Friday, July 29, 2005

Writing Those Books and Then Selling Them

Procrastination is part of writing, but this would-be-novelist seems to have taken it to new heights. Funny ones. (via MobyLives)

"51. google and then technorati some of my favorite authors

52. begin to feel a little tired and uncreative

53. look at my novel

54. tell myself to spend one hour straight only working on the novel

55. acknowledge to myself that it won't happen

56. check e-mail

57. tell myself one hour starting now

58. get up to use the bathroom

59. realize that the music i have on is getting annoying

60. turn off the music

61. feel really agitated and hopeless

62. threaten myself to work on the novel or else

63. begin to read the beginning of the novel

64. realize that that sentence i thought earlier was good is derivative and not even that good and go to where it is and look at it and then delete it

65. go to 'edit' and do 'undo-delete'

66. copy the sentence and paste it at the end of the manuscript

67. go over all the 30,000 words pasted at the end of the novel that i am not going using for the novel

68. find that some of those things are really good

69. try to re-insert some of those things into the currently 10,000 word novel"

Thomas Sheff of San Diego has finished his novel and is detailing his search for an agent in Media Bistro. He hasn’t been having much luck. Part 4 is at the top; scroll down to read in order.

The New York Times is licensing its name to open a series of bookstores; the first shop will be in Lexington, Kentucky’s Blue Grass Airport.

San Francisco readers, Rejoice! Cody’s Books is opening its largest store yet on Stockton Street near Market, in the basement of the Virgin Megastore. The store should be open by late September. Other nearby independents include Books, Inc. and Stacey’s. There is a Borders Bookstore further west on Stockton.

“We felt the Union Square area was underserved and would be responsive to a bookstore of our depth and quality,” says Leslie Berkler, one of Cody’s managers.

Mere Observation has been visiting the Romance Writers of America convention in Reno. Check out the pictures.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

That Notorious Slush Pile

Get an agent, get an agent, get an agent, the message goes. No one in publishing reads unrepresented manuscripts.

The Telegraph offers a different view of the notorious slush pile, saying there’s a new emphasis on finding gems in the rough – or poaching books that have been put out by small presses..

“Publishers are increasingly alert to sources of undiscovered gems that in the past might have slipped through the net. The slush pile is one, word of mouth another, as well as books being launched by risk-taking small or independent publishers. Some of these titles are successful in their own right, while others are taken up by mainstream publishers.

Mike Barnard at Macmillan is launching an initiative called New Writing, "an eclectic list of readable" novels of all genres, apart from children's fiction, by new authors. Its aim is to publish the pick of the slush pile, and to give "a voice to talented new authors who might otherwise fail to get into print". These authors will receive no advance, but nor will they pay anything out (unlike the situation with vanity publishers), and if their books sell they will be paid royalties.

"We invited submissions - first chapters with short synopses - and were overwhelmed by the response," says Maria Rejt, publishing director at Macmillan and Picado. "We got 46,000 in six weeks. I read about 4,000 and was really impressed with the standard which, in terms of straight literacy, was high. We were aiming to find one, and in fact found six novels that are absolutely fantastic. We are publishing five in the autumn.”

Maybe the water they drink in Britain is different than American water. Agents and publishers here regard the slush pile like rotting, radioactive debris.

The anonymous blogger, Agent 007, who used to work at a publishing house, told this tale of her days on the slush:

“Everyone in publishing hears about these miraculous finds that appear like a heavenly angel out of the slush pile to save the publishing house. I was certain that I would spot the gem. I waded through the slush day after day, month after month. Nothing. After looking at dreck for so long, the ones that weren’t absolutely horrible started to look pretty good. I even brought up a few of them. Don’t ask me how I managed to repair my reputation after those embarrassing editorial meetings.

Fortunately, I worked at a house that had a particular fear of getting sued by writers who thought their ideas were being stolen (or maybe they just wanted me to stop wasting time at editorial meeting), so it wasn’t long before we were instructed not to open anything that looked like it was an unagented package. As it turns out, this was a tremendous gift. Because the truth is, nothing comes out of a publisher’s slush pile these days.”

Still another sobering look from Salon:

“It's a worthy sentiment to give every aspiring writer a shot, no matter how long that shot may be. After all, every slush writer fervently believes that his manuscript is just as good as what's being sold at Barnes & Noble and that all he needs is a snappy cover letter and a foot in the door to get a publisher to realize it, too. Yet the sad truth is that the vast majority of slush is, to put it kindly, unpublishable. Not good or bad, just ... there, bland and forgettable, like an unadorned rice cake. If the odds of discovering something special in the mix are slim, it isn't because publishable manuscripts are sprinkled with pixie dust, but because so much of what's submitted seems like varying degrees of the exact same thing.”

And Miss Snark, another anonymous agent:

"It's not right for us"

Ah yes, the catch all phrase.Miss Snark uses a variation of this.If you apply gin to the paper, the invisible writing comes through. It says "this is the suckiest thing in my slush pile since Paris Hilton's novel"

“Let's look at some numbers: 85% of the material I get is unpublishable. That's a LOT of crap in the slush pile.

Of the remaining 15% a hefty dose are in areas I don't represent or feature themes I think are repulsive. So "not right for me" in this case means, I can't stand it but someone else might.And sometimes "not right for me" means I'm too lazy to say anything else. It's a form letter.”As a writer approaching agents you must walk with the grace of a ballerina and have the skin of a rhino.”

This is a business that sets the rules and expects aspiring authors to play by their rules.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Tuesday Tidbits

For that Rashoman experience, check out Michelle’s and Ed’s alternative versions of Saturday’s Books By the Bay.

Female bloggers unite! The BlogHer conference in Santa Clara on Saturday will bring female techies together to network and share information on the blogosphere.

Heat increases the spread of germs. Read what David Sedaris says on the topic in the New Yorker.

Dan Wickett continues his engaging group interviews with a panel of editors from literary quarterlies.

I’m out of here. Fun and sun and heat. See you next week.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Monday Morning Thoughts

It looks like there is a writer moonlighting as a police officer in San Francisco. His reports of various crimes have been garnering praise. Here’s a taste and a place to find more.

“He had not run for very long before he realized the two cops were only pacing him. They could see something he could not. With each frantic step a sense of dread nagged at him. The more calm and calculating they were, the further behind he left his common sense, and his panic ratcheted up. As he ran, the black and white radio car glided silently along behind like a predatory whale.”

Maureen Dowd penned a lovely ode to her mother, who just died at 97. She wasn’t famous, but was a proflific letter writer.

Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman just won the William Saroyan award in non-fiction for The King of California.

Mere Observation takes umbrage at Ed Champion’s description of writer Rebecca Solnit. A.D. calls him "assholian."

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Ayelet Waldman

“I think that I am an exhibitionist.”

That is the opening line of Katherine Seligman’s excellent profile of novelist Ayelet Waldman in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle magazine. You know, the Berkeley woman who parlayed an essay about loving her husband more than her children into a new career, one talking about “maternal ambivalence.”

Waldman is an accomplished writer, with six books in her Mommy Track mystery series and a more literary novel, “Daughter’s Keeper.” But before a few months ago she was best known as the wife of Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Michael Chabon.

But my interest in Waldman – and that of many people I know – has been less about her writing then her self-revelations. She blogged about her youngest son’s receding chin, the baby she had to abort because of medical malformations, her bi-polar disorder, and many other issues.

She became a national figure in March when a piece of hers appeared in the Modern Love section of the New York Times. The article, in which she said she could survive the death of her children, but not the death of her husband, garnered her a spot on Oprah. The talk show queen chose to interpret Waldman’s essay differently, and turned her show into a discussion about whether women today pay too much attention to their children, placing their needs primary in the family. Oprah used Waldman as an example of a different kind of household, one where the relationship between husband and wife stood front and center.

Waldman has gotten a lot of ink as a result of that essay. Both San Francisco and Diablo Magazines have short blurbs on her this month. But Seligman’s piece is by far the most illuminating. Here’s a choice quote:

“It’s ridiculous to be so willing to expose myself and at the same time be so hypersensitive. Those are two contradictory impulses no one person should have.”

Waldman’s confession on the page even prompted ABC to look for other mothers who “put their husbands first.” (That is if this blog site is real; it may be a joke, as far as I can tell.)

ABC wants moms who put their husbands first!

Dear Moms,

Many of you have seen Ayelet Waldman's appearance on "Oprah" where she voiced her controversial views on putting her husband before her children. We at ABC are looking for more moms who follow that philosophy. We're always looking for unique families to feature on our shows and are fascinated by this approach to marriage, parenting, and romance! How has this approach benefited you, your spouse, and your children? Do you feel that other families could learn by your example? We want to hear from you! There is generous financial compensation involved!"

Of course, what’s going on is the transformation of literary culture in America. Like everything else, it’s becoming “celebritized.” It’s not enough for an author to express his or herself on paper. Now readers want to know details of the personal lives of writers – their tortured childhood (Waldman had a variation of this theme,) the state of their marriages, their every thought.

Waldman is a writer who realizes this, and has used her confessions to bring herself a broader audience than her books have. I don’t doubt that she still wants to improve as a writer and win converts that way, but she is aggressively going down another path: telling secrets, baring her soul, and hoping the shock value draws people in.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Books By The Bay

There’s nothing like seeing an author in person to make you want to buy his or her book.

I went to the 10th annual Books By the Bay festival Saturday at Yerba Buena Gardens. It was one of those overly hot, overly sunny days where everyone crowds into the small patches of shade made by trees and overhangs. Even the white tents erected on the lawn provided scant relief from the heat.

There weren’t that many big names at the festival, which may explain why the crowd was much smaller than previous years. But it didn’t matter. Because once any of the dozens of authors started talking about their work, I got intrigued. Hearing why they wrote their novel or memoir, how they struggled to get it published, the world’s reaction, made me want to buy the book. I spent more than $100, and made a long list of books I want to read.

I got to the festival at 10:30 because I wanted to attend “Books in an Unreaderly World,” moderated by Kevin Smokler and featuring some of the contributors to his anthology, Bookmark Now. I really enjoyed this collection of essays about writing in the computer age and wanted to hear more. The panelists, including Michelle Richmond and Karl Soehnlein (Adam Johnson didn’t make it) talked about the myths of the writing life and how the Bay Area created a community that was essential to their work. It was an intelligent discussion of getting the word out about books, either through word of mouth, the Internet, blogging, or book readings.

The next panel I attended is proof that just listening to an author draws you in. It was called “More than Just a Job: Writing About What You Do.” I had heard of only a few of these panelists, but by the end I was intrigued. The biggest name was Dean Karnazes, the author of Ultramarathon Man. How he does it is anyone’s guess. He is president of a natural foods company, runs 100-200 mile marathons, usually runs all night, and just wrote this book, which was featured on 60 Minutes. He is very fit and handsome and one knowledgeable bookseller told me that she heard both men and women bemoan the fact that he is happily married with children.

Blair Tindall is a professional oboist and has written about the secret world of musicians and Broadway productions. Betsy Burton owns a bookstore in Salt Lake City and her book, The King’s English: Adventures of An Independent Bookseller,” tells the truth about authors who have given readings at her store. Phil Done is a teacher who chronicled a year teaching third grade called 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny: Life Lessons from Teaching.

But it was the Life Experiences panel that really intrigued me. There are so many memoirs on the market it is hard to know which ones are worthy. It’s a form I love, but it is hard to do well. I had already read – and enjoyed Caroline Kraus’ Borderlines, a disturbing story about her close, almost pathological relationship with a fellow bookstore clerk after the death of her mother. But I had never heard of Alphonsion Deng, who was kicked out of his family in the Sudan when he was seven and then had to flee for his life, trekking 1,000 miles before escaping to the safety of Kenya. Deng said 2.5 million people have been murdered in the Sudan during the last 20 years and his experience is the experience of thousands of children. His memoir is They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.

This post is getting long but I want to say I now want to read Deborah Santana’s book Space Between the Stars: My Journey to an Open Heart. I read about this book when it came out and dismissed it as a tell-all by the wife of a famous musician. But Deborah explained that she is bi-racial and her parents were not allowed to marry under the then-laws of California. Those feelings of invisibility continued during her relationship with Sly Stone and Carlos Santana, and she vowed to end her insecurity.

“I have loved the journey of telling the truth,” Santana explained. “I really wrote my memoir to become alive. If I didn’t write it I would have expired. Being in Carlos Santana’s shadow for 32 years was a difficult thing. One has to have a very strong character to stand next to a world figure and retain your self-esteem.”

Rebecca Solnit was there. I have never read her work but was intrigued by her intellect. Rose Castillow Guilbault has written a critically acclaimed book called Farmworker’s Daughter: Growing Up Mexican in America. She explained that even though there are Mexicans everywhere in the west, most Anglos don’t have a clue about their lives.

Books by the Bay works because of these panels. By bringing authors together to talk about common issues, readers get to know a bit of their personalities and the way they think. In many ways it is more rewarding than going to a bookstore reading, which can be stilted and awkward. Add dozens of wonderful bookstores selling interesting books, and you’ve got a great day.

I’m hot, sunburned, but satisfied.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

So Many Events, So Little Time

Scott of Conversational Reading and Ed of Return of the Reluctant went to see Rebecca Solnit at Cody’s Wednesday night. They sure didn’t have a good time. One thought the audience’s questions were silly, the other thought the author was silly.

These kinds of fierce opinions are what make literary blogs part of the literary canon, Scott explains in a new essay in the summer issue of Rain Taxi.

Solnit will be talking this Saturday at the not-to-be-missed Books By The Bay festival at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. So will authors Karen Joy Fowler, Joshua Braff, Kevin Smokler, Michelle Richmond, Gus Lee, and many more. The daylong festival raises money for literary programs around the Bay Area (there will be grant applications available in the booths). Thanks to the Northern California Independent Booksellers’ Association for putting on this event.

I would be remiss not to mention a poetry reading Friday night to benefit the scholarship fund for the Poetry Workshop of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Lucille Clifton, Robert Haas, Sharon Olds, and others will read their work at 7:30 pm at the University of San Francisco on Turk Street.

For some fun reading, check out this new blog: Agent007. She reveals how literary agents really think. Here’s her take on daily mail call, when reams of proposals hit an editor’s desk.

“Some of them are pretty, with orange boxes or red folders or green folders. Every agency has some sort of folder/box-calling card. One agent has grey. Another has white. Everyone knows who has yellow. And navy blue.

If the editor sees a color that piques her interest, she’ll pull the stack toward her. Maybe the gray folder is on the bottom. She pretends she’s not hungry. First she skims the one on top. If her assistant is good, the one on top is one that she’s been waiting for, or one that is right up her alley. If not, it’s the one in the red folder.
As our editor scans the cover letters, she assesses.

This one is a pass (that agent never understands what I’m looking for). I’ll have my assistant write the reject and post-date it for a week from tomorrow. This one sounds awful but the agent always sells this crap so I’ll put it aside. If he calls me to say he’s got interest, I can say I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet and then read it immediately. These two sound boring, so I’ll give them to my assistant to read and write reports about. Why would I give her anything that sounds promising? If it sounded really good, I’d read it myself.

Soon, her heart quickening, she arrives at the gray folder.

But this one… This one I’ll look at tonight. I like the title. The author sounds great. Interesting concept…”

But, as Agent 007 reveals, that little gray folder’s hopes soon disappear. It gets bumped when the celebrity book proposal arrives ….

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Writing, Rewriting, and Further Rewriting

I found these thoughts on writing from Jane Anne Staw particularly helpful. I am writing a book and love the process of layering – starting with a draft and then adding complexity and depth with each subsequent rewrite. It’s really an act of faith since most people, as Anne Lamott puts it, write “shitty first drafts.” A writer has to set aside the negative voices and keep on writing until the nuggets outshine the clunkers. Here’s Part 2 of Staw's essay:

“Understanding that writing is a process and not a product also helps quell the critics.

When I was in college, I thought that every word, every sentence, every paragraph I wrote had to be exquisite before I could move on to the next word or sentence or paragraph. With this standard of perfection, it took me weeks and weeks to finish each and every writing assignment. Even worse, since I was a far from perfect writer—as we all are—I created an open season for the critics.

It took me many years to understand that the actual writing takes place in stages, each stage requiring a different focus and concentration from the others. During the first stage, the writer is responsible only for generating material. Whether this material may be ideas for an essay, incidents for a story, or the images for a poem, the only task of the writer at this initial stage is to generate raw material. Think of it as creating a gold mine for yourself. Worry about punctuation, word choice, syntax come much, much later. Even structure and development can be put off while you are creating the ore for your future project.

It is only once writers have created a gold mine, that they proceed to the next phase, which involves cutting and pasting in order to create structure or logic for what they have written so far. If it’s a story, the writer begins thinking about plot. If it’s a poem, the poet starts to consider how the images might appear on the page. If it’s an essay or argument, the essayist considers the logic of the piece. The writer is still not responsible for the full development of any one idea or image or scene. And certainly not for spelling and grammar. Not at all!

During the third stage of the writing, you look over what is on the page and ask, Which of my ideas or moments or images need more development. Does this idea feel too flimsy? If it does, what can I do to bolster it? Does this scene seem trivial? What can I do to strengthen it? Does this stanza seem too thin? How can I create more density?

It is only now, once you have revised the piece for logic and development, that the fourth phase of the writing begins: refining syntax and taking a look at word choice. Are too many of my sentences long and rambling? Is there not enough variety in my syntax? Can I find a more precise word? These are all efforts that affect the surface of the piece, putting the writer’s muscle to polishing and refining. If we engage in this refining too early, we risk skating along the surface of whatever we are writing, never penetrating to the subterranean pockets where the deepest ideas, images or stories reside.

The last phase of the writing process involves copy editing—reading over what you have written to check that all the I’d are dotted; that you have no dangling modifiers or run on sentences.

It’s easy to put off the critics when you approach writing as consisting of a series of stages. “I’m not ready to copy edit yet,” you can say. “Come back in a week or two.” Or, “I know this idea deserves more development, but I’m not responsible for development yet. I promise I’ll get to that by next week.”

Grandiose thinking is another way to sabotage yourself. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be grandiose for your thinking to create a mine field as you write. Thinking too far ahead, to where you want to be in a week or a month; or to when you want to finish your essay or your book, is thinking too big. Thinking about the whole book when you are beginning the first chapter or the entire essay when you are putting your toe in the first paragraph are also ways of thinking too big. So is wondering what kind of advance you might receive.

Thinking too large takes you off course, and stirs up all those anxieties that help make your writing world unsafe: Will I be able to finish this story? Will I be able to convince my reader of my argument? Will my last lines provide the catharsis the reader expects from a poem? Will this novel be good enough to attract a publisher? Will I receive good reviews? Am I up to the task? How will I be able to weave together all the characters and themes and incidents into a coherent novel? How will I be able to sustain this mood for twenty pages?

And stirring up our anxieties brings us right back to where we began: with the barrage of critics shooting criticisms at us as we write. To stop the bullets from strafing us, we need to learn to think small. If you are writing a novel or a book of nonfiction, don’t get ahead of yourself with worry about the last chapter. And if you find yourself thinking about the Pulitzer, simply bring yourself back to the chapter or the scene you are currently writing. If it’s a poem you are working on, return to the image you have just created or focus on a particular word. If it’s an essay or a story, lead yourself back to the paragraph or the sentence you are engaged with fashioning. By reminding yourself to think small, you will allow yourself to remain calm and focused upon what you are writing at the moment. And you will be able to witness your words blossoming fully on the page.

To thrive as writers, we need to fashion for ourselves the sort of lasting peace that allows us to write within the safety of our very personal relationship with our writing. It is a relationship bathed in understanding and compassion, a relationship that we nurture by negotiating with our critics, understanding that writing is a process, not a product, envisioning an ideal and receptive audience and thinking small. Once this peace is in place for a while, you will see flowers blooming where devastation once laid waste to the territory of the blank page.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Writer's Block

I can remember clearly the moment I decided I could leave the world of journalism. I was a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, an excellent newspaper, and I had a three-day a week job. It was an ideal set-up, except I was growing tired of the pace of the work. I longed to delve more deeply into projects and write in a more literary fashion.

My escape came when I was accepted into a creative non-fiction class at UC Extension taught by Bay Area writer Jane Anne Staw. The class inspired me, and I went on to study privately with Jane Anne for many years. I am still in a writing group, North 24th, that evolved from one of Jane Anne’s seminars. I consider it crucial to my sanity.

Jane Anne Staw’s most recent book is Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer’s Block. Jane Anne has helped many writers on their road to publication. She’s an astute observer of the obstacles writers erect to keep themselves from working. Her book has just been released in paperback, and I asked Jane Anne to share some of her insights into writing with Ghost Word. Part One deals with the cruel voices inside our heads that tell us we can’t write.

“I realized yesterday that whenever I start writing, I say the most awful things to myself,” a writing client announced when she came for our meeting yesterday. “I couldn’t believe how mean I was. ‘You’re no good. Nobody will want to read anything you write. Who cares?’ were only some of the criticisms dancing around in my head. I was never aware of this before; I didn’t realize how awful I am to myself whenever I try to write.”

My client is not alone. Whether they realize it or not, far too many writers are cruel to themselves when they write. From the moment they first think about sitting down to put words on the page to the day they begin to consider sending a manuscript out for possible publication, many writers transform their writing into a war zone and become their own worst enemies.

First there are the voices in their heads. My client was able to hear hers for the first time yesterday. Other clients are unaware of the hostile crowd they bring with them into the writing process. For these writers, I often suggest creating a separate page or column as they write, a place to jot down any of the negative voices or comments that they overhear. Very quickly, the uninitiated tune in to the hail of insults and condemnations striking them. “You don’t have anything interesting to say. You are too shallow to write anything important. Your punctuation is awful. Nobody likes you so why would they read what you write? You’re one of the stupidest people you know.” These are only some of the hundreds of bullets aimed directly at the writers I work with, and not necessarily the most cruel.

Once you become aware of the hostile voices in your head, you can learn to negotiate with these voices in order to create the quiet and safety you need to write. Some writers are able to identify at least some of the people—a parent, former teacher, ex-best friend-- behind the insults and then negotiate with these voices. When I realized that one of my critics was a revered professor from my undergraduate university, I learned to thank him for wanting to help me, then to explain that I didn’t need his help at the moment. I would, however, probably need it later, and would call upon him then. One of my clients realized that the most vitriolic voice she heard was her mother’s, and decided that the best way for her to deal with her mother’s intrusive presence was to ask her to leave. It was that simple. Every morning my client would sit down to write, then the minute she heard her mother’s voice chastising her about some aspect of her writing, she would get up from her chair and accompany her mother out the door. “Thanks for coming to see me, Mom, but I have to write right now and don’t have time to talk.”

Even if you can’t identify the people behind the voices, you can devise strategies to silence them. I’ve suggested that clients draw interpretive pictures of some of their voices, then turn these pictures to face the wall when they start to write. Often, finding an alternative activity to engage the negative chorus provides writers the quiet they need. “There’s a great movie at the Lumiere you might like to see,” I’ve suggested to my personal chorus. Or, “It’s such a beautiful day, wouldn’t you rather be gardening?”

Most writers find that all that’s necessary to distract their harsh critics is a bit of diplomacy. And I emphasize the word diplomacy. While some writing coaches offer hostile strategies to silence critics, I maintain that there is already too much enmity and hostility in the writing process. And in the long run, hostility is counterproductive, generating only temporary solutions; while compassion is enduring.

Related to this barrage of critics many writers face without the proper ammunition, is the question of the ideal reader. And when it comes to envisioning readers, most of the writers I’ve worked with place themselves in front of the firing line. “Whenever I write, I consciously think about what my meanest editor will say when he reads my piece,” one writer told me. “I know that I’m still trying to show the chairman of my dissertation committee that he was wrong about my writing,” a poet admitted. “Even though he had nothing to do with poetry, I’m determined to make him respect me.”

Monday, July 18, 2005

Too Many Memoirs about Iraq?

Even the publishing industry has wearied of the war in Iraq.

Women Helping Women

The Bay Area writing community never ceases to amaze me. Last night I went to the second meeting of Word of Mouth, a collection of women authors. The novelist Michelle Richmond hosted the meeting and we talked about the challenges of carving out time to write. In addition to the usual – turn off the e-mail, go to a writer’s colony, etc. – some very creative ideas emerged. Read about them here.

The Future Of Writing

I’ve never met San Francisco writer Kevin Smokler. But I’ve admired his innovation in promoting authors on the Web. Smokler invented the Virtual Book Tour, where authors visit various blogs in the course of a week, to talk about their books or write a guest post or two. The tours introduce authors to as many as 100,000 potential readers. It’s a great use of the medium.

Smokler is the editor of the recently released anthology, Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times. He posits the book as an answer to a 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, which warned that Americans were turning away from books in favor of other media, such as movies, the Internet, and video games. Smokler disagrees with that gloomy perspective and suggests that it may be a golden age for literature – if we redefine literature.

“If online reading was eating away at book reading, how did we explain literary weblogs that command thousands of readers a day, or book recommendations and dialogue as crucial features in the next generation of social software?” Smokler writes in his introduction. “If young people were reading less than any other demographic group, how did we dismiss the revolution in young adult literature brought on by J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket, or the best-selling careers of twenty-something favorites like David Sedaris, Nich Hornby, Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safer Froer?"

Smokler created the book “to show that my generation (the Atari/VCR/Internet generation) still cared about books and literature and that authors of this age were committed to both producing great books and making sense of writing in an age of intense competition from other media,” he said in an essay on the Powell’s website.

I bought this book expecting essays about the changing world of writing, about the influence of blogs, about how the Internet is the future. Happily, I didn’t get this. Instead, in this terrific group of articles I got a more old-fashioned peek into writing: how some writers learned to love books, how they stumbled and humiliated themselves until they learned how to write, how they deal with the American world of celebrity culture. The stories were compulsively readable; this was one of those books I couldn’t put down.

The book, as Smoker explains, is broken into sections: Beginnings (How I became a writer), The Life (What it's like being a writer), The Now (What are the challenges of being a writer in 2005) and The Future (what will be those challenges in the decades to come).

For a taste: Michelle Richmond writes about the sex-saturated climate of her MFA program; Glen David Gold talks about his shame at Googling himself; Adam Johnson calls out for writers to collaborate; Paul Collins writes about sitting in the Portland, Oregon library to read 121 years of a British magazine called Notes and Queries; and Elizabeth Spiers, the founding editor of the blog, Gawker, talks about the end of blogging.

Bookmark Now is really an old-fashioned, flat out celebration of books and writing. The voices in the anthology are literate and astute, self-aware and self-deprecating. It’s a great read. What higher form of flattery can there be?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Goodbye, Mad Max

Mad Max Perkins, who writes the blog BookAngst 101, an insider’s look at the publishing industry, penned his last entry today. It is a solemn, reflective goodbye, but one with a crucial element missing: his identity.

Mad Max has been writing the blog for less than a year. He’s an editor, he says, for a major publishing company (and thus, the reason for his pseudonym, after Max Perkins, after the famed Scribner's editor of authors such as Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.) Mad Max has used his knowledge of the publishing industry to enlighten readers about the world of making books.

About a week ago, he hinted that he would reveal his true identity before his departure. He challenged readers to guess his name and laid out a series of clues. One clue was the costume he wore to a panel at the recent BEA conference. He came dressed in a Merlin-like costume, complete with pointed wizard hat, long gray beard and flowing robes. That costume was significant, he said.

Then Max directed people to the cover of the Rolling Stones album with Mick Jagger wearing a pointy wizard hat. He acknowledged he was British and then ….

“But here's one more chance, dear people! Instead of telling you my identity, I'll give you one last try at figuring it out for yourselves.

Step One: Look at the picture (above) taken at BEA--notice the fellow in the pointy hat?

Step Two: Now look at this album cover. Notice, again, the fellow in the pointy hat...”

Well, I couldn’t figure it out. I don’t think anyone else did either, according to the comments on the site. And now Mad Max is saying goodbye. It’s hard to determine if he’s leaving because he’s tired, because his site is no longer as popular as it once was, or if he feels he’s run out of things to say. It’s probably a combination of the three.

So goodbye, Max. I have enjoyed learning about the inside of the publishing industry. Your posts about the stuggles and travails of authors have been particuarly enlightening. People who are trying to break into the publishing world are searching for any hint or clue they can find on how to make it, and your writings illuminated a field that many find inscrutable.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Debi Echlin has to work hard to keep up with Harry Potter frenzy. Posted by Picasa

Harry Potter .... At Last

There were so many hot sweaty bodies pressed against one another at A Great Good Place For Books that it was hard to breathe. The narrow bookstore in Oakland’s Montclair district was jammed by the time I arrived with my daughter at 11:30 p.m. Owner Debi Echlin, dressed in a black witch’s hat and gown, was busy at the cash register, ringing up sales. Her helpers handed out punch and candy, ran a costume contest, and gave away gift certificates as prizes.

As midnight approached, the white and purple boxes that had been stacked at the back of the store were passed forward. Customers with tall wizard hats, broomsticks, and Dumbledore-like beards started the countdown. With one minute to go, the crowd began to chant, “60, 59, 58. 57….” At 20, people got impatient and sped up their counting. At 12:01, Josh slit open a box and held Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince aloft in the air. The crowd erupted in cheers.

The sheer number of people at the bookstore is a testament to J.K. Rowling’s popularity, as well as the importance of A Great Good Place For Books. It is truly a community bookstore, a popular cultural gathering place for people living in the hills of Oakland. There were hundreds of people jammed in the store, people who could have paid $17.99 for the book at Barnes and Noble – or $13.99 at Costco – but chose instead to support their independent bookseller.

We’ve been home about a half an hour and my 13-year old is in bed, reading away. She’ll be up much later than me. By page 32, she reports, things are not looking good for Harry. Lord Voldemort has used Harry’s blood to regain his full strength, there is a war raging, and Snape has revealed himself as evil. For those who want to know now who lives and dies in the book, the Guardian newspaper in Britain had two readers speed-read the book and file updates every few chapters. It took them seven hours to finish.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Can Writing Be Taught?

I had heard about Lynn Freed’s article “Doing Time: My Years in the Creative Writing Gulag,” long before I managed to track down a copy of Harper’s July issue. The title was so provocative I knew it would raise a sh*t storm, and now cries of “foul,” are blasting in the blogosphere.

I know Freed vaguely as she is a perennial member of the faculty at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers workshop, which I have attended twice. She’s South African, very attractive, and aloof enough to be mysterious. I have a friend who adores her, and thinks her comments about writing are tough and penetrating. I have never read Freed’s work, although her novel, “The Mirror,” has been sitting on my shelf for two years.

The worst part about the Harper’s article is the title. It makes it seem like Freed hates teaching because she hates the students. In fact, Freed dislikes the classroom because of the time it takes away from her own writing. She gets so absorbed in teaching she has little room for creativity. The article is a sad confession of her own limitations.

Freed also doubts that writing can be taught in a workshop format because the hard work, the real work, must be done alone in front of the computer, not in a class of 12.

“How can one tell student writers, most of whom place their trust in the efficacy of group learning, that unless they can turn themselves into solitaries, driven to ride single-mindedly over all obstacles, all reverses, all failures and discouragements, taking what they need ruthlessly, discarding the rest - unless they can become what is, in fact, impossible to become because one must be born that way, talented or not - there is little to be gained by taking a writing workshop beyond a few years free to write, the blessing of imposed deadlines, and the company of other students?”

Another observation:

“to my mind, writing cannot be taught. That workshops can be dangerous . . . That unless the student plans to spend his life moving from workshop to workshop, he will need to be able to rely on his own ear. And that if he does move from workshop to workshop, he is doomed to lose his sense of hearing anyway."

Yet a lot of people are interpreting this article in the worst way, by assuming Freed is saying most students are talentless hacks. Here’s a parody of her piece.

Aspiring writers are insulted by the article because they think Freed is telling them that writing is an innate talent, one that cannot be learned. I think this has been disproved so often – even by Freed’s own experiences – that it’s not worth arguing over.

Blog Celebrity

Summer is an interlude, a time when normal schedules and routines are ignored, replaced by easier rhythms. Bedtime is later, rising is later, everything seems to get put off. I don’t have to rush around in the morning getting my kids ready for school, or play the cop at night and force them into bed. I care less if they watch a late movie or sleep past 9 a.m.

But a summer schedule means everything is delayed, including responsibilities I want to tackle. I’ve been absent from this blog and feeling guilty about it, which is absurd, since the beauty of blogging is that it has no rules.

But like everything in America, that’s changing. Now there’s a site that categorizes blogs into A list blogs, B list blogs, and C list blogs. Blogebrity was started by two students at the University of Southern California with the express purpose of winning a contest put on by the search site Technorati, but has become very popular. Sadly, there are only two book bloggers on the list – and they don’t even make the “A” list. Maud Newton and Sarah Weiman, who writes the Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, make the “C” list. (Frankly, I haven’t heard of most of the bloggers on the “A” list.)

The list itself has made news.

“Since fame equals attention, and attention draws visitors—which can be converted into dollars through online advertising—fame on the Internet can directly generate money. It may or may not translate into romantic success at a hotel bar, but being famous on the Internet is beginning to grant plenty of other benefits.” (via Mere Observation)

God, now there’s another thing to obsess over.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Where To Buy Harry Potter?

I have a problem. A good problem, and one that is shared by the millions of mothers and fathers across the world. Where do I buy my copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? And at what time?

The easiest and cheapest solution is to buy from an on-line retailer like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. They are offering heavy discounts on the book ($17.99 rather than $29.99) and will guarantee delivery by Saturday, the same day the book is scheduled to go on sale, or you will get your money refunded. I wouldn’t lose any sleep that way.

But that doesn’t sound exciting. There’s no drama in getting the book delivered to your mailbox. Half the fun of this series is its drama, its insane popularity, its almost narcotic affect on children. It’s a bonafide event, one that calls for extreme measures to make sure the book is in my family’s hands as early as possible.

It’s become a family tradition to get the Harry Potter books in an unusual way. Five years ago, when my oldest daughter turned 8, we held a Harry Potter birthday party. Five girls stayed up late mixing purple food coloring into milk to make dragon’s blood, drawing zigzags on their foreheads, and having a silly time. At 10 minutes to midnight we jumped into the car and headed to Dark Carnival, a bookstore on Claremont Avenue in Berkeley. Harry Potter wasn’t as popular then and most bookstores were closed at midnight. There were only 20 people lined up to buy up Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Two years ago, at the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my oldest daughter was enrolled in soccer camp in Aix-en-Provence, a city in Provence, France. In between smelling the lavender sachets and sipping coffee at the sidewalk cafes, I managed to find an English language bookstore. The store didn’t plan to start selling the book at 12:01 a.m., so we had to rush down in the morning. We were compensated for the delay by getting the British version of the book. The cover was different, and it had words like petrol instead of gas.

Now selling Harry Potter is an industry. Bookstores across the country are planning to stay open late and offer games and prizes in an effort to attract the hordes that will be buying this book. (Scholastic is printing 10.5 million copies for North America alone). It’s taken on a distinctly commercial tone, which I don’t like. On the other hand, who can complain about a book that has revolutionized children’s literature and opened up the field for other amazing authors, like Lemony Snicket.

Now I have a new dilemma: there are too many worthy independent bookstores to chose from. Where do I go? Where do I spend my money? This year my nephew is visiting, which means I should consider buying 3 books at $29.99 each. (You can’t expect avid Harry Potter fans to wait for the book, can you?)

My favorite bookstore, A Great Good Place For Books in the Montclair District of Oakland, has planned two days of celebration. The owners, Debi and Helen, will open the doors around 10:30 p.m., and hold games and costume contests and offer sweets and prizes. The party continues the next morning at 7 a.m. The lure? Ten percent off your next purchase.

Mrs. Dalloway’s on College Avenue in Berkeley is having a Harry Potter dress up contest. Anne Leyhe, one of the store’s owners, says she will disguise herself as Professor Sprout, who teaches herbology. It’s appropriate, since Mrs. Dalloway’s has a large stock of gardening books.

Cody’s on Fourth Street in Berkeley will stay open until 1 a.m. or later. There won’t be anybody dressed in costume giving out dragon’s milk, but so many people have pre-ordered the book they are expecting a crowd. Both the Fourth Street and Telegraph Avenue stores will open an hour early on Saturday, at 9 a.m.

The list of bookstores holding special events in the Bay Area goes on, and I’m sure this is true in cities around the country. I guess, as I said at the beginning, that this is a GOOD problem. How often do people have to grapple with which bookstore to patronize? Usually the question is whether or not to even go to a bookstore, instead of, say, the movies. I’m still undecided. I guess I’ll let the Magic help me decide.

Friday, July 08, 2005

How Could We Have Forgotten That This Was Always Going To Happen?

Ian McEwan, whose book Saturday asks whether a Londoner should be worried about the threat from radical terrorists, writes about London after Thursday’s terrible bombing.

“The mood of a city has never swung so sharply. On Wednesday there was no better place on earth. After the victory in Singapore, Londoners were celebrating the prospect of an explosion of new energy and creativity; those computer-generated images of futuristic wonderlands rising out of derelict quarters and poisoned industrial wastelands were actually going to be built. The echoes of rock 'n' roll in Hyde Park and its wave of warm and fundamentally decent emotions were only just fading. In Gleneagles, the summit was about to address at least - and at last - the core of the world's concerns, and we could take some satisfaction that our government had pushed the agenda. London was flying high and we moved confidently about the city - the paranoia after 9/11 and Madrid was mostly forgotten and no one had second thoughts about taking the tube. The "war on terror", that much examined trope, was an exhausted rallying cry, with all the appearance of a moth-eaten regimental banner in a village church.

But terror's war on us opened another front on Thursday morning. It announced itself with a howl of sirens from every quarter, and the oppressive drone of police helicopters. Along the Euston Road, by the new UCH - a green building rising above us like a giant surgeon in scrubs - thousands of people stood around watching ambulances filing nose to tail through the stalled traffic into the casualty department.

Police were fanning out through Bloomsbury closing streets at both ends even as you were halfway down them. The machinery of state, a great Leviathan, certain of its authority, moved with balletic coordination. Those rehearsals for a multiple terrorist attack underground were paying off. In fact, now the disaster was upon us, it had an air of weary inevitability, and it looked familiar, as though it had happened long ago. In the drizzle and dim light, the police lines, the emergency vehicles, the silent passers by appeared as though in an old newsreel film in black and white. The news of the successful Olympic bid was more surprising than this. How could we have forgotten that this was always going to happen? " (via The Millions)

It’s really interesting to watch how authors are using the Internet to promote books. M.J. Rose, who has become a specialist on book promotion through her blog and her own experiences selling books, has teamed up with VidLit to make a short video for the upcoming paperback release of The Halo Effect. In a twist, Rose has turned the occasion into a charitable act. A group of supporters has offered to donate $5 to the non-profit group, Reading is Fundamental, for every blog that links to VidLit. Rose is hoping to line up 500 blogs, which will generate $2,500. Count me in.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Does Blogging Help or Hinder Writing a Book?

This guy has the right idea: write a little on your book, write a little on your blog. Keep your creativity flowing, either for immediate or long-term feedback.

“When he has writer's block, John Battelle, author of the forthcoming book "The Search: The Inside Story of How Google and Its Rivals Changed Everything," keeps on writing. But not his book manuscript. Instead, he goes straight to his blog (

Mr. Battelle, a founder of Wired and The Industry Standard magazines, sometimes makes quick notes on the blog about a topic related to his book, and other times posts longer essays. "Writing for the blog is more like having a conversation," Mr. Battelle said.

For years, book authors have used the Internet to publicize their work and to keep in touch with readers. Several, like Mr. Battelle, are now experimenting with maintaining blogs while still in the act of writing their books.

"It is very satisfying to write something and get an immediate response to it," said Mr. Battelle, who calculated that last year he wrote 74,000 words for his book, and 125,000 words on his blog. "It is less satisfying to write a chapter and let it sit on the shelf for six months."

The article, in the New York Times, also talks about how authors build readership through their blogs.

For the last few months I have been doing a lot of writing on my blog. Last week I spent five days at the Huntington Library in delicious solitude, leafing through 19th century Los Angeles county court documents. Do you know how hard it is to read that elaborate handwriting hour after hour? But I found some amazing trial transcripts that shed light on the business world of 1875 Los Angeles. So now I have to write. On my book. A lot. This blog will suffer.

It’s interesting to note that a number of others have taken a break from blogging. It’s tough to be entertaining and provocative day in and day. Sometimes ideas flow, other times they get stuck.

Ed of the Return of the Reluctant is taking a break. Carrie of Tingle Alley gets so distracted by the Internet when she is working on her novel that she recently bought a typewriter to get work done.