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 , ,

Running, Eating, Thinking

1590563484_cf200As I related in a previous post, two particular passions of mine—running and book publishing—coincided recently with the launch of Lantern’s Running, Eating, Thinking: A Vegan Anthology (edited by yours truly) at BookCourt in Brooklyn. I was delighted that so many of my associates at the South Brooklyn Running Club chose to come to the launch. It made me think that I should really spend a little more time reflecting on running (which I actually do a lot of) and less time on cricket and baseball (which I don’t play at all). Anyway, consider this the beginning of a beautiful friendship between running and sententiae of varying lengths about the “thinking” of “running.”

Posted in Running | Tagged , ,

The Right Book for the Right Publisher

It's the right book in the right place.

It’s the right book in the right place.

Sometimes this whole crazy business of publishing works: the stars align, the players remember their words, and the right person wins. Here’s an example of when things go right.

About three years ago, I was contacted by Robert Kopecky, a writer and illustrator. He lived in the neighborhood and was looking for a publisher for a book he’d written on near-death experiences (NDEs). He wondered if he might come by and talk to me about it. I’m a little leery of such requests, since, although I don’t like the wall that keeps would-be authors from potential editors and publishers, one wants to protect oneself from being forced into making promises or commitments you can’t keep. Nonetheless, I said yes, and we met, discovered we had more friends and interests in common,  and I agreed to take a look at his manuscript.

Robert wasn’t wrong to try Lantern. We’ve published some books by esoteric authors and had brought out in 2001 a book on NDEs by Gracia Fay Ellwood, entitled The Uttermost Deep. What impressed me about Ellwood’s work was that it catalogued NDEs that hadn’t been a welcoming into the light before a turning back into one’s revived body, but had been fraught with terror and alienation, some accompanied by an experience not of heaven but of hell. Perhaps overly influenced by Ellwood’s work and its poor sales, I told Robert that I was going to reject his work. Lantern, I said, hadn’t really done well with its “New Age” titles (more a perception in the marketplace than the quality of the works themselves). Furthermore, I felt that his manuscript—charming, engaging, and resolutely upbeat as it was about his own NDEs—failed to acknowledge that some people’s end of life experiences involved distress, discomfort, and great physical suffering, and Robert needed to honor that.

Robert took this advice in stride, amended his manuscript, and sent it to me again. I admired his commitment but said that, as much as I saw the marketability of this book (Robert had illustrated the work delightfully), he needed to find a publisher that would be able to fit the title comfortably into its stable. I thought about it for a while, and then recommended that he send the manuscript to Jan Johnson, the publisher at Conari Red Wheel Weiser, based in San Francisco. I’d known Jan and Conari for a while; Lantern had even maintained their website. Conari (which focused on human potential books), Red Wheel (a Buddhist concern), and Weiser (the granddaddy of American esoteric publishing) had combined a few years back, and offered a kind of three-in-one perfect alignment for Robert’s book.

On Robert’s behalf I wrote to Jan and told her that I thought How to Survive Life (and Death) would be perfect for Conari, and that she should take a look. She demurred in the way that most publishers do: she loved the book, she admitted, but she was concerned that Robert didn’t have enough of a “platform.” I insisted that she think some more about it. To cut a long story short, Conari eventually came to their senses and published it, and now it’s available from a publisher that will know exactly how to promote it to an audience that understands what to expect from a Conari book.

There are several lessons to take away from this particular story:

  1. Rejection is not the end of everything. I could see that Robert’s book had potential; it simply wasn’t right for our company. He didn’t take my no personally; he took it professionally. That kept him focused and helped move him forward.
  2. Your task as an author is to find the right publisher for your book: not someone in the neighborhood, or a friend or acquaintance. You need to make sure your book fits the publisher’s program, and that the team will know how to promote the book and place it in the marketplace.
  3. Listen to your editor. Robert took my observations to heart, and made the manuscript much more honest, much tighter, and much more saleable. Reputation to the contrary, editors and publishers actually want you to succeed. Sometimes it’s appropriate to listen to them.
  4. Your book will eventually find its way to the right publisher as long as you’re both persistent and flexible. One without the other will usually mean failure.
Posted in Publishing | Tagged , ,