On Word Count: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 6 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-5 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Publishers think about the books they’re considering in terms of word count…The average book in today’s market is 80,000 words…If you have a manuscript that’s between 20,000 and 40,000 words, you haven’t written a book. If it’s fiction, you’ve written a novella.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 89.)

The agent, whom I already really liked as a person, and whom I really, really wanted to like me, leaned across her wine glass. “I need you to write 6,000 more words,” she said, all wide eyes and guilelessness.

Four and a half years later, I still admire the way she delivered this news. Calmly, evenly, as if there were nothing to these 6,000 more words. I like to think that I reacted with just as much calm and guilelessness, but on the inside, I am pretty sure I was screaming, to paraphrase a friend, “OH SURE LADY I’LL JUST WRITE THOSE WHILE I’M POOPING, SHALL I?”*

What the agent was trying to do was get my book into saleable condition. See, the thing sat neatly at 55,000 words, which is neither novella nor novel.** She knew this was problematic. I was beginning to know it. What I didn’t know was that adding those 6,000 words, which would stretch into 7,000 (about 25, 28 pages), would change some crucial things about the novel. All I could hear was that without these 6,000 more words, this novel would be a no-go.

I had gone to grad school to fix what I knew was a key flaw in my writing. For the longest time, I couldn’t put a solid finger on conflict, and page-turnability. I learned a lot while I was in classes there, but while you can fix a thing academically, you’ll never really know or understand what the solution looks like until you test it in the real world. My thesis, which was the book I was pitching, had passed muster for graduation purposes, but I had queried a number of agents already, and despite high personal response rates to both query letter and sample chapters, I wasn’t getting the solid bites I wanted.

This agent, though, had actionable advice. And it was time for me to put practice to work and get the book into a form an agent could work with.

How was I going to add 6,000 more words, though? Where would I put it? I knew this wasn’t going to be the kind of change that involved more character descriptions here and there, more little personality quirks or long passages of lyrical description of setting. In the first place, my character isn’t the type to wax lyrical for very long, and since the book is told in diary format, that wasn’t going to fly. Second, the character’s a little self-centered, so she wasn’t going to do anything that involved a whole lot of descriptions of other people.

What I ended up doing was introducing a whole new character, an archetypal bad boy for my character to be distracted by. And even though he started out being a distraction, the introduction of this character, just a little less than halfway into the book, had serious ramifications for the rest of the novel.

Most importantly, the addition of this character added depth to my own main character, my protagonist. She was forced to make some choices that didn’t even exist before, thereby granting her an agency she didn’t have before.

And, of course, the addition of this character allowed me to reach the desired word count.

I no longer remember the book as it was without this addition, and I’m reasonably sure I couldn’t stand to look at it if I dug up an old draft.

I didn’t end up going with this agent, but I will always be grateful for the advice she gave me. It may not seem like much, but I’m sure she knew that asking me to add that many more words and pages would force my character into a situation that would give her more to do.

Takeaway tips:

  • Be open to advice from people whose job it is to sell your book. Assume good intention, always.
  • If you ever do find yourself in a position to need to add words, don’t look to tinker. Look to revise.
  • In my editing for clients, I often see a lack of conflict. If you’re looking for places to ramp up the story, look for places where your character lacks agency or where conflict is lacking.

What’s the biggest revision job you’ve had to do? Tell me about it in the comments below.

The next post in this series will occur at the end of next week, as I’m deployed for ShelterBox USA, a disaster-relief agency, for the rest of this week.

*I really, really wish I remember who gave me this line. Whoever you were, thank you.

**I also wish this could be a post on how frustrating it is that there is this weird no-man’s-land between 40,000 words and 60,000 words, where no one actually knows what to call your book in terms of length. Alas, it has no answers in this regard. Sorry.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Branding: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 5 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-4 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“A successful brand isn’t a sign of pandering to readers; rather, it evokes and emphasizes the why, or what the publication or publisher stands for.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 74)

I think a lot about branding. It’s part of my day job as a copywriter, after all. But this week, it’s been thrown into full light with Kate Spade’s death.***

I was so moved by the stories people told about their first Kate Spade bags or purchases, in part because Kate Spade has not been a part of the company she founded for over a decade: She sold off a significant portion of it as early as 1999, just six years after it was founded, and stopped designing for them ages ago.

And yet, so many people wrote about how “Kate” made them feel “quick and curious and playful and strong,” and there is a definite sense that, with that passing of Spade herself, that iconography of a “quick, curious, playful and strong” woman–a quote often attributed to Spade herself but which I think actually was born in the brand’s copywriting department–has lost its originator. And this, this wonderful tie between what people feel and what is, even if it’s not exactly right–is the beauty of a strong narrative.

There are very few companies who have been able to pull off this kind of branding. Nike, maybe. Cheerios, or Mr. Clean, or maybe, better yet, Cap’n Crunch. But even those don’t have the immense personality that Kate Spade did. That’s because there’s no person behind those brands. And it’s the reason brands have to hire brand ambassadors.

Kate Spade was her brand. Even more, she memorialized a certain moment in time, I think, a certain New York minute, even as it stretched into two impressive decades. Her brand was hitting her stride the same time I moved to New York, the mid-nineties. Even I, not a fan of bows and ruffles and personal slogans, associate Kate Spade with my New York life, with buildings and walking tall because I was earning a liveable paycheck and going to parties in lofts and establishing my own brand of wit, trying it out on cocktail conversation and failing a lot, at least three times a week. Say “Kate Spade” to me and the words evoke a rush of memories attached to all my senses: pavement under my feet; the wind from Fifty-first Street rushing up Sixth Avenue as I rounded the corner to meet friends in that subway bar; the damp Manhattan summer night; the chatter of a restaurant at lunchtime.

In the end, Kate Spade’s brand succeeded because it knew exactly who it was talking to. It placed aspiration within reach of so many women, whereas other aspirational brands keep their wares just squarely and deliberately out of reach. With a Kate Spade bag, and later, in Kate Spade shoes and dresses and displaying a quirky quote on your notebook, you could be everything you thought Kate Spade hoped for you.**

When I bought a literary magazine with some friends last year, it was one of the best things I could do with my literary life. I had a lot of thoughts already on art, and what role it might play in these fraught times we live in, and being co-owner of a literary magazine that we could use to execute our (thankfully) aligning missions was really, really attractive.

In the light of the quote from Friedman’s book above, and with Kate Spade in mind, I’m thinking about the people behind why we do what we do.

For years, Tahoma Literary Review had been operating on a solid, three-legged platform. Those three legs were:

Transparency. The magazine tells you exactly what it does with every dollar.

Sustainability. We paid our writers first, so as to helps writers to continue their creative lives.

Community. TLR strives to promote, to our best capacity, the work of those who have published in our magazine.

When we took over, nothing really changed, except we made it a priority to even out the pay schematic, so all genres got paid the same, and started paying production crew and editors as well. But it wasn’t until I read Friedman’s words above that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of our mission. (TLR has a mission statement, but I think most mission statements can be made stronger with a firm grip on the why of a thing.)*

This is a slippery thing, see. And it can be uncomfortable. Some explorations of the why you’re driven to do a certain thing end up leaving you cold, because they’ve exposed you to be heartless. Or insecure, or selfish. For instance, how many of us start a literary magazine because we want to boost our own profiles, or volunteer someplace because we want to build our own skillset or meet people who are interested in similar things?

I think, at the end of the day, while we don’t have a specific end user in mind like Kate Spade does, we are similar to her brand narrative in one regard: Ultimately, we are about the reader. We are about the reader-as-consumer-of-words and the reader-as-writer-of-words, and yes, I do mean all those hyphens exactly where they are. We are about making the reading experience great by way of making the writing experience great.

We are about giving writers a leg up towards producing their very best work, and ensuring a great reading experience. We are about paying everyone involved in the production of our magazine, and ensuring sustainability of that great reading experience for years to come. We are about the new-to-short-stories or new-to-poetry or new-to-creative-nonfiction reader, and helping them to understand just what goes into making this reading experience for them.

Readers, in all their variations, are the why of Tahoma Literary Review. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to say so.

Takeaways:

  • Consider your origins when you look at sussing out your whys.
  • Look broadly at the things you admire, the things with great narratives. Don’t think of just literature. Think of the things you have loyalty to.
  • Conversely, look at the things that drive you in your life outside of reading and writing. What are those things?

What’s your“Why?” Do you have an end user in mind? Tell me below. 

*These statements are independent from what our founding editors, Joe Ponepinto and Kelly Davio, may have said. Second, while I’ve talked to my co-editors and co-owners (Ann Beman, Jim Gearhart, and Mare Heron Hake) about this, these statements are largely my own thoughts.

**As I was editing this this morning, the news came through about Anthony Bourdain. He was another whose personality built his brand, and although I only saw his show “No Reservations” once, I have so many friends who admired him, and it’s for their loss of a personal guiding star and point of aspiration that I’m sad, as well.

***Racked.com has a wonderful, thorough discussion of Kate Spade’s brand.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On “Content,” and Writer as Artisan: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer._

This is Part 4 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1, 2, and 3, on networking, “Good luck,” and MFAs, respectively, are here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“The more business-oriented and consumer-facing the publisher, the more likely you’ll hear the word ‘content’ used instead of ‘writing.’…’Content’ can be reshaped, reconfigured, and reimagined for many different people, places, and purposes.
“This, too, can upset writers, who may have a more artisanal outlook on publishing.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 62.)

A long, long time ago, I told someone that I loved writing marketing and corporate copy. He hitched a short laugh, and then double-took. (Is that a thing? Can you past-tense double-take? Anyway.) “Wait,” he said, “are you serious?”

We were having drinks, and I wasn’t sure if he was joking, so I laughed, too, and then I was like…wait a minute. “Yeah,” I said, finally. “I really do.” My friend went on to say that he was surprised, since I’m “literary.”

So then I had to explain to him why I think marketing writing and corporate copy is so great: When it comes to working for small businesses, it’s about helping someone to get their message across, helping to crystallize someone’s brand. When it’s working for large companies, it can be about fighting a tiny battle to keep sloppy, imprecise language from conveying whatever makes a product or a company unique. So yes, I love copy. I love content. I love anything that helps a thing to convey itself.

This idea that content and copy is somehow less than writing of a literary sort–oh, excuse, me, littttrrrraaaaaary–really rankles. And, as Friedman notes in her pages, it’s not unusual to hear someone lamenting marketing work as hack work, or “just to pay the bills.” But there’s something really off about that, and I don’t just mean for its abject snobbery. What I mean is this: Working on content takes just as much skill as working on a novel or a short story or a poem.

(For an idea of what I mean, here’s a post I wrote awhile ago about coming up with a new tagline for the back of my business card, and my editing business.)

Think about the way we talk about writing: We talk about it in terms of  craft. We sometimes refer to it as wordsmithing. We talk about it as something requiring skill, and training. If writing copy, if crafting a message for a brand, isn’t inherently artisanal, I don’t know what is.

Marketing and advertising copy, or content, is also accessible to everyone. It’s made to be. There’s something really beautiful about that concept, that anyone can “get” what you’re trying to say. And it also takes skill. (Have a look at William Zinsser’s wonderful chapter on business writing, in his book On Writing Well, for a refresher.)


If some work is artisanal, is the other work junk?

I won’t get into that whole attractive notion of pay for work (content and marketing copy pays a hell of a lot better than short stories, I can tell you that right now), since that’s a no-brainer. And I utterly refuse to get into an argument about whether or not writing you get paid for is better or worse than writing you toil over, only to get paid nothing or a stipend for. Those are…I mean, it’s not even apples and oranges. It’s apples, and, like, battleships, or something.

(This reminds me of the day I complained to my cousin Otto, who is way smarter than I am, that movies made from books were way worse than the books. Otto blinked, all speed-processing behind a casual slow-lizard exterior, and then said, “Well. They’re two different things. You can’t compare them.” There followed a short silence during which I ate my hat.)

In the end, I think my view is this: Copywriting and content writing is a thing which requires a great amount of skill. Writing short stories and novels and poetry and essays is a thing which also requires a great amount of skill. Some of these skills are shared. Some of them are unique to the job. But more importantly, neither of these is more or less artisanal than the other. They are both equally hard. One of them pays with more regularity than the other. That’s the only thing that should be up for conversation. The rest is just a conversation about whether, in fact, you have the right skillset to do one or the other.

Some tips:

  • Try your hand at all kinds of writing. Don’t be fooled into thinking one is better than the other.
  • Be aware that each kind of writing takes different skill sets. Yes, even the social media stuff.
  • You’re producing all kinds of content, all day, from the comment you posted on a friend’s image to your Instagram caption. Look at those as room to practice. 

What’s your take on content and marketing writing, as opposed to literature? Tell me in the comments below. 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On MFA Programs: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 3 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1 and 2, on networking and the concept of “Good luck,” respectively, are here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

…”Third, it can be worthwhile to enroll in an MFA program based solely on its faculty and networking opportunities…Don’t take it on faith that you’ll love any program or faculty sight unseen–get as much exposure as possible beforehand.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 37)

Up until the moment I got accepted, selecting MFA programs had been easy. I wanted a low-residency program, so I could continue on with my day job and stay near my husband, and I wanted something that felt new. I didn’t much feel like taking graduate school exams, but I wanted something that would allow me to teach at the college level if that’s what I wanted. I wanted a faculty that comprised working writers, and an alumni pool that was also working as writers. I knew, too, what I wanted out of an MFA, so that made things even easier.

It came down to two low-res programs. One was much more established, and I knew people who had graduated from it. The other was new. Scrappy. So scrappy that it had sprung from a writer’s organization, and wasn’t affiliated with a college or university. Its facility boasted a live otter cam, and it was based out of a place I’d never really visited. The facility it hosted its classes out of boasted a live otter cam.

(not that kind of ottercam, you guys.)

They each had things to recommend them. Program B’s faculty looked as if they were all steadily working writers, and they said they only ever wanted to produce working writers. Program A, the more established one, had some faculty I had heard of, and they were renowned for their work in the young adult genre, a field I was pretty sure I wanted to work in. But in the end, it came down to the student body. Program A had both graduates I knew and had heard of. Program B had neither of these things.

But program B offered to put me in touch with their students. Program A took a few days to get back to me. I was very clear about who I wanted to talk to: I wanted to talk to working writers who were in the fiction genre. Writers who were working on long fiction, preferably. Within a few minutes of my sending a query to the program director, the e-mails from students and alumni of program B started rolling in. Four…five…six…seven and more students all had things to say, and all were willing to talk to me. All were working in fiction; all were able to address my specific questions and concerns, and if they didn’t know the answer, they pointed me to another student.

By contrast, program A sent me to a playwright, a guy who was in jail, and a graduate who said she wasn’t quite sure why Program A still had her on the list of people to talk to about their experience at Program A, since she was still doing the exact same thing she was doing before her degree and didn’t see a future in writing. I did not get to talk to the guy in jail, but the playwright was interesting, and completely not useful.

Friedman’s right: you should get to know the faculty. And I’ll never know what it’s like to have gone to that other institution. But, as I’ve previously mentioned, I leaned and still lean so heavily on my co-hort from my MFA and the huge number of guest faculty that I met while I was in school there. I think a good set of peers is at least as important, for many reasons, and maybe even more important, for another set of reasons.

I also want to point out the following, which has been thrown into sharp light now that I’m running a writer’s retreat of my own: the best faculty members are not necessarily those who are the biggest and brightest stars of literature. In fact, we had a few guest faculty lecturers at program B who were bigger names and who were, frankly, terrible instructors. Finding people who are talented, giving, generous educators and great writers isn’t always the obvious equation you think it’ll be.

Nope, for me, I’m happy I chose my MFA program based on the students who were there and who had graduated from the program.

Some takeaways:

  • Always ask to speak to students at whatever MFA program you’re considering.
  • Be intentional about why you want to get an MFA.
  • Be open: Although I wasn’t interested in making friends when I enrolled in my MFA, it happened despite me, and now those friends are colleagues, and I couldn’t be happier.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you want. It’ll save time on both ends.
  • Have a look at the faculty member’s teaching resumes, or look for information about their teaching backgrounds otherwise.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On “Good Luck”: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 2 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Part 1, on networking, is here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Finally, it’s useful to remember the famous line from Seneca: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Writers tend to get increasingly lucky the more work they produce (preparation) and the more work they submit (opportunity).” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 23)

Have you ever noticed how often people sign off with the phrase, “Good luck!”? It’s meant to impart support, well wishes. It sounds nice. It rolls off the tongue easily, so tightly woven is it into our vernacular. We say it a lot, for lots of reasons: When people are about to start a race, say. When they’re about to go into interviews. When they’re going in for major surgery.

The thing is, only the last of these things can really even be remotely said to involve any element of luck. (The doctor could find something else while he’s rooting around in your leg, say.) But for the most part, when we say “Good luck,” we’re usually referring to stuff that can be prepared for, stuff that the subject of “good luck” has worked a really long time towards. Take the marathon, for instance. A runner doesn’t need good luck to cross the finish line; a runner who has signed up for a marathon has probably spent the past few months of his or her life working up to the marathon, building mileage. And the person who’s going into an interview doesn’t need luck to ace it; that person needs to have laid the groundwork to get to the interview in the first place, thereby securing the opportunity to interview; then he or she needs to have prepared for the interview.

Any other situation (going into a marathon badly trained, say, or not researching the potential job ahead of time) will warrant a “Good luck” of a different variety, the one whereby you roll your eyes and adopt sarcastic font and go, “Um, yeah. Good luck with that.”

So I decided awhile ago to stop wishing people good luck. I don’t do it anymore because I want to give people credit for the work they’ve inevitably done in getting to the start line, the interview room, the point where their novel is waiting to be submitted or is deep in progress. (Seriously, the last time someone wished me “good luck” on my novel I almost busted a gasket. I wanted to tell them it has nothing to do with luck; that it’s hard work and my own procrastination; that they could take their luck and shove it right … oh, sorry.)

Right around the time I stopped wishing people good luck, I started to notice my own response to when people would compliment me on the coolness of my job as a writer or editor. “How awesome is that?” they’d say, and I’d return, inevitably and with great enthusiasm, “Mmmhmmm! It is! I got lucky.”

But an older friend was not fooled, nor was she taken by what I now realize was a repeated lame attempt at modesty. “Nope. Nope. Not luck. Work. Dedication,” she said.

Well…yeah. And passion, maybe. A little bit of recklessness. But she was right: Not luck.

Since I’ve stopped looking at events in my life as lucky, and stopped wishing people good luck, I’ve been able to appreciate more deeply the work that goes into the various elements of our lives. I’m so grateful for this tiny shift of perspective. It changes things, when you realize how much “luck” you’ve been sowing your own life with, just by dint of good preparation and creating opportunities for yourself. I think it behooves us to recognize the same preparation in others.

You don’t have to stop wishing people good luck. But I do have a few parting thoughts for you:

  • Assess the good things currently in your life: What work went into making them happen? Jot these down somewhere.
  • When you want to wish someone “Good luck,” ask yourself what you’re really hoping will happen for them that day.
  • Consider the people in your life who have helped you to get where you are. You might consider yourself lucky to have them in your life, but I’m betting it wasn’t luck that brought you together.

Now, instead of wishing people “good luck,” I wish them all the very best. What phrases do you use besides “good luck”? Tell me in the comments below.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Networking: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

I’m a huge fan of making a living off of doing what I love. If this sounds obvious, or cliché, consider that so many writers don’t believe they can earn enough to have a career in writing: It’s a “hobby,” or a “passion” rather than a job. This makes me crazy.

I’m not the only one: writer and editor Jane Friedman also believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

…”When you see a successful writer and try to trace their path to success, keep in mind that what you see are only the visible aspects of what they have done. Behind the scenes are mentors, other relationships, and communities that contributed to their success.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 17)

I went to a college that worked really hard to help you to understand the value of networking, but I don’t think, when I graduated, that I understood exactly what that meant.

In the summer of 1996, this was underscored to great effect when I got accepted to the prestigious Radcliffe Publishing Course, now moved to Columbia University. At Radcliffe, it was easy to be dazzled: Morgan Entrekin. Steve Florio. The editor who had acquired Ethan Hawke’s first foray into fiction–these were just a few people who came to speak to us about their work. Mornings and afternoons were lectures and exercises. And every afternoon, there was sherry hour, where the guest faculty would be on hand to talk in a casual setting to us about–well, I don’t know what. I never actually spoke with any of them outside of class. But I do know that when I graduated from RPC, after six weeks of classes and getting lost on the Harvard campus, I was pretty sure that I would land a job, no problem. I had three job offers, one of which came from someone who was an RPC graduate herself, and took that one.

Later, when I was looking for another job, I turned to RPC. And nothing came of it. Years later, when I was launching my book, I turned to RPC again. And nothing came of that, either.

Wanna know why? Because I didn’t invest in any of those relationships. I learned a lot about publishing, some of which I still use today, and I met a lot of really great people, and I utterly failed to leverage any relationships with people who were in decision-making positions.

I really only made a few close friends while I was at Radcliffe. One of those girls became my first New York roommate; the other was a pretty steady friend throughout my life in New York.

Later, when I had a bona fide freelance career of my own and a lot more experience with, uh, basic people skills, I applied to be a member of a critique group. One of them I stuck with for a couple of months, the other I was part of for a whole few years, I think. And then at some point I decided to go for my master of fine arts, because, despite my relative success with marketing copy and personal essays and short stories, the big Kahuna of my writing career was still escaping me: I had drafted several novels, had them critiqued, sent them to agents, with no success: I had a plot problem. An MFA would fix it.

At the MFA, I made a lot of friends. I met a ton of guest faculty members, and I worked really hard to keep in touch with the ones whose work really resonated with me. I revised my novel (the third of three manuscripts I had knocking around in my drawer) during the MFA, drew up synopses and query letters, and finally sold the damn thing a year and a half after graduation. (I fixed my plot problem.)

But I did not do this in a vacuum, like I went through the Radcliffe course. (I have just remembered I had a boyfriend that summer, too, which is…like, dumb. I was not on campus a lot. I missed out on a lot!) Because our MFA had residencies, we were all basically breathing each other’s work and stories and stuff for ten days, twice a year. So when I went to revise the book, I leaned on members of my co-hort. When I agonized over plot issues, I turned to my co-hort. When I could not see the way out of a synopsis, I turned to my co-hort.

When I pitched the thing, I leaned on faculty members I had met, both to introduce me to their agents and to take a first look at the thing as agents. And I also kept in touch with faculty members I just liked, as people, even if their work wasn’t remotely related to the work I was pitching.

Fast forward, okay? The book sold, everyone who had had a hand in it championed it, it went into its fourth printing four months after its release date. Some college professors (one of whom I met via my MFA) taught it in classes.

At my first bookstore event, at Women and Children First, in Chicago, lots of people showed up, including some members of that long-ago critique group. And some new friends I’d met recently on the Internet. And the girl who used to live upstairs from us, ten long years before my book ever was a possibility.

While I was in Chicago, I also did a library event. It had been set up by a woman I met at my brother’s wedding. And later that month, I did a few more events in Michigan, which had been set up by a woman I met on Twitter, when we were both working on marketing projects that involved running.

I also want to point out, briefly, that I got into literary magazine editing because of an alumna of my MFA program. And I run a writer’s retreat with some members of my MFA co-hort. And that members of the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for support my writing and my on-the-side watercolor work. And that I’m part of a really supportive online group of marketing and copy experts who help each other through everything, including harrowing book launches and the day my dog was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and then cancer. That group not only supports my creative work, they also hire me.

I’m only a part of that group because one of the women in it read an essay of mine that she liked, and reached out.

Someone I published a few years ago at Tahoma Literary Review invited me to be on a panel last year, and on this panel with me was a woman who now runs a writing center. Our literary magazine will now partake in the writing conference the center sponsors. And earlier this year, when I was doing some research on a topic I was fairly new to, I reached out to a writer I had published and spoken to extensively in the editing process. And a guy I met at a conference four years ago had me on a panel two years ago with a woman I just had teach at the writer’s retreat I mentioned earlier.

I think I have finally learned what it means to network. What it really means is contributing to a community (Friedman addresses the concept of “literary citizenship” on pages 19-21).

Listen. You never know where you’ll find the supporters of your success. I like to think of them as my people, because it’s not just that they’re supporting me, is it? We all support each other’s work, eventually. So keep your eyes open, sure, but also be cognizant that not everyone you meet will be a connection, or should be leveraged. It all works best when it happens naturally.

Lessons learned, and tips:

  • Meeting someone really high up is great, but you might get more mileage out of someone you meet who’s at your same “level.” If you’re working on a novel, you’ll have more to talk about with someone who’s also working on a novel, for instance. There’s also more give-and-take in this relationship; you are more likely to be able to return the favor to someone who’s working at your level. (Steve Florio was never going to read my short fiction and pass it on to The New Yorker‘s Fiction Editor, amirite?)
  • Get to know the people who are “outside your genre.” This is in quotes, because I think maybe some folks think that only writers want to hear about writing. Or that you should only be spending time with editors and writers and agents, if you’re going to take your craft seriously. Well, that might be true for some, but it wasn’t for me. People who want to hear from you are out there, and the ripple effect is powerful. Our world is highly connected now, so don’t think you should just be talking to people who are “literary.”
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out for a deeper relationship. Some of my closest acquaintances—and friends–are people I met via Twitter first, and then in real life. (My mother still cannot get over this.) It is a remarkable time to be a writer—and a person in general. My life is richer for the people I have met via the Internet.
  • Confidence in your own work and status can help in networking. When I went to Radcliffe, I think I probably wasn’t as confident as I would have liked to be. When you’re presented with a golden networking opportunity like the six weeks of that course, you want to be ready to take advantage of it, feel like you have something to contribute to the conversation. But don’t worry—opportunities do present themselves when you’re ready to take them on.

Next time around we’ll tackle something little lighter: how much “luck” plays into publishing.

Who do you see as being supporters of your success? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The Way We Love Books

The other day, I posted a photo of me and the mister’s four sets of spectacles, with the caption “House of nerds.” A Dick Francis novel I was in the middle of re-reading sat face-down next to them, as an aside.

The nerdery got laughs; the Dick Francis unearthed a bunch of delightful commentary, and then, a well-meaning friend posted this:

Commenter writes, "May I comment on how you shouldn't put your books down like that?"

Granted, this did not sit well with me. It might be because this has been a solid week of f**kery from all sides, but I’ll temper that by saying this has never sat quite right with me. First of all, my books, my way, okay, but second of all, this rankles particularly because I used to be this kind of person, the kind of person who would gasp if someone dog-eared pages; who said she’d rather die than mark up a book, who who who who…

You know.

And then, sometime in my mid-30s, I realized this was a front, a way for me to be seen as a serious “book person.” Moreover, it was sillypants: What the frock do I care how other people treat their books?

Another friend later weighed in on that post, saying, “It’s a mass-market paperback, not a first-edition Dashiell Hammett,” and Well-Meaning Friend wrote something back about how all books should be treated with care and how they are all the same. Which is, of course, a load of horse shit, and I do mean that in a draft-horse-sized way: mass market paperbacks were made to be accessible to people who don’t want to lay out as much money for books; their dollar value is inherently different, and historically, they may not carry the same weight. (Yeah, okay, literally, too.)

My initial comment to the whole “treat your books with care” argument was gut-check: As a writer, my books are tools of my trade, and I treat them the way I’d treat any tool: I’ll use them as I see fit, even if that includes putting them down face-down, dog-earing them, or marking them up, so they can continue to be valuable to me as tools.

Deeper down, it looks like this:

Books are utilitarian, objects of commerce. Their value is not in pristine covers and unmarked pages. Their value is in the impression you glean from them, in your excitement in passing them on; in the joy–or sense of relaxation–you get from returning to a particular book time and again.

Were I to treat books with the care Well-Meaning Friend wants me to take, I wouldn’t own any books, and therefore I’d be unable to pass them on: I’d just spend all my time at the library, in temperature-controlled rooms. I’d never know the joy of reading outdoors, under a tree, or on a beach. I’d never know what it’s like to take refuge in a book on deployment, where I can crack it open and digest a few pages before finally falling asleep, unwittingly smashing mosquitos between its covers and imprinting them with sweat from my fingers.

So yes. Books are valuable. But they are also companions. They go with me wherever. They are the tools of my trade. But they are also well loved, like my favorite pair of jeans, or my beat-up notebooks. I cannot do without them, just like I cannot do without pencils or pens and paper, and so they are bound to retain some marks of their travails.

Of course there are exceptions. A compilation of art I lugged home from England that had been passed down to me from a friend who’d had it passed down from her stepfather in the 70s, for instance. That lives on a shelf and gets dusted and bemoaned whenever a new fray appears in its book binding. The ARC of Twilight, which I read once and hated. Still, it’s a keepsake, a gift from a friend who used to work in publishing. Even that has its marks, from being carried around in my work bag on my commute while I was reading it.

This, I think, might also be the reason that I can’t really sink into an e-book. Yes, yes, there is no tactile sense of page, of progress, but there is also no sense of making something truly your own, of havingness, with an e-book. There is no “Oops, dropped it into the bathtub,” there is no “I liked this section, so I’m going to mark it up for later,” there is no “I can use this in my next class, so it needs a dog-ear or a Post-It so I remember to photocopy it for my class.” There is no sense of memory. “Hey, what’s that mark from? Is that…oh, right, that’s from that day I was eating sherbet and reading on the porch.” “What’s that…is that…is that beer? Oh, right, from reading at the brewery.” Sometimes, I open books and find foliage from the day a shedding tree dropped a leaf or a flower into the book I was reading, and that never fails to make me smile.

Of course, the final word is this: What do I care how you treat your books? It’s your library. Do as you see fit.

books open to show post-it flags; highlighted sections; ink annotations

(left to right: my own novel; Tiger Reading, by Gish Jen; The Orde-Lees Diaries, Thomas Orde-Lees)

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Grief

A little over a month ago, my dog died. We had to make the decision for him, and Jim and my parents had to do it: I had frittered off to England for some research on my novel-in-progress.

When Sprocket was near the end of his life (we didn’t know it with certainty until it became obvious he was in pain), I said to a close friend that I was watching myself very closely: that seminal events by definition chart who you will be, but they also show, to a degree, who you are. I have seen other people’s grief, but I wasn’t sure what I hoped would happen to me.

For many reasons watching a pet die is different from what happens to you when a close friend or relative dies. Pets are a reflection of you (yes, people are too, but just hang onto that thought for a moment), and they only ask that you love them and take care of them. People are so much more complex, and so, although I really hesitate to use the word “pure” in this context, maybe the relationship between a pet and a person is what we hope we can give to all the living beings in our lives, although things like clashing personalities and life events show us differently.

A pet’s world is tiny. It is you, your home, its pack. This small world allows for emotions that we might not otherwise exhibit.

But this post is not about that. This post is about the things that helped, that really helped, when things were really bad.

Getting on with it. Jim and I were far away from each other. But I was with my good friend Nic, who is one of those who just lets people get on with whatever it is they need to do. Grieving is one of those. It was 10AM or so California time when Jim asked if we could “talk,”–Nic and I looked at each other and said, “Uh oh”–and 6PM British time, and Nic and I were having a slow dinner, or drinks, in the little living room of the place we had rented. It was painfully teal, which is crazy, since I love teal. The chandelier had teal accents. I dripped slow tears the entire night and used a lot of toilet paper and paper towels. If I had been with someone who fussed, I may have felt mortified. But Nic just sat in the room with me, doing her thing while I was trying to do mine, and so I was perfectly fine snotting myself and just cleaning up the tears where they fell. Later, of course, I went into my room and cried horrible, wet-faced, drooling tears, and it probably helped that Nic and I were, believe it or not, in the middle of a task when Jim called to tell me what needed to be done, but still. Sometimes you just need a space to be sad.

Say everything you ever wanted to say before. We found out Sprocket had osteosarcoma in July. Between then and Sprocket’s final trip to the vet, there were two times when we thought we’d have to say goodbye. And there were the trips to the river, and trips to see friends, and weekly trips to Sprocket’s oncologist, where he got his radiation treatments. Every single time he went under anesthesia, I told him I loved him and I would see him soon, and that he was a good boy, and I thanked him for his many years of friendship. And each time we thought we’d have to say goodbye, my entire family did the same, especially the penultimate time, which happened the day before my brother and his family left us from their holiday visit. Everyone said goodbye; everyone said they loved him. My sister-in-law, who is a neat, tidy person, got down on her knees on Sprocket’s ratty old bed and hugged and kissed my dying dog on his head, and my niece sat close to him and patted him. My brother wrote to me the night Sprocket died. He wrote, “Everything that needed to be said was said.” My sister-in-law texted photos. And our vet sent a note that said we did the best we could, and that it was obvious how we cared for Sprocket. Those things together have me resolving to never leave things unsaid, even if they might be embarrassing to say. My mom, most taciturn of people when it comes to showing emotion, still says to me, “We gave him a good life, didn’t we?” For me, that means telling him at every opportunity how much he mattered, even if he didn’t speak the language, exactly.

Remember the good times. Oh, gosh. How people do like to say this. And yet, it is the truest of all things, that it really does help with the “terrible feelings of loss,” as our good friend Dan’s mother wrote to us. As I read Carol’s words, I had the same sense of skepticism I always have with what sound like well-worn platitudes, but then later that night, I could only fall asleep by remembering the feel of Sprocket’s perfect little cranium beneath my hand; his funny mustache and the whuffing he would do in our ears when he felt like we weren’t paying enough attention. Wet nose; cold tunnel-air from it; funny little toes gripping my palm when I told him to shake. And later, when we finally posted to facebook that we had said goodbye to Sprocket, we asked all of our friends to post their favorite stories or memories of him. We were not prepared for the hundreds of memories that came through, some with their own photographs. We laughed, and cried, and even though we were still apart from each other, this helped us individually, more than I can properly express.

Take joy in other people’s good fortune. I really worried that I would be one of those people who couldn’t stand to see other people with their dogs after Sprocket died. But I was in England at the time, and so there were dogs everywhere, happily going off on their own down trails and rolling in sand and also meandering around in bookstores. The evening after, Nic and I were messing around in a bookstore when a fat springer spaniel came in. It was smelling things, and I asked if I could pat it, and the thing sat on my foot and *barooooooed* randomly, and its owner said, “Flash! Flash! You must stop making that noise!” and I think I was so surprised, and so pleased, to hear myself laugh, even though I was sad, even though I couldn’t stop myself from telling her that my dog had just died. And when I finally got home and was jogging my usual hamster-wheel route around my neighborhood, I saw people with their dogs and spent all my time being grateful that these people had these creatures in their lives.

I don’t know if this grieving process will be the same as I get older. I’m sure I will learn more about it as time goes on. But these are the things I’ve learned, and maybe they will help you, too.

The very last photo I took of my boy.

The very last photo I took with my boy.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

My reading roundup: 2017

For the better part of the last two years I’ve been trying to do better at reading diversely. I already knew I wanted to read more books by women, but I’ve been espousing this idea of reading diversely using the U.S. Census as a convenient backbone.

The most recently available figures in terms of ethnic/racial breakdwon are:

  • 5.8% Asian
  • 13.3% Black
  • 17.8% Latinx/Hispanic (The U.S. Census notes that “Hispanics may be of any race” so are also counted in those applicable categories.)
  • 1.3% Native American

I read 60 books in 2017, and here’s where I ended up:

  • Books by Asian writers: 13%
  • Books by Black writers: 10%
  • Books by Latinx/Hispanic writers: 1.6%
  • Books by Native American writers: 0%

Well. That’s not so good. On the one hand, I’m glad I managed to read widely in my own ethnic makeup, but I definitely missed the mark in terms of reading works by Hispanic writers or works by Native American writers. If I’m generous to myself, and I extend my query to the last 100 books I read, just to make it easier in terms of math, my percentage of books read by Black writers falls even further, to 8%, and even though I gain a Latinx/Hispanic writer, well, that still puts me at a miserable 2%, far, far below where I want to be.

This year I will hope to do better. This year I will read at least one book by a Native American writer. I’d been meaning to pick up the Sherman Alexie memoir, and my own publisher, who is Latina, has a book out too, so…all things I can get cracking on. You can add me as a friend to see what I’ve been reading lately.

What’s are your reading resolutions for 2018? Tell me in the comments below.

books

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Cover Letters: A brief primer

Some of you may know that I edit prose for the Tahoma Literary Review. This submission period we had a little over a thousand submissions; by the time I’m done, I will have read somewhere between 350 and 400 pieces of fiction and given feedback on a little over half of those. (We have awesome fiction readers at TLR to help with the remainder of the workload, and poetry makes up a massive chunk of those thousand submissions.)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had some commentary and questions on what makes a good cover letter for a literary submission, so I thought I’d address that.

coverletter

First, some notes:

My policy with cover letters is so: I try to only read them after I’ve done with the submission. There are a lot of reasons for this, unconscious bias being chief among them, but because our submission engine defaults to showing me the cover letter when I open the submission, I usually will get a glance at them despite my best intentions before I get to the short story or essay itself.

Literary-magazine cover letters are different from the query letters you would write to a consumer magazine in that your piece for a literary magazine is already complete. But in some ways they are the same.

This advice is unique to this editor and to prose, but I’ll wager it covers a lot of things folks like to see in cover letters in general.

The no nos are easy: Don’t “Dear editor” me. Don’t say something like “most people think I’m drunk or on cocaine when they read my work.” And for God’s sake, do not say your writing is “picaresque,” or that it “redefines literature.” (I don’t know. This last one might be  a personal thing. *twitches.*) These are all things that have appeared in this reading period, by the way.

With that said, here are the YES, DO THISes of cover letters:

Please customize your letter. The person reading your submission is a person. With a name.

Please give me something that tells me you have actually read my magazine and/or know something of what we like to publish.*

*This is a gimme. Our editors are all online, as are our readers, and the magazine’s digital footprint is considerable.

You don’t have to tell me about your story or essay, but in nonfiction it can be especially helpful. In fiction I find people have a terrible time summing up their own work.

Please tell me a little bit about yourself. This is not a bio in third person. This is one or two lines about your most recent publications, maybe.

With all of that said, here’s what my standard cover letter for a literary submission looks like:

Dear XXXXX,

Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I admire X publication’s [insert unique feature here]

OR

We met [XX HERE] and I was happy to hear that you [UNIQUE THING ABOUT THIS EDITOR YOU LIKE OR WHATEVER HERE.]

I’m a prose editor for the Tahoma Literary Review, and my fiction is most recently published [XXX here]. My nonfiction can be found [XX].

Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing back from you.

All best,

Yi Shun Lai

Generally, it follows very basic rules:

  • Be concise.
  • Be polite and human. Remember you’re writing to a person, not a ‘bot. I’m not a fan of the one-line “cover letters” for this reason: it looks like I’m screening for data points rather than reading for a good essay or story.
  • Please don’t aggrandize your own work or style. That’s what I’m here for, should you publish with me, and your work should speak for itself, anyway.
  • Remember that your job is to do honor* to the work you are presenting to me. So you shouldn’t, as a friend described it to me recently, feel icky or gross about it. Look at it as giving your work due credit. Start there and you won’t feel icky–doing honor to something is not the same as, um, pimping it.

Okay? In the end, I think it comes down to this: Where are you writing this letter from? Are you writing it from a position that says you want to put something new into this world of reading? Yes? Then put that foot forward.

Okay. Now. Go forth and write. TLR opens to submission again 1 January 2018. Until then, ask me any questions below.

*I stole this from Alex Maslansky, bookseller at Stories Books and Café in LA. I have used it a bajillion times and I’ll keep on using it. It makes sense.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.