Category Archives: writing

The best and the brightest eschew oversimplification

One of the reasons I work with creative writers is so I can spend my time with people who are articulate and intelligent. We don’t always agree. We don’t always get along, but at least we’re able to communicate.

I would have disagreed with some of what H.L. Mencken wrote when he was alive, but I can’t argue with something he published in the Smart Set in 1922:

In every age the advocates of the dominant political theory seek to give it dignity by identifying it with whatever contemporaneous desire of man happens to be most powerful. In the days of monarchy, monarchy was depicted as the defender of the faith. In our present era of democracy, democracy is depicted as the only safe guardian of liberty. And the communism or super-communism of tomorrow, I suppose, will be sold to the booboisie as the only true palladium of peace, justice and plenty. All of these attempts to hook up cause and effect are nonsensical. Monarchy was fundamentally not a defender of the faith at all, but a rival and enemy to the faith. Democracy does not promote liberty; it diminishes and destroys liberty. And communism, as the example of Russia already shows, is not a fountain that gushes peace, justice and plenty, but a sewer in which they are drowned.

What was true in 1922 remains true today. Mencken’s “booboisie,” who are more vocal and visible than ever, prefer simplistic, even mystical, solutions to complex problems that have been intractable for hundreds of years. I’d much rather face and discuss the facts and with people who know the history and eschew oversimplification.

The Smart Set

  Image: The Smart Set, March 1922 (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Litmags that specialize in disability-related literature

pen and journals

  Photo courtesy of Joanna Kosinska

Online, a creative writer can find her tribe much more easily than is possible anywhere else. The following disability-focused literary publications are readily discoverable and of interest to all, but they’re especially important to writers with disabilities.

I’ll add to this list when similar publications come to my attention. Please let me know if I’ve missed any good ones.

Abilities

Breath & Shadow

The Deaf Poets Society

Disability Studies Quarterly

Exceptions Journal

Kaleidoscope

Pentimento

Snap Journal

When Language Runs Dry

Wordgathering

The Disability Literature Consortium and the blog DISPOET regularly post calls for submissions and other opportunities for writers. They encourage collaboration among artists.

Also of interest

Publishing stories about mental illness and recovery

Publications that specialize in the topics of illness, healing, and the medical professions

The demands of commercial authorhood today

daydreamer

  Photo courtesy of Alexander Solodukhin

Daydreaming fosters creativity. Industriousness, on the other hand, is beneficial for commerce. Rarely is a creative writer equally productive in both modes.

Everyone’s favorite writers’ conferences and how-to-get-published guides gently encourage and inspire. They wouldn’t be as popular if they presented a fully realistic picture of what it takes for an author to succeed commercially—that is, by selling lots of books. As an unfortunate, unintended result, many aspiring book authors are led too soon to believe they’re ready to compete with their idols in the publishing world. I’m conflicted about how to bring this matter up with prospective clients.

The telltale promise that exposes naïve writers every time is, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes for my book to succeed.” They feel compelled to say it, because they haven’t begun to envision and haven’t yet started whatever it takes. Technically, it’s a failure of their imagination. It shouldn’t happen.

My job is to screen out the dilettantes and hobbyists and to coach the thoughtful, devoted, solid professionals who have chosen writing as a career path. Following are some of the questions I try to remember to ask prospective clients when we’re deciding whether we’ll be able to work together.

Takeaway: If you don’t have good answers to these questions, then there’s no need to pitch your manuscript to me. You’re not ready.

How much time can you invest in building your writing career, knowing you’ll simultaneously need to spend significant time earning income? Holding down a day job is not an issue if you have enough passive income or savings to support yourself for more than a few years. Will any of your commitments over the next several years prohibit you from being in the public eye and from devoting a lot of unpaid time to your author platform and your writing? *

Have you already proven you’ll be able to market yourself as an author? Have you developed a following or any sort of name recognition among a sufficiently large group of people who are likely to buy your book? Consider that selling books primarily to the writers in your social circle isn’t an ideal marketing strategy, unless your book happens to be a writers’ manual.

Can you show me articles, essays, or stories you’ve written that were published in journals and magazines or on websites with some traffic? While unremunerative, collecting publication credits can be a quick-start learning experience. By the way, I tell new writers that it’s likely to take sixty submissions to get a first short story or essay published in a selective journal or magazine, including the digital ones.

Do you write a column or blog for a print or online publication? Landing that sort of (typically low-paying) gig demonstrates your ability to network and collaborate with an editor.

Do you have a professional-looking website and an active, engaging presence on significant social media sites? Which authors’ websites are your benchmarks? Don’t think of emulating but learn from the living authors you most admire.

If you’ve made no initial progress on your author platform before contacting me, then I’ll be forced to assume you never will. It takes a great deal of time to acquire the technical and social skills and then to execute a long-term publicity strategy for a career. Many, in fact most, writers aren’t terribly teachable or motivated to work on their techniques for self-promotion, without which their chances of succeeding as a commercial author are just too remote. I’m obligated to choose clients who are prepared to knock it out of the park, not those who have never shown up for batting practice.

I do my utmost to prepare a new client to collaborate successfully with a publisher and with the people who will offer opportunities for good publicity that might increase book sales. The actual work is up to the writer. Some might prefer to find and hire freelancers to help with some of their responsibilities. I don’t recommend delegating tasks, because no one will care more about the success of a book than its author. Usually it’s obvious when there’s no practical possibility that a potential client will follow through on vague promises to hire someone to do the work they don’t want, or don’t know how, to do.

Once a book is under contract, a publisher’s timeline is unyielding. Authors sometimes are asked, for example, to turn around revisions or proofs in as little as two weeks. No one will worry whether those two weeks happen to fall during the author’s annual vacation in the Florida Keys. Grace under pressure is an enormously valuable trait.

I emphasize to new clients the benefit of rolling up their sleeves. If a publishing team begins to sense that their new author isn’t working as hard as they are to launch the author’s book successfully, then the publisher’s staff will shift their focus to another book by another author. Conversely, if an author is going above and beyond anyone’s expectations to generate amazingly creative publicity for a book, then the publishing team will be enthusiastic and motivated, at least to care, even if they don’t have a spare moment to act. The caring part matters. It ripples out. The word spreads. You’ve got to read this one!

Debut authors get one chance to establish their commercial viability. It doesn’t matter whether their first books are self-published or traditionally published. The sales data are inescapable. To the largest trade book publishers, an author was a financial risk who cautiously was given an opportunity to become a profitable investment. If readers didn’t show their approval by purchasing thousands of copies of the author’s book, the record of poor sales becomes all but impossible to overcome. When a book flops, according to the trade book publishing industry’s definition of failure at the time, then commercial publishers won’t invest in the author’s future works. It doesn’t matter how gifted the author is or how much I believe in and like the person. A first-time author is viewed as a more strategic risk than one whose published book hasn’t sold well.

I’ve been through this fantasy-wrecking process with writers who thought they could either a) embark on degree programs, internships, alternate career development, or other major new endeavors while simultaneously building a career as a book author, or b) immediately discard all of their practical plans in favor of a career as a book author, without realizing how slim the chance that writing ever will generate an income sufficient to live on. The illusion of overnight success is the de facto gate beyond which most aspiring authors can’t progress.

These demands might seem unbearable or unfair, but as long as a few good writers are finding imaginative ways to put in whatever effort is required to succeed commercially, they will be the ones setting the bar so high.

How do you plan to manage all of the work ahead of you?

* In case you haven’t noticed, these expectations have an unfair and disparate impact on writers who are not wealthy but desire careers in the arts requiring many hours of labor with little likelihood of financial gain. I already do a lot of pro bono work as an agent, as I’m sure most authors’ representatives do, because we believe in trying to mitigate the existing disadvantages. At least one nonprofit literary agency exists in the U.S. Check it out. Individual publishing houses and arts funding agencies contribute much more to solving this persistent problem.

Give it time

Slow down is not advice any writer wants to hear, because the goal of being published is so alluring. Give it time. Learn how to do it well. Wait until the cake is done before you take it out of the oven. The results will be so much more satisfying.

Nine years ago today I started this blog, coincidentally the same year I met David Sanders at the Kenyon Review Literary Festival. This year, his collection of poetry Compass & Clock was published by Swallow Press, just in time for the celebration of National Poetry Month. If you listen carefully, you can hear my old neighbor and dear friend describe the necessity of patience as he explains his writing process to WOUB Digital’s podcast host Tom Hodson: “It’s a book that I’ve been working on for thirty years or so, and these are the poems that have risen to the top.”

Congratulations, David! Salut.

Encouragement for aspiring authors: foolishness will eliminate most of your competition

Aspiring authors eager for encouragement can be glad of one thing, which I can promise will never change: human nature. Most of their competitors—other writers vying to win readers—will fail to capitalize on the opportunities they’re given. They will consider themselves too talented to be overlooked, too intelligent to take advice, and too exceptional to fail.

Day after day, I receive queries from authors whose books were published, either traditionally or nontraditionally, but then languished without appreciable sales. These writers took or were given their chances and did not make the most of them. Usually, they haven’t recognized or tried to rectify the problems that kept their books from reaching or appealing to readers. When it’s too late, they want someone else to repair the damage.

I don’t often hear from unsuccessful authors who know exactly where they stand. I’m contacted by those who are mystified by book buyers’ disappointing reactions to their work. Oblivious to the reasons, these particular writers remain confident that fairytale success will find them if only they believe in themselves.

No amount of testimony by successful authors whose years of struggle and relentless practice enabled their careers will convince a writer who doesn’t want to face the unpleasant aspects of the business of creative writing. The obstacles include endless revisions and rejections, critical scrutiny, meager pay, and a market robust enough to cater to readers’ every whim rather than every writer’s wallet. Unwavering perfectionism, sincere humility and willingness to learn, and the ability to connect with audiences are rare qualities even in the most talented writers. That’s why there are so few success stories, compared to failed attempts, in book publishing. The coincidence of necessary personal and professional qualities is truly unusual.

Occasionally, good writers do recognize how much effort and time it will cost them to achieve the careers they envision, and the realization paralyzes them. They may believe they can’t handle the pressure or the demands on their time, that the market isn’t fair, or that their aspirations are self-indulgent. I have more sympathy for them than for the failed author who is hobbled by a big ego. The fact remains that authors today have more choices and resources than ever before to enable their success. Along with those choices and opportunities goes the personal responsibility to make the best use of them.

Sounds true, you say, but where should a writer who honestly wants to improve seek reliable, free advice? Here are a few good sources.

Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published by Jane Friedman

Online Critique Groups for Writers

A Flowchart For Diagnosing Self Publishing Problems by Morris Rosenthal

Author Marketing Experts, Inc.

Lion of St. Mark

  Lion of St. Mark

Best online explanations of POV

I analyze and evaluate creative writing. Perhaps then, I ought to be able to teach it, except that I believe good creative writing instructors have additional indispensible skills, including the ability and patience to explain a concept six ways from Sunday. I’m not a teacher. Whenever I need to tell a writer to begin thinking about the narrative mode that we call point of view, I recommend several online resources.

First, it’s important to learn the terminology. Then, accept that everyone will misapply the terminology. The concepts don’t change, though, regardless of how they’re labeled.

Start by understanding the elements of narrative mode

Choosing Your Narrative Mode: Storytelling Perspectives and Options
by Glen C. Strathy

Narrative Modes in Fiction: Telling Your Story (Writing Essentials)
by Beth Hill

Then drill down to the specifics of POV

View to a Skill: Understanding Point of View
by Janice Hardy

What Is Point of View?
by Joshua Essoe

The Basics of Point of View for Fiction Writers
by Joseph Bates

The Art and Soul of POV
by Toni McGee Causey

Consider the effects of different points of view

A Study in Third Person Point of View
by Michael Neff

Some Thoughts on Third Person vs First Person Novel Narratives
by Les Edgerton

Using First Person POV
by Genevieve Graham

Another Perspective on POV (omniscient and limited omniscient)
by Martin Brown Publishers, LLC

Use multiple points of view with care

What Is Head Hopping and How Can We Avoid It?
by Marcy Kennedy

Mastering Multiple POV in 6 Steps
by Lisa Walker England

These resources will lead you to many more, including books on the topic, if your concerns about your work’s POV are more specific. My thanks go to all of the generous writers who have shared these pointers.

Aspiring authors who understand and purposefully use the described techniques produce far better work than writers who can’t explain their choices. Intuition* is powerful, but being able to justify intuitive decisions is better.

Don’t ask which POV I prefer or which one is correct, because the answer always will be the POV executed well.

Detroit lit: online, print, and audio

Detroit’s literary community has been enjoying national attention recently. These publications, which feature creative writing, are based in the city and its suburbs. I included the suburban cities, because it seemed there ought to be more literary magazines in the Motor City. What did I miss? In a year or two, will this list be twice as long?

3rd Wednesday

Cruel Garters (in Bloomfield Hills)

Fifth Estate (in Ferndale)

Fogged Clarity

The Ibis Head Review

The MacGuffin (in Livonia)

Marvels & Tales, Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies

The Periphery

Radio Campfire (creative audio)

Sammiches and Psych Meds

[SIC] Student Arts Journal

The Strand Magazine (in Birmingham)

undr_scr review

Wayne Literary Review

White Cat Publications’ various magazines (in Livonia)

A few more insights

Amy Sacka Photography

Literary Detroit

The Literary Map of Detroit sponsored by the Marygrove College Institute for Detroit Studies and the Department of English and Modern Languages

Detroit Public Library

Detail of the entrance to the Detroit Public Library

What if an aspiring author’s missing quality is drive?

I’m well aware of the ridiculous odds against creative writers making a living from their art. Therefore, I judge prospective clients on their ability to contend with relentless pressure. As an agent, I hope I can help ease the stress, but I can’t compensate for an aspiring author who isn’t driven beyond logic to succeed. By driven, I mean insatiably curious about how to be a better writer, how to connect with readers, how to market written work. I mean highly motivated to learn, create, and compete. I don’t mean inspired by a sense of superiority.

It’s easy to confuse desire with drive, because they can evoke the same emotions in people. The difference is that desire can flourish as pure fantasy, while drive pursues measurable progress.

Aspiring book authors might be surprised to learn how obvious their lack of drive is to those working in the publishing industry. We all tend to see these symptoms as evidence that drive—drive that leads to action—is missing:

  • Expectations of effortless entitlement or instant gratification
  • Perpetual complaining
  • Dishonesty, and its offspring:
    • Obsequiousness
    • Blaming others for one’s own failure to make progress (not to be confused with taking a stand against unfair, systemic discrimination)
  • Lack of technical skills required for editing, messaging, and online networking

Most of us give novice writers the benefit of the doubt, once, because inexperience can look a lot like the absence of drive instead of a simple lack of knowledge. However, when it’s necessary to point out a writer’s professional shortcomings, then we expect a person who is sufficiently driven to follow up by remedying the problems, by taking action.

The funny thing (which creates an opportunity for aspiring authors who are driven) is that almost no writers make effective use of the advice they’re given. In other words, by far the majority of aspiring authors drop out of the running when faced with work they don’t want to do. That’s good news for writers who are on a mission, because it eliminates most of their competition. It’s also bad news for writers who are on a mission, because rivals who put in even more effort and time can gain an advantage over them.

Maybe you have a better word for it. What does an absence of drive look like to you?

shark

  Image courtesy of Jason VanDorsten