Friday, May 29, 2015
It's been an interesting week.
As some of you know, I've found myself in new territory this year. I finished the first draft of a novel that I love but that my agent doesn't. My original plan was to put it on the shelf for a while and move onto something else, another novel that I started a few years ago. Instead, I gave the draft to a trusted friend, a novelist who has a lot of experience in the field. He gave it a read and the verdict is in: he loved it. Maybe even a bit more than I'd hoped he would.
We met for coffee and had a long talk about agents. I learned some interesting things. My friend has had the same agent for over thirty years and they've had many disagreements. As one might expect, agents have biases. Depending on the kind of novel my friend turns in, he already has a sense if his agent will or won't like it. Agents also have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to editing. My friend listens carefully to his agent's suggestions and if he strongly disagrees, he then turns to his editor as a tie-breaker. Ultimately, my friend decides what stays and what goes.
It was empowering to be reminded that I, as the creator of the work, have the final say. I've generally approached criticism with an open mind and trust that when someone finds a problem with my work there must be an issue that ought to be addressed. I also trust in the expertise of others and think that those who ignore counsel do so at their own peril. And yet there's a time, I'm beginning to see, that maybe you need to trust yourself more.
I received a few great podcast suggestions after last week's blog post, one of them being OTHER PPL with Brad Listi (thanks to MWPA's Joshua Bodwell for the suggestion). Listi is the Marc Maron of the literary world and I've been immersing myself in his author interviews. One that stood out for me is a conversation with Stewart O'Nan. His approach is to work is to be slow and steady and to roll with the punches. Among his more traumatizing moments in the publishing business: the time his publicist left in the middle of a book launch and the time the entire staff of his publishing house was fired. Hearing these stories made my current squabble with my agent seem small. I've been writing professionally for twenty years and yet I'm still so green.
So now that I'm feeling confident, I will ride this wave and dive right in. I will spend the summer taking my friend's and my writing group's suggestions and power through another rewrite. I will "write a little every day, without hope, without despair" as prescribed by Isak Dinesen.
I am back.
Friday, May 15, 2015
I'm not one of those writers who can sit still for 10-12 hours. I can put in a good 3-4 hours before the quality drops off and I need to move around. With two young kids and many different obligations, I spend most of my time attending to other matters. When I'm not writing, though, I pop in my earbuds and listen to podcasts that feature books, writers, and the creative process. It makes me feel productive, even when I'm not.
Here are seven of my favorite podcasts:
Accomplished actors reading short fiction by great writers in front of a live audience--what's not to love? The mix of old and new writers gives listeners the chance to be reacquainted with revered storytellers and to discover new talent. Listening to actors read is a master class in how to perform a story.
The complete antithesis of SELECTED SHORTS, in that the stories are usually autobiographical and often told by regular people. The storytellers are not allowed to have any notes, but Moth editors help them shape the stories and emphasize certain beats before each performance. The stories are confessional, usually funny, and often heartbreaking. There's a lot to learn here about storytelling. The supportive audiences are a good reminder for all of us who have to speak in public that most audiences are on your side.
A WAY WITH WORDS
Etymology at its most entertaining. Hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett field questions from callers about the origins of phrases and words. The historical tidbits and cultural references revealed are fascinating. With a couple of puzzles thrown in, it's word nerd heaven.
WRITERS & COMPANY
The Canadian Broadcasting Company's Eleanor Wachtel is the queen of the literary interview. While the authors she interviews every week are the crème de la crème of the writing world, the real star of the podcast is Wachtel herself. Unlike many interviewers who seem to have superficial knowledge of the book they are discussing, Wachtel is a thorough, informed reader. She is not only versed in an author's current book, but his entire oeuvre. Wachtel also has a firm grasp of the author's history and makes fascinating connections between his work and his past--often to the surprise of the author himself.
THE LEONARD LOPATE SHOW
Lopate interviews a range of guests, many of them writers and artists. Unlike Eleanor Wachtel, Lopate seems to have a superficial grasp of any particular topic he is covering, which allows him a layman's approach to any subject. His intense curiosity and sophistication lead to insightful questions that he fires off at terrifying speed. Many of this guests end up being thrown a little off-kilter, which allows for refreshing moments of candor.
THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY PODCAST
In depth interviews with interesting people (many of them authors) in front of a live audience. The conversation generally steers toward the creative process and the role of art in our lives. The tone is casual but insightful and reflective. It's an easy-listening podcast, yet still thought-provoking.
INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
This is where I go when I want to find out what's shakin' in the publishing industry. In-depth reviews, reports on publishing trends, and bestseller news make me feel like I'm still in the literary loop.
What's your favorite podcast for writers?
Friday, May 8, 2015
I've had quite a few moments of self-pity. I've felt spent, used up, obsolete. I've felt like the literary world is a grand ball and I am a wallflower, thrilled to be invited to the party but worried that I'll never really fit in. I've spent far too much time fretting over how much time has passed since my last novel. I've looked at the titles on the bestseller lists and decided that the type of books I write are a real long shot for that kind of success.
Blah, blah, blah. Funny how the universe seems to know just when to give you a good kick in the pants.
One day, while I was sulking and cleaning the house (to make myself feel worthy and useful), I was listening to an episode of The New York Public Library's podcast. It was an interview with Cheryl Strayed, the author of WILD. While they were talking about publishing and the writing process, the interviewer relayed this story told by EAT, PRAY, LOVE author Elizabeth Gilbert:
[I found the transcript of the story here.]
I have a friend who’s an Italian filmmaker of great artistic sensibility. After years of struggling to get his films made, he sent an anguished letter to his hero, the brilliant (and perhaps half-insane) German filmmaker Werner Herzog.
My friend complained about how difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood and how the world has lost its taste…etc, etc.
Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”
I repeat those words back to myself whenever I start to feel resentful, entitled, competitive or unappreciated with regard to my writing: “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.”
Wow. This was exactly what I needed to hear. I copied Herzog's quote and hung it above my desk.
I've been repeating this mantra to myself every day. It helps me remember that this life, this career is of my own choosing and by extension so are the problems that accompany it. No one has asked me to write. The world will continue on just fine if I don't. But I won't be all right--I'll be miserable. So I must write for me and no one else. I will let go of expectations. I will stop whining and get back to work.
And you know what? Suddenly, I felt the pressure lift off my shoulders. Last night, I was minding my own business, when ideas for the novel surfaced. I grabbed a notebook and starting writing as fast as I could. The well, it seemed, had been replenished.
Friday, May 1, 2015
As you know, Dear Blog Readers, I am an optimist by nature and tend to use this platform as a place of encouragement and support. While my view of the publishing industry may seem overly sunny at times, it's because my six years of working in NYC exposed me to many of the smart, well-intentioned, passionate people who work in the industry. Everyone I've ever met who works in publishing is crazy about books and getting good manuscripts into the hands of readers. I like to mention this as often as I can because it pains me to hear these people being repeatedly maligned by those who have little understanding of what really goes on in Big Publishing.
That being said, things can and do go wrong--and I would be remiss to gloss over the bad times. If I'm here to share my experience of the writing life, then I have to be honest when things get tough. Since we writers can be competitive and a little bit protective of our reputations, I think there's a tendency for us to avoid talking about failure. Maybe we don't want to appear vulnerable. Still, we do each other a disservice when pretend we everything is rosy all the time.
As I wrote in a previous post ("The Summer of Crazy"), last May I turned in my first draft of a novel I've been working on in fits and starts since my twins were born ten years ago. At the time, it felt terrific to finally complete something after being out of the publishing world for so long. I was sure it was my strongest work to date and was thrilled to finally show it to my agent. Unfortunately, my agent didn't share my enthusiasm. I cried for two days.
When we discussed the story at length, he raved about the writing but thought the plot needed some work. His comments were insightful and on the money. I felt better--energized and ready to get back to work. I did a round of revisions, pretty sure that I fixed all his points of concern.
I was wrong.
We had another discussion and this time I felt a little fuzzier about what I was supposed to aim for. I did a second round of revisions. I took an ax to the manuscript. It still fell short.
Third round of revisions. This time I felt like I was completely in the dark. I was losing confidence and interest. I was beginning to go against my own instincts. We both knew this was bad news. In the end, my agent's verdict was the same: it wasn't coming together the way he would like. Time to put it aside. Did I have any other stories to develop?
This was really tough news to hear. How could I possibly toss away something I've spent so much time and effort on, especially when I felt this was my best work and that maybe, just maybe he was wrong? I cried--though much less than the first time around--thinking about all the time I'd lost and how the manuscript wasn't any closer to publication. I went to war with myself, considering my options:
1) Throw in the towel? Every author has a book or two in their closet that had to be scrapped. This will be mine.
But I can't imagine giving up on this story. This is some of the best stuff I've ever written. My gut tells me that one way or another, something from this manuscript will be published.
2) Cannibalize the story? I could chop the novel up into separate short stories or use a character for something new so it wouldn't feel like a complete waste of time.
This is a realistic solution, but something I'd like to avoid having to do.
3) Step away from it for a while? Maybe if I put it aside for at least six months I could gain a little clarity and figure out on my own what needed to be fixed.
Aside from losing more time, this is a good plan.
4) Get a second opinion? Share it with a few trusted readers to get their take on it. If they feel the same way my agent does, then I'll have to really do some soul-searching.
Yes! Other opinions are exactly what I need right now. It can help me make an informed decision about what to do next.
5) Get a new agent? Maybe it's time to find someone else who can better articulate what the story needs or whose vision is closer to mine.
Something to consider, but not something I'm inclined to do. Aside from this hiccup, we have a good relationship and I trust him. Plus, he's a top agent. Trying to find another agent is a big risk on many levels.
So, after thinking it over a bit, my plan was to set it aside for a while and come back to it in six months with fresh eyes.
Then, an interesting thing happened: I met with my writing group. I had been giving them a few scenes at a time to get their opinions and the response was overwhelmingly positive. They seemed to love the characters and were very invested in the story. They couldn't wait to read the rest and wanted me to send all of it at once instead of in dribs and drabs. I couldn't believe it....and I was more confused than ever.
Suddenly, I found myself unable to put the story aside. I contacted a friend of mine who is a novelist and he offered to take a look. I'll be interested in hearing his point of view. I have a feeling he'll be a 'tiebreaker' of sorts and his feedback will give me a better sense of how to proceed.
In the meantime, I'm polishing an old short story I've been wanting to finish and hope to send it around in a few weeks. It will be nice to have something else to think about for a while.
Have you encountered a big setback in your writing career? How did you move forward?