Monday, March 30, 2009

Writers' Complaint Department: Stress and the "Support System"

I've come to believe that important relationships in the life of a writer are never really separate from our writing. Witness the following round-up of rants, venting and whining I've collected from various writers I know over the past few weeks. I thought I'd take a stab at a few; and in case you think I don't include myself in this list, or that I've got it all figured out, think again.

Complaint: My spouse / significant other / best friend / parent / other important person in my life is not interested in reading my drafts.
Suggestion: Consider this a blessing. Many writers are completely thrown off course by reactions from family members to unpublished work. Either they say I love it, just because they love you, or they say something like, Well, this is just a first draft, right? because they expect it to read like a Pulitzer and a bestseller rolled into one, or they say nothing. All or any of the above reactions will only drive you crazy.

Complaint: My spouse / significant other / best friend / parent / other important person in my life thinks this "book business" is taking an awfully long time.
Suggestion: Let me guess. Deep down, you think so too. A book is a multi-year project; if your manuscript was pitch perfect and ready to submit tomorrow, and you got an agent the day after tomorrow and the agent sold the book in a month, you are still a year or more away from a publication date. But even before you get to that stage, factor in writing and rewriting and revising and editing (in other words, somewhere along the continuum you are on now), and you're looking at probably about 5-6 years from page one, word one, to author. So the fact that you've been at it a while is completely normal and typical for every writer who's not yet published a book. Your spouse / significant other / best friend / parent / other important person in your life – or maybe YOU -- perhaps doesn't know this, so it seems like it's taking forever. It's not. It's taking the usual amount of time.

Complaint: I need more writing education / professional editing help / workshop time, but my spouse / significant other / best friend / parent / other important person in my life, is strongly against spending any more.
Suggestion: It does take money to get quality writing education and/or guidance. But… scholarships, fellowships and financial aid do exist; work-study and/or barter situations can be found (or negotiated); classes/editors/workshops can be spaced out across years; conferences or workshops could be coupled to family vacations; and budget-friendly educational opportunities are more abundant than ever now.

Complaint: My spouse / significant other / best friend / parent / other important person in my life, secretly (or perhaps not so secretly) doubts I will ever get published.
Suggestion: Both as a break from the BIG PROJECT (i.e. book), and as a way to alleviate the self-doubt in anyone's mind (including your own), think about writing some short pieces for small magazines, newspapers and/or online venues. You may or may not make money (and sometimes you will write just for the publishing credit), but you can: 1. prove to anyone who is wondering, including you, that your writing does have value in the outside world; and 2. build a little list of publishing credits; and 3. get some satisfaction from seeing something you wrote has made its way into print (or pixels) - and within weeks or months, not years.

Complaint: I have pressure from my spouse / significant other / best friend / parent / other important person in my life, to use more of my available time to earn money, rather than to write.
Suggestion: Sorry, I won't dare give suggestions in this department. What sane person would advise another on how to deal with the differing financial views and demands within a close relationship? All I can say is, welcome to the world of the in-it-for-the-long-haul writer, in which you bargain away chunks of precious time, which you want (and perhaps need) to spend writing, in order to make money, so that you can continue to write in your non-income-producing hours, and to finance further writing education. Everyone has to figure this out for themselves, based on too many variables to make it reasonable to give blanket advice. For now, dear writer, I have a few hours of paid work ahead of me, so that I can write most of the day tomorrow. And, I hope, feel okay about that.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Keep Writing, Keep Writing, Keep Writing. Did I say to keep writing?

• I hate that newspapers are folding and I detest that book coverage in print media has been on the wane for a few years already. However, I do like reading the reminiscences of former book columnists, like this one by John Douglas Marshall, long time critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (which went all-online this week).

• For those seeking freelance article assignments, here is a helpful interview with ultra-successful magazine writer Lisa Collier-Cool, otherwise known (at least in my own head) as Queen of the Query (Letter).

• A low-cost, low-stress approach to turning the workshop concept (or at least the terminology) on its ear.

• Literary agent Nathan Bransford writes a witty, interesting, and informative blog. I'd like to point you to two of his recent posts, the first titled Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer. Excerpts from two of his rules:

"There is time in the day (to write). You may have to sacrifice your relaxation time or sleep time or reality television habit, but there is time. You just have to do it."
"Didn't find an agent? Keep writing. Book didn't sell? Keep writing. Book sold? Keep writing. OMG an asteroid is going to crash into Earth and enshroud the planet in ten feet of ash? Keep writing. People will need something to read in the resulting permanent winter."
I kept coming back to these two pieces of advice because over the past two weeks I met with two private writing clients, and both were stuck in what I call the "mother-writer vise," bewildered about how to squeeze more writing time into full days, reeling from recent disappointing agent feedback. And I basically told them the same thing. Well, what I actually said was: Steal the time. Stop volunteering for everything at your kids' schools. Let the house get dirty. Make the kids do chores. Train the husband or teenager to cook (or at least defrost & microwave). And as far as rejections go - I said what I always say: I see. Carry on.

Bransford also addressed Writer's Block in this post. I myself waffle between thinking of writer's block as a bona-fide affliction (when it's bugging me) and a neat little rationalization for procrastination (when others are complaining). Bransford asked how writers deal, and got nearly 225 comments. Hmm… maybe just reading through 200+ blog comments is enough to break through…

Have a great weekend. Make some time to write. Any little bit of time. Carry on.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Write First? Think First? Can Obama Help?

Last night during his press conference, President Obama was asked why he didn't respond faster, publicly, about a specific piece of the AIG debacle. Obama said, "Because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak" --which was maybe the most useful takeaway of the night.

Thinking before speaking – an interesting concept. Being informed, gathering knowledge, and knowing what one is talking about before opening one's mouth – not exactly a new idea, but perhaps one politicians don't ordinarily follow.

What about writers? Do you tend to write first and think about it later? Or do you like to know exactly what you are going to write before touching the keyboard? Does it depend on what you are writing? What's the writer's equivalent of knowing what I'm talking about before I speak (on the page)?

Over the years, I've come across writing instructors, MFA faculty, editors, authors and other writers firmly in one camp or the other. One well-published nonfiction writer I know insists one should never sit down to write unless all the points, and the narrative arc, as well as the closing idea, are all firmly in mind. Another equally successful author relies on the writing process itself to show her where she wants to go.

Annie Dillard says writing is pretty simple, it's just about putting the bricks in order, one on top of the other. But I agree with the MFA professor I know who once quipped, yes but first I have to mix the mud and make the bricks!

For a short essay, say in the 500–2000 word vicinity, I find I do usually have a pretty well-defined sense of my point and how I'll get there. If not, then I will work on getting to a clear idea of what I'm going to say before I write. This way, I don't tend to over-write quite so much and then have to deal with a lot of pruning later. Since most of these short essays are on tight deadlines, shortening the revision and editing time is useful. On the other hand, I’m an advocate of writing, writing, writing – and then putting aside the "unused" portions for later, when it seems to find its way into something else.

An entirely different approach prevails when I am writing a longer essay or piece of memoir. Then, I want to explore my ideas on the page, to play with them, move them around, and see where they might lead me. In a general way I might know beforehand "what I am talking about," but as a writer I also know that there are infinite ways to "speak" about it, and the more I experiment with all those possible ways, the more likely it is that the reader will know what I'm talking about too.

For memoir and the longer literary essay, I often don't know exactly what I want to say until I get through at least one full very rough draft, which tends to be many times longer than I intend. Yes, that does mean I will often write 10- or 12-thousand words to get a 4,000 or 6,000 word piece. Perhaps a more skilled or experienced writer can skip this part of the process; I can't. The fun (and I think, the discipline) of writing nonfiction for me is seeing what emerges out of my personal experience once I put it on the page and take the time and patience to let the work evolve.

Politicians know too well that making public remarks before all the facts are in can be disastrous. And yet many of them, presidents included, do it anyway. Perhaps it's possible that Obama the President is listening to what Obama the writer has learned. And wouldn't it be refreshing to know that what comes out of a president's mouth actually had time to take up residence in his brain for a while?

Still, that doesn't mean I like the time it takes to know what I’m talking about before I write the final version. I'm impatient by nature; just ask my kids (and husband, mother, hairdresser). Yet when I do skip this step – what I call letting it marinate – because I'm in a hurry or tired of revisions or mentally need to move on, and "go public" with a half-baked manuscript, I always get into trouble.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Brackets for Beginners (Off Topic for a Monday)

It's Monday and I'm off to a particularly slow start, just now reading the morning paper -- yes, a paper paper. Oh, I do read plenty of news online. But I start the day with the New York Times: crossword puzzle and then Arts, next the editorial and OpEd pages, then the special sections – Tuesday/Science, Wednesday/Dining, etc. – and finally, business and then the front national/international news section. I put the Sports section aside for my teenage son. Usually.

Today, however, I am going through the sports pages, doing a kind of homework, trying to learn something intelligent to say the teenager later. Having decided the other day that it's easier (or at least quieter) not to fight it, I've bought into The Bracket, and agreed that even in a household where television is normally banned in favor of homework on Monday through Thursday, college basketball may rule, at least for two weeks or so. I graduated from Syracuse University at a time when the Orange were a dominant NCAA team. I lived across the street from the legendary and decrepit Manley Field House. I was at the first game ever played in Carrier Dome. So you might think I know a thing or two about college hoops. You would be wrong.

But just to prove that I'm not hopeless, I asked the teenager over the weekend to explain this Bracket business to me, which created so much excitement in our house ("Mom's going to make a Bracket!"), that he flew up to my office to make copies of the Sports Illustrated fill-in-the-blank insert for all four of us. These are now posted around the kitchen in various stages of inked-in, crossed-out completion.

After listening to my son's careful and lively 20-minute explanation – the boy wants to be a sportscaster, after all – I knew what seemed like everything I needed to know in order to fill in my Bracket. Everything except which teams are good picks. But hey, if as my son said, the SI editors had already got it wrong ("busted their bracket"), I was game. So I grabbed a pen and got to work.

That is, I went down the list and picked out teams like so: I'll take Louisville (because of the Kentucky Derby), and Dayton (because we used to eat at the Dayton Inn in Clifton when I was a kid), Xavier because I like the way the word looks and sounds, Gonzaga because any team with that name needs any and all help, USC because I lived in Southern California for a while, and Perdue because I once had a crush on a Perdue-bound prep school boy, and Duke because well, doesn't the name Duke just make you think, winner?

Of course, Syracuse too. So what if it took me 20-plus years to take an interest in "my" team? It's also taken me a while also to understand that learning new meanings for some old words (like bracket) and relaxing a relatively new rule (no TV on school nights) in favor of some old-fashioned sports-craziness, can keep a teenager engaged and force a mom outside of her comfort zone to such an extent that she is seriously contemplating if it would be completely wrong to make a new copy of her Bracket and started over without telling the teenager.

And, it's taken me six paragraphs to figure out that today's post has absolutely nothing to do with writing or reading or the literary life. Sue me.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Final Winter Writers Clearance

Most Fridays, I toss out the things I've come across during the week which I think might make, if not an entire meal, at least a fortifying snack for my blog readers. You can play too, by passing along links, events, or anything you think other writers, readers, and book lovers might want to know about. Just leave it in the comments section.

• Word geeks, rejoice. Coming soon is Wordnik, a "dictionary" that sounds so far beyond what any currently available online dictionary can offer in interactivity, flexibility, cross-referencing, history, examples, and tips. Its erstwhile visionary and chief lexicographer describes it here. I'll leave you with this thought: 4 billion words. Yes, with a B.

• For those who are thinking ahead, early discount registrations is ending soon for several major annual multi-day writers' events, including the
American Society of Journalists & Authors Conference, April 25-26; and Book Expo America, May 28-31, both in New York City.

• In the spirit of her memoir,
My Mother's Daughter, Rona Maynard, the former editor-in-chief of the popular Canadian women's magazine Chatelaine, is posting stories from readers over at her website, all chronicling the mother-daughter bond.

• It's always interesting to me (if not exactly enlightening) when the mainstream press attempts to parse the literary publishing world for the general reader. The Daily Beast tried it
here the other day.

• I'll admit, I'm not all that knowledgeable (or involved in the support) of the wider world of arts and culture beyond the literary -- a combination probably of upbringing, limited exposure and the fact that only just very recently did I come to understood (and a bit reluctantly at that) how the word "artist" applies to me. Now that I've come to know many different kinds of artists (many whose work bridges writing and some other art form), I've been trying to make up for lost time, which is why I've been exploring
Arts Journal, the Daily Digest of Art, Culture & Ideas.

•April is
National Poetry Month, and so next month I'll host several guest posts from poets. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of poetry and prose, and in the impact which reading and writing poetry can have on one's nonfiction writing. Meanwhile, you can sign up here and the Academy of American Poets will send you an emailed poem each day of the month.

Have a great weekend. And let's see if we can all get Spring to cooperate and arrive on schedule, shall we?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Writers, Make Peace With Submissions

Submissions are fun, right? Okay, not exactly. But does the whole process of submitting one's work have to be such an angst-ridden, anxiety-producing activity for writers? Or is there a way to transform the experience -- the submitting, waiting, interpreting the feedback, and yes even the rejections – into a more creative part of the writing life?

I think there is.

During my workshops, I mention this from time to time when the subject of publication comes up, but tonight I'm making a presentation entirely on this topic.

So I found it quite fitting that when I sat down a few hours ago to get my final notes in order, I took a quick detour to my email inbox -- where I found a rejection from a magazine editor in response to an article idea I'd queried about.

I don't know this editor and have never written for her magazine before, but I'm pretty sure the first paragraph of her note was pretty standard; that is, short on specifics, one of those mixed efforts at tact and firmness. But the second paragraph, in which she talks about my idea in specifics, and includes a piece of personal information which tells me she not only read and carefully considered the pitch, but also has some personal understanding of the topic, seemed to me an encouraging sign. If my query made her think, caused her to deliberate, and to call up her personal connection to the idea, then perhaps I'd gotten in the vicinity of her (and hence her magazine's) editorial radar. In other words, as rejections go, a pretty good one.

Not more than an hour later, I retrieved my postal mail. You know what's coming, right? Another rejection, this one from a literary journal to which I had submitted an essay a few months back. Again, the standard preprinted thanks-but-no-thanks two-sentence form, but at the bottom, a hand written note from the nonfiction editor (whom I met once at a conference), explaining exactly what he felt this particular essay lacked, suggesting how I might revise it, and inviting me to send it again if I choose to rewrite.

Now, as rejections go, a fabulous one.

Don't worry, I get plenty of the normal "bad" rejections, too. I especially growl at the emailed one-liners: "We're going to pass. Regards, The Editors." Okay then.

Over the years, I have developed coping mechanisms for what otherwise might be considered the drudgery of dealing with rejections, with never hearing back from publications at all (my favorite), with the stalled inertia of a submissions drought, and the (rare but occasional) acceptance flurry.

These include mental gymnastics such as understanding that although one may amass a dozen or more NO responses, it only takes one YES to get published, and that theoretically the more rejections one accumulates, the closer one gets to that singular yes. (Math and statistical wizards -- in case I’m a bit off base here -- please don't disabuse me of this notion; it keeps me sane.)

Then there's the old-fashioned physical pleasure of crossing a publication off the scribbled list I keep in the front flap of the file folder for each essay, and also the fun of strolling over to the shredder and inserting the rejection into its sharp teeth. On a bad day, I've even been known to print out an emailed rejection just so I can put it in the shredder and hear that grinding whir. Listen, on some days, we writers need these small acts: take that, editor!

On a more serious note, I am adamant in my opinion that a robust submissions strategy can complement the craft side of the work. Marketing is not evil; it's a must for every writer. Rather than avoiding it, or only tolerating it, why not integrate the submissions process into the writing life in a welcoming way?

One important shift is to create a highly personalized submission plan that takes into account not only which piece to send to which publication, but also addresses the nuances of why. For example, Why this publication? Not in general terms that apply to any writer -- "because this journal has a great reputation and would look good on my CV"; but Why this publication for my (current and future) writing career? Why for this piece at this time? Those answers will vary for each writer.

For example, the answer might be, because this piece is set in the southwest and this particular journal is published by an Arizona university and often publishes material with regional themes. Or, because this journal pays well and right now I need to generate more income from my writing. Or, because I respect the editors of this journal and want to see how they react to my work. Or, because right now I need more publishing credits and even though this publication is not as prestigious as I'd like, it seems like exactly the right home for this particular piece, so my odds are good.

In other words, if a writer can integrate the goals of their submission plan with the goals and needs of their writing career (current and future), then the odds of having a submission practice that feels like a creative aspect of one's writing life -- instead of a pain-in-the-neck part -- greatly increases.

There's a lot more to it, of course. I'll be coming back to this topic again. Because there is one thing I hate more than a bad rejection, and that is hearing a writer say, "Oh I hate sending my stuff out. It's all just sitting in my computer (or desk)."

Because guess what? If that's where your work is, you've already rejected it before anyone else can.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Publishing House Editors Share Inside Scoop

Let me call your attention to a long but informative and lively roundtable over at Poets & Writers, with four publishing house editors. A few of the take-aways:

P&W: What do you wish writers knew about you that they sometimes don't?
GARGAGLIANO (Scribner): I think most writers don't realize that every editor goes home and reads and edits for four hours—that they're not doing that in the office. That in the office they're advocating for all of the authors they already have….
P&W: What else?
GARGAGLIANO: I think it's important for writers to remember that we're not their enemy. We love books and we're looking for books that we love. CHINSKI(Farrar, Straus and Giroux): And ads are not love. GARGAGLIANO: And ads do not equal sales. BOUDREAUX (Ecco): If those two things appear in print—that we're working nights and weekends and ads don't sell books—we have all done a fine job here….
P&W :What have your authors taught you about how to do your job?

GARGAGLIANO: To be honest with them. I often have the impulse to protect my authors and treat them as if they are more fragile than they actually are. It's better if I can have an open conversation with them. If I start that early on, the better our relationship is going to be going forward, and the easier it will be to talk about tough things. That took me a while to
figure out.

BOUDREAUX: They teach you over and over and over—and this is so obvious—but they will always have a better solution to an editing problem than anything you could come up with. If you just raise the question, they will solve it. The universe of their book is more real to them than it could ever be to anyone else.

In addition to the above topics, they discuss a wide range of publishing issues, from how to tell an A+ agent from a B+ agent; the impact of electronic books; and many other areas.

Read the whole interview here. At the end of the attributed quotes is an "after the interview" section where the editors get to anonymously vent a little and also call out their current favorite agents and competitors. Definitely worth the time to read the entire piece.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Reading Anything I Want To Read. Not so Much Fun After All.

Ask MFA students what they are looking forward to post-graduation and chances are they will say something about gaining back control over their reading. Throughout most MFA programs, and for very good reasons, the reading list is determined by curriculum, faculty, genre track, workshop focus, seminar assignments, and other factors. Some students have input (three of my four faculty mentors considered my ideas when developing the semester reading list). But it's not just that the reading list is more or less dictated, but other factors are too: the speed at which we must read, the staggering quantity and the nature of the reading, and the necessity of reading with notebook nearby, jotting thoughts for annotations and/or critical research theses.

As an MFA student moves through the program's two (or three or four) year cycle, perhaps like me, each accumulates a bigger than usual stash of "to be read" books either on their shelves, or on an overlong list. "I can't wait to read what I want when I want," is a common lament.

What's that expression? Oh yes, Be careful what you wish for.

In the nine months since my MFA program ended, I've read and read and read. Anything I want, anytime I want. At my own pace. Just because. Reading heaven, no? No.

There are many days when I wish I had a list, an annotation deadline, a seminar prep requirement based on an assigned book. In other words, now that I can read what I want when I want, as quickly or as slowly as I want, there are days when I have no idea what I want.

I would like a new reading list, please. For life.

For a while I determined to read the literary classics I was too embarrassed to admit having never read in their entirety (or at least not for decades). I bought Speak, Memory, but constantly forget it's on my shelf. There too, sits most of Jane Austen. I did begin St. Augustine's The Confessions (reportedly the first Western autobiography ever written). I guiltily admit I abandoned it on page 11, though I did read the entire 31 page preface by Patricia Hampl (see below).

In less ambitious moments, I declared (to no one except myself) that once the MFA was over, I'd read any old dumb book I wanted, just for fun. Or, having concentrated on nonfiction during the MFA, I vowed to read only novels, and maybe even some not-so-great ones, too. Then there was the long list of books and authors I wanted to check out, those recommended by faculty members and visiting authors and fellow students. I planned to read the dozen or so newly published books written by recent graduates (and fellow students) of my program. And those published by members of the rich, extended writing community at home, which I'd dutifully purchased – and stored. These now stand, along with (oh God, I am going to say it in print – the nearly 200 other not-yet-read books), in one bookcase in my home office, fully dedicated to future reading, their spines uncracked.

So you'd think I wouldn't have any trouble deciding, on a day to day basis, what to read. You'd be wrong.

Here's what happens. I stand before the shelves. Wonder what kind of a reading mood I'm in. Ask myself if there's anything I should be reading. Muse over what I want to read that day – fiction, memoir, biography, poetry, essays, history, genre fiction, the newspaper, a cookbook, 100 Klean Korny Jokes for Kids?

You see the problem. It's a combination of riches – so many books, so much time, too few outside expectations. (Well, the abundant time is actually a fallacy, but compared to the amount of "leisure" reading time available during an MFA program, I feel positively overrun with "free" time now.)

I stare at the shelves. I scan titles. I pull out one and then another and another book and make a small pile of "possibles." I read the first pages of each, the acknowledgments page, the jacket copy. Then I put them all back on the shelf and start again with another pile. Finally, I choose a handful of books and scatter them around – night table, breakfast counter, car, desk, coffee table. I may start all of them at once and see which one wins me over. I may start just one and work my way methodically through the group. I may lose interest altogether and find myself back at the shelves, staring.

The only three exceptions to this debilitating dithering are: if I'm writing something which leads me naturally to wanting to read a particular author or book; if I've recently promised someone I would read their book and respond; and if I've been assigned a book review. (See – expectations and deadlines are just grand, no?)

It's not that I haven't been enjoying my reading time post-MFA. It's just that I often don't have the sense, which I did all through the program, that whatever it is that I'm reading at the moment, has a purpose. And I also miss the delicious ability to say to my family, "I'm busy reading for school." (Yes, I know that for a writer, reading is an essential part of writing, indeed as essential as the actual writing. Try explaining to hungry kids and a spouse who just arrived home through 90 minutes of rush hour traffic, that dinner is not ready because Mom was reading.)

Lately when I look over the books I've read in a given week or month (ready to be reshelved in the "already read" cases), I get a sick feeling – not because the reading experience itself was not satisfying, but because I wonder: Was there was something I should have read instead? Did I read closely enough (as closely as if I had to annotate)? Or I panic at the overall "message" my reading might be sending (to whom I don't know).

And then there's the (lack of a) method of how I choose books lately – you'd think I had no literary education at all. Last week I read Jane Hamilton's terrific novel, A Map of the World. Why? Because my son, who loves maps, saw it on my shelf and asked, "Mom, what's this book about?" I'd forgotten I had it. So I read it. And was glad I did. But is that any way to choose? A few weeks ago I read Our Lady of the Lost and Found by Diane Schoemperlen. Why? I needed a pick-me-up and the cover art reminded me of my sister. Not too long ago I read An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Home in New England by Brock Clarke. Reason? Maybe because the cover was red or the fact that I'd recently returned from New England. Then I re-read, for perhaps the fourth time, the first half of The Florist's Daughter by Patricia Hampl. This at least I understood. For anyone who attempts to write memoir and falls into a crevasse of doubt – or maybe I should say for women over the age of 45 who attempt to write memoir and find themselves straddling too many familial lines -- a lifeline from Hampl seems only natural.

For a while I thought it would help if I reported here on the blog on what I was currently reading, or had just read, or was about to start reading, that perhaps I'd make wiser or richer literary decisions that way. But it was far easier just to stop putting that information on the blog, instead.

None of this haphazard book selection malaise is in evidence when I choose reading material for my students. Then, I make sure-footed decisions and present precise lists of books and authors, carefully curated to address specific writing issues. And perhaps those students find themselves thinking that once the 8- or 10-week class is over, phew, then they can go back to reading what they want.

I wish them well. But I've found that being one's own reading czar is not as much fun as I'd anticipated. And now, I need to end this post, which I have a feeling was just another way to put off choosing a few books for the week ahead.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday (the 13th) Fridge Clean Out: No Unlucky Writers Here

• I attended a reading last night, and during the Q&A, an audience member remarked that the alliteration and rhythm of a particular sequence was especially appealing. The author, looking surprised, said she'd never noticed it before. This was a happy instance of when reading work aloud resulted in a good discovery. And it's why I swear by the wisdom of reading everything I write out loud at some point in the revision process -- alone in my office or living room – because more often than not, the opposite happens: some rough language or clunky construction only becomes apparent when it's heard.

• Take a first look at Second Pass, a relatively new books and reading site.

• Jean Hartig, writing on the Poets & Writers website, makes several good points about the challenges of life after the MFA.

"….writing programs don't tend to teach the skill set required to work fruitfully—and joyfully—beyond their gilt walls. The MFA experience does not necessarily prepare us to be writers in the world. Our time as students is set apart as a sacrosanct period during which we perform the very important work of honing and polishing our craft, but little guidance is given as to how we might preserve that sacred lifestyle (as well as the more profane, yet necessary, moments of criticism and editing) once outside the bubble. On the other hand, no one could have told us then that our devotions would flag and that distractions—such as earning a living and making our way in the world—would threaten to prevent us from writing altogether."

You can read the rest of her thoughtful essay, which also has tips for creating a writing community post-MFA.

• When I was a public relations specialist and a freelance reporter (in the dinosaur 1980s and early 90s) the telephone was the best, fastest, and often only route to information. On a busy day I spent hours on the phone, and at some point began to loathe it; while these days I can go days without once reaching for it. But yesterday, because email was not getting me the information I needed in a timely manner, I made actual telephone calls.

The first was bad news -- the publication's current issue would be its last, and my previously accepted piece was now once again in need of a home. Disappointing, but good to know. Next, I left a message (with a human) and got a return call within minutes: So glad you called, where is the response to the edits we sent last week? Huh? Turned out someone had transposed letters in my email address. In the third case, I reached voice mail, and an hour later, received an apologetic email about staffing disruptions and assuring me my essay was still scheduled for publication.

Maybe it was just me, but it seemed as if each editor was either pleased to take a phone call, or at least appreciated the chance to quickly clear up misunderstandings, and not annoyed by the telephone contact, as I think many writers fear. Could it be the never-empty, guilt-inducing email in-box is actually making the phone look good?

Have a great weekend.

Writer Mama Book Give-Away Winner

And the winner of the Writer Mama book, from yesterday's give-away, is Julie, chosen by my in-house random selector -- also known as a child home from school.

Me: "Make yourself useful. Pick a number between one and 11."
Child: "I'm sick."
Me: "I see. Then put away Guitar Hero."
Child: "Okay. Number eight!"

Julie, please email me with your postal address: LisaRomeoWrites (at) gmail (dot) com.

Thanks to everyone who entered, and to Christina Katz for the informative post yesterday and for the book.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Guest Blogger Christina Katz: A Village to Raise a Book (and one comment to win one)

I'm a writer. And a mother. Sometimes I write about my kids and motherhood. Sometimes not. I don't really consider myself a mother-writer, mom writer, or writer mama, and in fact I have often discouraged others from using that label when describing me. This has a lot more to do with my own disinclination to limit myself than the nomenclature itself. I say limit because unfortunately these labels are often meant to describe a writer who writes almost exclusively about being a mother. Truth is, many – perhaps even most – writers who also happen to be mothers, actually write about much more than their children and their maternal roles. I'd even hazard a guess that most mothers who are writers usually DO NOT write only, or even mostly, about mothering.

That's where
Christina Katz comes in, a.k.a. Writer Mama (also the name of her first book). It's her mission to help writers (who are mothers) fashion viable writing careers – writing for magazines, the web, newspapers, paying blogs; or novels, memoirs, prescriptive nonfiction; or copywriting or…any kind of writing. Through in-person and online classes, books, blogs, newsletters & ezines, Katz offers education, support and networking possibilities to help women, as her book's tagline notes, "raise a writing career alongside your kids." Not necessarily a career writing only about mothering. That's the category of writer mamas in which I wouldn't mind being included.

Please welcome Christina Katz…and leave a comment here by midnight tonight to win a copy of her book.

The Writer Mama Two-Year Anniversary Blog Tour Giveaway!

Post #12: It Takes A Village

Lest we forget, it takes a village to write a book. Writing a book is not an event; it’s a journey, similar to ascending a mountain. (A mountain that you create as you climb!) Don’t go it alone. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t create an antagonistic dynamic with the folks who can be your allies and help you champion your book into the world. I’ve already talked about collaborating with the folks over on the publishing end of your book. So let’s talk a bit about these mysterious folks:

The Acquisitions Editor
Jane Friedman was my acquisitions editor for Writer Mama. She was the editor who offered me the contract and who was my first ally inside the publishing company. The AE is the person who went to bat for your proposal and helped get your book concept through the approval process so you can receive an offer and sign a book contract. Keep in touch with your acquisitions editor, even after she’s handed you off to your book editor (if this happens).

The Book Editor
Chances are good that your acquisitions editor will hand you off to another editor, your book editor. A book editor may or may not be the project manager of your book as well. But don’t be surprised if your Acquisitions Editor is still involved in major decisions like cover art, formatting, and how to structure the book (at least this was my experience).

The Cover Designer
Cover designers may work in-house for publishers or as freelancers. The cover designer for Writer Mama was a member of the in-house team for F+W. I was fortunate that my agent negotiated to include me in the cover review process. Working closely with your acquisitions editor and book editor can only help when it comes time for cover art reviews. And of course, it goes without saying that you won’t always love your cover design. Always get your agent involved when offering input on cover design. That’s one of their helpful roles.

The Copy Editor
You will interact with your copy editor after you have completed your final manuscript. The copy editor assigned to you will likely be a freelancer. You will receive a series of suggestions from your copy editor that further refine your manuscript and help prepare it for publication. However, it’s good to prepare yourself for the inevitable typos that your entire editorial team will likely miss. Typos happen. That’s just life. And don’t worry, your writer friends will likely let you know all about the typos that they find when they get their copies. (Or you can ask them to so you can alert your publisher for the next printing.)

The Publicity Director
Whoever manages book promotion and book events for your publisher is definitely a person you want to get to know. That is, if you want to be invited to literary conferences and get support publicizing your book. I am fortunate that the publicity and events manager at Writer’s Digest Book was such a charming and organized guy. If you make an effort to get to know your publicity director, everything promotion-related with your book is bound to go better.

The Sales Team
I dropped the ball on this one. It never occurred to me that the sales team would care to meet me, so I didn’t initiate anything. When I finally met the two sales team leaders at a conference, I kicked myself for not getting to know them sooner. My bad. Go ahead and ask one of your editors, if and when it would make sense to introduce yourself to the sales folks.

We’ll talk more about the other important “village people” at the next stop on the blog tour.

Today's Book Drawing: To enter to win a signed, numbered copy of Writer Mama, answer the following question in this blog's comments:

How shy are you about contacting people you don't already know? One thing I discovered when I became an author is that I am pretty comfortable chatting with folks I already know, but I hesitate when I haven't met the person before. Will you be willing to stick out your hand to all of the folks you'll need to meet at your future publishing house?

Thanks for participating! Only US residents, or folks with a US mailing address can participate in the drawing. Please only enter once per day. Where will the drawing be tomorrow? Visit the
Writer Mama blog to continue reading the rest of the Writer Mama story throughout March 2009!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

No Cereals, Restaurants, or Morticians: It's a WRITING Blog !

This is a writing blog. You'd think that this would be clear from my blog's name, the standing blog description on the left margin, and the nature of each and every post. Sigh.

I worked full time in public relations for about a dozen years. I know the drill. And I'm sure that the PR folks I've heard from just so far this week are only trying to do their jobs. They are doing them poorly, however.

Or else why would a PR rep for a cereal company contact me about doing a blog post on their two new flavors? Or an event producer try to plug a conference about restaurant development? And what was the point of that mass-emailed news release for a future reality TV show about funeral directors?

Maybe these folks figure that since it doesn't cost anything to put more blog writers on their email distribution list, why not. What annoys me most is that when I worked directly in PR – and now, when I coach authors through their own book marketing & PR efforts – I was/am adamant about the importance of targeting requests to media which actually cover your client's/product's area of interest.

PR folks, this is a writing blog.

While this is amusing in an annoying kind of way, it brings up something I've wanted to address here – the subject of sponsored blog posts. As in, bloggers who write posts about a product, event or person in exchange for something – money, a gift card, merchandise, services. Some bloggers mention the exchange up front by way of disclosure. Others don't. I'm not condemning the practice; I'm sure some publicists and bloggers are completely transparent about it and that in many cases no promises of positive press are proffered. Still.

I have not yet, and don't plan to, do any sponsored blog posts here.

I do accept review copies of books from publishers and authors, but always with the understanding that it may or may not result in any blog coverage, and that any mention it does get may or may not be positive. I receive far more books than I could hope to read anyway, and those I do occasionally write about represent a small fraction. By and large, I usually only write about a book or author on the blog because I'm genuinely interested. I just feel better that way, and I want my readers to know that I'm passing something along because I find it has value, not because I got something valuable.

One of my writing-related business ventures is working one-on-one with authors (especially first-time authors) to help them develop a book marketing and publicity plan which they can implement themselves, with on-going coaching support from me. To date, I have not covered these clients or their books on the blog, and don't have any plans to do so. In future, if I do, it will be with a clear note about that relationship.

Now that I've cleared this up, please excuse me. It's lunch time, and I'm thinking of having cereal. And you won't have to hear about which one I like best. At least not here. Ever.

This is a writing blog! And I kind of figure you'd want me to keep it that way.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Writer Q & A: Sari Botton on Ghostwriting

During my MFA program, I turned down a bunch of writing and editing work. I know. But this was before the great financial collapse, before the student loans payment began, before every laid-off wordsmith of any kind jumped into the already-crowded freelancing pool. In most cases, I'm only sorry about the lost income, but one lost learning opportunity I regret is not signing on to ghostwrite a nonfiction book when it was offered. At the time, my decision made so much sense: the wrong time to target attention toward someone else's vision when I needed to focus on my own voice. Still. Ghostwriting has always fascinated me. When I was a full-time public relations specialist, I occasionally ghostwrote magazine pieces for clients, and always liked the satisfaction when one of them said I had conveyed their message just as they'd hoped. Once, I wrote a personal essay for a professional football player whose mother told him, "see, I always knew you could write!" But an entire book is another matter completely.

Recently, while debating how to properly carve up my freelance efforts, I met the gifted
Sari Botton, whose ghostwriting career is in full swing. We met because of a joint reading from a recently published collection, in which we both have essays, but when I learned of her ghost status, I decided to pepper her with questions. She kindly answered.

LR: You've mentioned that you got started in ghostwriting by accident. Do you mind describing how, and did you like it right away, or did it grow on you?

SB: I was working as a journalist for
W magazine. It was a pretty good job, but I had wanted to go freelance for a while. One evening while covering an Author's Guild event, I was seated next to an agent who happened to have been looking for a ghostwriter for one of her clients. I got the assignment, and that book allowed me to leave my day job. Well, it held me over briefly. Ghostwriting was a mixed bag from the start. Collaborations always have the potential for conflict. But I had fun channeling people’s voices into their own stories.

LR: You worked with fashion designer Dana Buchman on
her memoir about her daughter's learning disabilities. Did you work with both Dana and her daughter on that? Did it require a great deal of research?

SB: Dana and I worked very closely on that book. I worked with her daughter, as well. Sometimes, Dana and I would be up, on the phone, at five or six in the morning because that was when she had time to talk. We worked together on research, interviewing educators and other specialists in the LD field.

LR: While some ghostwriters prefer to have a "with," "and," or "as told to" alongside the author's name, but your byline does not appear there. Why do you choose to remain anonymous?

SB: As much as I enjoy ghostwriting – I really like helping people tell their moving stories – I don’t want to be a career ghostwriter, to the exclusion of publishing my own work. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I don’t think a lot of the writers who are credited on a “with” byline go on to establish themselves as authors in their own right. Also, as a reader, I feel confused when a book comes from more than one person. How can I identify with the writer, how can I hear one voice when I read? In my opinion, a book that comes officially from one author is more likely to resonate with more readers, and therefore sell more books.

LR: Do you normally rewrite notes and text provided by the author, or do you craft the manuscript from the ground up?

SB: It’s a mix of both. I try not to work with authors who aren’t generally fairly good writers themselves. They may not know how to write a book, but they can write a sentence, a paragraph, can tell a story. They have a certain individual verbal flair, a way with words that will help me identify their unique voice and keep it authentic through the book. At first, authors tend to be self-conscious about showing me their writing. They think I’m going to take a big red pen to it and give them an F. So, I’ll usually be the one to get the ball rolling. Before an author really gets comfortable with me, I’ll do interviews and start to put together some material for us both to play with. I create an outline, and will often also outline chapters. As we go along, the author will often get more comfortable writing and start to send pieces that I will manipulate.

LR: How do you best like to gather material – long in-person interviews? By telephone? Email?

SB: I do a combination of in-person interviews and phone interviews, depending on geography. Fortunately, I now have a great little digital recorder, and this $24 device from Radio Shack that allows me to record conversations on the phone.

LR: When in the process are ghostwriting services usually sought?

SB: Often, I am sought out before a book gets started. An author may have a few pages written, or an outline, but not much more. These are the best situations. When they try to bring me in at the point where a whole rejected manuscript exists, or when another ghostwriter has been fired, it is actually a harder job than starting from scratch.

LR: What do you like most about being a ghost?

SB: I feel as if I do some good in the world when I help people who have really inspiring stories to tell them, in their voices. I try to choose only those memoirs that have what I consider to be important messages, books that will ultimately be valuable contributions to the world.

LR: Least favorite part of the job?

SB: When an author and his/her editor don’t see eye-to-eye, and I am stuck in the middle, not knowing whom to please.

LR: How much of your career is made up of ghostwriting, and what are the other parts of your business?

also work as a freelance journalist and essayist. I sometimes do copywriting for advertising and the web. Currently, though, ghostwriting is my bread-and-butter. It accounts for about 60-75 percent of my income.

LR: You have a major new ghostwriting project on the burner, a memoir, which I understand you are very excited about – contractually, can you tell us anything about it?

SB: Actually, I can’t. Other than to say it is a really moving story that will touch and inspire people!

LR: How has ghostwriting contributed to your own writing efforts, in terms of craft, productivity, and business aspects?

SB: I have learned a lot about storytelling from ghostwriting. I think that has enhanced my essay writing skills. Also, having recently had to write an entire book in seven weeks, I have been shown that I am able to achieve a lot rather quickly – more quickly than I would have ever imagined! It really honed my chops.

LR: Have there been any fun perks? (Travel? Clothes from Dana Buchman?)

SB: I got to go to Costa Rica for a recent assignment. Although I was writing the whole time, there are worse places to have to go for work! When I
wrote a book for Aveda founder Horst Rechelbacher, I got to spend three weeks at a time at the (former) Aveda spa in Wisconsin, and received a spa treatment every day I was there!

LR: What advice might you give to someone who is interested in finding work as a ghostwriter? Is it essential to already have an agent?

SB: Getting started as a ghostwriter, you might need to take a low-ish fee the first time to establish yourself. I wrote one book, early on, for just $5000. But it helped to establish me. You definitely want an agent involved. It will be worth the 15 percent every time. I am a very bad business person on my own. Without an agent, I’d probably wind up paying the authors to allow me to work on their books!

LR: What kind of a writer makes a good ghostwriter? Do you think it hinges as much on skills and experience, as on temperament and other personal traits?

SB: You need both. I think my years as a journalist – particularly my time profiling people, including celebrities, helped. Good interviewing skills are important. It helps to also love memoir and first-person writing. I devour that category, so I’m not just a writer of it, but a reader of it. I am naturally keyed into that
Seymour Glass idea of “ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice.” Personality-wise, clients often tell me that I am like a therapist. Somehow, I have always been good at putting people at ease. One of my “tricks” is to share anecdotes of my own, so that it’s not one person self-consciously on the hot seat; rather, we’re having a conversation.

LR: What are some pitfalls you may have encountered when you were new to ghostwriting, and how might one avoid them?

SB: Make sure your client is ready to write his or her book. One high-profile client of mine thought she was ready, but then canceled 70 appointments to work with me. Also, as I mentioned before, make sure your author and his or her editor have the same vision for the book. In one case, the author wanted one thing, the editor wanted another, and they were each prodding me behind the scenes to make it more their way.

LR: I'm sure every writer wants to know how lucrative ghostwriting might be. Can you give some typical ranges in the business?

SB: According to Writer’s Market, the average price is $35K. Over the course of my career, I have been paid both less and way more. Once you are established, you should be able to get between 40 and 50 percent of the author’s advance. With celebrity books bringing in several hundred thousand dollars or more…well, you do the math. Early on, though, you might have to take lower-profile assignments, and in some cases, take a flat fee.

LR: Without naming the books, have there been a few projects you've passed on, which you now wish you had done?

SB: Actually, I have the reverse kind of situation to report. I had put my hat in the ring to work on “Angel over the Fence,” Herman Rosenblat’s book about how his wife threw apples to him over a concentration camp fence when he was starving there, and then they were reunited on a blind date many years later. I was rejected because I hadn’t written fiction. “We want it to read like fiction,” I was told. Well –
it turned out to have been fiction! He’d fabricated most of the story, and the book got pulled before publication.

LR: What (or who) would be your dream ghostwriting project?

SB: Someone who is making a difference in the world, who is a positive role model, with a story people can identify with.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Busy Writing Week Ahead: Friday Moves to Tuesday

I know it's not Friday, my usual day to pass on items of interest to writers which I've found around the web. But it's my blog and I break the rules sometimes. I do have two great guest posts and an author interview for the blog awaiting edits, but this week I'll be occupied with the final draft of an essay – one of those revisions where I need to burrow myself inside the material and try to stay there – so if I don't get the chance to blog again this week, maybe these will keep you busy.

• Author
Dani Shapiro has a terrific blog about her writing process, and I especially like what she said about approaching writing with a certain "looseness":

"The worst thing a writer can do when she sits down to write (other than to not sit down to write) is to think to herself: now I am writing. Because from there, at least for me, it spirals into a chorus of useless thoughts: I wonder if so-and-so will like it; I hope my publisher thinks it's good; gee, will this excerpt well in The New Yorker? Maybe I should show so-and-so and get feedback. And on, and on and on. Those thoughts are such a waste of time and creative energy. What's more, they're the enemy of looseness. By looseness I do not mean laziness. By looseness I mean a creative undertaking that is flexible, without self-censorship, focused but light. I think of great athletes and the way they warm themselves up, shake out their limbs. They maintain concentration but avoid seizing up."

• So are you fiction writers out there producing – and submitting – more fiction than usual since the bottom fell out of the stock market (and seemingly everyone's financial life)? Fiction editors at The New Yorker seem to think so. Or maybe it's that the recession has turned every laid-off (creative) person into a hopeful short story writer?

• Have you found a favorite writer or celeb on Twitter? But how to know if the tweets are twue? Some fans of Maya Angelou
were duped. On the other hand, Jane Fonda announced her own bona-fide Twitter feed and blog in a NY Times interview.

• Over at
Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., publishers of a dozen-plus major magazines, henceforth all Editors-in-Chief will be known as Vice Presidents of Brand Content. Huh. I graduated with a degree in magazine from one of the country's top journalism schools (Syracuse) and I really can't think of any classmate who said, someday I really want to be a VP of branding.

• Searching for a writing residency, retreat, colony, fellowship?
Start here.

• Courtesy of
The Writers Studio, you can download a free class on J.D. Salinger, taught by Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Schultz, on what it means to read as a writer.

And here's a request. I'm updating my Submission Smarts seminar for a mid-month
presentation. I'd love to hear your most unusual tips – and also the unexpected things you never would have learned if you hadn't been submitting. You can leave it in the comments, or email me privately (LisaRomeoWrites (at) gmail (dot) com). After the class, I'll write a post or two about the topic.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Snow Days and Books and Mr. Geisel

As Google reminded us today, Happy Birthday Theodor Geisel.

It's a snow day, and after playing their allotted hours of Wii, I found my kids curled up on separate couches, reading. Though they are far from beginning readers now, it made me think back to Dr. Seuss and how excited I'd get when I was a very young reader, and a crisp new book arrived in the mail each month, many times one of his.

Today the 10-year-old is reading the final book in a series about a young British spy with fantastical gadgets, and the teenager is pushing through a two-pound Star Wars-inspired novel.

Kind of makes me want to dig out the entire Seuss catalog from my attic, but it's far too cold up there. So I crack open a new novel and silently thank one extremely intelligent and wonderfully wacky early teacher.
"You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room." - T. Geisel

Enough said.