Thursday, February 25, 2010


Lance Michael Foster has offered this prospective comment on my post about the NPR story contest. I rejected it as comment because this advice and variations on it has been circulating all over the Web and I’m tired of it. BUT his questions seem worthy of consideration. Skip this list if you want to. I’m just cheating on my 1,000 word goal because I’m tired and my house is chaos from shopping yesterday in Great Falls and then talking on the phone for a couple of hours in the wee smalls. (There’s a lot of anxiety and bereavement going around. This has not been the only call.)

1. Roddy Doyle: "Do feel anxiety ― it’s the job."
2. P.D. James: "Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it."
3. A.L. Kennedy: "Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care."
4. Anne Enright: "Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand."
5. Neil Gaiman: "The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like."
6. Geoff Dyer: "Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov."
7. Anne Enright: "Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book."
8. Zadie Smith: "Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied."
9. Will Self: "Regard yourself as a small corporation of one. Take yourself off on team-building exercises (long walks). Hold a Christmas party every year at which you stand in the corner of your writing room, shouting very loudly to yourself while drinking a bottle of white wine. Then masturbate under the desk. The following day you will feel a deep and cohering sense of embarrassment."
10. A.L. Kennedy: "Older / more experienced / more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else ─ they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not
very like you."

Anderson: The Best Writing Advice of the Best Writing Advice -- Vulture

Lance says: “But there has been raging controversy over such things? Tell me more...I don't see anything controversial to me. After all it's all just a bunch of opinions, not facts. What's the Salon article like?

“Yeah, it seems like everyone in the world is a writer these days, or wants to be. Why do you think that is? The access and ease of writing on the internet?”


Okay, you asked for it. Gloves off. (I will say that Lance is a published writer of considerable academic standing.)

1. You are as capable of googling Salon as I am. This list and others just like it have been floating around the blogosphere for months.

2. The controversy is in part a failure of definition of what writing is, what “good” writing is, what “successful” writing is, what publishing means, what favorable criticism means, how the academic worlds and media worlds collaborate and how to survive in this world. And a hidden question is always how do I get rich.

3. Publishing as the kind of Virginia Woolf dignified and careful creation of pbooks that can be marketed to an educated clientele and cherished in what is called a “library.” Publishers attribute this to the rise of ebooks, electronic publishing. But I would argue the other way around, that the corruption and failure of publishing almost demanded the invention of ebooks.

For these reasons:

a. The business model, which was originally socially prestigious, was plundered by conglomerate corporations who got rid of all the English majors and installed publicity mongers and market researchers to “package” a product that only looked like a pbook. They also moved the focus from the writing to the author as celebrity.

b. On the level of the book store, books were treated as merely objects: taxed as inventory, required to pay duty when crossing borders.

c. A strange practice invented out of desperation in the last Big Depression let all unsold books be returned to the publisher without question. The trouble is that by that time they were generally unsaleable because of abuse on the shelves. In short, all new books in stores were on consignment.

d. These unsold books were pulped. As many as 40% of a printing. There was nothing else to do with them.

e. Writers were paid upfront for manuscripts submitted and in process with sympathetic editors guiding things along. These “advances” were sometimes large and if they were, they were well-publicized. The “costs” taken out were never known to the public but included. Some were rather, shall we say, “inventive.”

f. Electronic business models allowed the elimination of some bookstores, esp. those who bought and sold used books as objects in which they invested and could not return. On the other hand, these books could now be sold online. But no inventory needed to be kept on hand. In fact, books could be bought directly from the writers.

4. Organizations had been leaning on publishers to be filters for what was worthy writing. Criteria for joining writer’s groups have been things like “has published two books with a legitimate publisher.” Credulous people thought anything bound was “published” so they paid to have their writing printed and bound. Walt Whitman did it. It is sneered at as “vanity” but some vanity is justified. Now that the gates of the six (6) remaining big publishing houses are so nearly closed, so many people are turning to epublishing that the stigma is gone. But so are the standards. Now the prob is how to find a good book without seeing it and handling it and with no middleman curating.

5. Times are hard. Publishing is like rodeo bull-riding. You might win big. You might be killed or maimed. But it might be exciting. The mistake is thinking that you’re going to be published. Go back and look at that advice, Lance. NONE of it is about publishing. Some of it is about surviving NOT publishing. So the question is, “are you writing or are you trying to publish?” The answers are different. These bits of advice are for WRITERS. Not for getting published.

More tomorrow. This is getting too long!! And I thought I needed a head start!!


Lance Michael Foster said...

hohoho, and here I thought I was just passing on a little interesting bit of internet gab. Didn't know I'd stepped into a pile of doggy doo.

Actually, when you sent me that last email Mary I went ahead and googled Salon, and found the article. Yep, 115 comments and counting. I've read the article and 4 pages of the comments. Again, didn't know there was such a doggy doo fest.

I guess for me, I just always liked books, the physical things, ever since I was a toddler. I thought maybe someday I would make one of those magic friends myself someday. I started liking books before I could read or write. They were their own little worlds, refuges from crap you had to accept in real life.

I loved stories, hearing them and telling them. Still do. Some of them written, but many of them oral. Told my sister about encountering a spirit in Father Damien's church on Molokai yesterday, to the point where both of us had tears in our eyes. Not from sorrow or maudlin emotion, but the realness of what happened, the spookiness, in a good way.

I never thought about being "a writer" until I was in grade school, being a writer and an artist. Because I loved them. Everyone told me to be an artist when I grew up. Except my English teachers who told me to be a writer. But I didn't know how to "be a writer." I didn't know what that meant exactly.

Then later on I met some writers, and they were mysteries to me. Not necessarily in a good way. I just liked stories, hearing them, telling them, getting lost in them. I didn't like "writers" (of course I don't like "artists" either).

The whole thing has become rather nightmarish. I thought I was going to be a writer and artist, and magically, somehow, money would come from somewhere so I could live and do the only thing I knew how to do.

Sure, all kids think they MIGHT be famous someday. I did too. But that's kid stuff you eventually leave behind. I never thought about being rich, as I'm not a money hound, but I didn't realize how much of a self-promoter, kiss ass, camp follower, con artist, carnival barker you had to be to get anywhere (if you weren't connected).

I really just like telling a story and watching the rapt faces and shining eyes of the hearers...and feeling like my face is a mirror of theirs. Around a fire at night is best. And hearing the stories of others the same way. I like writing, I like books, but I really don't like what I know (as little as it may be) about the "world" of writing and writers. This beautiful transportive thing I though it was, is apparently as backbiting and mercantile in reality as politics and high school.

Rebecca Clayton said...

OK, I visited the search engines, and searched the Salon Website, and I still don't know what you're talking about. If you don't want to encourage the phenomenon by participating, perhaps you could suggest the search terms that would help me find it.

Personally, my big objection is to the term "meme." As an evolutionary biologist, it's technical associations get under my skin.

prairie mary said...

Rebecca, I used the "meme" word rather sarcastically. I should have put it in quotes. Start from Lance's citation -- that should get you into the loop. Most of the versions are calling these lists "best writing advice."

Prairie Mary

Lance Michael Foster said...

Try this: