Monthly Archives: April 2012

Bookdoctor Lecture Notes On Reading & Writing Serious Literature

My comments are taken from online discussion groups:

Couple of comments…actually Jane Austen was rather cagey about dealing with her publisher and negotiating for their publication to enhance sales. She wasn’t quite the retiring little minister’s daughter and actually I was glad to hear that.

About a fifteen years ago I tried my hand at making a living writing fiction fulltime. I had had the privilege of studying with some very fine fiction writers; I also studied anthropology and saw this a chance to do some fieldwork in a new field. What an eye opener! I did everything, from bookdoctoring, ghosting, scriptwriting, story consulting and developmental edits…critiquing hundreds of manuscripts for agents, film producers and authors seeking help. Sometimes the money was good. I had one client whose revised novel became a New Age bestseller (more than six months) and got a movie deal. I got a few intermediate writers up to speed to sell stories and novels. A couple of short fiction clients won awards or nominations for prizes like the Pushcart Prizes or little magazine awards. But whether as a consultant or actual writer, there are a lot of people who think they can and should write a novel. Professional people like lawyers and doctors and hedge fund advisors (!), you name it, who lust after the stay-at-home novelist’s hermit existence. Most talk about it. It’s hard work learning the trade. And one of the oldest saws in the biz is first drafts are almost always “sh-tty”. Start over and rewrite…and rewrite…ad nauseam. Many many are called but few get to the promised land of quality genre or literary writing. Agents have long held the 2% rule of thumb: only about 2% of submissions in the slush pile will stand the test of genre or literary quality. Sadly, many people are dazzled with the absurd notion they’ll become bestselling authors and live the high life. Oh my god…it’s a sad landscape of ambitious dreamers. People really think sitting in a room all day writing and re-writing is some kind of dream life (truth is, for genuine fiction writers, fiction is mental health; the worst time for them is between works; there is no choice; it’s a kind of addiction to doing life). My goodness! Don’t get me started! There’s a reason writers are mistrusted by publishers…they’re unpredictable, aggravating and “whack jobs” (another agent’s remark); as one publisher said in the 1970s when the big corporate mergers began…if we could only get rid of the writers, publishing would be a great business!

Well, the scribes are still here and still annoying the unpredictable revenue stream of trade publishing. They can’t engineer best sellers or classic literary works, the latter bringing less profit than prestige.
Writing and publishing are often fraught with difficulty and frustration. Most serious writers of fiction do care about the money but there’s historically a better shot at making serious money playing the state lottery. Nathaniel West earned something like $400 total from The Day of the Locust. Faulkner would have starved on his novels until the Nobel struck him with the klieg light of great writer; he made money knocking out scripts and daydreaming of drinking and writing back in Oxford, Mississippi, instead of Hollywood. Reader research shows most people who claim to have read the classics of literature haven’t really. They maybe started the Sound and the Fury but never made the finish line; the same with Joyce, Proust, Woolf and on and on. It’s a pleasure to be a member of a group of genuine readers who do “read the goddamned books” (as one of my grad professors challenged us!). But the point is well taken that fully formed literary fiction is only vaguely associated with genre formulae. But it’s genre formula fiction that sells. And all basic principles of good dramatic writing are nicely summarized in essence in Aristotle’s The Poetics. Here in our inflationary times, the first question facing an agent and a buying editor at one of the big trade houses that pays advances is…will this novel or whatever sell? It’s not, is this a well-written book. (think of the numbskull celebrity books; editors create, and package and ghosts polish these profitable fluff texts). In the meetings, marketing and sales puts in their two bits on that profitability probability. Add a senior publishing exec and the accounting/legal department’s latest sell-through figures, and hear the booming voice of major corporate ownership (Gulf & Western, GE, etc) demanding a 15% profit rate of return…and you’ve got today’s publishing mentality at the Big Six. Literary novels of great aesthetic achievement get rejected every week in New York and around the world. So, if you don’t write genre stuff, or filmscripts, or knock-off ghostwriting gigs (all of which I tried when I wrote fiction to pay the family bills), odds are you’re going to need a day job, e.g., teaching or editing or whatever…There’s clearly a kind of graded spectrum of quality in writing fiction but if you take a genre and get too clever in language and execution…you pass up the quality scale out of the genre money making realm into faux genre works. Not much interest. Also the same is true if you mix or cross genres, say, romantic suspense (one agent said, to a bookdoctor client of mine with a fine book, that’s considered too “soft” a market, toughen it up, make it more noir). Another agent agent told me once about 1999?, I can’t sell anything with a boat in it…not since Titantic hit big; wait awhile and try later…and don’t sink it! Blow it up!

Truth is, for the literary writer, those novels and stories that come from the soul, the heart, the guts…that’s why you keep going. It’s the juice that makes it all worth while. It’s a magical experience to get inside a uniquely rendered story or novel and bring that into the light of day; you do hope after that to share it with an audience that enjoys language and moral-aesthetic actualization. And the good news is there are more opportunities with POD & publishing to do what you want; also there are quite a number of smaller presses. But believe me, it’s a brutal world of rejection at the level where there’s competition for pay…the trade press level.

I look forward to enjoying the reading and re-reading and general discussion of these great texts. That’s such a gift to writers with serious life goals.

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Sample of Tweets: from Sunday, Earth Day, 4/22/2012

Jim Stallings@StallingsJim

#writing #tip #fiction When you want to know the general inner thoughts of a character, general rule of thumb, ask: what this person’s age?


#fiction Al Watson, retired dude: So much time, so little to do. Just walk around & eat groceries. No apologies. Worked 45 years. Earned it.

Jim Stallings@StallingsJim

#fiction Bob’s Bar off I-10: Jeremy Barfly nodded in his fav dark booth. “Nice thing about narcolepsy is you can take a cat nap anywhere.”


#fiction Isaac drove west for days toward El Paso along a borderland two lane tortured by blinding sun, heat & vengeful female dust devils.


#fiction On I-10 Jelly saw a roadside sign with his own picture on it. He looked twenty years younger & posed as the sheriff of a ghost town


John, thanks for the follow and best of pleasure in your writing career. JimS @johnrigbey


Thanks for the follow. Don’t know what you’re up to but best of luck. JS @tototurn


#fiction #writing Ted’s bent over a keyboard, his head swivels erratically trying to land on a pothole runway with a terminal w/out clients.


#Haiku for Sun Day: Meets somebody new, Along road tomorrowy, Best leave it alone.#poetry #advice #Japanese #17syllables

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Reflections on Spouse as Critical Reader of Novel in Progress: Leonard & Virginia Woolf

BOOKDOCTOR FILE NOTES: 2007 (Text: To The Lighthouse)

Leonard did the right thing because one has to congratulate a person for making a serious effort at a complex work of art like a novel. He had no doubt about Virginia’s heartfelt gutsy effort. At times a novel can be terrifying because the author is the center of so many characters, thoughts and actions; it’s a bit like being a director in a film, which has been described by veterans of the film industry as being the group handler of an odd lot of asylum patients. Novels that are hard labor in being born, versus the quick birth texts, can beat up a writer. You lose your way, the plot, the characters, the themes, the language shifts, dialogues and voices…so many things that can slip a cog. Novels are particularly demanding because of the typical number of characters and their complex arcs through a long tale. As Updike recently noted in his latest tome of criticism (Due Considerations), a literary biography of a poet is the body of poems by the poet; but the literary biography of a serious novelist is almost unknowable because a novelist is so many other “characters” we’ll never really know. So apart from the flaws in this novel Virginia was showing to Leonard, he had every moral right to praise her for her effort in working and re-working what some might call a “brilliant failure.” It’s brilliant nevertheless in its potential. Good editors or first or second readers can often help a novelist resolve a number of serious flaws in composition because they don’t have the blind spots of the composer. After all, serious literary novelists write books that are an adventure of the mind, heart, guts and soul…to explore issues unknown to them through the complex pathways of the novel’s movements, exterior and interior to ordinary reality. That’s the thrill for the writer and it can be quite dangerous psychologically, so it’s not unusual for a first or second draft to have these blind spots where the writer has blinked at a crucial juncture of idea, feeling, image, introspection…Indeed, it would be the rare novelist at this early draft level not to have some major issues, which a kindly editor will not solve outright for the novelist but gently nod (often interrogatively) in the direction of the issue…letting the writer discover and consider solutions. This is particularly true of the advanced veteran writer like a Virginia Woolf. Leonard did the right thing in holding back his specific reservations and in honoring Virginia’s intellectual courage and abilities in sharing the battles she had endured to this point with the novel.

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Dithering Doodles: Mr. Kitty as Deep Thinker, Cat Philosophers I Have Known

Here you see Mr. Kitty deep in reflection on the profoundest enigmas of philosophy as respected by leading felines. I make no offer of interpretation. His new ebook is forthcoming: Screwing the Other Guy: Adventures in Search of the Main Chance, or more familiarly known as, Fat Cats: Myth or Slander?

Mr. Kitty wishes to thank everyone connccted with this likely literary triumph. Sales are expected to be particularly strong in  Europe where existentialism & structuralism are not repulsive to the ear.

More to come.

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