Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dispelling the Glamour of Publishing

glam·our \ˈgla-mər\
1 : a magic spell
2 : an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness

The thought of being published is one that sends many budding writers into glassy-eyed euphoria. It seems like the ultimate goal, the pinnacle, the achievement that finally makes us “real” authors. The publishing dream holds us in thrall until finally, ecstatically, it happens-- and then the glamour often evaporates, leaving authors confused, bitter, and less confident than they were before. 

It’s crucial that, as writers, we take a careful, realistic look at the publishing world and adjust our expectations to fit. This week I read a lot about publishing, and even though I’ve been a writer for quite some time, I’ve never given much thought to the other side. I almost prefer not to know how editors and agents do their work. I just want to send my work off into the ether, where some disembodied hands will accept it in silence and I can go on about my life not thinking about the real people in NYC or wherever who are reading my novel and judging it with their shrewd, cool, jaded eyes. Yet it’s important to understand the publishing process from the moment the manuscript leaves you to the day it appears on a bookstore shelf. Below are some of the more interesting things I learned.

“Four months after your book is published, it’s dead.” -Carolyn See. No, seriously. The bookstore will take down unsold copies of your book and ship them back. This blew my mind. You have to do everything in your power before and during those four months to make sure that people get it while it’s hot.

Editors are nearly as angsty as writers. In Betsy Lerner’s piece “What Editors Want,” she gives a revealing account of what it’s actually like for editors on the other side of what I always imagine are big, imposing, mahogany desks. They become hopeless when the good submissions dry up, they get totally jazzed about projects only to be shot down in meetings, they get criticized for the bad novels they edit but get no praise for the good ones, and they have to deal with authors at their worst: “needy..., egomaniacal, delusional, paranoid, insecure, and arrogant.” This makes me want to be kind to any future editors of mine and maybe bake them some cookies.

Self-publishing is... complicated. I have no desire to self-pub, despite the urgings of (not-so-literary) friends and family. I also have no desire to read self-pubbed work. To me-- and this is probably unfair-- it screams, “I am too impatient, too arrogant, or just too crappy of a writer to do it the hard way.” There are, of course, great self-pubbing authors and there have been numerous success stories, like this one. But for every Cinderella, there seem to be hundreds of ugly stepsisters. Further, as Jackie Mitchard notes, self-publishing usually robs you of feedback from editors and agents who could make the difference between your work being a dud or a bestseller. In Jane Friedman’s blog post on how to get published, she uses the phrase “meaningfully published,” which to me sums up the difference between self-pubbing and traditional publishing.

So what do editors want? In Editors on Editing, Gerald Gross gives his standard reply when someone asks him this question: “Something I haven’t seen before.” Originality goes a long way in getting the attention of agents and editors. Good writing and professionalism are key, of course, but pitching a surprising and intriguing idea can be the best way to get your foot in the door.

The Jehovah’s Witness approach. Should you pack up and go visit editors in NYC with a new pair of heels on and a list of ideas in your hand? Carolyn See says yes-- in fact, she devotes a chapter to how you should go about it in Making a Literary Life. She thinks you should let them know you’re coming and preferably have already sent them some nice notes about their work over the years, but you should definitely go. Jane Friedman dismisses the idea immediately, suggesting that aspiring authors seeking connections go to a writer’s conference instead. Who’s right? I hope Friedman is. The idea of showing up on an editor’s doorstep like a sweeper salesman is horrifying to me (though the whole trip to NYC thing sounds all right...). I feel like I would be falling all over myself with nerves in that situation. Agents and editors at conferences are often there for new clients, so it doesn’t seem like such an imposition, but it also limits the number of professionals you have access to. Still not sure about this one.

It’s not likely your first attempt will get published. It will likely be your second, third, or fourth attempt.” -Jane Friedman. Okay, I already knew this. I mean, I’m living it. But it’s still nice to hear that I’m normal.

Your book is your baby. You think you can just pop out a baby and hand it to someone else and say, “Here, make this kid a star,” outside of some silly novel (which yours had better not be)? - Carolyn See (in, you know, more professional phrasing). I’ll end with another thought from See. After your book is sold, you don’t get to rest on your laurels-- you don’t even have any laurels yet, really. Your job isn’t over. As the author, you should be proactive about marketing your book. The publisher will only do so much, especially if yours isn’t one of the handful of new releases they have decided to really push that season. Make contacts whenever you can, and when your book is about to come out, flip through the Rolodex and use whatever means are at your disposal to get people interested. It may not be glamorous, but you’ll probably never get to the truly glamorous parts if you don’t put in extra effort from the beginning.

Have any tips on publishing? Any thoughts on self-pubbing, the role of editors, or that contentious NYC trip? Share below!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Lessons from First Book Authors and Grad School Survivors

Every year for the past eight, Ball State's English Department has held the “In Print Festival of First Books,” a two-day event in which authors who have recently published their first book come to read, speak, and answer questions. This week I went to my first In Print Festival. This is a shameful confession for me, because I’ve been at BSU for three years and I’ve never taken advantage of this extraordinary opportunity to meet and learn from talented, published writers. Honestly, I’d heard of it before, but never realized what a fun and enlightening experience it could be.

This year’s writers were Elena Passarello (author of the nonfiction essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat), Eugene Cross (author of story collection Fires of Our Choosing), Marcus Wicker (author of poetry collection Maybe the Saddest Thing), and Sarah Wells (managing editor for River Teeth and Ashland Poetry Press, as well as a poet and nonfiction writer). Each of them brought unique and helpful advice to the table.

Another recent event at BSU was the Graduate School for Creative Writers Panel featuring professors who had MFAs or doctorates in Creative Writing. I’ll be honest, I mostly went because it was required for my class-- I have almost zero interest in grad school. I don’t want to teach and I don’t need deadlines to keep me writing, so the only benefit would be the possibility of learning more about the craft. While that’s nothing to set aside lightly, I’m content with my B.A., at least for now. Still, I learned a lot about grad school that I didn’t know before.

Here are a few of this week’s lessons that were most valuable to me:

1. Bust out the red pen. Elena, Marcus, and Eugene all agreed that their finished pieces barely even resemble their first drafts. Marcus Wicker said that revision is all about time, distance, and being ruthless with your work. I feel like revision is the broken hammer in my writing toolbox, so I soak up any tips on it like a sponge.

2. Hit the books. Elena Passarello spoke of the months of research that went into each of her pop-culture laden essays. This was encouraging to me because I’ve always envied non-fiction authors who (I thought) were able to just spout off about celebrities and movies and songs and famous events. Now I know that, at least for some, this knowledge isn’t just lying around in their brains, it’s the result of hard work and digging. I can do that!

3. Make time for your writing. Even these four published authors face the distractions that plague me (and probably you): TV, the internet, family and friends. But they approach writing like a job, a responsibility, which I like. If you’re approaching it like a hobby, it will end up taking second place to a lot of other things in your life. Sarah Wells, who is married with two kids and has an ungodly demanding job, still finds time to be productive-- so can I.

4. Never give up. Eugene Cross shared how he was rejected time and again, felt uncertain and inadequate, and even moved back home to live with his mother. Of course, his story has a happy ending (or rather, a happy new beginning). The reason he’s now a published author? Perseverance, of course: not just submitting over and over, but continuing to polish his old work and create more.

5. Only fools rush in. If you are considering grad school, be aware of your reasons and be certain they make sense. Don’t go because not being in school scares you or because you don’t know what to do next. Don’t go because you need someone looking over your shoulder in order to stay on track-- do you really think you’ll be any different with an MFA under your belt? It’s often better to take a few years off and figure yourself out than to leap directly into grad school after college.

6. Find writers you trust. Marcus talked a lot about sending his poems to writer friends for feedback or calling one of them up when he’s in a rut in order to get some fresh inspiration. Having a circle of writers who will be honest and encouraging is essential. Sarah mentioned a more experienced writer who took her under his wing. Mentors are also extremely important-- harder to find and keep, but worth the effort.

7. Don't hold back. Eugene, whose stories are often very sad, fielded a question about how dark he was willing to go. He stressed that the most important thing is to be true to the characters and the work, no matter how you think other people will react to it. I like this because my short stories almost always have someone dying or in crisis. As Janet Burroway says, “Only trouble is interesting.”

8. Challenge yourself. Experiment. Marcus is currently working on a set of sonnets, a big change from his more freeform work in Maybe the Saddest Thing. Elena is departing from the theme of her first collection, the human voice, and writing essays about those who can’t speak: animals. Both feel that they are growing as writers because of the new parameters they have set for themselves. Don’t be a one-trick pony.

9. Read using Eugene’s “spiderweb” method: Find a book (or essay/poem/story, whatever) that you love, and look at who the author thanks, the name of the publisher, etc. Seek out the other authors related to that book, read their work, and find related writers, ad infinitum. 

10. It’s not easy for anyone. We all have dreams and goals for ourselves as writers, but we have to be flexible with the timeframe and not despair when we fail. Being willing to accept where you are in your career and use the time and tools at your disposal is key to getting ahead.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Talismans, Amulets, and Other Enchanted Things

I have a very nerdy confession to make: I own a necklace of the sword Tetsusaiga from the manga/anime series InuYasha. And I wear it (usually under my shirt, so as not to freak people out-- I’m not ashamed of the nerdy aspect, but when people see a 2-inch sword hanging from your neck, they tend to get the wrong idea). It’s not exactly in line with my usual style, but it does something for me that most of my other jewelry doesn’t by reminding me of the series and its strong, brave characters-- which makes me feel brave as well. I often wear the Tetsusaiga when I have a class presentation, an important meeting, a tough workout, or a dentist appointment. Not exactly challenges that would make InuYasha and Kagome break a sweat, but we can’t all be heroes!

I think of the Tetsusaiga as my talisman. Even though I know it’s not magic, it has an effect on my mood that is undeniable. In fantasy, there are countless examples of necklaces, charms, rings, crowns, books, stones, statuettes, staffs, weapons, and other inanimate objects that are imbued with magic, designed to protect and empower or curse and destroy. Often, the magic of these objects is less effective than the character’s belief in and relationship to them. Think of the sword of Godric Gryffindor, which can appear to any true Gryffindor: it doesn’t create courage out of nothing, it lends strength to courage that is already there. Or, to return to InuYasha, consider Tenseiga, the sword of InuYasha’s bloodthirsty half-brother, Sesshomaru. It brings back the recently dead, a quality that over time helps Sesshomaru reveal his more sympathetic side. 

These objects serve many purposes for authors. They can be used to represent a character’s struggle, to exemplify a flaw or virtue, or to inspire a character who might otherwise chicken out. The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy-- arguably the greatest work of fantasy in existence-- is centered around the One Ring and its dark influence. It tempts Galadriel, it twists Boromir’s mind, it turned Gollum into a nightmarish creature, and it nearly destroys Frodo. It breeds treachery, envy, hatred, and madness, but it often does so by bringing forth the deep secrets and vices in a person’s heart. 

There are a thousand others to be named: Horcruxes, the light of Eärendil, the Hero’s Crown, the various Zanpakutō, the sköldpadda, the Abhorsen’s bells, the Holy Grail-- and all of them serve to develop character in some way. Enchanted objects are very useful for fantasy writers as long as we don’t lose sight of their purpose. They’re unimportant in and of themselves. It’s how our characters relate to, use, and are changed by them that matters.
Got a favorite enchanted object? See another use for them in writing? Share your thoughts!