Archive for August, 2008

Author Sells Royalties, Fights Troll

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

A few weeks ago, Tao Lin, poet, novelist, short story writer, and editor at 3:AM Magazine, moved into the futures business – offering to sell, for two thousand dollars each, six ten percent stakes in the royalties of his as yet unfinished second novel, due to be published next year by independent Brooklyn press Melville House. A full article about the venture can be found here, care of Publishers Weekly.

Interesting, I thought, and kind of smart. After all, if David Bowie can do it, why not Tao Lin? Make some money, get some publicity, and build an audience. A few days after I found out about the offer I went to check out Lin’s blog, Reader of Depressing Books, but I was too late. The offer had been closed. No matter — I probably wouldn’t have shelled out the cash anyway. Instead, I found myself drawn into some of the other posts, in particular one about how Lin had been flamed on the internet (by what he calls “a shit talking entity”) and so he was inviting his blog readers to chime in about what a good and honest person he is.

I’m intrigued. What is it that people are saying that could be so bad that he feels he has to mount such a public defense? Then I remember that I have heard about Lin before – on Gawker, no less – when I was directed, by a link, to this article from the Seattle based alt weekly The Stranger, in which Lin charts the various levels of writing greatness. I remember reading that piece and thinking — hmm, there are not many people I know who could compare Anne Tyler to a $9.98 Petco Gerbil and get away with it. I remember also thinking, there’s someone who is very clear-eyed about how this whole publishing world works.

So I hang out at Lin’s blog a little more and read more posts, and the comments left in response to those posts, and I deduce a few things. The first is that Lin has quite the following, and many of his acolytes leave comments that seem to be written in his own style. Ergo, Lin is already influencing people. Ergo, he must be original to some degree, and have things to say that others respond to. So what exactly is his style? (more…)

On Slush Piles, MFA Programs, and Becoming Who You Are

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

One of my students sent me a link to this Q & A by Salon advice columnist Cary Tennis. The question comes from a writer who got writer’s block after reading the slush pile at a publishing company. The writer asks:

How do you believe in your own writing? I don’t mean after it’s finished, but while you’re writing it? Is there a way to work with the imaginary reader instead of fighting with him/her?

Tennis takes the opportunity, in his answer, to wax rhapsodic about releasing yourself from your own judgment, and while he has certainly been taken to task for completely failing to answer his readers’ questions in the past, he has something valid to offer here, I think. You have to enjoy the exuberance of his response, at least.

We cannot judge harshly without also living in fear of being judged. And it is that creeping fear of being judged ourselves that can prevent us from writing fluidly and with ease and courage. So I say step out there and be really, really bad if you want. Who cares? Step out there and write the worst prose imaginable! So what? There’s no law. Do it with gusto. Write the worst possible prose. Write poems that are so bad you can smell them. Do it. Look around. Have you been arrested? Have you been fired? Are you being held up to public ridicule? No. It’s safe. It’s safe to write whatever you want. And you never know. Some of the most awful stuff might be the best. You don’t know. You can’t judge your own work or control how others respond to it.

I have to disagree slightly with the last bit, though. It certainly is hard to see your own work with any degree of objectivity, but with enough careful attention to craft I believe you can tell, in general terms, if your writing is hitting the mark or not. You’ll still need some trusted external readers to be sure, but your own responses will be truer and more reliable. That’s been my experience anyway, and it’s something I try and instill in my students. Through workshopping, writing, and reading great work, you are effectively educating your own internal imaginary reader, to phrase it in the letter writer’s own terms. Turning him or her into a useful friend, instead of a foe. There’s nothing more enabling than that. It’s practical and learnable and it works.

Which is not to say that there isn’t room, sometimes, for a more esoteric response. Looking through some other Cary Tennis columns for this blog post, I came across this one, from 2007, in which an MFA student from “a certain rather prestigious MFA program” asks: what am I doing here?

Cary’s response, in which he confesses that he was once an MFA candidate too, is rather brilliant:



Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

So first up, regular readers — yes, that means you mum — will have noticed that I haven’t been updating much recently. Been working my ass off, is why. Not my actual ass, mind, just my literary ass. My editing ass and my writing ass. My literary ass is in pretty good shape right now! Tight! I’m going to get back to nearly daily posts here soon, promise.

In the meantime, here’s three things that I have come across recently about blurbs. You know, those juicy little quotes from authors, promoting other authors. First up, Rebecca Johnson in Salon, sharing about her blurb-hunting woes. Choice quote: Johnson spots a potential target at a party and sidles up to her, intent on extracting a blurb.

“Hi,” I said a little too brightly. Was it my imagination, or was she already moving away from me? After a few forced pleasantries, I brought up the book and asked if she might be willing to read it. The expression on her face — part horror, part sneer — was exactly what I would have expected had I released a large fart and asked what she thought of it.

Then there’s Rachel Donadio in the New York Times, talking about a company that intends to sell blurbs. Oh, the horror! Donadio talks about “blurbing up” (Rick Moody on William Gaddis), “blurbing down” (famous writers endorsing students) and “blurbing the safely dead” (young neophytes attaching their names to prestigious classic authors).

Then there’s the great churning mass of lateral blurbing, where patterns are harder to discern and dangerous rivalries might lurk, with hard feelings existing among the blurbers themselves.

Finally, agent Nathan Bransford, whose blog I have come to truly appreciate, writes about blurbs in query letters. Bransford has a four tier system for assessing a blatent blurb. Read his post for more.

The general consensus seems to be that blurbs do not actually matter too much, unless they are particularly super-duper. One of my coaching clients, Anita Naughton, was blurbed by Tina Brown, Oliver Sacks and Sandra Bernhard. That’s pretty super-duper. Her book sold out three print runs. I’m not saying it was the blurbs that did it — the book happens to be funny, moving, and brilliantly written. It sold on its own worth. But if you have contacts like Anita did, and can work them, it can’t hurt.

Sleight of Mind

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

There’s an interesting article about the art of magic in the New York Times. You can read it here. The article draws on another, more scholarly piece in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, in which “…a team of brain scientists and prominent magicians described how magic tricks, both simple and spectacular, take advantage of glitches in how the brain constructs a model of the outside world from moment to moment, or what we think of as objective reality.”

I have long though that writing is a kind of sleight of mind. The author plants images and emotions in the reader’s brain, giving just enough direction for them to be able to form a whole new reality, based on no more than a bunch of words on paper. All reading requires a certain suspension of disbelief which leaves us open and receptive to the world a writer creates. Great writing messes with people’s heads — it’s that powerful and that strange. The abstract for the original article says: “Magic shows are a manifestation of accomplished magic performers’ deep intuition for and understanding of human attention and awareness.” Substitute “novels” for “magic shows” and “novelists’” for “magic performers’” and that statement would be just as true.

Now, for some fun: though I still can’t figure out the embedding video thing, here’s a link to Apollo Robbins picking pockets. His analysis, at the end, of how he “slices attention” is as fascinating to me as the tricks themselves.

Writers as Sellers: A Model of Contrasts

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

First, Ann Patchet writing about book tours in The Atlanic Monthly:

I can never get very far from the niggling belief that something about book tour is inherently wrongheaded, that the basic premise of authors selling their books is a flawed one. Most people who are capable of sitting alone day after day, year after year, typing into the void are probably constitutionally ill-suited to work a room like a politician (though I am not, in fact, afraid of public speaking, and I’m good at it). We’re a country obsessed with celebrity, and trying to make authors into small-scale Lindsay Lohans does nothing but encourage what is already a bad cultural habit. Reading, no matter what book clubs tell us, is a private act, private even from the person who wrote the book. Once the novel is out there, the author is beside the point. The reader and the book have their own relationship now, and should be left alone to work things out for themselves.

Then there’s this extract from a post by Julie Just at the NY Times book blog Paper Cuts, entitled Stephenie Meyer, Live in Concert.

One advantage Stephenie Meyer has over most best-selling writers is screaming teenage fans. Fans who scream even when tech guys cross the stage before she comes out. Then again, Meyer’s sold-out appearance at the Nokia Theater in Times Square on Friday evening was sort of a rock concert. The cheerful and modest author, a Mormon and mother of three boys who lives in Phoenix, Ariz, was appearing with Justin Furstenfeld of the angsty band Blue October.

Using the word “awesome” more often than the host from MTV News, Kim Stolz, Meyer answered questions about her wildly popular “Twilight” young adult series and its final volume, “Breaking Dawn,” which went on sale at 12:01 Saturday with an announced first printing of three million copies.

Judging by the T-shirts in the audience (mostly worn by teenage girls), what was on the fans’ minds was the epic tension between the two would-be lovers vying for the series’ heroine, Bella Swan: Edward Cullen, a devastatingly handsome 17-year-old vampire, and Jacob Black, a werewolf who, in the logic of the series, could give Bella children and a somewhat normal, if hazardous, life. “Team Edward” T-shirts out-numbered “Team Jacob” T-shirts at least 10 to one.

Meyer’s audience clearly don’t see their responses to her books as a private act, per Patchet. They want to share them with each other, and with the author. The fact that Meyer is writing for (but quickly expanding beyond) a YA audience might have something to do with that, but I don’t think it’s just about the age of the readers in this case — it’s about the nature of the performance.

Meyer, because of her huge success, has been taken up by the publicity machine and is being processed as product. The machine needs product, or it would be spinning its wheels in space. Patchett, intelligent and talanted as she may be, hasn’t been subjected to this same process because her books haven’t sold enough copies. This actually has nothing to do with merit. I’m not trying to argue that Meyer is a better or worthier writer than Patchett, or, in fact, the opposite. Just that Meyer’s book tours are bound to be events, as carefully stage managed as rock concerts, because of the money behind them and the money to be made by them.

I guess that’s a problem that most writers would love to be stuck with.

By the way: Team Jacob, all the way.