books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Writer’s Block and Depression: Why You Shouldn’t Bully Your Muse

Some professional writers claim writer’s block doesn’t exist. They’ll tell you they never have any trouble banging out their daily pages—and laugh at people who do.

William Faulkner said, “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o'clock every morning.”

Terry Pratchett—not earning himself any fans in my home state—said, “there's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.”

And Steve Martin was even harsher. He said, “writer's block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.”

But, um, dudes—if there’s no such thing as writers block, what is that thing that happens when you sit down to write and your body gets the fidgets, your brain grows fuzz, or you suddenly develop a bad case of narcolepsy?

It’s an experience a lot of us have been through.

We have days when the never-used wedding silver screams to be polished, books and DVDs must be alphabetized immediately, and we’re seized by an uncontrollable desire to make hand-dipped truffles instead of mix brownies for the meeting on Friday.

Or we bravely apply derrière to chair, fingers to keyboard, and force ourselves to work through the prescribed hours—only to produce pages of literary manure.

Clarissa Draper had a great blogpost on the subject recently. She said it’s not “writer’s block,” but “writer’s boredom.” If you’re bored with your own work, she points out, your audience will be too. Excellent point. She suggests some great fixes, so do check out her post.

But boredom can also be a sign of something else: depression. Because of the prevalence of depression in writers, I think it’s important to pay attention to episodes of writer’s block/boredom that can’t be fixed by cutting a few scenes, upping the plot stakes, or changing point of view as Clarissa suggests.

In a famous study of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Nancy Andreasen, 80% of writers surveyed met the formal diagnostic criteria for depression. And recent research shows the part of the brain used for complex thought is also active in the brains of the clinically depressed. Researchers found evidence that if you spend too much time engaged in intense thinking, your brain can get stuck in thinking/depression mode.

So it's quite possible that  “writer’s block” is the brain’s way of protecting itself from a depressive episode.

Unfortunately, we live in a society that increasingly expects us to push ourselves to the point of exhaustion. More and more is expected of fewer and fewer workers. Many of us are forced to take several jobs, work ridiculously long hours, and tough out illnesses without a break (ignoring the fact we’re infecting everybody around us.)

A quick Google will turn up a “boot camp” for everything from food bloggers to hip-hop street dancers. Everybody’s expected to blog, tweet, and facebook as well as work on our creative projects. We live in a 24/7 age of more-is-better, feel-the-burn, and sleep-when-you’re-dead. We’re all bullying ourselves with starvation diets, daily gym workouts, and endless pressure to be Martha Stewart/Mary Poppins at home, Bill Gates at work, and Stephen King when we hit the keyboard.

But can you bully your muse? 

In my experience, no. 

You can't bully the creative process. Your muse will simply disappear. And—whether you call that disappearance writer’s block, boredom, or being an untalented, drunken Californian—if those researchers are right, it’s not such a bad thing.

So instead of worrying about being “blocked,” why not embrace the experience? Send your muse on vacation. Decide not to write for a week. Writing uninspired dreck is not going to help you meet that deadline, so unless you’ve got an editor who needs that piece last week, why not forget about writing for a few days?

I remember a great expression from Plato—“eu a-mousoi” literally “happily without muses.” Socrates used it as derogatory term to mean an unphilosophical lout who lives only in the here and now.

But I think a visit to the here and now can be pretty healthy for those of us who spend most of our time in imaginary worlds.  

Allowing yourself to be muse-free for a few days might be what your brain needs to fight off that looming depression. Let your creativity re-charge its batteries. Creativity guru Julia Cameron called it "filling the well."

Here are some things to do when your muse needs to take a break:

  • Take your characters out for some retail therapy. I love to shop for my characters. Sometimes I look for stuff in real stores. Or I use magazines, catalogues, or surf around online. And it doesn’t cost a thing. Choosing my characters’ cars is one of my most important rituals when I’m working on a new novel. I usually find a photo and keep it in a folder.
  • Read, read, read. Stephen King says writers should spend as much time reading as writing. If the book is great, maybe you’ll get inspired, and if it’s bad, you’ll love that “I can do better” feeling.
  • Go ahead—polish the silverware and dip those truffles. Repetitive, mindless tasks can be good for the soul. At least all those monks seem to think so.
  • Garden. Play in the dirt. Literally get yourself grounded.
  • Get a massage. Aromatherapize your mind and get in touch with your body.
  • Try another medium. I had a “blocked writer” friend who got so frustrated, she went out and took a painting class. She turned out to be a much better painter than writer—and started selling her work after only a year. Try to do that after taking one writing class!
  • Change the scenery. Go for a walk, sit in a café—or hop on a bus. Busses are packed with fiction-fuel.
  • Music. Go listen to some. Preferably live. Not as background for chatter, but really listen. Or make some yourself.
  • Move. Walk, run, dance, bike. Do the hokey-pokey.
  • Or the hanky-panky—sex is good too.
  • Lie on a beach—or climb a mountain, sail, ski, or whatever. Literally take a vacation. If your muse can do it, you can too.

What about you, scriveners? Do you think writer’s block is a myth? Or does your muse sometimes take a holiday? How do you deal with it?

Coming soon: Elizabeth S. Craig,  social media guru and author of the Riley Adams mysteries is going to guest here on June 12th. Her blog “Mystery Writing is Murder” has been voted one of Writer’s Digest’s top 101 sites for two years. She’ll give a lot of really great tips on how to have a successful blog. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Where have all my followers gone?

Blogger seems to have spirited away my whole followers window this morning. Anybody out there having the same problem? Got any suggestions for a fix? This is so weird. You can still follow me if you go to the menu across the top of the blog. (In a very small font in the left top area.) Or you can subscribe if you scroll a-a-all the way down past where the follower window is supposed to be. Thanks Ann Marquette for pointing this out!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What it Really Means When Your Book Gets Rejected

Today’s guest post is from one of my favorite authors, Ruth Harris. She’s a bestselling author--and a former Big Six editor and  publishing executive who has gone over to the indie side. She knows what she’s talking about. Her sales numbers are in the millions. Her fiction has been translated into 19 languages, published in 25 countries and selected by the Literary Guild and Book-of-the Month Club.  




A Former Big Six Editor Talks about Rejection

by Ruth Harris 


I‘m a TradPubbed NYT bestselling author gone indie. I was also an editor for over 20 years and, for a while, the Publisher of Kensington. So let me put rejection into a little perspective:

Manuscripts get rejected; not writers. Trust me. (Most of the time) it’s not personal.

The reasons for rejection start with the basics, i.e. the ms. sucks. Author can't format/spell/doesn’t know grammar, is clueless about characterization and plotting, writes incomprehensible sentences that thunk and clunk like a bulldozer moving ice-age boulders.

Maybe, though, it's just not that bad and with competent editing, it's publishable. But the days of Maxwell Perkins are long gone. Staff editors, these days, don't have the time and sometimes don't even have the necessary experience.

If you need an editor, hire one.

Occasionally, other hazards present themselves. Way back when I was a child working at Bantam, a would-be author showed up at the office, ms. in hand. As the least important, most expendable (what if this guy turns out to be a nut & has a gun?) warm body on the staff, I was sent out to Reception to find out what he was offering. Shook hands, introduced myself, he yackety-yacked, blabbity-blabbed about his masterpiece. 

Then he opened the ms box and a cockroach jumped out.

True story. Ms. rejected. Politely, I’m proud to say.

OTOH, the ms. is really good. Timely subject, credible characters, good plot, well-executed pacing. Lots of us really like it BUT. Here’s only a partial list of the buts. 

  • We have too many of that genre already and we need to publish down the inventory so right now we’re not buying any of that particular genre. Sorry. Right now it doesn’t fit our needs.
  • The boss (or my secretary or DH or pet goldfish) is giving me or the editor-in-question a hard time today & I'm/he/she is in such a lousy mood we'd turn down War & Peace. So fuddgetaboutit. You’re Tolstoy?  Tough. You’re toast.
  • The sales dept. just informed us that books about aboriginal bisexual zombies in Manitoba aren't selling the way they used to so we’re not going to make an offer for your (well-written, scary, hilarious, fabulous) novel about aboriginal bisexual zombies in Manitoba. Sorry. Right now it doesn’t fit our needs.
  • The boss (or his/her wife/husband) hates (insert genre) so be glad your ms. got turned down because even if we bought it, it would be published badly. Very badly. You’ll get a crappy cover, miniscule print run, zero advertising, promotion or publicity, positioning spine-out on a top shelf in the poorly-lit rear of the unventilated, un-airconditioned third floor next to the men's room. You won’t be able to find your own book. Not even with a state-of-the-art GPS. Your book is guaranteed to be a floperoo. You’ll be miserable and you’ll blame us and you’d be right. So be happy.
  • The company’s in a cash crunch. Of course we’re never going to admit that but we’re not buying anything. Nada. Not right now and not for the foreseeable future. Not until said crunch passes and the money’s flowing again. Bottom line:  you don’t know it and you never will but your timing sucks. Not your fault.
  • A major “reorganization” has taken place. Maybe business is lousy and it’s a bottom-line issue. Maybe the decision has come down from somewhere Up There in Corporate. Anyway, half the staff (at least) has been fired. A new regime is hired & they hate all the genres & authors the previous regime loved. The new regime wants to prove that their predecessors were stupid, incompetent and a toxic blight to literacy and that they are going to turn the company around by doing exactly the opposite. Not your fault, has absolutely nothing to do with you or your ms. but your ms. is going to get turned down.
Plenty of times editors and publishers are just plain wrong...zillions of examples of that all over the place from J.K. Rowling to Steven King. We turned down your ms? Maybe we made a mistake. Possibly. Maybe more than just possibly. We’ve made plenty misjudgments in the past and we’ll make plenty more in the future and we know it. Turning down the ms that becomes a hot bestseller is an occupational hazard. We don’t like it any more than you do but it’s a fact.

Once in a while, it is actually personal. We’ve published you before or a friend at another publisher has. So we know from experience (or the grapevine) that you’re a whiny, nasty, demanding, narcissistic, high-maintenance PITA. No one wants to take your phone calls and everyone who’s had the misfortune of working with you hates you. We’ve had it with you and your diva-like tantrums and we’re never, ever, ever going to publish another book of yours again. Except, of course, if you’re making us a shitload of money. Even then, we still hate you and we’ll tell everyone (off the record, of course) that your books “aren’t as good/aren’t selling as well as they used to.” Payback is a bitch.

Just like a lot of things, rejection isn’t always what it seems to be. Writers need to put that stack of rejection letters into perspective. Sibel Hodge turned 200 rejections into a place on Amazon’s bestseller list. Joe Konrath got rejected even though his books were selling and making money for the company. I once got a form rejection letter for a book (Husbands and Lovers) while it was on the NYT bestseller list. No kidding. Who knows why? I don’t and never will. My agent and I laughed our asses off and I went back to my computer and continued working on my next book.

You should do the same.                                    

Five of Ruth's bestsellers are now available as ebooks on Amazon.
Decades
Modern Woman                                        
*********

What say you, scriveners? Eye opening, isn’t it? Does this make you want to run out and Kindlize your book immediately? Does it help to know how much the rejection isn’t about you or your book?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Is the E-book the New Query?

If you’re like me, you’re getting a little bored with the indie vs. legacy publishing debate. People are talking a lot of crap on both “sides” of what shouldn’t be an either/or argument in the first place. (See sci-fi author Jeff Carlson’s great post on the subject here.)

But this week I heard some fairly earth-shaking news I figured I’d better share.

It came in an email from a self-published Brit friend who’s been having some success in the UK Kindle market.

He needed advice. He’d been approached by somebody claiming to be from a U.S. literary agency. He’s savvy enough to know agents don’t approach writers—it’s the other way round. So he figured this must be some bogus scam. But just in case, had I ever heard of these blokes?

Then I read the name of the agency.

It isn’t only legit—it’s big. Huge. Major prestige. They rep some of the most famous names on the planet.

And they were approaching HIM: a first time, never-before-published, single-title, self-pubbed author.

The great world spins.

I wrote back and told him to run, not walk to sign up with them.

Thing is, he’s doing quite well on his own, thank you very much. It’s fair for him to ask—does a writer even need an agent when he’s bringing in good money on his own? This guy has already done the work. Why give 15% to anybody?

My advice was—good agents earn their percentage, and usually a lot more. Even indie god Joe Konrath is represented by a prestigious New York agency. Agents provide contacts and legal and career advice a writer can’t get otherwise. (And—contrary to what author Stephen Leather said on Konrath’s blog on Thursday, they’re mostly helpful, and not entirely without social graces.)

Plus, the publishing world is changing so rapidly, the paradigm may have shifted entirely by the time the writer finishes his next book.

But regardless of whether or not he signs, this is big news: A major New York agency approached a first-time, self-published novelist to offer representation. A writer on another continent, no less. And this isn’t an Amanda Hocking or Karen McQuestion, with a half dozen books that have been flying off Amazon’s cybershelves for months. He’s got one book. Just released.

Of course, that one book has rocketed into the top ten on the UK Kindle bestseller list.

My friend says he was as surprised as anybody when the book took off. But he’s got social media and marketing savvy, a great online network—and a very tight, well-written novel. And it's not the first book he's written.

But you know what else? HE DOESN’T FOLLOW THE RULES. His book is not a copy-cat of the books on the bestseller list. It’s dialogue-heavy. It has multiple points of view. It’s also very dark and edgy. Too over-the-top to be publishable—or so he was told over and over again by agents.

That’s why he self-published.

And now the agents are coming to him.

This confirms rumors I’ve been hearing: some agents are no longer looking for new clients in slush piles, because editors will not take chances on anything new. They only want stuff with a proven sales record.

And where do agents find proven sales records? On the Kindle bestseller lists. Even ones in other countries. (Makes sense: look at how the US bestseller list has been dominated by Europeans in the past few years.) So that’s where they’re looking for fresh blood. Kindle lists provide the names of new writers who have proved they can sell.

But—doesn’t that mean they’re choosing books by sales numbers instead of content?

Yup.

I know. It makes me throw up a little too. But I suppose it could be called democracy at work. Once The People have spoken (even if they’re Swedish or English people) you get a New York book deal.

So what does this mean for the Great Unpublished out here?

After hearing my friend’s news, I went through my list of queries, partials, and fulls that are out with agents right now—some for more than six months—and wondered if there’s any point in continuing this endless, grueling query process.

What if nobody’s even reading slush any more?

What if the ebook is the new query?

Should we all be learning to design covers and getting our books coded for Kindle instead of researching more agents and rewriting that query for the 100th time?

I wish I knew the answer to that.

But here’s my thinking: a rejected manuscript can be tweaked and re-queried ad infinitum. But a bumbling beginner’s ebook that has only sold three downloads, all to your Mom, is not going to attract any agents. And a bunch of negative reviews about your lack of writing skills could pretty much put the kibosh on a career.

And I heard of one e-book self-pubber who was told by an agency: “Don’t come to us until you have sold 20,000 books.”

For fence sitters, Writer’s Digest’s Jane Freidman had a helpful post on her “There Are No Rules” blog last week. It includes a check list for people trying to decide if they’re good candidates for self-publishing.

And Stephen Leather’s post I mentioned above did offer some solid, reality-check advice to potential self pubbers.

What their advice boils down to is this:

DO consider self-publishing if you’ve been writing for many years, have several super-polished, critiqued and edited books in the hopper—plus a marketing plan—and LOVE SOCIAL MEDIA.

DON’T consider self-publishing if you don’t have a large online network in your genre and don’t have time to blog or tweet. And (in Jane’s words) if “it's your first manuscript and you don't want to see all that work go to waste. If that's the case, wait until you've written book #2 or #3 or #4 before you decide to release that first one.”

I’ve also made some observations of my own that keep me in the legacy publishing camp--

Some genres do a lot better than others in the Kindleverse. It seems to be a great place for gritty crime stories and thrillers (especially those that appeal to men: the tech has made reading fiction macho again) plus paranormal romance, erotica, and fantasy/scifi.

But literary novels, cerebral mysteries, memoirs, and women’s fiction seem to do better with legacy publishers. This may be because these are genres where craft is more important than story, and with a legacy publisher, buyers know a book has passed muster with a lot of picky readers.

I think that’s why Book Country—Penguin’s experiment in creating its own self-regulating slush pile—is only looking at genre fiction. Readers take chances on “pulp fiction,” but they want the industry’s seal of approval on more serious stuff.

So the old order changeth. But it ain’t dead yet.

I get Publisher’s Lunch and see traditional deals being made every day. Big ones. Some for debut novelists. A few don’t even involve zombies and/or Snooki. So some agents must still be reading slush. And at least a few editors must be taking their calls.

So I guess I’ll keep querying agents.

But another alternative exists that’s looking attractive to me again. Not all publishers are greed-based conglomerates unwilling to take chances. There are thousands of small and medium-sized independent presses out there, and many are thriving. Author Michelle Davidson Argyle wrote a wonderful series on the subject that’s a must-read. Her publisher, Rhemalda, is doing lots to help promote her books, including a high-tech Skype booksigning. Try getting that kind of innovative help from a Big Six publisher.

Also, some smaller presses are much more savvy about Kindle than the Big Six. If a company does all the design work and editing (worth $1000 at least) and charges customers a reasonable price for the ebook (under $6) and splits the royalties with you, that’s a way better deal than you’ll get from the Big Six. Plus, they’ll publish a suitable-for-bookstore-shelf hard copy, too.

So some of my next queries are going out to small presses.

What about you? If it turns out e-books are the best way to get an agent’s attention, will that change your attitude about self-pubbing? Or are you like me: still fantasizing that some agent, somewhere is actually going to read your query? Have you looked into smaller presses?

Next week, while I’m off celebrating my mom’s birthday in San Francisco, I’ll have another guest post from a bestselling author: Ruth Harris. Ruth has not only had many books at the top of the NYT Bestseller list, but she also worked as an editor at several Big Six Publishers, so she has all the inside skinny. She’ll blog about REJECTION, and what it really means. May 22. Watch this space!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Twitter For Shy Persons—Secrets of Stress-free Tweeting

Twitter terrifies me. Seriously. It’s been described as the world’s biggest cocktail party and that sounds about right: cacophonous, shallow, time-consuming Hell for shy, writerly persons.

But many experts say authors who are serious about publication MUST be on Twitter.

So a year or so ago I steeled myself and crashed the soirée. I now have 850+ followers and a Klout rating of 49. (Not Twitterific, but respectable.) And it’s where I get most of my blog traffic. Ten times more readers find this blog through Twitter than click through Google.

BUT I HAVE NEVER ONCE TWEETED WHAT I HAD FOR LUNCH. And I only spend about 5 minutes a day on the site.  

So how did I do it?

After making a lot of mistakes (and probably pissing off a lot of people—sorry if I stepped on cybertoes) I finally realized that since it’s like a Hollywood party, I had to follow the rules of the classic Hollywood schmooze:

  • Smile a lot
  • Be helpful and/or funny
  • Never look desperate or needy
  • Accept there is a caste system, and you will never be a Brahmin
  • Remember you can’t go wrong with, “kiss, kiss—love your work!”

Here are my shy-person secrets for Twitter-schmoozing:

1)     Get a good head shot. Nobody follows an egg, so you gotta get a picture up there right away. Actually, it doesn’t have to be of you. I used my Mad Men caricature for six months. But a fun, smiley picture of yourself is best. Skip the glamour shots or you may be taken for a porn spammer.

2)     Inform, amuse, but never offer TMI A profile like: “Retail slave, romance writer, seeker of chocolate” is better than “I’m an English major and overweight single mom who has been a greeter at Walmart for 20 years.” But do let people know something about you that makes you worth following. N.B.: If you write, ALWAYS put “writer” in there, even if you’ve never published a thing, so you’ll be tagged as part of the writing community.

3)     Use your @ownname. This is about building platform, remember? So unless you’re writing books under the pseudonym @shysuzi, you’re wasting your Twitter time if you don't use your name. If it's long, shorten it, since you want to get retweeted, and you’re limited to 140 characters.

4)     Remember paranoia is creepy. I have no idea why people “protect their tweets.” It’s like going to a party in a burka. It doesn’t make you invisible; it makes you weird. If you don’t want people to read what you write, just stay in your cave and keep pounding out those 350K word literary neo-Nazi thriller/chick lit/westerns. When you want twittering, you can get a cuckoo clock.

5)     Don’t just stand there; say something. Trying to get followers with 0 tweets can make you look like a spammer, so tweet before you follow. Not about your 2 for $20 lunch special at Applebees, though. Say something cute and helpless like “Hi there, Twitterverse. I have no idea what I’m doing.” People love to help newbies as long as they’re humble and not selling anything.

Now you’re ready to party

6)     Start by following people you know. Like me. I enjoy following people who only have one follower. If I’m 50% of your audience, I feel special.

7)     Then follow some you don’t know. Like agents, The New Yorker, and Twitter deities like Nathan Bransford and Jane Friedman They will NOT follow you back. But now that you have a couple of followers, that won’t hurt your feelings, right? You’ll learn a lot from their god-like tweets. I like to follow the news agencies like Reuters, too—that way I get breaking news. Not important for platform, but it makes me feel like I’m not wasting my time entirely. But don’t choose too many. Following 500 with only 2 followers makes you look wallflowery.

8)     Whenever you open your home page, check for @messages and REPLY. Old Twitter did not have an obvious @message button, so I didn’t see any of my messages for, oh, probably a year. People must have thought I was the most awful snot. Don’t do this. And be sure to send your reply through the “reply” window, not a direct message. Direct messages should be sent sparingly. They sort of infringe on personal space.

9)     You don’t have to thank somebody for a follow. And if you must, do NOT ask them to visit your blog or buy your book. It looks spammy.

10) Follow people back. I follow pretty much everybody who follows me unless they’re obviously trying to rack up follower numbers. These are the people who’ve been on Twitter for 8 hours and follow 500,000 people. I also tend to avoid anybody with no tweets or profiles; people who tweet random nonsense phrases; car dealerships on other continents, Super! Enthusiastic! Salespeople! and writers with no tweets except “buy my book.”

11) Make lists. This is another place I messed up. It’s really hard to sort and list 800+ people, so I suggest you make lists now and add people as you follow them. Listing is good because: 1) people might list you, too (It looks best to have your list number at least 10% of your followers.) 2) Once you start gathering followers, you don’t have to wade through every single boring tweet to find the important ones.

12) RETWEET, RETWEET, RETWEET. Every time you click on a link to a great blog or read something inspiring, click the retweet button. Also tweet links to articles or posts of interest to your followers (there’s almost always a “t” button somewhere on the page.) This makes you a fountain of knowledge and inspiration. And everybody’s grateful for a retweet. They’ll often thank you and give you a follow.

13) Skip the personal stuff. Social media gurus will probably have me twit-canned for saying this, but you don’t really have to tweet personal stuff at all. I don’t—unless you count my daily tweet about my blog. I learned this from mystery author Elizabeth Spann Craig. She reads 100s of publishing blogs and tweets links to her favorite posts. (Alas, she doesn’t follow me, so I’m not often a favorite, but I love her links anyway.) And: I’ve never seen her tweet anything personal. But she has nearly 9000 followers and a Klout rating of 66. (Nathan Bransford’s is 68 and Jane Friedman’s is 71.)

14) Use #hashtags. You’re much more likely to get read if your Tweets are targeted. (It took me way too long to learn this.) If you want to Tweet your blogpost about editing, leave space for the 10 characters in #amediting, and people who are currently editing their WIPs will be able to seek you out. Other popular writing categories are #amwriting #writequote #writingtips #pubtip #indie #bookmarket, and #writegoal. And there are many more. Look around to see how tweets that interest you are tagged.

15) Spread the love. I don’t actually do this, but I adore people who do. If you have favorite tweeters, give them a mention on #WW, (which means something Wednesdayish) or #FF Follow Friday.

No lunch menus. No sobbing about rejections. Just be helpful. 

And maybe someday you will reach my personal Tweetdom best and have somebody tweet #FalseFacts about you. Like this wonderful tweet from @WendySparrow last Friday.  

#False Friday “Catwoman from the Batman comics is based on @annerallen 's real life story... only less leather was involved."

Not true of course. There was LOTS of leather.

I’m not going to lie to you. Twitter isn’t always fun for non-party persons. And it’s full of ruthless corporate types who are only there to use and manipulate you. People will follow you, then unfollow the minute you reciprocate. (Although an app called Tweepi can help you weed those out.) Others will spam you unmercifully. Or tweet inanities every two minutes. The A-listers will never respond to your messages, even if you’re congratulating them on a recent triumph.

But, like a huge Hollywood party, it provides a chance to meet interesting people who are useful to know. They’re probably not celebrities, and are more likely to be carrying trays of canapés than flashing bling and touting their latest project. But they may visit your blog later and you might even become friends.

Friends are good. Even if you never do publish that book.

How about you, fellow scriveners, do you tweet? Are you a shy person? What DID you have for lunch?

Coming Soon—in two weeks, I’ll have another guest post from a bestselling author: Ruth Harris. Ruth has not only had several books at the top of the NYT Bestseller list, but she also worked as an editor at several Big Six Publishers, so she has all the inside skinny. She’ll blog about REJECTION, and what it really means. May 22. Watch this space!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Want to be a Successful Author? 10 Things English Majors Have to Unlearn

—maybe with some help from BookCountry.com?

One of my favorite moments in film happens in Star Trek IV, when the Enterprise crew find themselves back the 20th century. Kirk refers to “the complete works of Jacqueline Susann, the novels of Harold Robbins,” and Spock replies, “Ah... The giants!”

Funny bit. But the thing is—they were giants. Not great writers, but great storytellers. They provided the stories people of their era were eager to read—the same way Jane Austen, the Brontës, and Dickens did.

WH-A-A-A-T!!? I can hear the English majors screaming now—“You dare to compare Susann and Robbins with great literary writers?”

Well, yeah. Because Austen, the Brontës, and Dickens didn’t set out to be “great literary writers.” They set out to make money writing books—just like Susann and Robbins.

Hey, I’m an English major myself (technically Art History, but I spent enough time studying literature to qualify.) I could compare and contrast the use of nature imagery in the Romantic poets before I’d ever read a Harlequin romance.

But looking back, I realize I should have given the Harlequins more notice. Studying classic literature gives you a false idea of what most people read. It also teaches a cerebral rather than visceral approach to writing—plus it gives us a pretty distorted idea of the typical author’s life.

Here are some things I learned in academia that worked against me in the real publishing world.

1) Genres? We don’t need no stinking genres! I’ve spent most of my writing life “trampling across every accepted boundary of fiction category with joyful abandon,” as my UK editor once put it. Which made my work almost impossible to sell.

The truth:  Most successful writers get in through the genre door. Even a lot of literary ones. Kurt Vonnegut wrote SciFi; Margaret Atwood writes women’s fiction; Dennis Lehane writes mysteries. Very few purely literary novels sell—and most of those are by authors who have published scores of exquisitely crafted short fiction pieces in prestigious journals.

We need to choose a genre and write as creatively as possible within its boundaries. Otherwise, no matter how brilliant we are, we can stay unread forever. Even self-publishers have to categorize themselves or get lost in the amazon.com jungle.

2) It’s all about the theme.

The truth: Nope. It’s about the story. Turns out theme is something you kind of sneak in, just for yourself. If you want future English majors to ferret out your themes a hundred years from now, you have to actually sell the book now. And, outside of a classroom, most people don’t give a damn about themes. I know. Sigh.

3) People will be impressed by your vast knowledge of literature.

The truth: Um, not really. That quote from Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko may impress your former Restoration Lit. professor, but after she dies, there will be zero people who care. 

4) Use topic sentences; never use fragments; semicolons are our friends.

The truth: Strict adherence to the kind of grammar that’s required for English papers and the PMLA comes across as stilted and boring in fiction. And a little hostile.

5) Because writers like Gertrude Stein, Joyce, and Kerouac did cleverclevercleverthings with punctuation and syntax, you can imitate them, and people will think you’re clever too.

The truth: Hard to read is hard to sell. 

Gertrude Stein gave great parties (and her wife baked killer brownies) which fueled her fame more than her books. Joyce’s books were reputed to be, ahem, dirty (never underestimate the power of banning books to get people to buy them.) And Kerouac tantalized the Mad Men era with tales of the non-conformist life they were starved for. I’m not saying these writers aren’t great, but experimental writers usually need other factors beyond their actual writing to get them into the public eye. 

6) Beautiful prose=successful writing.

The truth: Henry James has a lot to answer for. When was the last time you picked up a book to read on the plane because of the long, detailed descriptions and tangential philosophic musings?

7) You can’t go wrong if you follow the masters. Prologues, omniscient POV, weather report openings—literature is full of stuff publishers tell you not to do. If Dickens or Faulkner did it, how can it be wrong?

The truth:

  • Readers’ requirements change with the times. The Victorians had long winter nights and rainy days to fill. Wealthy flappers had servants and no jobs. Mid-twentieth centurians had only three TV networks. Even twenty years ago, there was no Internet. Fierce competition changes the rules. 
  • What’s clever the first time can become clichéd. Good stuff gets repeated. A lot.  I’ll never forget taking a person to his first production of Hamlet. “Why do they call Shakespeare great?” sez he. “That play was just one cliché after another!”
  • Some things are tough to do well. Why sabotage yourself by inviting comparison with the greats?
  • They’re famous; you’re not. After a publisher has a bunch of money invested in your “brand” maybe you’ll get to break the rules, too.
8) Just be honest and authentic and “tell your truth,” and you’ll be a success.

The (real) truth: People don’t want to read about you. They want to read about themselves. “Authenticity” alone doesn’t sell books. Unless your work also tells a great story with universal appeal, nobody cares.

9) Writers’ lives are considered important and interesting. You spent all those class hours studying every detail of Emily Dickinson’s existence, every nuance of Scott and Zelda’s correspondence, and endlessly pondering why Virginia Woolf took that walk into the River Ouse. So you think maybe if you get published, people will be interested in your life too.

The truth: If you say you’re a writer, most people will 1) let their eyes go glazey, 2) ask the direction to the bathroom, or 3) tell you their life story and offer to go 50-50 with you on the book if you “just write down the words.”

10) Writers get to spend lots of time in exotic cafés, discussing life’s great questions and drinking interesting alcoholic beverages. (OK, I read way too much Hemingway and Fitzgerald at an impressionable age.)

The truth: Most writers are shy, boring people who work in hidey-holes wearing old sweats. Every day. Hardly anybody sends them to Paris.


But English majors need not despair. We now have help in unlearning all this stuff.

There’s a new kid on the block in the writersphere called Book Country. Penguin has just launched the site for genre writers ONLY. 

Yes. That Penguin. The company that was founded to bring great literature to the proletariat is now promoting proletariat lit.

The site helps you identify your genre and get your work critiqued. One of the founders is Colleen Lindsay , former agent and Twitter-goddess. I haven’t had much time to play around on the site, but it looks intriguing. I’m not sure how I feel about the fact they plan to also provide self-publishing services for a fee, but their genre-map is fascinating. Especially for people like me who need a little education in the whole genre thing.

There may be hope for us English majors yet.


So what about you, fellow scriveners? Did you major in English? Do you find it helped or hindered your writing career? Have you settled on a genre? Have you checked out BookCountry.com?