Remember how aspiring writers used to deal with agents? You'd mail them something, wait for a letter in response, maybe even talk to them on the phone (usually exactly once). They were pretty distant characters to the writer sitting down to work with the morning cup of coffee in Anytown, USA.
But oh, how the times have changed. It's not even 9:30 in the morning and Betsy Lerner
has already given me thoughts on finding the perfect title for my book, Nathan Bransford
is ready to show me exactly how he appraises a query letter, and Rachel Gardner
has thoughts on making writing your lifestyle, not just a sideline hobby. Or you can get their thoughts in 140-character chunks on Twitter.
Seems to me this can only be a good thing. A few months of glancing at agent blogs have told me more about what agents actually do than I learned in the previous 20 years of writing.
A caveat, though, if you write and you're considering entering this literary corner of the Internet: Agents' blog entries come in three flavors: 1) purely practical 2)artsy/inspirational and 3)tough love. Now you might be the kind of writer who's looking for all three of these all the time--I am not. Mornings, I like a comfy layer of #2 with a light sprinkling of #1. I do best with #3 in the afternoons, at which time #2 is repellent to me. And late in the evenings #3 becomes the cudgel with which I beat myself. Now if you're talking Twitter, you never know which you're going to get when--and that can be a problem. You don't necessarily want a hard reality check interspersed with Shit My Dad Says and your friends' news of cute things their kids do.
My advice? Make all this agent wisdom a font to which you journey with your little writer bucket as you need it--don't turn on the tap in your office and let it pour forth all day. No RSS feeds telling you about your favorite agent's latest post. And those Twittering agents? Unfollow them, then corral them all into a Twitter list
that you can call up at will when you're ready. When you're struggling with your manuscript and you break down to go check Twitter, you don't need to hear exactly how paltry your chances of selling that thing are anyway. Oh yeah, and don't check Twitter and blogs when you should be writing...
There's a well known problem with making movies about a writers. All sorts of interesting things may have happened in a writer's life, but the essential part of what makes him or her interesting--the writing--is an excruciating bore to watch. You just can't make it visually engaging, no matter where you put the camera, no matter what meaningful utterances the writer lets slip. You end up with something along the lines of the above video. Worse still is the Inspiration Cheat: Artillery shells give soldier Cole Porter (as played by Cary Grant) the idea for the driving rhythm of "NIght and Day;"
W.S. Gilbert staring profoundly at a samurai sword as he conceives of The Mikado
in the otherwise wonderful Topsy Turvy
. I don't think the viewer has to be a writer to cringe at these moments with the certain knowledge that it just doesn't work that way.
But I'm increasingly realizing this problem isn't limited to writers in movies. These days, it's traces are all over the pages of writers on Facebook, their Twitter streams, and, yes, especially their blogs. Writers have more ways to keep their names in people's minds. To "build the brand," if you will.(Please don't.) It's easy to mistake what the immediacy of these tools offers for something that will further illuminate work we admire. Instead, what you get is a hint of the author's taste in online articles, maybe her politics or his taste in music. if you're lucky, you might discover that that writer you hold in such high esteem likes that silly cat video that's been going around your office as much as you do. At worst, you suffer through excessive self-promotion and/or self-mythologizing. The greatest compliment I can pay to nearly all the writers whose online presence I follow is that I enjoy their books a lot more than the digital breadcrumb trail left by their tweets, entries, and status updates.
Oh yeah, but don't let that stop you from reading this blog--it's friggin' fantastic.
So maybe the short story is dead
, or maybe it's the hottest thing this season
. But here's a writer who gets the most out of the form and probably doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about the market and his platform.Jones spent 10 years creating nearly all of his Pulitzer-winning, antebellum-era novel, "The Known World," in his head, until he finally set it all down on paper in a three-month rush in 2001 after being laid off from his job at a tax publication. "The Waiting Room" is still locked up tight in his mind, though he dictates the opening and closing three times in a row, down to the dashes and commas, without so much as blinking.
Here in Washington, dumping on the beleaguered Washington Post
seems to be a favorite pastime. But this profile of Edward Jones
is a rare convergence of a subject worthy of profiling, a journalist up to the task of doing it right, and a paper willing to give a good story enough room.
I've not read James Ellroy, but this interview by my friend Jon Fasman
has me primed. What an intriguing manner Ellroy has: the deliberate tone, the halting emphasis, the bow tie, for god's sake. I know it's all about the writing, but I wish there were more authors who had Ellroy's sense of odd panache. You used to see Truman Capote and Norman Mailer acting weird on talk shows. I miss those days.
So recently I'm in a CD store in Baltimore. I was looking for the new Prefab Sprout (successfully) and the new Brookville (unsuccessfully).
How I shall miss the library quiet of people flipping through racks of music a few years from now when we're all downloading compressed lo-fi songs to our iPhones or whatever the hell we're talking on then. But that's another entry...
A mom has her four-year-old along while she picks up her new Death Cab for Cutie or whatever. He's running around putting CDs in his mouth, knocking over box sets that cost more than my car, somewhat normal rambunctious kid behavior. Her conversation with her son carries throughout the store: "Justin, you need to be next to me here now. You've shown me I can't trust you to be alone in the DVD section." "This is why mommy doesn't want you to have sweet snacks in the morning."
What stuck with me about this was not the kid's behavior or the mom's handling of it. It wasn't even that I couldn't possibly miss a single word of their interaction. Instead, it was the stagey quality of the mom's speech. This was not, it seemed to me, an unvarnished glimpse into a particular parent/child relationship. I seriously doubt this was the way this woman spoke to her child at home. This was theater. She was keenly aware of her audience, and in a way she was speaking to us more than to him. And maybe it stuck with me because it seems to me many (most) of us do this same thing, even the alt-rock parents cruising the CD stores.
It makes me think of a certain kind of guy you see walking his dog on the street--and yes, it's always a guy. While you wait for the light at the crosswalk, he hisses commands at and gives strange hand signals to his animal in a way that's supposed to make him look in control, but always makes him look a bit desperate and sad.
In the way that women are sometimes said to dress for other women, are a few too many of our parenting choices--especially the ones that happen outside of our homes--made for other parents instead of our kids? If my kids were old enough to grasp the peculiar dynamics of the adult world, would they call me on this and say, "Hey, Dad, what happened to the slack-ass we know from home? Who's this show for?"
Let's just agree that Wordle
is a lot of fun. This is the word cloud from my story collection. When I pasted in the full manuscript, character names were among the biggest words. That's probably not unusual, but I think my narrators and characters do use proper names a lot. I then excluded character names. What else can I learn from this? "Like," "looked," and "back" are in there a lot. Do I use enough similes to have "like" loom so large? "Little," "just," "room"--can't draw any connections there. Clearly "time" is much on my mind. Maybe the biggest takeaway is that, to judge by my word cloud, I write with the vocabulary of a second-grader.
Recently I went to the Washington Arts Club
to hear a reading given in honor of Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems
, a brand new collection from LSU Press of the poems of Eleanor Ross Taylor. After a day of writing and child wrangling, it can be hard to downshift into poetry-reading mode. (And let's face it, sometimes you wish you hadn't.) But this one was well worth the effort.
I first met Eleanor Taylor in the early '90s when I worked for her husband Peter Taylor
. I was such a fan of his work, that I gave little attention at the time to hers. And certainly she never asked for it. An esteemed poet in her younger years (Randall Jarrell, in accepting The National Book Award for poetry, suggested it ought to have gone to Eleanor Taylor's book instead) she put aside writing to raise her children so as not to have the one compete with the other. Let's leave the question of that decision's wisdom to future dissertation authors. But it was not the decision of a great artistic ego, to be sure. She eventually resumed her slow and steady output in her quiet way.
At the Washington Arts Club, poets Jean Valentine
and Dave Smith
read from the new collection. I picked up a copy and have been dipping into in the couple of weeks since the event. I've thought more than once about how Dave Smith (who acquired Eleanor Taylor's books for LSU Press) described her work. He said that when he played tennis, his standing rule--no matter the opponent--was "No quarter given, none asked for." Eleanor Taylor, he said, wrote poetry by the same rule. Introductions at readings can be pretty over-the-top, but there was truth to this one. Here's one of the new poems in Captive Voices
No, soul doesn't leave the body.
My body is leaving my soul.
Tired of turning fried chicken and
coffee to muscle and excrement,
tired of secreting tears, wiping them,
tired of opening eyes on another day,
tired especially of that fleshy heart,
pumping, pumping. More,
that brain spinning nightmares.
disconnect, unplug, erase.
But here, I think, a smallish altercation
Soul seems to shake its fist.
Wants brain? Claims dreams and nightmares?
Maintains a codicil bequeaths it shares?
There'll be a fight. A deadly struggle.
We know, of course, who'll win...
But who's this, watching?
So with the news
that the estimable short-story writers Deborah Eisenberg
and Edwidge Danticat
got tapped for MacArthur grants, it looks like there's some hope yet for my favorite genre. Larry Dark at the Story Prize blog makes the case
for the short story's comeback.
I moved to D.C. when my daughter was three weeks old, so I'm discovering the arts culture of the city somewhat slower than I might have otherwise. But a reading of the work of Eleanor Ross Taylor last night took me to the Arts Club of Washington
. Near GW, the club is in an historic Georgian building that dates to the beginning of the 19th century. After Monroe was inaugurated, the building briefly served as the executive residence--a mini-White House in Foggy Bottom.
The Arts Club was founded in 1916 and hosts a bunch of great musical and literary events with a wide variety of new art on display. Their Web site has all the info. Worth your attention, fellow DCers.
I suppose Trollope
has become the patron saint of writerly productivity. His daily schedule annoyed his contemporary critics, who thought the muse did not visit those who waited for her on a schedule. (This opinion remains popular among undergraduates--at least the ones who took my workshops.)
But what's on my mind this morning is something I read a few years ago. As we all know, Trollope wrote his allotted three hours EVERY day. Was it from 5 in the morning until 8 or 6 to 9? But apparently when he finished a novel manuscript at, say, 8:45, he would turn the page and write "Chapter One," and be off on his new novel for his remaining fifteen minutes of writing.
Now that my story collection is finished (it is finished, right?), I'm trying to get something else underway--something novel-like. And all these Trollope questions come rushing back to me. Did he outline anything? Did he ever just stare at the wall and wonder how this or that strand of the plot could be made to work? Maybe he did that at the post office when he was supposed to be working.