Tag Archives: publishing

Input vs. Output

 

I have two boards in my office: one is a whiteboard of due dates and projects, the other is a bulletin board of colorful images clipped from magazines, books, and catalogs. The whiteboard is a to-do list of crossouts and dates, and it looks important. The bulletin board is where my eye goes, however, with its mix of vintage maps, postcards, advertisements and book covers.

The whiteboard represents where most writers focus their time: Output. Whether mounted on the wall, tucked into a notebook or etched into their brains, the to-do list looms importantly. We should be producing something, we should have goals, we should get published.

My whiteboard contains a list of free-lance stories due over the course of this year; some short creative projects I’ve been submitting; and a novel that’s still under revision.

But just as important is Input, an area to which we pay scant attention. Arguably without Input there will be no Output. Input is where we get our ideas, our spark, our inspiration. Because it seems to come out of the ether, we are loathe to quantify it. But Input can be listed and analyzed; we can boost our Input to increase our Output.

My list of both might look something like this:

 

Reading “Emerson and his Eccentrics”; rereading Thoreau’s journal – Thinking with intention about my memoir

Research into medicine – Free-lance stories on hospital history

Reading the New York Times and other papers – Ideas for op-eds and letters to the editor

Browsing the Times archive – Random sparks of interest for fiction and nonfiction

Posting on the Creativity Bulletin Board and collecting new images – Same 

Reading books about moonshining – Novel on moonshining in Rhode Island

Gardening on this homestead where I grew up – Ideas for my memoir

Plays and books – Writing reviews of same

 

Most of this Input comes from magazines, newspapers, online sources, and vintage ephemera. I’m low on one vital source of Input: experiences. Other than gardening and the theater, I don’t list any. A few trips to museums, hiking trails, and art galleries will boost my Input considerably.

In her seminal work on creativity, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron refers to these experiences as the “artist date.” She prescribes a weekly foray that will feed the artist within us. “Your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to,” she writes, suggesting long walks, a visit to a new neighborhood or browsing through a secondhand store as possibilities. 

My list of experiences will not be your list. I find a trip to the dump shack (where used books are dropped off and picked up) or an antique bookstore is always rewarding, as is any cultural experience that doesn’t involve reading or writing: a play, art gallery opening or musical performance. 

Sometimes these experiences sneak up on you. A family outing, a bulletin board in a coffee shop or a trip to the post office can provide that sudden “aha!” moment that writers need. You increase your odds of benefiting from these experiences if, instead of spending all day at your computer, you take time to mingle in the real world.

We cannot minimize the power of images and texts, either. I’m in the middle of reading two books (one on Emerson, another a novel I’m reviewing) and listening to a third book on audio (Pearl Buck in China, a fabulous biography by Hilary Spurling). My bulletin board is saturated with images: a 1968 Pontiac Bonneville ad; a postcard of a motel in Rutland, Vt.; a Nancy Drew cover; a vintage map of New England; one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s poppies; and photography by Maurine Sutter, an artist who spent two weeks in the dune shacks of Provincetown. All of these speak to me on some level, and all of them in some small way fuel my writing thoughts.

The conventional to-do list is a necessary evil, especially for those of us writing free-lance on deadline. But spend some time on another kind of to-do list – the experiences and interactions that fertilize your mind – and you’ll find your writing will benefit enormously.

 

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Be Gone, Girl Titles

 

Gone Girl. Girl on a Train. Nowhere Girl. You can scarcely walk by a bookstore or scroll through Amazon without coming across a title with the word “girl” in it. Publishers, who like nothing more than riding the coattails of last year’s best seller, are churning out Girl titles left and right.

So what’s the problem? Most of these novels are not about girls. They are about women. And I think the tendency to call a girl a woman is about a lot more than the syllables in a word or the potential for alliteration. A girl makes a good victim – vulnerable, easily frightened, powerless. But a woman is an adult. She is powerful. She might get in your face and object to being called a girl.

This phenomenon transcends fiction. As I begin to write this, Tom Petty’s “American Girl” is playing on Pandora. What does it say about us that it took a Canadian band to write “American Woman,” and that was in 1969? And the Guess Who song was not, by the way, exactly an anthem for what at the time was called women’s liberation.

Some fine novels have “girl” in the title, and I blame not the authors but the Great Publishing Machine that determines titles, designs covers, and creates often artificial genres for its wares. Consider Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly. Of its three female characters, two start out as teenagers, but for the majority of the novel they are adults responsible for their own choices. Last year also saw The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Lisa See, who also wrote Shanghai Girls), The Atomic City Girls (Janet Beard), and The Girls (Emma Cline).

Some of the “girls” in the above titles start out as such, but they grow into women over the course of the story.

What about novels with “women” in the title? There certainly are some: The Woman in Cabin 10 being the most prominent recent example, as well as The Woman in the Window and The Women in the Castle. But can’t you picture some marketing team member suggesting that they change the title to “The Girl in Cabin 10” or “The Girl in the Window”?

It was not always thus. Can you imagine if Jane Eyre had been “The Poor Girl”? Or if Louisa May Alcott had called her most famous novel “Little Girls”? Or if Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca had been “The Girl in the Boat”?

It’s time writers stood up to this abomination and banished the word “girl” from their dust jackets.

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Five publishing trends: Skip the subhead

 

As a coda to my annual analysis of books read in 2017, I identify five trends in publishing:

  1. World War II novels continue to be hot. This year I caught up with two recent best-sellers of this genre: Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Margaret Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, both on audio, and reviewed Georgia Hunter’s We Were The Lucky Ones – based on her own family’s harrowing experiences in a Polish ghetto – as well as Loretta Ellsworth’s Stars Over Clear Lake, set stateside during the war. Whether because this international conflict still resonates in our foreign policy or because it provided so many opportunities for female empowerment, World War II still feels contemporary to modern audiences, despite the fact that most readers are two generations removed from this era. As the daughter of an Army veteran who served in the European Theater under General Patton, I can’t get enough of these stories.
  2. Novelists also are taking inspiration from real lives, especially those of writers and artists. This year I reviewed three books in this category. A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline is about Christina Olson of “Christina’s World” fame, and Isadora by Amelia Gray was inspired by dancer Isadora Duncan and the tragic death of her children. You could also put in this category Caroline: Little House Revisited, by Sarah Miller, an authorized retelling of the Little House books from the perspective of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother, Caroline Ingalls. There seems to be no end to this sort of thing (Amy Bloom has a novel coming out in February, White Houses, about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and the journalist Lorena Hickok). The writers who take on these subjects must combine the skill of the novelist with the accuracy of the biographer, quite a tightrope to walk; still, they make me cranky.
  3. Some famous writers seem to skate by on their reputation, as publishers will put out just about anything that has a recognizable name attached. Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook was pretty much what its subtitle implies – a disconnected series of episodes from unfinished projects. Richard Russo’s short story collection, Trajectory, was good, but it only included four stories (the best of which, “Voice,” was really a novella).
  4. And while we’re at it, can we somehow put an end to the seemingly endless parade of subtitles, particularly in nonfiction? You can pretty much sum up every title this year as BIG F-ING CAPITALS: What This Book is Really About.
  5. Despite the dire predictions that books are dead, people continue to read them, and publishers continue to produce them, and they find their way to me in sometimes unusual ways. The Providence Journal forwards me packages that turn an ordinary day into Christmas. Publishers mail me books in care of The Day, and authors even send them to my URI address. I can only review so many (this year, I wrote 22 reviews for the Journal – two have yet to appear – and wrote two book-related pieces for The Day). Some just don’t resonate with me as a matter of taste. The Journal, like most newspapers, doesn’t review self-published books. As a writer, I know how tough it is to get your work published and reviewed. So I guess point 5 is: The publishing business continues to be difficult, but all of us, writers and readers alike, should support the writers and publishers who produce books, the bookstores that sell them, and the publications that make space for reviews. Happy reading in the New Year!

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Go Set a Watchman: To read or not to read

I’m trying to decide if I should buy Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. The book will be released to much fanfare on July 14. HarperCollins, her publisher, has printed a first run of 2 million copies, and pre-orders already have pushed it to the Amazon best-seller list.
Why are people buying it?
Do thindexey hope it will be as good as To Kill A Mockingbird? The novel, about a white Southern girl confronting racism and hard truths in a small Alabama town of the 1930s, is a classic, was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck, and can still be found on many high school reading lists. Whether you read it as a child or adult, it’s the sort of book you don’t forget, mostly because of the naïve, riveting voice of Scout Finch.
Or do they suspect it might not be as good? It is a unique characteristic of human beings, especially writers, to want to bear witness to the failings of their peers. Would it make us all feel a little better to discover that To Kill a Mockingbird did not emerge fully formed out of a genius mind? Maybe reading Lee’s earlier effort would give us some shred of hope that we, too, might someday beat the odds and produce something timeless.
If our motives lie in the latter category – and come on, writers, you know who you are – let’s take a moment to consider the editor at J.B. Lippincott who advised Lee to rewrite the manuscript from the point of view of Scout as a child. Apparently this was Theresa “Tay” von Hohoff, who worked closely with Lee on the revisions. According to the most recent telling of this story, Hohoff read Go Set a Watchman, suggested Lee set the novel in Scout’s childhood, and Lee returned with the finished product. The actual process was a lot more complicated, according to the account given by Lee’s biographer, Charles J. Shields, in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. When it first arrived, the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was no more than a series of vignettes. The publisher hated the title, which was briefly changed to Atticus, after Scout’s father. Hohoff worked closely with Lee to add dramatic tension to the novel, particularly focusing on a trial that occurred in her hometown in the 1930s, of a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Go Set a Watchman is, then, an earlier and quite probably inferior version of the classic novel. As such, you would think that Nelle Harper Lee would not be crazy about its publication, particularly if she remembers the revision process that Shields called “excruciating.” Some have questioned whether she freely consented to its publication, but even if she did, we might question her judgment. Would Lee have agreed to it 20 years ago? That’s a question that we can’t answer, but the state of Alabama, conducting an investigation into the matter, concluded she was competent to sign the contract.
By throwing in our own money ($14.77, if preordered on Amazon), are we enabling the publisher to profit from exploitation of an elderly author? Are we part of this feeding frenzy, in which the celebrity of the writer takes precedence over the quality of her work? And, most importantly, are we supporting a system in which publishers put millions behind a few choice books while they let the other writers on their list fend for themselves?
The details of Lee’s contract have not been made public, but you can be sure she will see substantial royalties from Go Set a Watchman. Now imagine if HarperCollins invested even a quarter of that money in its stable of lesser-known writers, or, better yet, published 10 first-time novelists instead. With even a small percentage of its profits from the Lee novel, HarperCollins could start a fellowship program for unknowns.
I’m not talking about just handing an advance to 10 debut novelists and letting them sink or swim in the marketplace, which is publishers’ typical M.O. I mean a program in which the writers would be guaranteed three books – time to find an audience, develop a voice, and perfect their craft.
Unlike Lee, most novelists aren’t overnight sensations. Consider Anthony Doerr, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, published last year by Scribner and still No. 8 on the New York Times Best Seller List (where it has hung in for 40 weeks). All the Light is his second novel and fifth published book, and while he had won many prestigious awards prior, this novel was a breakout success. Publishers, though, still waste far too much time looking for overnight sensations instead of nurturing talented writers. This all-or-nothing philosophy leads predictably to low sales for most newcomers, who rarely get a second chance at the same publishing house.
So as writers, how do we stop this cycle? If you are published, you know that, after the initial euphoria, reality sets in – a low advance, hours doing your own publicity, self-funded book tours, and a scramble for a second contract. When publishers like HarperCollins invest resources in “found” manuscripts that perhaps have little merit beyond the academic – or, like Simon & Schuster’s $8 million advance to Hillary Clinton, put their eggs in the celebrity basket – they are committing a provocative act: taking money away from their stable of writers and turning their backs on potential future classics.
Go Set a Watchman will make millions for HarperCollins regardless of its merit. But let’s challenge the publisher to invest some of that money in long-term relationships with new writers who deserve the editorial care and nurturing that made Harper Lee a star.

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Hurry Up. Slow Down.

Hurry up.
Slow down.
These two messages tug and pull at me every day when I open my journal or sit at my writing desk.
Hurry up.
The voice in my head sets my heart to racing. I have to finish this book! What am I waiting for? I’m only half done.
As if hearing the same voice, my office clock ticks like the beats of a gong. I find some Tchaikovsky on YouTube, hoping to drown it out.
Slow down.
Isn’t this what all the Famous Authors tell us? I recently read a post on a writing magazine site to this effect: What’s your hurry? That’s the trouble with all you “amateurs.” You’re in too much of a hurry! You rush through your first draft and try to sell it as a final draft. You don’t take the time you need. Why don’t you slow down and enjoy the ride? Etc.
This said by the Famous Author (or at least the Author with a Contract) who has an agent and a history of solid book sales. Why should he be in a hurry? Sure, he has a deadline for every new book, but he doesn’t have a day job or the specter of the last failed manuscript dogging at his heels.
Hurry up. All of a sudden, everyone I know is posting pictures of their new book. There they are, dozens of author copies nestled in a box. Look at that elegant cover, with the author’s name in prominent type. And read the wonderful review from Publisher’s Weekly.
Good God, didn’t Writer X just have a book out? Is everybody Joyce Carol Oates all of a sudden?
My first novel was published in 2008. Six years ago. And though I published one on my own since, we all know that doesn’t count. We won’t even talk about the third novel, a disaster muddied by too much advice during graduate school.
Fourth novel: half done, shelved, temporarily. Fifth novel: Not saying a word about it. Not one word.
OK. A few words about it. I work on it spurts: Hurrying up, slowing down. Journaling about it. Yes, I know journal isn’t a verb. Thinking about it, setting it aside, picking it up again.
I have all the time in the world: I’m only teaching two classes this semester. I have two afternoons and two solid, empty, beckoning days a week to write. So how come I’m not getting any more writing done than when I taught four classes?
Because that is the pace of this work. Hurry up. Slow down. While I toil away, others blow by me, leaving me in the dust. While I try to figure out this business of writing (why doesn’t it get easier? Will I ever know what the hell I’m doing? Will I ever be published again?), others finish first, go on book tours, get rave reviews.
There’s nothing to do but turn up Tchaikovsky and continue to stumble along, fast, slow, energized, stalled, the tortoise and the hare both, hoping to cross the finish line eventually.

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