Category Archives: Giving It Away

Practical Rules for Writing (Re: Franzen)

A friend of mine, despite my gentle attempts to steer her in a direction not fraught with poverty and disappointment, has decided she wants to be a writer of fiction. About the time she made this decision, Jonathan Franzen published his piece on rules for writers. An odd collection of fancifully stated obviousness (the reader is your friend, you see more sitting still) and curmudgeonly snark (no one with an internet connection is doing good writing), it’s actually not very helpful at all. Franzen, who is not a writer with a day job (#writerwithadayjob), I think, seems a bit detached from reality—especially when he has to research middle class life to write a novel about the middle class and still can’t help but be disdainful of the people he writes about.

So, to help my friend plant her ass in a chair and do the hard work she seems to want to do (what the fuck is wrong with people?), here are my “rules” for writers.

1) Accept that your first draft will always be shit. Whether you plot out your story in advance or discover it as you go, the first draft will be shit. That’s why it’s best to get it out of your system as soon as you can and get to revising it. You can’t revise blank pages, and there’s no point in revising perfect (and you are never going to be perfect), so get comfortable with writing shit (or get comfortable not writing and be happy doing something else).

2) Since the first draft will be shit, you have to treat the writing of it as you would a bowel movement: do it regularly. Whether you’re a clock-puncher who sits down at the writing desk every day, or not, discover and establish a ritual or system that works for you and stick to it. The only requirement is that your system allows you to produce words on the page consistently, at a steady clip, predictably. Don’t compare the level of your output to others, all that matters is output. If there are no words on the page, you have nothing to revise and nothing to submit. If you aren’t writing, you’re not a writer. I’ve been punching the clock every morning for 21 years now and have missed only about 30 days that entire time and have written 5 complete manuscripts (sold one, but we aren’t talking the business side yet).

3) Writer’s block is bullshit. Those who believe in it, who worry about it arriving and never leaving, will have it and bemoan it, try to make others think it’s real, and wallow in it, expecting sympathy. Nothing getting on the page for the epic novel you’ve been pressuring yourself to write? So what? Try a short story or a poem. That not working? Try an essay. Try journaling. Do your favorite writing exercise (mine’s “I remember . . .”*), whatever . . . put words of some kind on a page, any page. I’ve found that when the words aren’t coming easily it’s because my subconscious is working a problem. If I’m patient with myself and simply keep the words—any words—flowing from my brain to my hands to the keyboard or pen and onto a page it all sorts itself out.

4) (optional if you want to publish). Learn the business of writing and publishing. Learn how to submit a manuscript. Learn how to work with an editor (and how to take constructive criticism). Learn how contracts work, and the difference between an advance (spent that fast) and the mythical royalty (I’ve never seen one because I’ve not earned back my advance against royalties). Learn how the Terms of Service apply to self-publishing platforms. Learn about copyrights and permissions. Learn about how the availability and price of book paper affects a publisher’s decision on what and when to publish. Learn about how bookstores work and how book distribution works. Learn all of that stuff so you can make an informed decision when it comes time to choose how you want to present your work to an audience. Traditional publishing? Self-publishing? Some hybrid of the two? Cool.

Some people think I have a low opinion of self-publishing, and I have to admit that, to an extent, I do. Here’s why—most of the people who end up talking to me about it seem to have a desperate need to justify themselves. I think they wanted to get a big, rich contract (which are like unicorns) but after a few rejections stormed off in a kind of Dunning-Kruger inspired fit of rage and have been angry ever since. Also, as a former indie bookseller, I helped manage a consignment program at the store where I worked, and 90% or more of the books in that program were self-published. The writers of those books did no marketing or self-promotion, and were never seen in the store before they dropped off their books, and weren’t seen in the store again until their contract expired and we called them about picking up their unsold books. They then got pissed off at us for not doing all the promotion and marketing they were neglecting to do and which traditional publishers and the more savvy self-published writers were doing for their books.

That being said, self-publishing does work for some people, and some people are good at it, and good writers are choosing to self-publish every day because of the shrinking acceptance rate at traditional publishing houses. But, self-publishing isn’t right for everyone, and traditional publishing isn’t right for everyone. By learning the business you can navigate that decision more wisely . . . and maybe even be successful at it**.

4.1) Make friends with your local indie bookstore, if you have one. You’ll be surprised what you’ll learn and who you’ll meet. The blurbs on my first novel where provided by writers I met while working at Watermark Books.

5) Read. This one should be obvious, but I’ll put it here anyway. It’s the last rule, but perhaps the most important. There’s nothing worse than a poet who doesn’t read poetry. Nothing worse than a writer who doesn’t read. More importantly, you should learn how to read critically. Read so that you know how to spot formula, cliche, melodrama (purple prose), but also so you know how to analyze a well written metaphor, a graceful, moving image, and so on. Reading, and especially reading critically, is the best way to learn the craft, even if you went out and got an MFA in creative writing.

*Rules for “I remember . . .” Start with the phrase, I remember, write for 5 minutes and don’t let your pen stop. If you feel like you’re getting stuck, start over with “I remember.” It doesn’t matter what you put down, a list, even a long string of nothing but I remember I remember I remember is all good. Eventually your brain will get sick of it and spit out something else. That’s it. Find your own favorite writing exercise. Repeat as needed.

**Writers Digest, Writers Market, Poets & Writers – these publication among many, many others will help you learn the ins and outs of being a professional writer and choosing an appropriate publishing path.

Giving It Away: Scout Publishing

(Every now and then I have ideas that I think I’ll do something with, but, for some reason, they never really materialize the way I want them to. So, I’ve decided to simply give them away. All I ask is that you think of me fondly if you make it rich off one of these ideas.)

Scout Publishing is an idea I had once I realized I could make ebooks on my own with an inexpensive program called Jutoh, and that it could answer three issues I thought were important. The first was that the Big Six publishing houses (Random House, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Macmillan, Hachette, Harpercollins – it could be stretched to 7 if we include Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) were cutting back on the number of first time authors they were signing. The second was that no matter how valorous and adventurous the smaller presses might be, they are only able to publish so many books a year and, perhaps, are even more reliant upon their first-time authors turning a profit – especially considering the cost of traditionally published books – than the big publishers. The third issue was that at the same time a number of organizations and writers were wringing their hands over the fate of the literary novel, we have also been losing print outlets for other fictional forms (short stories & novellas) that could, if we presented them properly, compete with other entertainments.

There are already a number of publishers that produce ebooks only. There are even a number of “independent authors” (a nice euphemism I may write about later), who simply release their own books on places like Smashwords, or through Amazon’s self-publishing model Createspace. And, of course, a rare few are successful and get the attention of one of the Big Six publishers. However, that profit comes after those successful writers have paid cover designers, freelance editors, and perhaps online marketing groups to help them shill their product as professionally as possible. Consequently, those same people, when offered a contract by a traditional publisher, jump at it because, despite some indy writer’s paranoias about copyright, they realize they can spend a whole lot more time writing if someone else handles that layout, design, editing, and marketing of the books they’ve finished (as for rights, well, any contract is negotiable, and if an indy writer has the chutzpah to self-publish well enough to get the notice of one of the big publishers, then I’m sure that person has enough savvy to properly negotiate a contract so the author’s rights to his or her work are properly protected).

My concept was to take the ebook-only approach and publish unknown, previously unpublished, or under published authors and make “micro-collections” of short stories (3-5 pieces, no more than 100 pages combined), novellas (120 pages max), micro-collections of poetry (5-10 poems, no more than 20 pages combined), or “epic poems.” These ebooks would then be sold on iBooks, Amazon, Google, etc and would cost between $2.00 and $4, depending on length. There would be no advance, but the author would immediately be eligible for royalties. I hadn’t decided on the contract language or a royalty structure, but was considering anything from 50/50 up to 70/20 for the author.

Here’s why it would be good for writers: It would allow them an outlet for their odd-sized writing and give them a way to build an audience and turn a small profit while they are trying to get a longer work published.

Here’s why it would be good for readers: All readers like to discover “new” writers, but sometimes, even a $9 dollar, 300 page ebook might be too much of an investment of money and time when there’s a risk of it being terrible; however, an ebook of three short stories under $4, might be something an adventurous reader might take an chance on.

So, there it is. Take it. Run with it. See what you can do with it.