on my employer’s very fine letterhead, slipped it and the story into an envelope embossed with our well-known logo, and rules be damned, sent it to the folks in Brooklyn. A few months later, an editor emailed me at work—stick it, SASE!—to say he would like to buy the story, which I think rose slightly-but-not-significantly above not-half-bad. It was published a few months later after a few skillful edits. I earned $500, which I believe is $495 more than I had earned in my fiction-publishing career to that point…

Moral of the story: To get published, first work at a well-known magazine.

Writer’s Desk: Inspiration Close at Home

Sometimes it comes easily. The words flow and the paragraphs and plot lock together with smooth and powerful precision like girders in a swiftly-built tower.

'A Woman Reading' by Camille Corot (c.1869)
‘A Woman Reading’ by Camille Corot (c.1869)

Other times (most times), it’s a struggle to get even a good page done after a full day spent at the writing desk. That’s where inspiration comes in.

But where do you find it when it goes hiding? Usually, you can’t wait, you have to just keep plowing ahead.

In a long, sprawling piece for the New York Review of Books called “Inspiration and Obsession,” Joyce Carol Oates describes how what can seem casual and inspired is really the result of hard labor:

[Emily] Dickinson’s poems, and her letters as well, which seem so airy and fluent, give the impression of being dashed off; in fact, Dickinson composed very carefully, sometimes keeping her characteristically enigmatic lines and images for years before using them in a poem or in a letter.

Sometimes it can help to simply look to one’s own life. That of course can lead to too much of the bildungsroman we see in modern fiction (one of the reasons we see so many wealthy, educated characters and so few poor, unless it’s crime fiction). But sometimes it can open the spigot; Oates calls it being “a time traveler” in your own life. She quotes Virginia Woolf, who found great success this way:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in.

So there’s one road to inspiration, when all else fails. Look at your own life, but from an angle.

Writer’s Desk: Beerbohm on Writing’s Weakness

Max Beerbohm, self-caricature, c.1897.
Max Beerbohm, self-caricature, c.1897.

Caricaturist of some note and essayist beyond compare, Max Beerbohm (1872–1956) was one of those serenely talented Victorian aesthetes one not only doesn’t see anymore, one can barely imagine walking the planet. He understood that one of the great rules of writing is this: Never let them see you sweat. If you make it seem easy, that relaxes the reader.

Not that it wasn’t work. Beerbohm:

Writing, as a means of expression, has to compete with talking. The talker need not rely wholly on what he says. He has the help of his mobile face and hands, and of his voice, with its various inflexions and its variable pace, whereby he may insinuate fine shades of meaning . . . but the writer? For his every effect he must rely wholly on the words that he chooses, and on the order in which he ranges them, and on his choice among the few hard and fast symbols of punctuation. He must so use those slender means that they shall express all that he himself can express through his voice and face and hands or all that he would thus express if he were a good talker…

When talking, we have all the senses to work with. With writing, there is really just one. But great writing, even with such a narrow toolset to work with, can nevertheless excite every single one of the senses.

(h/t Gopnik)

Writer’s Desk: Vonnegut’s Rules

You might think of Kurt Vonnegut, he of the dimension-shifting narrative and the fourth-wall-breaking narrators, as one of those writers who just threw everything onto the page to see what worked.

Kurt Vonnegut, 1972 (WNET)
Kurt Vonnegut, 1972 (WNET)

But the last century’s greatest sci-fi humorist next to Philip K. Dick had his own rules for the art of writing. He laid them out in the introduction tho his 1999 odds-and-ends volume Bagombo Snuff-Box:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

  4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.

  5. Start as close to the end as possible.

  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

If you assiduously follow even two of these rules throughout your piece; you’re set.

(h/t: boing boing)

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: 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: Orwell’s Reasons

George Orwell at the BBC (1940)

According to George Orwell, he played around with writing from a very early age. A patriotic poem here, some comic verse there. But it wasn’t until he read Milton as a teenager (always a dangerous combination) that the fire was well and truly lit.

In the essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell lays out the four “great motives” for pouring one’s heart and soul into the often tedious manufacture of prose:

  1. Sheer egoism—”Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm—”Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.”
  3. Historical impulse—“Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
  4. Political purpose—“Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

You might not agree with all these reasons; though it is difficult to argue with all books being political to some degree or another. But it is Orwell, so attention must be paid.

 

Writer’s Corner: Hitting Your Word Count

Some writers can work anywhere, in any circumstances, with any implements, on a schedule that only their muse is herself fully comprehending. The rest of us need to set goals.

GrahamGreene_TheEndOfTheAffairTake Graham Greene. According to legend, he wrote 500 words a day, no more and no less. Take this recollection from writer and editor Michael Korda, who was introduced to Greene while cruising on a private yacht in the Antibes in 1950 (as one does):

An early riser, [Greene] appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pocket a small black leather notebook and a black fountain pen, the top of which he unscrewed carefully. Slowly, word by word, without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempting to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, Graham wrote, over the next hour or so, exactly five hundred words. He counted each word according to some arcane system of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turning to me, said, “That’s it, then. Shall we have breakfast?”

By the way, the novel Greene was finishing in such an offhanded way was The End of the Affair.

In any case, the lesson from Greene is a good one. Once he hit his word count, he supposedly quit and went off to live his life; possibly one of the reasons his fiction is so richly imagined and deeply reported.

Writer’s Corner: Staying Out of the Rain

Crowd at a Harvard-Princeton football game, Nov. 8, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Crowd at a Harvard-Princeton football game, Nov. 8, 1913. (Library of Congress)

There are plenty of good reasons to become a writer—excepting of course a desire for money, fame, or respectability.

In “Phi Beta Football,” a football-season essay for the New Yorker about his childhood watching Princeton football games, John McPhee identifies another superb reason to devote one’s life to the written word:

…on a November Saturday of cold, wind-driven rain—when I was about ten—I was miserable on the stadium sidelines. The rain stung my eyes, and I was shivering. Looking up at the press box, where I knew there were space heaters, I saw those people sitting dry under a roof, and decided then and there to become a writer.

Writer’s Corner: Dublin Writers Festival, Day 1

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The annual Dublin Writers Festival, which just concluded this past Sunday, was an enjoyably low-key but nevertheless enthusiastic affair, mixing up writing workshops with talks and Q&As with authors and the occasional performance piece.

I covered a few days of it for PopMatters; here’s part:

This is Dublin, after all, which proudly carries its status as UNESCO City of Literature, and where the odd plaque on an undistinguished townhouse near St. Stephen’s Green reminds you that Bram Stoker lived there, and the Gate Theatre just happens to be staging An Ideal Husband by the Dublin-raised and -educated Oscar Wilde.
  
The event locations were mostly clustered within an easy walk of Temple Bar, making one conveniently never far from a restorative tipple. The offerings ran the gamut from workshop-like conversations with would-be writers to themed readings and music and poetry galas. By the end of even just one day, if you didn’t already have a novel or cycle of poems in the works, you would feel as though you were somehow missing out…

Other entries to follow soon.

Writer’s Corner: The Devil Procrasination

 

Every writer knows the pain of procrastination. Just about none of them know the answer to this question: Why do we put ourselves through it? By and large writers know exactly when they have to turn in their article/book/whatever and nearly everything about it (word count, tone, subject). And yet, time after time, deadlines are treated as little more than tissue paper-thin suggestions to be brushed aside at the last minute when work has finally (maybe) begun.

It’s a ridiculously neurotic cycle, and apparently impossible to break out of.

Megan McArdle’s “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators” tries to make some sense of this fundamentally illogical and self-defeating behavior. One anecdote she provides seems a fairly typical scenario:

I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. “Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”

McArdle’s article spins off (too little, too late) into theories about overpraised millennials not being able to cope without constant feedback and structure. But before she gets to that, her theories about the roots of this procrastination—mostly rotating around the idea that many writers have an uncommonly intense fear of being unmasked as frauds, thus adding to the fear of actually writing something that could give evidence for that—are sound.

Not that that will do anything to help somebody finish that article on time. There’s always email to check, friends to write, drinks to make…

Writer’s Corner: Detroit Book City

Still trying to figure out how to finish that first part of a six-part series of zombie CSI novels, or maybe you need time to work on your epic poem cycle about climate change? Working the job and paying rent can definitely take time away from time spent with your laptop or quill.

Well, worry no more, because there’s a new nonprofit organization called WriteAHouse that wants to give away houses in Detroit to writers. That’s correct: Free house to write in.

If approved, writers are expected to:

  • commit to living and writing in the house for two years
  • pay insurance and property tax
  • finish renovating the house (it’ll be 80% inhabitable at time of moving in)
  • regularly contribute to the WAH blog
  • “participate in local readings and other cultural events”

Then, after two years, the writer is given the deed to the house. That’s pretty much it. Nice job thinking outside the box, Detroit.

(h/t: Ian Crouch)

Writers’ Corner: James Baldwin and Preaching

baldwin1James Baldwin didn’t start out as a writer; but then, none of us do. Before he put pen to paper, he had a different calling: preacher.

In this interview from The Paris Review, he explains the difference:

When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

It’s all communication, one way or the other.