Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Poets & Writers just earned its subscription price

When I regretfully declined my FREE opportunity at an MFA program last year, I took out two subscriptions to writing magazines. I couldn't afford to leave my full time job, but I could at least afford $40 in subscriptions to Writer's Digest and Poets & Writers. P&W came second on the list because it wasn't practical like Writer's Digest and it often contained horrible poetry, long feature articles about people writing horrible poetry, and generally very little of interest. I kept up the subscription for the agent interviews, but still wondered if it was worth the $26 per year. I mean, I could have a nice dinner out with that.

I take it all back because the July/Aug 2012 issue is AWESOME!

The awesomeness starts with "Why We Write", a column that is penned by a different person each time, on why they do what they do. This issue's columnist is Jennifer Baker, an MFA graduate who got sidetracked from writing for a while by real life. Yep, it's hard to earn a living, have kids and maintain enough brain space and energy to create. Refreshingly, she does not include a sob story (no cancer, no child with cancer, no unresolved memories of parents. Not that those things aren't hugely impacting, but it seems statistically impossible that all writers of this column should be afflicted with these calamities). She begins with an anecdote of her MFA instructor informing the class that most of them will not continue to write when the program concludes. To her dismay, she discovered that yes, many of the most talented students ended up calling it quits, though it was never so declarative a statement...simply other things got in the way over time. We have to be accountable to ourselves, she says:
We are the only ones keeping tabs on our writing, and when we fail--because we're too tired or stressed or just need to take a break and not think--no one else is going to force us to reconsider. 
True! One of the reasons I desperately want to join an MFA program is for the accountability and tab-keeping of the teachers and other students. Not being in a structured program means I have to create my own motivation, make sure some writing gets done when I know there is a huge pile of laundry or I'd rather catch up on the sleep that Munchkin steals. This determination on Ms. Baker's part led to some journal publications. My favorite sentence is the close of her column because I, too, cannot turn off the characters in my head. They are always talking and reacting, which is why I'm forced to write on the weekends rather than garden:
I continue to write when my brain is ready to sleep yet the characters I've created engage in conversation, in situations I have designed for them. Through all the obstacles the "real world" has thrown in my way, I continue. And whether I get my way, I continue. And whether I get rejections or acceptances, I know I am part of the small percentage of writers who are beating the odds.
I guess that means I'm beating the odds too.

ME, YOU, AND CHARLES YU by Kevin Nance
The second article on P&W's roll to greatness is an interview with fiction writer Charles Yu, a mild-mannered everyman who writes down the conversations we have in our heads (but makes them more interactive and interesting, natch), and who reveals painful levels of self-awareness and then more layers on those layers:
"I'm one of the most self-conscious people you've ever met.....I can't do anything without examining how I'm doing it. When I walk down the street, I'm seeing what's in front of me, but then also I've got a camera looking down on the top of my head. And sometimes there's a surveillance camera looking at me from across the street."
 Intrigued yet? Well,  you will be after you discover that he wrote a story about people getting paid to take on other people's pain. I can't wait to read some of his stuff.

Next stop on our tour of P&W is the absolute best feature on agents I've read. It's chock full of useful and sometimes enraging little details. The author follows the agents of Folio Literary Management in NYC.

First enraging detail: the agents are all younger than me. This leads me to conclude that they all come from upper middle-class or wealthy families because who else would be able to afford putting in the time at an agency as a twenty-to-early-thirty-something in NYC? The plebes don't have a chance of breaking into this business. Interesting detail two: the women dress like glamourous 1950's housewives. I had noticed that the female real estate agents in Selling New York dressed like this and thought it odd, but supposed it was a personality quirk. Alas, no. This is really what women wear in New York.

The author throws out some astonishing numbers. The agency receives about 100,000 queries a year, but there are only nine agents. One of the agents only took on four clients in the past year. The reason for this is because an agent will spend 100 hours on a new work...if it doesn't sell, he doesn't get paid. That's the brutal truth. Thus, the majority of new clients are actually referrals by old clients.

Take this in, readers. If you don't already know a published writer, you are not likely to find yourself an agent. This does much to explain why so much of what's published seems like versions of each other. It's all about risk reduction. The agents want a writer who has already been vetted. Makes sense, but it means finding a writing community is imperative. I'll need to say goodbye to my hermitage.

Later the author watched as another agent went through a batch of email queries. This is worth quoting at length:
The queries she opens on her computer are already more than a month old, and Brower [agent] spends less than a minute reading each one. Few queries make it past the opening lines of the plot synopsis, and a number never make it past the title if it strikes Brower as cliche or denotes a genre that doesn't interest her. In other cases, she rejects queries if the author claims the work is similar to that of another author whom Brower doesn't care for, or if the letter seems off-putting or creepy in some way.
In roughly fourteen minutes, Brower clicks through nineteen queries, sends form rejections to eighteen of them, and sets one aside for further consideration. When asked for examples of successful queries, she mentions a few in which the writer points out either a connection to someone Brower knows in the publishing world or deep research into the sorts of books Brower tends to represent. They also display a strong understanding of the genre in which the writer is working.
Wow, 18 quick rejections out of 19 in mere minutes, and a plethora of reasons why your application will likely be among them: no personal connections, a title she doesn't like, something that isn't perfectly genre, etc. It makes the head spin. This is an uncomfortable reality check...the idea that no matter how brilliant our work is, an imperfect detail will derail it.

There are some more interesting articles that add up to making this issue worth the cover price. Speaking of which, my subscription is up for renewal. Consider it done!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Another addition to the Over-the-Hill file

Time and technology are galloping forward and leaving me in their dust.

Today a twenty-something young lady asked if she could borrow a pen for the day because she had left her laptop at home and was unaccustomed to carrying a pen.

Listen up, whippersnappers! In my day, a pen or pencil was an essential item to have in your purse. It was a useful object for writing notes or reminders, jotting a shopping list, getting down the brilliant twist you just thought of for your novel before you forgot it, or hastily scrawling across your arm the phone number of the hot guy you just met.

In this modern, techno-advanced world, a pen is now as defunct as a cassette tape (those cannot be destroyed, by the way. Love 'em.) None of the afore-mentioned uses of the pen are now actionable. Notes and lists are inputted into the mobile device in your pocket, and nothing so formal as an exchange of phone numbers occurs--all you need to know is the person's name to "friend" him on Facebook.

And yet....technology sometimes fails whereas the pen goes into space with the astronauts. A scroll or a book may last millennia if cared for; a digital file degrades and becomes inaccessable when the software or hardware becomes obselete. When Munchkin destroyed my laptop, I continued to write by using parchment and quill paper and pen. There is even a blog devoted to the intricacies and beauty of pens and ink. Go check it out. Go, and be reminded of a simpler time when all you needed was a pen and a scrap of paper to do work rather than a $600 piece of machinery.

Books for every decor style

Fairly Distressed Vintage Leather

If you're an aspiring writer or book lover like myself, books have a central place in your life. Sometimes we love books a little too much and end up collecting, magpie like, every book we can get our hands on. I have an affinity for library book sales where hardbound books can go for a dollar and trade paperbacks for 50 cents. Since I do not have a large income, buying cheap used books becomes my chief indulgence and I end up slogging home with books spilling out of my backpack and arms. The problem then becomes where to store these volumes? Every time I moved to a new apartment, I had to be strictly honest with myself and weed out the books I had bought on a whim, but was likely never to read. Hauling heavy boxes of books between apartments is horrible work, but it was just as horrible to have to re-donate boxes of books to the library. The centrality of books even became the clincher in our choice of house. We bought the house with the built-in bookshelves--a library all my own! I love perusing my shelves and coming upon an item I had forgotten about. Everything is jumbled and mismatched and that's how I like it.

Nature Parchment Accent

But if the "eclectic" look doesn't work for you, or you just want to look smarter without having to bother with selecting books or reading them, NEVER FEAR! There is a business which can fill your shelves with any kind of book arrangement. Booksbythefoot.com can ensure that you look suitably educated or that the spines do not clash with your sofa slipcovers. This idea is truly genius and I wish I'd thought of it. I'm a fan of the Fairly Distressed Vintage Leather as it feeds my fantasies of becoming an Oxford professor .

But there are styles and looks for every taste. Acres of books wrapped in monochromatic white, or animal prints for the wild at heart. Books bundled with twine or books stripped of their covers. You can select from a whole rainbow of colors to match any mood or decorating scheme. I'm particularly fond of this shabby chic arrangement called Nature Parchment Accent.

Whatever your book desires are--whether to read or just to gaze upon--booksbythefoot is your solution!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Turf Protection?

This is one of the most demoralizing articles I have ever read. Why would a beautiful and successful woman want to crush other people's dreams?  I've already failed at Ms. Breslin's Number One piece of writing advice, which is to be pretty, but don't many people get lost in books and words precisely because they aren't one of the pretty people? Apparently, no unattractive person has ever sold a novel. Winston Churchill, don't you even think of writing a history of the English speaking peoples! Jane Austen, you'd better get a nose job first.

Here is some of Ms. Breslin's most recent constructive criticism:
 Can you make the words sing? Does your prose have that certain something? Are you gifted at showing not telling, or telling not showing, or creating an entire world that didn’t exist before that is born again when someone else reads your work?
Probably not. Most people cannot write well. This is a fact. This is something that is true. This is a hard thing to accept. Most people cannot write well, and that includes you, and what we can conclude from this is that the person we are talking about here who cannot write well is, in all likelihood, you.

No, my writing doesn't always sing; that's what the second draft is for. And some stories are better than others. Is it any use to point out that there have been countless bestselling novels filled with clunky, songless writing? I tried to give a certain author the benefit of the doubt and read several of his/her novels, but was disappointed by each one and left scratching my head at how these pointless, badly written books could have been turned into so many successful films. More power to him (or her). Susannah Breslin probably would have told the author early in his/her career that he didn't have what it takes. She finishes with a flourish:
This is your roulette wheel, and when it lands on every number but the one you picked, and you realize that after years of work, you haven’t made more than a pittance at what you thought would be your new career, you will call it a day.
Because you didn’t have “it.” And you didn’t work hard enough to become it. And you will see you should have picked something else: something easier, something less complicated, something other than a writer.
 Emily Dickinson, you loser! You wrote for years and never earned a penny. I have given up every Saturday and countless opportunities of doing something more fun. I have called out sick from work so that I could stay home and write while the kid was at daycare. Writing is the only thing that makes me feel like there is a possibility of breaking out of the hourly grind. But because I'm not successful NOW and may never be, I shouldn't even bother. No child should ever pick up a musical instrument because there is no guarantee that his hours of practice will monetize. No artist should ever attempt, mess up, or try again because somebody is standing over his shoulder telling him he doesn't have "it". Frankly, I think Picasso sucks, but many other people think he's a genius. He had "it" for lots of people, even if not for me. Which is worse: spinning the roulette wheel and losing, or never bothering at all? Here is my favorite comment, which echoes my same thought in the title:
The best way to ensure one’s success as a writer is to dissuade as many others as possible from becoming a writer.

On Brevity

Sometimes one clever line says more than an entire book.

Monday, June 11, 2012


Yesterday I posted about two former attempts at novels that I'm not ready to throw away yet. One thing which struck me as I was reading these old scrawls, was that I could tell what literature I had been reading during their writing. For the first, I could tell that I had been reading the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich due to the style of humor. In the second, I knew I had been reading a lot of Harry Potter due to the detailed descriptions. I know what I've read, but would a stranger reading my work be reminded of these other authors or see similarities? How much of what we read contains barely concealed influences on the author we're reading? At what point is a line crossed between stylistic similarities and outright theft, like what happened to this young lady?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The perspective of time

I first put pen to paper in 2006, which means it has been six years since I started writing and I have nothing finished or published! If that realization isn't a motivator, I don't know what is. Of my practice novel, I've written nearly 180 pages and I'm sick to death of it overjoyed about this.

But this isn't the first novel I've attempted to write. I attempted two novels prior to this and I quit about a quarter of the way through because I either got tired of concentrating on one story for too long, or I didn't know where to take the plot. Today, I opened the ancient files and revisited those first two attempts. I came away very surprised...at how good they were! At the time of writing them I felt overwhelmed and lost in them. But reading them with fresh eyes, after a period of several years, I can see not only what they were missing, but where they need to go. If I ever finish this unimportant "practice" novel, I have the makings of two decent stories to work with and expand. In fact, I'm a little concerned that my writing years ago was better than my writing now. Is it possible to get worse over time?