Monthly Archives: May 2012

Caveat to Fiction Writers: Keep Your Day Job

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 involved with 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 the 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 put 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) demanding a 15% profit rate of return…and you’ve got today’s publishing mentality.

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 parking cars…

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 in the late 90s, 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 and ebook 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. Keep your day job and write for because your soul demands it, not your wallet.


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Writing Fiction Career as Anthropological Fieldwork

About twenty plus 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, 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 goddess…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.

(to be continued)


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On BookDoctoring Fiction: Go Gentle into that Good Night

I have faced the editing depth issue in reading other writers’ works-in-progress, both as a paid bookdoctor and as a pro bono friendship read. Being a fiction writer myself I am extremely loath to criticize a work in any way that may seem gratuitous and cruel. I always try to balance out the positive as the foreground comments, or let’s say, the first round of comments; then I bring up gently what I do see as issues one cannot ignore, e.g., a major structural flaw in the plot. But even there I try to be a very gentle critic and try not “to solve” the issue at hand.

The more advanced a writer the more subtle and abbreviated are my comments. For a beginning novelist I find one has to be a bit more detailed and direct. I always add the comment that art is a very subjective matter and it’s finally up to the individual artist to find her voice and vision.

It pains me to have to correct seriously committed writers and so I’m very cautious; but if there’s something that appears to be a serious, aesthetic “blind spot”…(see the Longinus principal). I do feel it’s my job to confront it gently. If the writer wants to expand that into a fuller discussion, ah, then I’m glad to follow that out, again letting them lead through open ended questions.

 Also, I try to emphasize the “negative capability” approach, where we step back and look at literary choices from all kinds of perspectives before rushing to a final judgment. The commentaries depend on the writer I’m dealing with. Everyone is different but I’ve found most are quite sensitive in a hidden, deep way. Go gentle into that editing night.

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Voice and Other Asides…Ahem…(more bookdoctor ad libs)

Trust me, I’m a Doctor.

As to voice, yes, I think you have something there. This isn’t my free-wheeling, intellectual riff voice. This is my more cautious book doctor voice, the therapist guy who has read and critiqued several hundred authors’ novels and scripts (language line edits but also developmental structural issues like plot, character, theme, setting, point of view, etc). Of course my sympathy was also enlarged by my experience as a novelist. So, one thing I have learned is an empathy for a serious writer who puts his or her heart and soul into the creation of a text. Even with compositional flaws, courageous effort earns lasting moral and aesthetic victories for the artist.

Here’s an additional comment about the hard work of revision I used to mention to my book doctor clients who were often new novelists:

It’s my hunch that dedicated writers love to re-write sentences, whatever the length of the genre, from lyrical poem to multi-volume novel. A standard novel may have 10,000 sentences, a short story 100, but each sentence needs to be massaged and voiced until it works in the ensemble of other sentences. That’s sometimes a long process. In fact, what I’m saying is that most career writers are just re-writing and re-voicing most of the time. A first draft doesn’t take that long generally, but a final draft with ten complete revisions (my average) may take years. James Joyce worked a thousand hours on one 50-page section of Ulysses (the “Nausicaa” episode, beach, Bloom and Gerty MacDowell). Joyce worked on Ulysses as a whole for a decade or more. He worked about 19 years on his final novel, the mythic supernovel, Finnegans Wake. Maybe that’s one reason I like writing flash fiction. I can finish a ten-layered revision in a week or two, rather than a year or two with an “ordinary” literary novel (whatever that beast may look like).

Carpe diem and remember to claim your right to a refreshing siesta.

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