Monday, May 25, 2009

Making A Literary Life ~ by Carolyn See

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I'm taking a few writing courses this summer at the local Community College. One of them is a six week “short story marathon” where we will write four complete short stories, ready for publication. That should get the juices flowing.

The required reading for the course is Carolyn See's book, Making a Literary Life, so I went ahead and bought it. I was going to look it over before the class starts, in a couple of weeks, but once I opened it I couldn't put it down. This should be required reading for all writers.

Ms. See takes her readers through her own Literary Life, step by step, generously imparting the priceless wisdom she has gained. We are taken by the hand and led through our first manuscript, our first trip to New York, our first printing, and even given tips on having fun with the tax man.

The cornerstone of this Literary Life is “a thousand words a day, five days a week, for the rest of your life”. So you can see the tie in to the “short story marathon”. She goes on to bring everything about a writer's life journey into fine focus. This is not just a book on how to write, or how to get published, but on how to live life as a writer.

The subtitle of the book is “Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers” and it genuinely goes beyond being helpful to writers. Indeed, any artist - or for that matter any sensitive, creative human being – would benefit from the lifestyle she espouses. It is truly a lifestyle, not just a “get published” formula.

The precious pearls of wisdom offered in this book are life changing, encouraging, empowering, and uplifting. Ms. See began her career as a single mother of two with no money and little prospect for success. She persevered and became a multi-published, award winning author, and a professor at UCLA.

I heartily recommend Making a Literary Life to every writer, would be writer, or anyone who knows a writer. I'm not alone...

“Imagine this: You have been introduced to an established, respectable writer, and she likes you – a lot. So much, in fact, that she spends hours an hours giving you advice about writing and living a writer's life... What's more, you get to absorb all this sage advice while having a really good time... Sound good? Then go out and buy Making a Literary Life.”

--The Times (Trenton, NJ)

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Review: A Body at Rest by - Susan Petrone

A Body at Rest by Susan Petrone

The book jacket announces : Martha and Nina are underemployed, overeducated slackers who are wasting their twenty-something lives while serving drinks at a dive bar in Cleveland. Martha's escapes are smoking too much, drinking, and reading classic literature. Nina's distractions come in the form of married men. In a shared moment of self-realization, they quit their jobs and set out on a road trip.

As a forty-eight year old slightly conservative southern male, that doesn't really sound like something I'd be interested in. It goes on to say : Their journey in time takes a literary turn that blurs fantasy and reality. Nina's destiny is guided by Cervantes' Don Quixote while Martha, with less grandiose aspirations, finds herself in the footsteps of Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse.

Okay, I think to myself, the characters are a radical liberal – joisting at windmills – and a self absorbed girlie-girl. A bit of an odd couple, could be fun, but still not something I'd like. I'm really not into chick-lit, even if I do write romance. I like things a little more edgy, thought provoking, even dark.

So why did I buy the book? And why should you, dear reader? Because the book is not being compared to those two classic works, it is their literary equal. A Body at Rest is one of the best examples of Literary Fiction I have read in years. What did I say before? a little more edgy, thought provoking, even dark? A Body at Rest is all that and more.

Ms. Petrone took me on the ride of my middle-aged life. I couldn't put it down. I was so absorbed by these two young women, and their trip into a literary Twilight Zone, that I had to keep turning pages until I ran out of pages to turn. I was shocked, dismayed, enraptured, overjoyed, and saddened along the way as I pulled for these two amazing heroines.

The writing itself shows the author's true mastery of the literary arts - the light, subtle, even feminine, air of the narrative gently wielding the stark power of the story. Ms. Petrone made me laugh, and indeed she made me cry - not a small feat.

I heartily recommend A Body at Rest to anyone who loves literature, no matter what your favorite genre may be. On a ten point scale, I'm giving this one a twelve. Well done Susan. I'm definitely a fan now.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Art of Writing

First off, let's define our terms so we are all on the same page. Many endeavors can be defined as arts, crafts, or vocations. Vocations can be learned, but often require some level of aptitude, if one is going to be truly proficient, and often a great deal of training and/or practice. Crafts, and arts require some innate “gift”, without which someone can never “learn” to be proficient. Techniques of an art or craft may be studied to improve one's abilities, but all the study in the world can not make someone an artist.

We can find a simple example of this in painting. I can paint my house. I will struggle with it. It will not be a very “professional” job, but it would be passable. I can slap some paint on canvas, I took some art classes, but it will not be “art” - a pretty painting perhaps, but not art. I can hire a professional painter to do my house. He will do a much better job. He makes a living painting houses.

Now if I want a very special job done I can not just hire any painter. Some paint for a living, and are very neat and professional, but others have a gift – they are true craftsmen. A craftsman has a eye for color, a special touch with his brush, things that can't be taught. He doesn't just work as a painter, he is a painter. Now our wonderful craftsman may not do very well putting paint to canvas. He may not have that gift. He is a craftsman not an artist.

I might hire an artist to paint wonderful frescoes in my living room, yet he may be less capable than I of painting a wall. He's an artist, not a professional house painter – yet he is a painter. Yes, someone could be all of those, but proficiency or gift as one does not guarantee ability in all.

Writing is much the same. Anyone can write. We write letters, reports, blogs. Some of us are better than others, some even get paid. There are myriad techniques to learn, and practice improves our skill at communicating. As with our painters, some have a natural talent. There is a craft and an art to writing. Those who communicate well, with a special flair that draws readers in, are true craftsmen. These literary craftsmen have a high level of skill and an ability to communicate effortlessly through the written word. Yet, as with our painters, that does not guarantee a gift as an artist.

The writer, as artist, has a gift that is in a way independent of “writing”. The writer has a innate gift that is expressed through the written word as the painter expresses his through images, or the musician through sound. He must learn the techniques and craft of writing so that he can express that which is already inside.

The lines between artist and craftsmen are not so clear cut as I have made it appear. I have obviously simplified for clarity. The point I am trying to get across is the unique gift of written communication as it pertains to the written narrative. The ability, not simply to write a technically correct paragraph, but to create a work of art.

I am not here to make critical judgments between bodice rippers and high literary fiction – I have seen graffiti as beautiful and artistic as Picasso's paintings. I am here to declare and celebrate the art of writing in all its forms. I have noticed a perception that writing is a technical exercise of putting words on paper. That someone can learn to write. That we are not artists.

A recent blog by a well known literary agent compared writing to a hobby, like stamp collecting or watching reality shows on tv. The gist of the article was that those who feel writing is a very central part of their life, something that defines who they are, are sad individuals who need to get over themselves. To this agent, it seems, writing is a hobby until you make a living at it, then it becomes a vocation.

Writers, like all artists, are defined by their art. Our stories, our art, is an expression of what makes us who we are. To deny our gift is to deny ourselves. We all must learn the techniques and craft of writing, to express ourselves effectively, but the words are already part of us. If it were not so, we would have nothing to write.

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Agents and Writers: conflicting priorities

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Lately there's been a lot of flap between Writers and Agents. One of my friends on facebook and Blogger wrote some scathing posts, which received some flaming comments both in agreement and in rebuttal. Well, let me take that back. There has always been tension between writers and agents. This is just the most recent round.

So why can't we all just get along? We all want the same things, right? With all of the “I love my agent” acknowledgments in the back of books, we can assume published authors get along quite nicely with their agents. So the problem is in the struggling writer – busy agent relationship.

One of the dynamics involved is time management and priorities. The number one priority to a writer is honing her/his craft and getting published. Taking precious time away from writing to fine tune a query, a synopsis, and search through a slush pile of agents is annoying. Then being sent a form letter rejection, or no acknowledgment at all, is frustrating to say the least.

Agents number one priority is selling their clients work. A close second, but second none the less, is finding new clients. So an unagented, unpublished, writer starts out on the back burner. That is understandable. If she were your agent, you would not want her to neglect your manuscript spending too much time in the query pile. So, in their spare moments, agents hurriedly dig through queries looking for the next great novelist.

In a perfect world – writers POV – an agent would thoughtfully read your work, and if they chose to pass on it they would offer you wonderfully helpful suggestions on how to improve it. Wouldn't that be grand. That is unlikely from the most basic business POV. Why is agent A going to help you improve your work so that agent B can sell it? If agent A is going to take the time to help you polish a manuscript, agent A should have the opportunity to sell it.

We are back to time and priorities. Agent A is doing all those wonderful things for her clients. That's why they praise her in their books and why she only has time to send you a form letter. Agent A is also getting a little frustrated - when she takes a little time between reading one of her authors latest manuscripts, and talking to an editor about another clients book, to read some queries – that half the queries are not even close to her submission guidelines and many are amateurish at best.

Now I'm not being an agent fan-boy. I can understand their priorities, however. Yet writers have priorities as well. We spend hours searching for potential agents, hours studying their submission guidelines (every one is slightly different), and hours preparing individual submissions for each agent. Then they want us to wait weeks for a reply, and some don't even take the time to reply at all.

Writers really get the feeling that we are not on the back burner, we are out back in the privy. The lack of a response is what angers me. Almost all agents have a standard rejection letter. Many accept email queries. A form response to an email can be sent with a single click. It can even be programmed to be automatic when the busy agent presses delete or moves the file into a special folder. Not sending at least a form rejection is rude, thoughtless, and shows a lack of respect to the writer's hard work.

I will not send a query to an agent that doesn't respond. If they are too busy to click a reply button they are probably too busy to actually read my query. I don't like wasting my time. I'm not even sure those agents even read queries. I think they just keep them coming in - in the event they lose a client or get bored. Again, very disrespectful to the writers who spend precious time preparing the queries.

So agents feel over-worked and under-appreciated by writers, and writers feel that agents are dismissive and disrespectful. It helps if we try to put ourselves in each others shoes for a bit, but even then there are writers and agents who are just not professional. They give us all a bad name and stir the dissension.

What we do need to do is stop generalizing. Every writer and every agent is an individual. Our true quest is to find each other. The agent/author relationship has been referred to as a marriage – not every two people are compatible, but hopefully we can find the one who complements us.

The way I look at it, if an agent I send a query to doesn't jump at the chance to represent my work, she is not the right agent. I don't see rejections as personal attacks on my abilities. They are what they are. That's not arrogance on my part, just realism. When I find the right agent she, or he, will be as excited about my work as I am, and that agent will sell my work with enthusiasm.

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*Just an aside after I wrote this post: I got a rejection today from a query I sent out in November. That's six months ago. I'm not sure how to read that – a very busy, yet diligent agent; a very thorough, deliberative agent; an agent cleaning out old emails that were never read? At least they responded.