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Shade Mountain Press, on Small Presses: Live-Blogging The Business of Being a Writer

This is Part 7 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-6 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.

“If you undertake the submission process without an agent, you’ll have to evaluate the qualities of small presses, and look for signs that they will be a good business partner and likely to produce a successful book….Here are some questions to ask when researching small publishers or digital-only presses.” [The Business of Being a Writer, page 102]

Friedman lists some very good questions to ask of any small publisher, and I thought this would be a great opportunity for you to hear from an actual small press, and one I have some experience with. I asked Rosalie Morales Kearns, the publisher of Shade Mountain Press, to weigh in.  (Shade Mountain is also the publisher of my debut novel.)

watercolor of brown tree with red books as fruit.

Here are Morales Kearn’s answers to Friedman’s questions.

Where are [the press’s] books distributed?

Our distributor is Small Press Distribution (SPD), which sells its titles to “independent book stores, chain stores, other wholesalers, jobbers (who sell to libraries), libraries and on-line booksellers” (this quote is from SPD’s handbook for publishers, available online).

Does the publisher invest in a print run or use print-on-demand only?

We do print runs, for several reasons. We had to have finished books, not advance review copies, to show to our distributor when we applied to be added to their list. Also, the problem with using a typical print-on-demand (POD) purveyor with distribution through Ingram, for example, is that many bookstores simply won’t stock POD books, because (1) there are issues with returning unsold books; and (2) there’s a perception that POD books simply aren’t the same quality (in terms of layout, paper, printing, and binding) as more traditionally printed books.

For digital-only publishers, what value do they provide that you need?

I would advise authors to think long and hard before having their book published in ebook format only. Many review venues and literary awards simply won’t consider books that are ebook-only.

For the author, there’s really no down side to having a book that’s both ebook and print, but a very small operation like Shade Mountain press may find that the record-keeping tasks become onerous after the first year or so. This is why I’ve given the ebook distribution rights of our earlier titles back to our authors.

What’s the publisher’s editing process like? Will you be assigned an editor?

This is a good question, but I’m not sure how informative it will be to get an answer. What a publisher thinks is adequate might not be the same as what an author thinks. It’s pretty common for small presses to do very minimal editing, and the expectation is that the author is responsible for the proofreading stage, and possibly all the stages, of the editing process beyond some light feedback. Since I’ve been a freelance copyeditor for more than two decades, I do content and copy editing myself, and hire a professional proofreader.

I definitely don’t expect my authors to catch the mistakes that are still on the page. That’s just not realistic.

What marketing and promotion do your titles receive?

This is probably the most difficult part for a first-time author to understand. And some small-press publishers don’t have a firm grasp on promotional matters either. For some small presses, promotion tends to be as minimal as editing, and if you’re lucky, your publisher will admit to that up front. But your publisher may think that what they’re doing is perfectly adequate, and won’t spell out what you as author can do to participate in promotional efforts.

Try to get clarity from your publisher about when they send out advance review copies (ARCs), and in what format. The major pre-publication review venues want that ARC at least four months in advance of the pub date, and preferably earlier than that. Many others want a similar lead time, and won’t consider publishing a review of a book anytime past its pub date. Also, in my experience, most reviewers still prefer hard-copy, not PDFs.

If your publisher says they’ll send out ten or twenty ARCs at their expense, ask whether they can print a larger number at your expense (if you can afford it). You will need to start researching at least six months ahead of time, preferably longer, to find out what reviewers and what venues are publishing books like yours—meaning literary work from small presses by writers with not a lot of name recognition. Then get the contact info for those venues and ask the publisher to send press releases to those venues.

There are some small presses who do the minimum in terms of sending out ARCs, and they fully expect their authors to do most of the effort (creating a press release; drafting queries; finding venues and contact info; paying for extra ARCs). If that’s the case, it’s important that they communicate that clearly to the author.

Same thing with literary awards. Often the author needs to do the research on deadlines and requirements, and also to pay the submission fees, postage costs, etc.

For each book, Shade Mountain Press sends out queries to over a hundred editors and reviewers, and mails out about 50 or 60 ARCs, most of those going to editors/reviewers who have specifically requested them. I do the market research for both reviews and awards. I definitely don’t expect my authors to do it. By the same token, that workload is partly the reason why I usually publish only one title a year!

How can [the author] terminate the deal?

This varies by publisher, but there should be some provision for this in the contract. Make sure it’s there.

Can [the author] speak to recent authors?

This is a great question, and the answer is yes, especially if you can talk with a writer whose book has been out for a year or more. Ask them how many reviews the book has received, and of those, how many were a result of the publisher’s efforts. Same thing with awards.

And one more thing…

One general thing I would add is that if your manuscript has been accepted by a small press, bear in mind that you’re not dealing with Random House, Simon & Schuster, etc. Chances are that the founders and editors are literary authors just like you, whose books have been published by other small presses. They’re not necessarily experts in publishing, but by the same token, they’re not doing this to get rich—or in many cases to get ANY income at all. They’re trying to expand the boundaries of literature, draw attention to work the mainstream overlooks, etc. They’re trying to participate in and give back to the literary community. So please don’t approach the contract discussion with an attitude of suspicion, as if these are people who are looking to rip you off.

Thanks, Rosalie! Myself and all the women under Shade Mountain’s aegis are so proud to call you our publisher. And now, some takeaways from my own perspective of working with a small press:

  • Always ask to speak to prior authors. These interviews are invaluable, for so many reasons. (I made a friend out of mine!)
  • Know and understand the contract offered by each publisher before you sign. Do not get all willy-nilly excited and sign shit. (This is probably #lifelessons, actually.)
  • Pay attention to the rights you can assume if they’re not spelled out in the contract. Mine gave me audio and film and TV rights, and now, ebook rights. Pretty cool. Think of all the ways to be creative!

What things do you want to see in a relationship with a publisher? Tell me in the comments below. And next Monday, keep an eye out for a post on your MC’s motivations, part of how to pitch your book. 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

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 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.

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.

Of Obituaries and the Passing of Regrets, Part 1

I spent a good amount of time last week editing obituaries for my day job. While such a task can feel honorary, part of the work made me sad. Not for the passing of the people, exactly–most of them were old and seemed to have lived full lives–but more for the way in which we commemorate the ones who have gone before.

Within the 21 obituaries I edited, I came across several mentions of service clubs and church activities. There was talk of having contributed to community by service on housing associations. Several had served in the military. One talked about a lifelong passion for planes (the obit itself was airplane-themed, tying the deceased’s birth to Lucky Lindy’s flight one year before across the Atlantic). Every single one of them mentioned work. Only two or three mentioned the deceased’s personality, and that, I think, is what really had me wondering: What’s our real legacy in this life? In the end, should we be aiming more for the types of notes we left in each other’s yearbooks senior year–“You were always nice to me”–than a list of accolades, which we won’t be able to enjoy in the afterlife, and which our descendants and loved ones will only be able to keep under glass and look at in the years after our passing?

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(via Kelly Davio.)

Last week, my book turned 1. Originally, this was going to be a post about the things I learned over the course of the year. I think now I’ll save that for another post–soon, I promise–and talk to you instead about a guy I knew in college, a writer named Gerald McDermott. To save you from going to Wikipedia, I’ll briefly tell you these facts: He wrote and illustrated children’s books, and he also made some short films.

He was also my first real brush with the world of publishing. He came to speak at my alma mater. I don’t remember what he talked about, exactly–I think it was about mythology, since he was an expert in that–and he also read his Caldecott-winning book _Arrow to the Sun_ to us.

Arrow-to-the-Sun

The most important fact of all is that he was generous. He was kind, and keen to help someone like me, who was interested in book publishing. We had a few e-mail exchanges after he came to talk, even after graduation, and he always was responsive. He made me feel like I could get to that world if I wanted to. In the end, I didn’t go into children’s publishing or picture books, and I think our last exchange may have been–gosh, not long after I moved to New York, I guess, so three years or so after I met him. A long time ago.

At any rate, I still remember his openness. The fact that he was so willing to help. I didn’t know or understand the Caldecott Medal when we met, but now that I know he won it years ago and was a close friend of Joseph Campbell, I am stunned that he had the time to exchange missives with a dopey college student who didn’t know any better than to not bother someone of his…time constraint.

Anyway, the day my book turned 1, I got a wild hair to write to Mr. McDermott again and tell him that I’d actually made something of myself in publishing. I think I owe some of my policy on helping new writers to him, although I didn’t really think of the connection until last Saturday.

We have the Internet now, so I didn’t have to go rooting through my desk drawers in my parents’ house looking for his business card. (I’m sure it’s still there somewhere.) I was super excited to write to him. I don’t know if I really cared whether or not he replied. I guess I just wanted him to know that he had made a difference.

And then I found out he died in 2012.

I don’t think I know how to rightly express to you what a crusher this was.

Gerald McDermott, January 31, 1941 – December 26, 2012

Gerald McDermott was a Nice Guy. He was interested in everything, and even when approached by bright-eyed, bushy-tailed college students who asked if they could be his intern right there on the spot, was unflappable. He answered all the questions and made every single one seem worth asking. He let people down gently, or maybe they were too obtuse to know otherwise, but this is about Gerald.

Gerald thought in big, bold lines and bright colors. His commitment of legends and myths to paper and film made them accessible to probably tens of thousands of people who would have never otherwise known about them. He was one of those rare storytellers who could make the most basic child’s lament come true: “I wish I could see this story in real life.” Lo, Gerald could make that happen.

Gerald had very friendly eyes. He had great laugh lines and crow’s feet, and a good beard. His e-mail style was exclamatory, happy to hear from you, even if there was never a single exclamation point.

This is what you need to know.*

Here is something else I would like you to know: If you met someone a long time ago and they made a difference, don’t wait. Send them an email, a piece of fan mail, ping them on their facebook page. Do this not because I’m sure every author/actor/whatever would love to hear from you. Do this because, if the goal of life is to make it through with no regrets (as I get older, I think this is a pretty good one), you don’t want to be stymied by something as idiotic as “Gee, I never wrote to them to tell them how great I think they are. What a wasted opportunity.”

Who would you like to write to? Why not do it, today? I don’t mean the famous types, either, guys. I mean, the people you just like, the ones who are famous to YOU. Go on. Pick up the phone. Drop a postcard. You won’t be sorry.

P.S. The guy who owns GeraldMcDermott.com now recognizes the former owner of the site by archiving McDermott’s old site on his server. I think this is such a nice gesture.

McDermott

 

*Some of you may know that the selection of McDermott’s book as a winner, and his interpretation of the tales he retold, were under scrutiny. This post isn’t about that, but you can read up on it here, if you like. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have. 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

What Do Editors Do, Anyway?

Over at one of my day jobs, I’m the nonfiction editor for the Tahoma Literary Review. I love it to pieces, even if sometimes the work makes my head spin. We read a lot of submissions over there, and we really only get to take a fraction–I do mean a literal fraction–of the work we get. (Over time, it has waffled between five and seven percent for the nonfiction category; in fiction and poetry it’s hovering around one percent.)

I have said this in other places, but I will repeat it here: When I get work from you, I consider it a very big deal. I consider it a gift, in fact. I felt the same when I was editing fiction, but nonfiction carries an added gravitas to me; it’s like we made a bond, the minute you decided to send me your work, because you chose me to tell your story to.

I almost don’t have to say this part, but I want to: When we edit your work, we are doing so because we have think we have found a gem in your piece. There is some other stuff covering it up, so we get out our little excavation brushes and we carefully, gently, work with you to brush some extraneous stuff away. Maybe use some tweezers. So glad we spent all that time playing “Operation” years ago, or in my case, so glad I finally learned to tweeze my eyebrows.

What is this stuff we are editing away, or asking you to add? Sometimes, it’s the language you use to cover up what you really mean. Sometimes, it’s the sweatsuit you put on because you don’t like the lines of your hips. Other times, it’s the TURN LEFT AT ALBUQUERQUE sign you put up for the reader, when really you mean, “Stay with me. Let’s go over here together.”

operation

We are here to help your fine, fine work really sparkle.

Okay. So what is the point of all this? Actually, it’s not the what we do that’s really interesting, it’s the why.

Yesterday, I got an email from a TLR contributor, Chris Arthur. One of his essays, “Glass,” has been listed in the Best American Essays 2016 volume as a “Notable” essay. People, I am chuffed to pieces. I am so pleased for Chris, and proud of the work we did together, and I want to let you know: When you get published? When you feel good about the work we’ve done together? When others recognize the work you’ve done to tell me your story and then polish it to its best possible form?

That’s why we do the work we do. And that’s why, every time something good happens to any TLR contributor, we want to know about it.

blue-tit

(Chris’s wonderful essay is about a blue tit crashing into his window, but it’s about oh, so much more than that. You can read it in TLR’s Vol. 2 No. 2, here.)

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Brain Flotsam 5

Welcome to brain flotsam, the weekly column where I tell you about some stuff I read, saw, or otherwise encountered.

A woman down the street from us waves with both arms when she sees us walking the dog. I like it when people wave with both arms. It seems so happy! enthusiastic! I think I may adopt this from now on.

This important opinion article, from a female firefighter, made me recall my own childhood. Apparently we tell our girls to “be careful” four times as often as we tell our boys. It’s making me check the way I think: Why do I constantly remind myself to be careful? Total situational awareness is one thing. Over-caution is another. Societally-created over-caution is yet another beast, and I’ll keep on fighting it within myself.

Last week, though, I caroomed down the Claremont Wilderness Trail on my bike with something like 10% brake functionality. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone out that day, since I’d already noticed they were soft. Hmmm.

I started re-reading Stephen King’s It recently. I’m reasonably sure I read it in high school, which is when one reads Stephen King books, after all. You guys. This book is remarkable, in aspiration and scope and sheer complexity. Six characters, all fully fleshed out by partway through; flashbacks that all totally make sense. Plus, somehow, proving to me once again that Stephen King really is a master at character above all else, the suspense of this thing lies not so much in the supernatural, but in the humanity of what is ostensibly the subplot.

It

On another note, I stopped reading a book recently, too: It’s called Look Who’s Back, and it presumes that Adolph Hitler somehow wakes up again in 2011 on a patch of grass in a Berlin park. After some bumbling around, he gets his own reality show, starts influencing people, and…and…you might be able to guess why I stopped reading it smack in the middle. *cough* Art imitating life, anyone? Still, it was entertaining for as long as I could stand it.

LookWhosBack

I also went to The Getty with my friend Jen. I hadn’t been there in ages. I like it for its collection, for the fact that it’s free, for the exhibitions it draws from its research department–and also, for the weather that sometimes slides up the hill and only up the hill, leaving the rest of LA seemingly alone. So cool.

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Plus, I read this curatorial note at an exhibit on illuminated manuscripts: “Turbans and a camel add an exotic air.” You know, as they would, unless you lived someplace where turbans and a camel were normal. Then you’d have to find some of those Hot Dog on a Stick costumes to add an exotic air with. You know?

hotdog

(photo: LasVegas.net)

Later on that night we went to an L.A. Kings’ game. There were lots of flashing lights.

I am such a dork.

That’s it for this week. See you next week!

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Brain Flotsam 4

Welcome back to Brain Flotsam, the weekly feature that touches on things I heard, read, and saw that made me go Hmmmm. Here’s what I encountered this week!

A tour of the British Isles in accents! I haven’t vetted this with my English pals yet. But I found it a very useful lesson in both accents AND *cough* geography.

I’ve decided to stop saying and writing “Best of luck.” To my ear, it sounds disingenuous, almost sarcastic–“Yeah, good luck with that“–and it nearly assumes that whatever it is the person is attempting, s/he’s going to need luck to get it done. I think “all best” is a good way to go.

I just started watching Star Trek. It feels a little bit funny, to immediately “know” that Spock is half-human; that the thing he’s doing to that guy’s neck is the Vulcan neck grip; that the guys in the red shirts are all likely to die. There’s no element of surprise or discovery for me. But still, I’m enjoying it to pieces.

I had a shock this week after reading a most undemanding book. It was called Penelope Goes to Portsmouth, and the edition I was reading had this cover on it:

PenelopePortsmouth2

I read it as light, fluffy, frisky modern lit. Like I said, it was completely undemanding work. But then I went to enter the book into Goodreads, and up popped this cover:

PenelopePortsmouth1

And suddenly I was like, o WOW. I had no idea I was reading outdated old-lady romance garbage! We are, as ever, visual creatures, aren’t we? (Capsule review: This book was really fun to read, if not predictable and not assuming a very sophisticated reader. But it was a nice, quick, one-day diversion.)

Pockets. Pockets are on my mind. Nearly all of my dresses–even the nicer ones–have pockets in them. I look for them. When I am out, I keep business cards, a small notebook and pen, lip balm, in them. And sometimes I store things in them–other people’s business cards, for instance. But pockets are also good for memories. This week I found this in the pocket of a dress I last wore in December, in England:

IMG_3735

It is a tiny propeller off a tiny airplane that was a toy in a Christmas cracker. It immediately sent me back, briefly, to an awesome evening with great friends. Pockets. Good for finding memories.

Tune in next week for more Brain Flotsam!

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Brain Flotsam 3

Welcome back to the weekly digest of things I saw, heard, or encountered this week that I thought you might like, too!

Check this awesome museum out: It’s the museum of endangered sound. Yes, sounds like the fax shriek, the AOL sign-in, and other things guaranteed to bring you back in time. via Stefan Bucher.

I liked these New York steps the way they were when I used to live at the top of them.

This cover, of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” from Linkin Park. What I love about this is how much the crowd gets into the song, singing along with the chorus. Some music transcends genre.

We went to visit Monterey this weekend, and checked out Heart Castle along the way. Here are some faces I noticed at the castle:

By the way, Hearst collected sarcophagi. What a weirdo. More importantly, the architect for Hearst Castle was Julia Morgan, one of the U.S.’s first female architects. Very cool.

And then we went to the aquarium. Otters. Octopuses. Lovely views of the water. And I bought this book, all about the sea. Stay tuned for a capsule review over at Tahoma Literary Review at the end of this month. sea

That’s all for this week. What did you see, encounter, hear, read?

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.