The Fine Writer

A friend who is currently writing a book sent me an email about its progress. She told me she’d started to read H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald’s award-winning memoir of how she dealt with her grief over her father’s death through falconry. My friend had had to stop reading the book, she related, because she’d been intimidated by MacDonald’s lush vocabulary and poetic style and it made her feel inadequate as a writer. Her own language was much more down to earth, she wrote, and she was trying to tell a story very plainly.

I have not read MacDonald’s book, but my friend’s comments did strike home. I, too, tend toward lushness in my prose. I often ask my sentences to carry a lot of weight—not least by freighting them with dependent clauses, balancing them between several semi-colons, and never allowing a noun or verb to complete their tasks without colorful adjectives or adverbs as chaperones. Once I’ve reached a first draft, I polish my prose to a dazzling sheen, which is not to say that it’s clear, well-written, insightful, or compelling. It may sound resonant; it may be lyrical; it may offer to the reader a veneer that suggests a rich grain of considered thought. But, in the end, the polish can lacquer the prose to the point of lifelessness.

I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the first volume of her much-lauded re-imagination of the life and times of Henry VIII’s fixer, Thomas Cromwell. I’ve no doubt that Mantel labored as mightily over her prose as MacDonald did hers, and I do mine. What’s remarkable, however, about Mantel’s writing is that it feels as unvarnished and sometimes as muddled (who is the “he” in this sentence?) as the times she is describing. Sentences tumble into each other; we move back and forth in time and in and out of Cromwell’s head frequently within paragraphs; names are dropped, kicked around, and picked up again with abandon (and who is this “Thomas”?). Yet it all works. The prose more than breathes; it runs, pants, shouts, laughs, whispers, and has all the energetic vital signs you want in a book. It’s Dickensian in all the right ways: expansive, unafraid, pell-mell, and rich with characters and incidents. And in its own way as plain as day.

My worry as a writer is that my effort to make each word matter and to render each sentence beautiful is my way of avoiding producing sentences over which I don’t have complete control, which is itself a symptom of fearing not that I lack the tools to write a book but that I don’t actually have enough raw materials to make anything worthwhile. My facility, after all, hints at facileness. Yet a little less polish might open up cracks in the story to reveal emotional, intellectual, and narrative depths that had heretofore been plastered over by “fine” writing. The task is not to write plainly or beautifully; the task is to write truthfully. And sometimes that is a harder and scarier prospect than any prose style can fix.

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The Woes of the Author

The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society—an august body of writers (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) based in the U.K.—have produced their annual report on the dismal state of affairs for professional writers. (Thank you, Kim Stallwood, for sending it to me.) I reproduce here, for your inspection and circumspection, the salient details from the report:

THE WRITING LIFE AND EARNINGS

  • The career of a typical professional author begins in the late 20s/30s. The optimum ‘earning age’ for most is the mid-40s to 50s, with incomes beginning to decline thereafter.
  • The earnings picture is very top heavy: the top 5% earned 42.3% of all the money earned by professional authors.
  • The bottom 50% (those earning £10,432 or less) earned only 7% of all the money earned by all writers cumulatively.
  • Since 2005 the typical author has become poorer against society as a whole and now (from self-employed writing) earns only 87% of the present minimum wage.
  • Nearly 90% of professional authors need to earn money from sources other than writing.
  • 17% of all writers did not earn any money from writing in 2013, despite 98% of these having had a work published or exploited in each year from 2010 to 2013. Therefore, at least 17% of writers work without any expectation of earnings.

 SELF-PUBLISHING

  • A quarter of authors have self-published a book.
  • Among authors who have self-published, the top 10% of earners made a profit of £7,000 or more.
  • The top 20% of earners among authors who have self-published made a profit of almost £3,000.
  • The bottom 20% of authors who have self-published made losses of at least £400.

 PUBLISHING ADVANCES & CONTRACTS

  • 44% of authors stated that the size of the advances they had received from publishers had declined over the past five years.
  • 46% of authors said they had signed a buy-out contract (where there is a single payment for use of their work without the further payment of royalties), with 30% stating that the prevalence of such contracts was on the increase.
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The Two-Week Rule

everytime-you-make-a-typo-the-errorists-winWe have a rule in our offices at Lantern Books that no copies of a book newly arrived from the printers are to be scanned for typos, verbal infelicities, or solecisms. It’s hard to do: the eye roves over the page like a klieg-light, casting into sharp relief the typefaces chosen, the leading and kerning of letters and lines on the page, the running-head format, the dimensions of the book, the thickness of the paper, the margins, and so on. We’ve poured our hearts (and not an inconsiderable amount of money) into the book, and it’s beyond disheartening to be confronted with mistakes that somehow bypassed the author, editor, copyeditor, typesetter, and proofreader.

After fourteen days, however, we can view the errors with more equanimity than despair; and exasperation and self-loathing have been replaced by a shrug of the shoulders and steely determination not to do it again. Thankfully, technology has helped us experience fewer unwelcome surprises. Not only can we do a dummy run with one or more copies of the book, just so that we can get the three-dimensional item in our hands before committing ourselves more fully to print, but the actual print run can be a matter of only a few copies, allowing changes to be made quickly, with relatively little expense, and with relatively few tarnished copies out there in the world.

I still think the two-week rule needs to be applied—and not just for publishers. An author recently told me that she’d sent her mother a copy of a book over which she’d labored mightily for many years, only for her mother to reply immediately that she’d found three errors—and that was just for starters. Of course, it is the ordained role of parents everywhere to remind their children that, no matter how much they may feel they have accomplished, they’ll always be in the wrong. So, authors: make sure you tell your readers (and especially your supposedly nearest and dearest) that for fourteen days you want nothing but unconditional love and support. After that, one’s fragile heart might be strong enough for the uncomfortable truth.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing

Fulfilling a Dream

Pythia Peay

Pythia Peay, with her books: American Icarus and America on the Couch

As a publisher, I’m often told by folks, “Oh, I’d like to write a book.” My immediate (internal) reaction is often Why? It’s an enormous amount of work—research, writing, editing—and the rewards (little money, no reviews, few readers) are almost always incommensurate with the effort spent in creating the work. Sure, there is the satisfaction of a job completed, a story told, a mental and/or psychological itch scratched. But it’s a rare person who doesn’t expect more from their writing than these. And yet, sometimes there are occasions such as these. . . .

I first met Pythia Peay twenty years ago when she was the book editor for the now defunct magazine Common Boundary. I was the publicist for Continuum Publishing Company at the time and I’d send her our books on psychology and spirituality for review. Pythia told me that she was working on a book, entitled America on the Couch, and when I began my new company, Lantern Books, in 1999, Pythia’s manuscript was one of the first I considered. It was enormous: 600 pages of interviews with leading psychologists about what ails America. For all its worth as a book, America on the Couch intimidated the hell out of this neophyte publisher, and I turned it down.

I usually don’t like to reject manuscripts tout court, and I told Pythia that I’d been taken with a couple of paragraphs in the Introduction, in which she’d talked about her father. Joe Carroll was an aviator who embodied the aspirational, charismatic, can-do, and optimistic America that burst into the world’s consciousness after the end of the Great War. Yet he was also a depressive and a drunk, who put his family through hell because in his metaphorical flight from himself he always psychologically crashed to the ground. This American Icarus, I wrote to Pythia, was the heart of her story. She should lock Couch in a drawer and tell her father’s tale. I averred that what wisdom she’d gleaned from the psychologists would make its way, as necessary, into the telling of his life, as it charted the highs and lows of the American century.

Pythia embraced the idea of her father’s memoir wholeheartedly. For years, she researched the archives, talked to experts, and visited locations—uncovering a personal and social history, full of fascinating details and fruitful investigations, that gave body and, more significantly, soul to the story of America. When she sent American Icarus to me again, I was astonished and delighted. I now had in hand a book that, I felt, could command a larger publisher’s attention: one able to do unto this book what had been done to Women Who Run with the Wolves and other such titles that appealed to the children of the Greatest Generation, or men and women at midlife, or those who’d had to deal with alcoholism in their family.

I suggested to Pythia that she get an agent, which she did. And another. And then another. For three fruitless years, she followed their advice in revising her manuscript so that the publishers could politely but firmly reject it. She needed a bigger platform, the editors told the agents; they couldn’t market the book, the sales force told the editors; we no longer take such risks on mid-list authors, the executives told everyone. As Pythia relayed these responses to me, I feared that Icarus—expressive, romantic, and expansive—was passé, out of the conceptual reach of the 30-something editors for whom the Battle of the Bulge was a fitness problem and who wanted prose as polished and unscarred as the kitchen countertop in a new Brooklyn condo.

Eventually, Pythia came back to us, defeated as so many authors are by the timidity and rigidity of mainstream publishing, and together we launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund the title. By way of a perk, and in the spirit of Why the hell not?, we threw in the original book idea, America on the Couch—this time updated, with 40 interviews organized into six parts, each introduced with a mini-essay by Pythia. Here, too, Pythia worked with her customary dedication, honesty, and moral seriousness, and eighteen months after the launch of the campaign, she yesterday found herself  (as the picture above illustrates) sitting before a stack of both books, signing her name.

Neither Pythia nor myself know the future of these titles. They may, like many, disappear into silence; they may, like some, capture the imagination of their readers and through word of mouth pick up sales that will rebuke the agents and publishers who failed to see what I did: a rich, deeply felt, and very American story on family, land, and the ravages of time, and a remarkable collection of interviews over twenty years on these United States. Whatever happens, however, it’s vital that we acknowledge that what was only a dream or a hope twenty years ago has, through an enormous amount of work and dedication, as well as new technologies and the trust and commitment of friends and family in pre-ordering these books, come into being. While this is only the beginning, it is not just a beginning . . . and, for now, that should be a reward in itself.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing, Writing

On Whimsy and Lizards

Life, as we know, is rarely fair; and things, as we also know, are rarely equal. And, it would appear, never has life been less fair or more unequal than in the case of Rowe vs. Literary Estate of P. G. Wodehouse. As the more tenacious of readers to this blog may remember, some years ago I had the itch to write a literary parody of P. G. Wodehouse‘s immortal characters, involving Bertie Wooster and Jeeves and the gang in a bloody mash-up with zombie literature. The result was Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King, a work that even its staunchest literary champions would admit posed absolutely no threat to Wodehouse’s standing as one of the titans of English comedic prose style.

Being the honest cove that I am, I approached the estate for permission to print or distribute—for free or with monies going to a charity of their choice—and was told never to disseminate this work in any way. Imagine, therefore, my surprise when one of the fans of BWLK emailed me with a link to a collection of parodies of Wodehouse currently for sale on Amazon, expressing the hope that its presence would encourage me to do the same. Entitled Whimsy & Soda, this book by Matthew David Brozik is not discernibly different in genre than mine (although probably a good deal funnier and better executed). Like mine, Mr. Brozik’s volume contains all sorts of disclaimers that it hasn’t been authorized and is a parody, and so forth. Why, one is tempted to ask, is this book OK, and mine not?

In fact, Mr. Brozik had contacted me in 2012 to find out how I’d coped with the Wodehouse Estate. He took things into his own hands, and has written about it (amusingly and fluently) it here (I’m the sad unfortunate whom MDB mentions!). In further correspondence today, he writes:

I entered into a written agreement with the Estate. After the Estate came down on me, my well-regarded IP [Intellectual Property] lawyer colleague/friend and I wrote the Estate’s counsel a letter explaining just why they were in the wrong, legally. They backed down on three conditions: 1. I couldn’t write any more than the 12 stories in my collection; 2. I had to change the title (I proposed, and the Estate agreed to, WHIMSY & SODA); and 3. I had to indicate in the book itself that the stories are parodic and not authorized. I considered the whole thing pretty much a win.

So, there you have it. I will have to consider my next steps.

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How Do I Get Rid of Books?

Books decaying in Detroit

Books decaying in Detroit

Occasionally, a beleaguered bibliophile will ask me how to shift a bunch of books that they no longer need but don’t want to throw away. Books may be wonderful in many ways, but they are bad for the environment when they end up in a landfill, decomposing slowly and releasing methane—and who wants that to happen? Luckily, a number of options exist for those who want to tidy up an apartment. Here are a few of them:

  • Secondhand bookstores. I’m not just talking about The Strand (or your local equivalent), but Housing Works (or your local equivalent), Goodwill (ask beforehand if your local branches take books), and even your local library. You may not get a lot of money for them, but at least they’ll be in a place where other book-lovers congregate. These options are especially good if you have a lot of popular fiction or practical titles.
  • Freecycle. This amazing service allows people to give away (and pick up) stuff . . . for free. You’ll often find bookpeople on Freecycle. In Brooklyn, where I live, a guy runs an unofficial circulating library service for senior citizens throughout the borough.
  • Ebay or Amazon. You could set yourself up as a vendor of secondhand books, but that might be just too much effort, and you’re not really interested in the pennies you will make versus the amount of time and labor you’ll spend getting all those books up online. But it’s an option if you have a lot of time and patience.
  • Local schools. Schools too may need books: especially classics and hardy perennials, which can be given to needy students. Call them up and see if they’re interested. Here‘s an organization that does precisely that.
  • Overseas. Consider donating books overseas, where libraries may be scarce and the hunger for knowledge and information—especially practicing and learning English—may be great. Here is a website on that might help.
  • Books Through Bars. This organization takes books of special interest to prisoners and sends them, or takes donations of books and money. Consider helping this organization (or your local equivalent).
  • Stoop sales and a box outside your apartment/house. If you’re in a heavily trafficked area, just take a bunch of books outside and watch them disappear. Make sure to take the box in if it looks like rain or snow, or night is falling.

I’ve found that it really helps to sort the books you’re thinking of getting rid of into subject categories. Doing so makes your book collection more useable to potential collectors, and will certainly make them more attractive to people with special interests.

You may own some books of disputed worth to anyone—Fodor’s Hawaii (1975 edition), for instance. In which case, my advice is to get yourself a shredder and rip the book into segments. You can either put the paper pieces out for recycling, or use them as bedding for your worm-bin, or as absorptive material for the old paint you’re disposing of, or even stuffing for a pillow. Either way, you keep the books out of the landfill and free up a little more space to . . . yes, buy more books!

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Animal Rights Fiction: A Solution?

The two questions I get asked most frequently at Lantern are: (1) “Do you publish fiction on animal advocacy?” (“No.”), and (2) “Do you know of any publishers that do?” I mention Ashland Creek Press (doing sterling work in this area), but then usually observe that, when it comes to fiction, it’s not so much the subject matter as the genre that counts (literary fiction, mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.). If your work is a good fit generically, then the subject matter fades in importance (although you hope that the editor/agent will be persuaded by the vividness of your prose to adopt your cause).

Options exist, of course, for self-publishing, and there now are a raft of e-book publishers offering varying degrees of access for readers or writers. Recently, however, I’ve been convinced that a much more exciting and viable route is opening up for animal advocates who love to read or write fiction . . . of whatever kind. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been placing my short stories on Wattpad, a popular site for free genre e-fiction that is regularly trawled by editors and agents looking for new talent. Another platform is Smashwords, where you can offer lots of different kinds of work for free or for money. Both platforms allow a reader and writer to define their genre and sub-genre. Here are Wattpad’s genres; here are Smashwords’s.

Notice anything unusual? No “Animals” section. (This is strange, since many genres include animals in some way—good-looking people turning into wolves or bats, for instance, appears to be popular.) What would happen if writers about animals—short stories or long-form, of whatever genre—took to these and other platforms to showcase their work? Naturally, writers might have to set aside the dream of monetary gain (no matter how fantastical that might be), but it’s my bet that most writers, given the choice, would prefer to be widely read than earn a few shillings for their labor. However, this need not be a zero-sum game, and the benefits would be considerable.

A body of work from multiple authors under its own genre-heading would (a) attract readers who are interested in animals but not necessarily aware of the issues that we advocates care about; (b) provide community, solidarity, and mutual education for animal advocates who write fiction; and (c) offer agents and publishers access to talented writers and a sense of whether folks are interested in reading them. This, in turn, might turn into (d) potential publishing contracts for the more successful of the collective, and further encourage writers, readers, and publishers to pay attention.

Writers (and publishers) have to go where their readers are. Increasingly, those readers are going online to join communities of likeminded fans to read and write fiction (of admittedly variable quality) that is immediately accessible. This is especially true of fiction and genre fiction in particular. It would be a shame if animal advocates missed out.

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