The Wattpad Experiment: Week 1

About a week ago, I decided to follow the advice of a publishing friend of mine and join Wattpad. (You can read my thoughts on signing up here.) As a publisher and a writer, and as someone committed both to maintaining standards and quality in publishing and writing yet who also believes that the walls of the literary establishment require some storming every now and again, I’m fully aware that Wattpad presents me with challenges and opportunities.

Even the most cursory look at the site reveals that by far the most numerous and popular work is genre fiction: particularly that associated with vampires, the undead, and fantasy—and that much of that work is geared toward teenagers, particularly women. In that regard, Wattpad reflects the culture at large. These genres lend themselves to serializations, fan fiction, and the kind of immersive experience that is also reflected in the culture: witness, conventions dedicated to comics and fantasy worlds, and online gaming and role-playing, etc. As such, Wattpad offers a perfect platform for open-ended stories that can be engaged with, elaborated on, and entered into by fans. The writer, as such, is “reduced” to being a curator of a world in which the barriers between author and reader, and the originating text and fan fiction, are blurred or broken down.

For me, who can appreciate the possibilities of, and passion aroused by, genre fiction, and yet who has little interest in reading it, Wattpad offers a stark reminder that most writing (and the selling of that writing) takes place far away from literary magazines, independent bookstores, and the Sauronesques eye of Strunk-&-White overseers. The writing is fast and sloppy, demotic and expressive.

Yet it is undoubtedly popular. Consider Sydney Ellis’s “Stolen Jerseys,” in both the “Romance” and the “Short Story” section. I’m not sure when this story was posted, but it’s now been read 98,272 times, and received 1,979 votes, and garnered 89 comments.  The tagline “she stole his jersey everyday before practice” failed to fill me with confidence that I was going to receive a top-notch literary experience (“everyday” should be two words), but I decided to chill out and not worry about little things like spelling, grammar, and the sequence of tenses. I made it to page 2.

My one short story (which only has two pages), has now been “up” for a week. It’s been read 17 times, with no votes and no comments. Frankly, I’m astonished it’s been read as much as it has. I’m also fully aware that this experiment will be a long, hard slog, and that the only way to ensure a greater readership will be to engage with the Wattpad community and read more literature in it. In other words, there is no room for ivory-tower snobbery or literary shyness in the flattened, democratic space of online writing.

I’ll let you know what happens. In the meantime, here is short story number 2. It’s a little number that plays with the tropes and ideas I see in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Short Stories, Works: Fiction, Writing | Tagged ,

10 Things You Need to Know about Running the New York City Marathon (That Have Nothing to Do with Running)

I’ve run the NYC Marathon six times—2014 will be my seventh. It’s a terrific race, and if this is your first time, you’re going to be in for a treat. No doubt you’ve scanned every single article/blog and watched every single video about how to run the course, and so on. I also assume you’ve read about making sure you have all your items ready the day before, so you’re not frantically trying to find that bottle of vaseline the morning of. Good job. I’m here to give you a few pieces of advice that you may not have come across and that I (natch) think you’ll find useful.

1. The Staten Island Ferry time you’ve been given is not a deadline. So, you’ve booked your baggage/no baggage thing, and clipped your toenails and packed your goo, and you’re (rightly) going to use the SI Ferry to get to the start. You’ve been assigned a time with your registration form and it’s on your bib, and you fear that there are people at the terminal ready to turn you away if you take the 7:00 a.m. ferry when you have a 6:30 slot. Don’t worry. Everyone’s way too sleepy and there are far too many other runners streaming on to the ferry for anyone to check. Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the “correct” ferry. Why? Not because the ferry might sink because there are too many people on it (don’t be silly!) but because of Thing #2. . . .

2. The bus ride from the ferry might take thirty minutes or more. You are going to leave the terminal and it’s going to be cold. You’ll make your way to a line of (school) buses that will fill up with people just like you and drive you to the starting area. In recent years, New York Road Runners has been trying to shorten the time it takes, but it’s still a trek. If you’re a worrywart like me, and you don’t want to waste energy getting nervous, take an earlier ferry. The ride is beautiful, and the sun (you have already creatively visualized a beautiful day) will be rising over the bridge you’ll be running over in a few hours. It’s your day; make the most of it.

3. Be prepared for the Village experience. I’m not talking about Greenwich Village or M. Night Shyamalan’s execrable movie. I’m talking about the place where you will be spending the next couple of hours, once you get off that bus. You have been told it is cold and to bring lots of old clothes that you can throw off ecstatically. Do that. What are you being brave for? I’ve bought an old sweatshirt, hoodie, and gloves from Goodwill just for such purposes. The clothes you throw away will make it back to Goodwill, and may be ready for you the following year!

4. Bring a robust black trash bag. Cut a hole beforehand in the bottom for you to put your head through and then slide it on once you get into your corral. You’ll be amazed how warm (and dry) you’ll be once you’ve gotten rid of all your other clothes. If you want, you can cut holes in the sides to slip your arms through, but if you’re like me that might be too fashion forward for your taste.

5. Use your old heat sheets. Remember that heat sheet they gave you at the end of your last marathon or half-marathon that you put away in a draw as a memento (hopefully after washing it)? Why not honor your last effort by using it to keep warm before the race? Don’t worry: they’ll give you another one at the end of it.

6. Bring a broken-down cardboard box to sit on. It’ll be wet or dewy, even muddy, as you sit on the grass listening to the polyglot recorded message welcome you over and over to the athletes’ village. You need to keep your bottom dry, and a cardboard box is just about the only thing you can bring to the place that security hasn’t prohibited as an offensive weapon.

7. Talk to people. Yeah, I know it’s early and it’s cold, and it took you fifty minutes to get coffee from the Dunkin’ Donuts stand. And, sure, you wanna get in the zone and psych yourself up. Plus, you bought six copies of The Economist that you haven’t read yet. But, you know what? You can’t concentrate and you’ve got plenty of time to get your game face on. In fact, your aim should be to psych yourself down so you don’t find yourself speeding through Brooklyn alongside a willowy Kenyan and crashing into The Wall before you leave Queens. Perhaps you think everyone else around you is too cool (temperamentally speaking) to talk to you. They aren’t. They’re just as nervous, excited, cold, and freaked out as you. Find out where they’re from; practice your Swedish; give and take some advice; wish them luck. If nothing else, conversation will eat away at the many, many minutes you have to wait.

8. There are portapotties everywhere.  You will need to pee. A lot. A combination of nerves, unnecessary amounts of pre-dawn energy drink, and necessary amounts of coffee will make you want to use the bathroom. DO NOT WORRY. There are toilets at the ferry terminal (Manhattan side). There are toilets on the ferry. There are toilets at the terminal (Staten Island side).* There are portapotties before you get on the bus. There are portapotties when you get off the bus. There are portapotties in the village. There are portapotties in your corral. You could spend the entire time lining up for portapotty after portapotty if you wanted. The one place that matters is your corral. For which reason: Thing #9.

9. Get in line for the portapotty as soon as you enter your corral. You’ll be in this densely populated area for perhaps 30 minutes before you move toward the bridge, so you want to avail yourself of the facilities. You could hop into a portapotty further toward the front once you start inching forward to the start, because that corral will have moved on, but that means you’ll lose your place in the line up, if that concerns you (which it shouldn’t). Why does any of this matter? Because beyond the corrals, that’s it: no room or place to pee or anything else (apart from off the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge itself, but that’s another story).

10. Breathe. Before the national anthem is sung, before the elites are introduced, before the cannon goes off, and before Francis Albert requests that you start spreading the news, just take a second. You are about to run 26 miles and 385 yards, accompanied by tens of thousands of other runners from all over the world, cheered on by more than a million people, serenaded by scores of bands of all types and abilities, and on a course that takes you through neighborhoods that encompass virtually all of humanity’s countries of origin and language groups. You might feel overwhelmed or you might be jazzed by all the hoopla. Don’t matter now. It’s your race, your moment. All those training runs, the plyometric exercises, the track work, and days when it wasn’t even light out when you were tying your shoelaces (oh, by the way: double-knot those laces!): this is what it’s about. This. Right now. Right here. So, breathe. And then go have a blast.

* It’s early on Sunday morning, and they may be closed.

Posted in Running | Tagged ,

The Wattpad Experiment

A few weeks ago, Catherine Clyne, a long-time publishing friend of mine who’s worked for several years as an editor of romance fiction, mentioned that she (and other acquisition editors like her) often trawl self-publishing websites (such as Smashwords, Wattpad, and others) to look for promising material. What they mean by “promising” is that not only can the author string a sentence together, but she does so regularly (even prolifically). She should also be building an audience and interacting with them. Cat noted that these sites provide a very useful metric for writers (and thereby potential publishers) to measure whether they have an audience, what that audience does or doesn’t like, and whether they have the appetite to engage with the general public and stomach to adjust their work to fit the audience’s expectations. (An added bonus is that this audience might be both more honest about and more supportive of the author’s work than the author’s friends and family.)

This model works very well for genre fiction. The question is whether it can work for literary fiction, or poetry: the kind of writing that, all too often, ends up lost in a review or journal that few read, or, even more likely, rejected from a review or journal that few read—either because the author lacks an MFA, or the piece is too short, too long, too full of compound adjectives, or (horribile dictu) humorous. As with most creative writing, the goal cannot be to make money; instead, one aims to reach people who might enjoy, appraise, and respond to your work, and thereby (1) give you the satisfaction of being read, (2) make you a better or even more accurate writer, and (3) allow you, eventually, to come to the attention of an editor or publisher who wishes to collect your work between the covers of a three-dimensional book.

For twenty years I’ve been writing short stories—all of which are under 1,500 words. This procrustean arrangement has forced me to expand and contract stories, to discipline my natural verbosity and coerce me into writing characters and not sketched outlines. That said, I like to think that the twenty-one I’ve now composed (most of which haven’t been read by anyone) are not simply exercises in style, but have something to say about the human condition.

Over the next five months, I’m going to post one story a week on Wattpad, and use this blog to analyze (as a publisher, editor, and writer) my experience in this form of communicating, and perhaps to offer an analysis of the story itself. It goes without saying that I need you—yes, you!—to make this work. So, indulge me (and yourself) if you will and enjoy my first story: “The Squeeze.” (Note: this piece, virtually uniquely in my oeuvre, contains language that some might find upsetting, but which I find hilarious.)

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing, Writing | Tagged

The Future of Publishing

Ten years ago, I was asked (along with others) to form a panel on writing and publishing for an animal advocacy conference. The panelists and I were so gloomy and downbeat in our presentation that we were never invited back again! What a difference a decade makes: I’m actually very positive about the future of book publishing. The reasons why are contained in this fine extended essay from The Economist (kindly sent to me by Cassandra Greenwald), and which is worth reading in full. There are, however, three  paragraphs that distill just about all the “wisdom” that I impart to would-be authors, which are worth me quoting in full. In the future:

While there will be more books, there may be fewer people who can make a full living as writers and publishers, says Mike Shatzkin, an industry analyst.

This too could be in part seen as a return to previous eras, when people did not expect to earn a living by writing books but used books as a means to advance their career or as a creative outlet. It is clear that most self-published authors are not doing it for the money they can reasonably expect to get—they are doing it to leave a mark, if only a digital one. Those who make a living too may increasingly be the ones who become marketable personalities online, on the festival circuit and elsewhere, rather than just being faded pictures on the inside back cover.

And writers who are not also performers may find that new opportunities arise. People with an idea for a book they cannot afford to take the time to write no longer have to go to a publisher. They can offer something like old-fashioned subscriptions to prospective readers, either on generalist crowdfunding sites, such as Indiegogo, or through specialist firms such as Pubslush and Unbound. Many will not get funded; some will succeed beyond their dreams.



Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing | Tagged

Five Ways In Which a Trainer Is Like a Good Editor

Martha Prakelt

Martha Prakelt

When I first began running and writing, I assumed that—because I could put one foot in front of the other and I was expensively educated—I knew how to do either well. There were plenty of running blogs and training programs, as well as “how-to” books on writing and short-story writers and novelists to copy. So, why not use what was freely available, study up, and practice?

Now, it’s true: You can do a lot to improve both by paying attention to the advice of expert practitioners, honing your craft by following the regimens of the best in the field, and making sure you put in the hours. But no matter how much self-discipline you bring to running or writing, it helps to have a little bit of one-on-one personal coaching from a trainer or an editor.

This is what I did in running when, in 2011, I found myself out of sorts following two poor performances in marathons. I decided to get a trainer, and once a week for eight weeks Martha Prakelt helped me with speedwork on the track and strength training. My marathon times reverted to status quo ante. This year, Martha advertised an eight-week, hour-long strength, plyometric, and core workout, which I found so helpful that I persuaded members of my running club, the South Brooklyn Running Club (SBRC), to join me in eight more weeks. The result was a further improvement in my time, and a much fitter, stronger me.

But how is that like editing, I hear you ask? Let me count five ways.

1. A good editor doesn’t do the work for you. She expects you to put in the hours and do the heavy lifting. It’s your perspiration and inspiration, not hers. Instead, she’s there to keep you on track, make sure you’re not falling into bad habits, and that you’re focused during those times when you really don’t quite know where you’re headed. In short, she’s there to help you retain your form and not take shortcuts because it’s “just too hard.”

2. A good editor wants you to realize your plans. Now, a good editor is not going to sit back and let you concoct grandiose and unreachable goals that you’re not willing to work to achieve. Instead, she’s going to take a hard look at what you can do and enable you to improve incrementally. Martha knew that the SBRC-ers were runners, and tailored her workouts to strengthen what we needed to perform across a range of distances and at our several abilities. She was specific, yet she also provided a general regimen that improved our overall fitness. Nobody got hurt, as far as I know, and everyone gained something from the workout. Likewise, an editor will look at the overall aims of your work and point out areas that can be strengthened, but ensure that the corpus itself isn’t distorted or pulled out of whack by overemphasizing one feature at the expense of the total reading experience. At some point, you’ll probably curse the editor/trainer for yet another round of burpees or because she tells you to “kill your darlings.” But that’s the price you pay for somebody paying you the compliment of taking you seriously as a runner/writer. You wanna improve, or what?

3. A good editor will do as much work psychologically as technically. Everyone can write and everyone can run. Neither things are complicated and you can do both on your own. The trainer/editor knows that. What can’t be substituted is the personal attention that makes you, the trainee, acknowledge that the long haul requires concentration and discipline, yes, but also the hoped-for pleasures of a sentence well constructed or a run well executed. Half the battle in writing and running is self-belief; the willingness to defer immediate pleasure for a longer-term accomplishment made all the more special because of those quiet, early hours of slogging through the pages, each sentence creaking and begging to stop. Each training session, therefore, is not a substitute for the hard yards, but an editorial session: tightening, strengthening, and honing the prose until it’s muscular, taut, and sinewy—conveying exactly the energy you want for an even more satisfactory ending.

4. You may think nothing’s happening, but it is. I can’t remember what I looked like, or how well I performed the squat jump, at the beginning of the summer. Martha didn’t give us measurements, or weigh us, or get us to keep a log of how long our planks lasted. All I remember is that, after each workout, I’d sweated a huge amount and yet felt sore (in a good way!), flexible, and refreshed. Likewise, a good editor will help you produce a text where the reader keeps turning the pages, appreciating the story and/or the clarity of the prose, without noticing anything except you’ve educated and entertained them. Now, if you want to log the hours or count the calories, so be it. And if your goal is to write 25,000 words in six weeks, then be my guest. But I’d prefer to be stronger and fitter overall, and have a number of excellently constructed ideas and a solid narrative arc of whatever length, rather than fit my practice into a preconceived notion of what it means to achieve something.

5. A good editor tells you to find a community. Every book or magazine article I’ve read on writing includes authors telling would-be scribes to sign up for journals, buy books, go to libraries, join a writing group, or in some way get engaged in the literary community. That’s because you learn from others, often indirectly or accidentally. So, share your work, ask for feedback, be grateful for honesty and frankness. Your work will be better for it. Martha suggested that part of my blahs might be because I did so much running alone, and often on the treadmill of the local gym. She suggested that I join SBRC not just because I might become a better runner or learn new things, but because the lonely long-distance runner can sometimes do better with a friend, just as the solitary writer ultimately yearns for an editor . . . and then a reader!

Posted in Editing, Editing—Publishing—Writing, Running | Tagged , ,

Permission to Succeed

In November 2013, I completed the Brooklyn Marathon in 3:30:44—a satisfactory time made more so by the fact that I’d run the New York City Marathon in 3:30:38 only two weeks before. I was receiving the congratulations of my peers in the South Brooklyn Running Club (SBRC) for my stamina and consistency, when Graham—a sub-3:00 marathoner in the group—suggested that I was looking too good. “You should be running faster,” he said.

Naturally, I scoffed at the idea. After two disastrous marathons in 2011 at which I’d run headlong into The Wall and crawled in at 3:50-plus, the fact that I was consistently turning in 3:30 or thereabouts was, for me, a triumph. I’d decided my ongoing running strategy was to stay at an 8:00-minute-per-mile pace and grow old disgracefully. Plus, I thought, at just shy of fifty, I was sixteen years older than Graham, with considerably less talent. If I perhaps improved by a minute or two, then I might get a chance to qualify for Boston again (as I had in 2012 under the old dispensation of sub-3:30 for 45–49-year olds). As far as I was concerned, I’d done pretty darned well considering my age and ability.

Yet as I hobbled out of Prospect Park, I thought more deeply about Graham’s comment. It was true that I was a reliable and steady runner, but why wasn’t I leaving it all on the course? Why was I spending so much effort to caretake times in multiple marathons rather than putting everything on the line in one. Was I that scared of failure and bonking? Or did I fear what success might cost me in time and commitment? And just what did he mean by faster? When in April I ran 3:31:26 into a headwind in New Jersey, I couldn’t help but wonder what Graham saw in my running. “You should be getting 3:23 into your head,” was his response.

Something about that specific time, and coming from a respected colleague, stuck in my mind. Over the spring and summer, I concentrated on track work, strength and core training, and plyometric exercises with SBRC. I ran my usual four 18+ long runs, but approached them with purpose rather than as a chore, and adopted different strategies with each, so that I felt energized at the end of them rather than checking them off my to-do list. I completed my Yasso 800s with verve, adhering to a 3:23/3:24 timeframe until I didn’t have to look at my watch to know my speed.

I decided to run Chicago again: site of one of my ignominous 3:50s in 2011 and a redemptive 3:34 in 2012. As I stood in the corral, I considered my options and inevitably settled on a slow-and-steady 7:55-per-mile pace to 13.1 before deciding whether to speed up. I had 3:27 in my head. Yet as the early miles ticked by and, without any effort, I failed to run slow enough for 7:55, I realized I’d have to review the situation. By half-way, I was only thirty seconds shy of a pace that would bring me in at 3:25, and I changed my plan again. I’d no longer look at my watch and attempt to calculate each mile, but just run in a zone that felt good. As it turned out, that zone was a 7:48-per-minute mile. I came through 30K at 2:26 and 35K at 2:49, and crossed the finish line at 3:24:09: a four-minute PR, and a BQ for 2016.

It’s possible that, a year on from that Brooklyn Marathon, I’d simply trained more efficiently, given much needed variety to my workouts, and become stronger and fitter. It’s also true that the weather in Chicago was perfect, the crowd support terrific, and the course as flat as ever. But I’m inclined to believe that my improvement was also due to being allowed not to self-sabotage. I’d internalized Graham’s remark in such a way that it undermined my own strategic caution on the day, just as my own notion of steadiness and consistency had, in fact, held me back from running with more risk and, yes, more freely. That such an observation had come from someone else perhaps enabled me to solidify a story I’d told myself but hadn’t believed, precisely because it came from inside me: I can run faster than 3:30.

I joined a running club because I was tired of slogging around New York City’s byways by myself and wanted a community that would support my efforts, no matter how weak they might be. What I hadn’t truly appreciated, however, was that support can entail someone telling you that you could be better and giving you the permission to set goals you yourself might never have envisioned. It might seem obnoxious at the time, but it can change everything. And you know what? I can run faster than 3:24.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

The Great Long Training Run

After several years of plowing my way through New York City’s streets, I decided to join a local running group—the South Brooklyn Running Club (SBRC)—to provide me with company, friendship, inspiration, and conversation. We’ve run the length of Manhattan, traversed Brooklyn, and criss-crossed the bridges that knit the city together. Although I’ve been with them for fewer than three years, it’s hard for me to remember what it was like to run alone.

But a 20-mile training run stubbornly remains 20 miles no matter the company, and when Birgit, a friend in the group, suggested that we try a 5-4-3-2-1 workout that she’d seen posted on the Intertubes, we approached it with some trepidation—not least because the write-up called it “one of the most demanding race-specific workouts a marathoner can do.” What the run entailed was a slow first and/or second mile, followed by five miles at marathon pace; then another slow mile, followed by four at marathon pace; a further slow mile and then three at marathon pace; another slow mile and then two at half-marathon pace; and, finally, a slow mile and another at half-marathon pace. We’d run a total of 21 miles—of which 15 would be at or faster than our marathon pace.

I offered to try out a shorter version of the workout (5-4-3-2) in New York Road Runners’ 18-mile Marathon Tune-Up a week before our scheduled exercise, with only one slow initial mile, and no final slow and half-marathon-pace mile. I’d not been particularly impressed, especially since the year before I’d completed the 18-mile Tune-Up five minutes faster than the 5-4-3-2 afforded. But I agreed to give it another go.

Birgit and I set off from Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, and timed our two slow miles (9:30 minutes per mile) so that we were facing the downward slope of the Brooklyn Bridge when we kicked on. Our marathon pace would be 8:00 minutes per mile and our half-marathon 7:30 minutes per mile, as we ran up the West Side of Manhattan to the George Washington Bridge and back. We had our hiccups along the way: Birgit’s running belt caused chafing that needed to be addressed, and I failed to put enough vaseline on my nipples, with the inevitable bleeding. I pushed a little too hard on some of the marathon-pace miles, but when I mentioned to Birgit at mile 16 that it wouldn’t be terrible if we didn’t run the final stages at half-marathon pace, she made it very clear that she hadn’t come all that way to slow down or give up.

By the time we ended our run in Battery Park City we were tired, bloody, sore, and elated. Mario Fraioli, the trainer who’d posted the 5-4-3-2-1 regimen, mentioned that the workout would provide “a huge fitness boost and will give you the confidence that you’re ready to tackle your marathon goal,” and he wasn’t kidding. Although we’d completed many long runs between us, the precision, discipline, and cameraderie of doing it together made it nothing less than exhilarating. Something, we knew, had shifted inside us, and when we both completed October marathons with PRs and BQs, we independently thanked the other in our Facebook posts for that long run. It wasn’t just that the 5-4-3-2-1 showed us that we were fit enough and capable enough, or that it gave us the confidence to succeed. It was important that we did it together—a public acknowledgment of the other’s readiness that was a deeper validation than any private accomplishment.

And that’s perhaps why being part of a club matters. When I’d undertaken the shortened version, I’d been doing it alone, albeit surrounded by thousands of others circling Central Park. Even though I was with only one other person a week later, I needed a mirror-companion to check in with and to join me, bloodied but unbowed, in the whoop that the Garmin’s beep at 21 miles let loose. In the long run, that’s what might be what really matters.

Posted in Running | Tagged , ,