Helping authors and publishers flourish in the digital age. I have more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship.
Thousands of people dream of writing and publishing full-time, yet few have been told how to make that dream a reality. Some working writers may have no more than a rudimentary understanding of how the publishing and media industry works, and longtime writing professors may be out of the loop as to what it takes to build a career in an era of digital authorship, amid more competition—and confusing advice—than ever.
Releasing today, my newest book, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), takes it on principle that learning about the publishing industry will lead to a more positive and productive writing career. While business savvy may not make up for mediocre writing, or allow any author to skip important stages of creative development, it can reduce anxiety and frustration. And it can help writers avoid bad career decisions by setting appropriate expectations of the industry, and by providing tools and information on how to pursue meaningful, sustainable careers in writing and publishing on a full-time or part-time basis.
Despite ongoing transformations in the publishing industry, there are fundamental business principles that underlie writing and publishing success, and those principles are this book’s primary focus. Writers who learn to recognize the models behind successful authorship and publication will feel more empowered and confident to navigate a changing field, to build their own plans for long-term career development.
One underlying assumption in this guide is that many creative writers—particularly those pursuing formal writing degrees—want to build careers based on publishing books. It seems like common sense: literary agents sell and profit from book-length work, not single stories or essays; and getting anyone (whether a reader or a publisher) to pay for a book is easier than getting them to pay for an online article or poem.
But book publishing is often just one component of a full-time writing career. Perhaps you’ve read personal essays by debut authors “exposing” the fact that the average book advance does not equate to a full-time living for even a single year. Such essays reveal unrealistic expectations about the industry—or magical thinking: I will be the exception and earn my living from writing great books.
My guide does offer guidance on how to get a book published, a milestone that remains foundational to most creative writing careers. But because very few people can make a living solely by writing and publishing books, it goes further, showing why this one pursuit should not constitute one’s entire business model. Earnings can come as well from other sectors of publishing, other activities that involve writing and the types of skills one picks up as a writer. Online media and journalism, for example, now play a significant role in even fiction writers’ careers, so The Business of Being a Writerspends considerable time on skills and business models important to the digital media realm. When combining these skills with the entrepreneurial attitude and knowledge this guide teaches, a writer will be better prepared to piece together a writing life that is satisfying and sustainable. In the end, some writers may discover they prefer other types of writing and publishing—and not just because it’s tough to make a living wholly from books.
If you are a writer looking for the business education you feel you never received, I hope this book provides the missing piece. While I try to be encouraging, and want you to feel capable and well informed, I don’t sugar-coat the hard realities of the business. When you decide to pursue a writing career, you’ll experience frustration, again and again, and not just in the form of rejection letters. But it helps to know what’s coming and that your experience is normal. Writers who are properly educated about the industry typically feel less bitterness and resentment toward editors, agents, and other professionals. They are less likely to see themselves as victimized and less likely to be taken advantage of. It’s the writers who lack education on how the business works who are more vulnerable to finding themselves in bad situations.
You may have heard the argument before: There are only a finite number of possible story types.
No matter how much we might wish otherwise, creativity is as limited as we are. We can never invent something truly unique. The most we can hope for is to sprinkle a dash of novelty into the same worn-out trope and, with an illusionist’s flourish, let out a cry of ta da! and hope no one in the crowd sees through the trick.
And so, the argument goes, though there are millions or billions or even trillions of stories in existence, there are really only a very limited amount of stories possible.
I’d like to argue that there are just two.
I know. You’ve probably heard a different number before. And I’ll get to that in a bit. First, though, I’m going to deal with a more pressing question:
Why should you care?
The thing is, it actually matters. Like a chef, knowing what defines the concoction you’re about to create will help you figure out how to make it work.
And how to stop it from failing.
The two categories are:
Stories about abnormal characters, and;
Stories about abnormal situations.
Superman. Sherlock Holmes. James Bond. Gandalf. Shrek. All these characters have something in common.
They’re nothing like you or me.
They’re the basis of the first type of story. Books about abnormal characters—characters that are different to the average person on the street. Maybe he has superpowers. Maybe she’s unnaturally brilliant. Whatever the case, these characters have something that makes them stand out from the crowd.
And that’s the essence of what makes these stories work. Take James Bond, for example. In Thunderball, 007 has to stop a powerful crime syndicate after they steal two atomic bombs. Sure, it’s an interesting plot, but that’s not what catches your attention. Even before you read the story, you know that Bond will dodge the bullets, survive the explosions, and defuse the bombs—all while keeping his tie immaculately straight.
It’s James Bond himself that captivates the reader.
The situation the abnormal character faces is far less important. It could be an abnormal situation—like the plot of Thunderball—or even a perfectly normal situation. In Jim Butcher’s Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours, a large portion of the book deals with Spiderman trying to coach a basketball team. If Peter Parker was just a regular person, a story about him trying to coach a basketball team would be pretty dull. But he’s not a regular person. He’s Spiderman.
And that makes all the difference.
The reverse is true as well. Even if the situation is so abnormal that your character struggles to handle it, the book can still fall squarely in the “abnormal character” category. The Dresden Files—one of my favorite series and also from Jim Butcher—is an example of such a story. Dresden is a wizard PI who frequently finds himself over his head, fighting forces beyond his abilities. Yet there’s no doubt that these books are all about Dresden. The plot may be intriguing, but it’s Dresden that sells the books.
More often that not, it’s these abnormal characters that those endless series get written about. Take James Patterson’s Alex Cross series, which is currently up to its 25th book. Think about that for a moment. What type of plot can be so complicated that it needs twenty five books to tell? But that’s exactly the point. Alex Cross doesn’t have that many books written about him because of the plot. He has that many books because his character is so interesting, readers want to keep reading about him—over and over again.
As a final note, books about abnormal characters don’t necessarily have to be narrated by that character. None of the Sherlock Holmes books are narrated from the detective’s point of view. Yet a book with Sherlock Holmes isn’t just a mystery—it’s a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
And then we have the other type of book. These stories are about perfectly normal people—people like you or me. They have ordinary skills, live ordinary lives, and go to ordinary jobs. They’re boring, and on their own, no one would be interested in reading about them.
What makes them interesting is the situation.
In Teresa Driscoll’s I Am Watching You, Ella—a perfectly normal person—overhears some people flirting and realizes that two of them are escaped convicts. The next day, she finds out one of the girls has disappeared, and she becomes consumed with guilt, knowing she could have stopped them but didn’t.
These stories work because they make you ask that one thrilling question:
What would I do in this situation?
These books work the way they do precisely because their characters are so normal. In Stephen King’s Cujo, the antagonist might simply be a rabid dog, but to Donna Trenton and her family, Cujo is a nightmare come to life—as evidenced in this scene:
As if aware he was being observed, Cujo looked up, his muzzle dripping. He looked at her with an expression (could dogs have an expression? she wondered madly) that seemed to convey both sternness and pity … and again Donna had the feeling that they had come to know each other intimately, and that there could be no stopping or resting for either of them until they had explored this terrible relationship to some ultimate conclusion.
Now imagine taking that scene and replacing Donna Trenton with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.
Suddenly, all the horror is gone. So Cujo is a rabid dog? Terminator is a “Cybernetic organism, living tissue over a metal endoskeleton.” That ultimate conclusion Donna was so afraid of will be, “Hasta La Vista, Baby Cujo.”
But the character doesn’t have to be strictly normal for the book to still be about the situation. Frodo Baggins might be a Hobbit who wears mithril chain-mail and wields a magic sword, but The Lord of the Rings is not the tale of Frodo Baggins’ adventures. It’s all about the situation—Sauron, the One Ring, and the threat they pose to Middle Earth.
These stories don’t tend to get stretched into series. Once the character has handled the situation, we’re back to being uninterested in his or her life. Sure, we could come back and create a new situation for them, but why not create a fresh character instead? It can even be a bad idea to stick with the same character for too long. If Joe the technician keeps fighting off deadly assassins, how long can we keep reading before we begin to doubt if Joe is just a technician?
Transitioning from One Type to the Other
But your story doesn’t have to be confined to one category. Take the hero’s journey—one of the most common types of story in existence. It starts off with a normal character thrust into an abnormal situation, and the only way the character can handle it is to transition himself into an abnormal character. Rick Riordan’s The Lighting Thief is just one example of such a book.
Likewise, abnormal characters can become normal. In Tom King’s A Once Crowded Sky, an entire host of superheroes lose their powers and are forced to acclimate to regular life. When they are called again to stop an unknown threat, their lack of powers creates a tense plot. How can they stop this threat as regular people, especially when they’re so used to being superheroes?
So yes, transitioning from one type to the other works.
But, failing to keep to the type you chose doesn’t.
For example, I once read a book about a man who finds out that an assassin has been hired to kill a random stranger—and he’s the only one who knows. I was intrigued, because the thought of a normal person thrust into such a crazy situation was fascinating. Will he risk his life to do the right thing? If yes, how will he stop an experienced killer?
Then, half-way through, it’s revealed that our protagonist is not quite as normal as I’d been led to believe. He’s a black-ops veteran, trained to handle crazy situations like this. In many ways, he’s more dangerous than the man chasing him.
I immediately lost my interest. I wanted to read a book about a normal person facing off against a relentless assassin. A book about a tough, deadly, trained solder facing off the assassin? Meh. The whole appeal of the book was suddenly lost.
What About the Other Theories?
Like I mentioned earlier, the idea of there being only a finite number of possible stories isn’t exactly unique. There’s an opinion that there are three, another that there are twenty, and a third that there are a grand total of thirty six. Perhaps the most widely accepted theory is that there are seven. How does my theory of two fit in with these?
However, now that I’ve explained the theory, you may already notice that they’re not exactly contradictory. It’s all about perspective. The theory of seven, for example, deals with the possible numbers of plot. My theory, however, is less interested in plot and more in what makes up the overall story.
What’s This Mean for You?
Among other things:
It’s a new way of looking at your story—are you writing about an abnormal character or a normal one?
Once you know the answer, stick with it. Don’t choose one and halfway through reveal that really it was the other all along.
It helps you decide what characteristics to assign to your characters.
It helps you decide what situations to put your characters in.
It offers insights into whether or not your character deserves a series. Normal ones usually don’t.
The bottom line is that I believe that it can help guide you; help answer questions about how to make your story work. But the last thing it’s meant to do is limit you. Yes, there may only be two types of stories in the world.
But if you take a trillion and divide it into two, you’re still left with a lot on either side.
I don’t recall the day my mother died. I wasn’t there.
I do remember what happened shortly before she died.
We live in Brooklyn. A small apartment on the third floor of a brick building. I just turned six; my brother, three.
My mother is in bed. A white canopy hangs partially down from the top. It is difficult to see her. I feel like a peeping tom. Mommy, are you feeling better?” She touches my cheek and smiles. She doesn’t talk much. I cuddle into her right arm. Smell her warmth. It is a scent of lilac I still experience when I think of her.
Dad’s face is haggard. His eyes sad. He hovers by the bed, concerned that I might upset her.
Her birth name is Evelyn. Family call her Eva. Dad calls her Honey. I call her mommy.
A week before she dies I hear my parents quietly disagreeing, not realizing their curious daughter hears them. Dad wants her to go into the hospital. She doesn’t want to. She has incurable cancer.
“They can manage the pain. I don’t know what I can do to help you feel better. You’ll be well taken care of there.”
Her voice is soft, “I don’t want to go back. They can’t cure me.”
She no longer sounds like the mother who danced with me in the living room; the mother who rubbed me dry after a bath; the mother who tickled my ears and tummy.
She does go to the hospital. I never see her again.
“Show, don’t tell.” So goes the creative writing chestnut. And like most conventional wisdom it has something to recommend it. Dramatic writing (“showing”) does more that merely tell us about an experience; it puts us right there inside the experience with a character or characters, so that we share the experience along with them. And sharing experiences—putting us into a character’s shoes, so to speak, having us see what they see and feel what they feel through their nerves and sensory organs—is what fiction, and any form of narrative writing, does best.
Which isn’t to say there’s no place for telling in good narrative writing. On the contrary, telling is no less important than showing. If showing is more dramatic, more cinematic, telling is more expedient. Telling cuts to the heart; it sums up, reflects, adds perspective, and contextualizes. It bridges the gaps between scenes. If scenes are the bricks of good storytelling, exposition (“telling”) is the mortar that binds the bricks together. To build a good story, fiction or nonfiction, you need bricks and mortar.
One reason behind the supremacy of “show, don’t tell” is that telling is, frankly, harder. To gain and hold a reader’s attention through action and dialogue is one thing. To do so through exposition is another. Intrinsically, there’s nothing sexy about cement. It’s the difference between showing someone a movie and asking them to read the screenplay. Good telling—telling that in its way is as entertaining as a dramatic scene—makes far greater demands on our rhetorical strengths, on the quality of insights and ideas and the language by which they are conveyed. With showing, on the other hand, our characters entertain our readers for us. We merely have to report what they do.
In this opening, in which the narrator recalls the days leading up to her mother’s death, we get a murky mixture of showing and telling, of experience and information, so that, while we’re not clearly lodged inside the mind of a narrator looking back and reflecting on certain events in his or her past, neither are we ensconced in the events themselves. We’re presented with dramatic scenes, but we never inhabit them—or we do, but not vividly or deeply.
Before discussing why this is so, I want to digress for a moment and talk about the title of this memoir (Loss … But Not Lost) and titles in general. Whatever stage they’re in in their drafting process, I encourage my students to at least have a working title for their stories; in fact I insist on it. The search for a good title helps them learn about their own stories, what lies at their hearts, what they are ultimately about. Is there a strong central metaphor or image, something concrete that, symbolically, may stand for the story as a whole?
One good test for a working title: if it can be applied to many if not most or all stories, then it’s probably too general, too “one size fits all.” Unless it has something to do with a song by the Beatles, “A Day in the Life” is probably an example of a too-generic title. So is “When Things Go Wrong.” And so, alas, is “Loss … But Not Lost,” the title of the work-in-question. It casts its thematic net too wide. Isn’t every story, to some extent, in one way or another, a story of loss turned into gain, and/or vice-versa? Aren’t “life” and “loss” synonymous? If an author’s best effort to arrive at a good title for her or his work results in something generic, it’s a safe if not a sure bet that the work itself suffers from a lack of thematic focus.
Now let’s go on with this first page, starting with the first two sentences: I don’t recall the day my mother died. I wasn’t there. As openings go, in more than one sense this is a non-starter, since it merely conveys in negative terms what will be obvious by the end of the page. For those who will argue that Camus’ most famous novel begins similarly (“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure”), the justification for this approach with Camus’ novel lies in the fact that the narrator doesn’t remember; that is the point of the opening, one that not only foreshadows the narrator’s death, but will cause it.
The second paragraph of this first page will also be obviated by what follows, making it dispensable. As for Paragraph #3 (“We live in Brooklyn. A small apartment on the third floor of a brick building. I just turned six; my brother, three.”), it’s purely informational, providing us with answers to questions yet to be raised by the material—which, so far, has offered us nothing in the way of an experience.
Only with Paragraph #4 do we arrive at and enter an actual experience, the scene that each of the three previous paragraphs has been pointing toward: the moment when, as a child, the narrator visits her mother in her sick bed. I would be tempted to begin here, with an experience (“My mother is in bed”), rather than with information (“We live in Brooklyn”). In due time we may learn that the bedroom is in a brick apartment building in Brooklyn, but not before having any reason to care.
But even in putting us into an experience, this opening could be stronger. Take the first experiential sentence: “My mother is in bed.” Nothing wrong with it, at first glance. Yet it misses the mark in several ways. First, instead of giving us a definitive action through use of a strong verb (“My mother lies in bed”), we get a conjugation of the verb “to be,” the least active of all verbs—the existential verb. Our sense of experience is weakened accordingly. But a larger problem here is the sentence’s failure to engage point-of-view. That this mother is lying in bed isn’t the point; the point is that the child sees her lying there. That’s the action of this scene, what’s really happening.
That the narrator doesn’t position herself (or us) in the scene doesn’t help. Is she standing, watching from the doorway, or seated by her mother’s bed? As we read on, we learn not only that she is close to her mother (close enough to cuddle with her and smell her lilac scent), but that the father is there in the bedroom with her, something we didn’t realize at first because we weren’t told—or rather because we weren’t shown the father standing (sitting?) there through the eyes of the little girl who sees him for us. When dying mother and child cuddle, as we smell the mother’s warmth and traces of her lilac perfume, we may wonder why, apart from its intrinsic warmth and sweetness, this moment comforts us so. I say because it invests us deeply, sensuously, and for the first time properly in this scene. Then the author destroys the effect by adding, “I still experience when I think of her,” wrenching us out of the moment.
As I read on, other things interfere with my ability to fully inhabit this opening scene. In the sixth paragraph, I am told that the mother’s “birth name is Evelyn.” Yet it’s not at all clear whether this knowledge belongs to the child whose perspective we share in the moment or to the older narrator looking back through memory. That the scene is written in the present tense suggests the former. But what is the likelihood that a six-year-old knows this about her mother’s birth name?
From there things move to “a week before [the mother] dies,” yet it isn’t clear whether this week follows or precedes the previous scene, nor do we know where the present scene of the parents “quietly disagreeing” occurs, in what part of the home, at what time of day. Is the mother still in bed? And where is the narrator who “hears them” disagree? The scene isn’t properly grounded; it isn’t grounded at all. Because it’s not grounded, it exists in an unstable zone between experience and information. When, at the bottom of the same paragraph, we read that the mother “has incurable cancer,” there again we are forced to wonder whose experience those words convey. True, some sentences later the child overhears her mother say, “They can’t cure me.” Yet the words “incurable cancer” are better suited to an awareness on the part of the grown narrator looking back than to a child’s awareness then.
For our readers to fully inhabit and invest deeply in our scenes, we must first, whether through a fictional narrator or through memory, inhabit them thoroughly ourselves, as Charlotte Bronte does in Jane Eyre:
Close by Miss Temple’s bed, and half covered with its white curtains, there stood a little crib. I saw the outline of a form under the clothes, but the face was hid by the hangings: the nurse I had spoken to in the garden sat in an easy-chair asleep; an unsnuffed candle burnt dimly on the table. Miss Temple was not to be seen: I knew afterwards that she had been called to a delirious patient in the fever-room. I advanced; then paused by the crib side: my hand was on the curtain, but I preferred speaking before I withdrew it. I still recoiled at the dread of seeing a corpse.
“Helen!” I whispered softly, “are you awake?”
She stirred herself, put back the curtain, and I saw her face, pale, wasted, but quite composed: she looked so little changed that my fear was instantly dissipated.
“Can it be you, Jane?” she asked, in her own gentle voice.
“Oh!” I thought, “she is not going to die; they are mistaken: she could not speak and look so calmly if she were.”
I got on to her crib and kissed her: her forehead was cold, and her cheek both cold and thin, and so were her hand and wrist; but she smiled as of old.
“Why are you come here, Jane? It is past eleven o’clock: I heard it strike some minutes since.”
“I came to see you, Helen: I heard you were very ill, and I could not sleep till I had spoken to you.”
“You came to bid me good-bye, then: you are just in time probably.”
“Are you going somewhere, Helen? Are you going home?”
“Yes; to my long home—my last home.”
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
For AWP 2018, I hired a team of writers to help me cover business-related sessions, as part of the launch for my newest book (official release date: March 16). Their blog posts are available over at the companion website for the book; here’s what you’ll find:
I’m very grateful to my AWP writing team for all their excellent work; here’s a little bit more about each of them.
Jennifer Baker is the creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, social media director and writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and she formerly served as panels organizer & social media manager for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. Jennifer is a contributing editor to Electric Literature and the editor of the forthcoming short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life with Atria Books.
Katrina Byrd is a student in the Low Residency Creative Writing MFA Program at the Mississippi University for Women. Katrina is a writer and playwright who has received four artist mini-grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission. Follow her on Twitter at @ovenhot.
Travis Kurowski is the coeditor of Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century and editor of Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine, which won an Independent Publisher Book Award and a Foreword IndieFab Award. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Mississippi Review, Ninth Letter, Little Star, Poets & Writers, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor at York College of Pennsylvania.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a Korean-American author and essayist. Her stories and essays have been published in The Atlantic, Witness, TriQuarterly, The Kenyon Review, Slate and The New York Times. Lee has been a Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, and VCCA fellow has served as a National Book Award judge and has taught fiction writing at Yale University. She is a founder and former Board President of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and is an adjunct professor at Columbia University, where she teaches creative writing. Follow her on Twitter at @MarieMyungOkLee.
David Morgan O’Connor is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he’s based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.
Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is by publisher and author L.L. Barkat (@llbarkat). She’s always been a most welcome guest here, and I’m delighted to have her back after her break from blogging.
I promise it wasn’t a stunt. Since it’s been more than five years, I’m thinking you’ll give me that.
See, in late 2012, I said goodbye to blogging. I even wrote about it in a bold way here at Jane’s place. But, just this week, I started blogging again.
To the outside eye, this makes no sense.
After all, I’m still that “experienced writer” I advised should leave the blogging world. What’s changed?
For one, blogging itself.
During what I like to call The Golden Age of Blogging, reciprocity was currency. If you were going to blog (unless you’d built your audience during blogging’s Bronze Age and had the luxury of an already-built readership), you needed to engage in the marketplace of bloggers. The currency? Reciprocity.
Reciprocity operated on several levels. You had to read other bloggers. You had to get their buttons (and figure out how to get those buttons into your darn sidebar). You had to comment on their posts. At first, this wasn’t hard, because you were having fun (I know I was). But as the years went on, and your blog circle grew larger and larger and larger, suddenly you were no longer a writer but almost a kind of business owner (whether or not you knew it)—engaged in the constant exchange and glued to the screen as you tried to adapt to market conditions.
For experienced writers, I recommended walking away. For newbie writers, I suggested taking an approach that emphasized the chance to find expression, cultivate discipline, and gain experience—moving their social interactions to social media instead of their blogs, to relieve some of the burden of reciprocity.
As I come back to blogging, I come knowing The Golden Age has passed. Reciprocity is no longer key, or it doesn’t need to be. Social media, which once felt like the new play place, has now become mired in similar reciprocity issues, not to mention the feeling that you’re being accosted and bombarded.
Sometimes going back is going forward—especially if you refashion the old, sloughing off what became untenable. This is why I’m going back to blogging. While every writer won’t find my reasons of interest, plenty of writers might want to explore their possibility.
So here are five “why blog” reasons I’m excited about right now.
1. The Introvert’s Advantage
I am a very, very outgoing person. The kind you sometimes question the wisdom of (like when I recently met Neil Gaiman and arranged a shoe photo incident on the spot).
Because I am very outgoing, I always assumed (wrongly) I was an extrovert.
Without going into the details, let’s just say that years of blogging, followed by years of business promoting, left me incredibly burned out. For the first time in my life, I contemplated not getting out of bed in the morning. For months on end, I dreaded facing the day’s tasks. All I wanted was to be taken care of, except that that was not going to happen. Like most everyone else in life, I have a lot of responsibilities, and I do not have a butler like Bruce Wayne does, and I wasn’t about to let my writing die or my business die, just because I couldn’t face each new day. What to do?
It has taken about a year-and-a-half to figure out the answer to that question. And I still haven’t worked out all the details. But this has been key: I realized I must find a way to run my private life, my writing life, and my business life as an introvert.
The new blog world offers just that advantage. My blog does not have comments enabled. It does not have pictures on every page. It does not even have prominent promotion elements (not even a free newsletter signup). In short, it is a peaceful place for me and for my readers. And this is in line with the times. People are tired of online life, but they still want to read good writing and find ideas that help them live and love and laugh—in their private lives, their writing lives, and their businesses.
If I want to know “how the blog is doing” on various levels, I can measure that with Google Analytics, rather than attending to the number of comments or social media shares. This is introvert heaven. I can explore what I need to explore when I need to explore it, on my own terms. I can breathe again, letting background technology do the heavy lifting.
2. A Hybrid Opportunity
With the new blog, in one simple place I can feature the current nature of my professional life, offer readers a quick guide as to where to find my writing and my books, and I can just write. While it’s possible to functionally do this at an author website as well, I wanted that introvert’s peace I mentioned above. I also wanted a very specific voice. And this is built into the URL and name of the blog itself: llbwritesto.me.
This feels like the best of both worlds. Understated brochure and blog, both—a hybrid opportunity.
3. A Public Sandbox
I’m a writer and a business owner with a fairly large audience. People have a lot of questions about how I got where I am and where I’m going next (not because I’m that intriguing, but because they are eager to learn how to do the same, from someone who cares about their success).
It’s important to me to be able to share the complexity of my writing and business life, and to work that out in front of people, on an ongoing basis, without having to engage in a high level of personal correspondence or social media activity (refer, again, to the introvert issue, but this is also a concern for most people with a fairly large audience and active business).
Enter the blog.
Here, unlike other places I write for (Edutopia just isn’t the place for this!), I can discuss what I’m dreaming of, how it connects to the past, and the possible ways it might be worked out in the future. I can think out loud.
4. Shaping Society by Promoting Great Ideas
This winter, as part of my effort to figure out how to stop dreading the work of a writing and business life that I actually love, I majorly switched gears for a full month. I apologized deeply to two writers whose books were slated to be published, and I put their works aside until the New Year.
In gear-switched mode, I wrote my very first fairy tale and worked with an incredibly accomplished artist, to create The Golden Dress (forthcoming in May). The story surprised me. I’d written it for children, but it seemed to serve dual duty for adults who’ve not yet learned to turn a life of self-focus into a life of generosity.
The Golden Dress has given me a way forward, in so many ways, one of which is choosing to shape society by promoting the great ideas of others on the blog. My plan is to do this by listening (specifically to great podcasts), then by engaging with the ideas of the podcasters over time. The first project is an exploration of the concept of Energy from at least 30 angles—a project I’m undertaking because I’m so impressed with the vision of Joshua Spodek.
5. Blogging as a Playground
Somewhere around the middle of my burnout, I was taking a walk by myself, and I said aloud to the air, “I just want to put poets on sticks.” (If that sounds odd to you, I assure you, it’s just a cut-n-color endeavor that’s part of Take Your Poet to Work Day.)
In other words, I was exhausted from the serious demands of my business. And I wished for the key that’s been the hallmark of almost every great thing that’s ever happened through our organization: whimsy, laughter, joy, fun.
The new blog is my writing version of “putting poets on sticks.” The voice is casual. The topics are variable. The tone is quietly humorous. It’s a place to play. And, at least to this publisher, the writers who know how to play are the ones whose work tends to be most vital.
I can’t promise I won’t be here at Jane’s in another five years, quitting blogging again, for who knows what reasons.
I also can’t promise you’ll find blogging to be the exciting opportunity I find it to be.
But if you’re looking for a different way to approach your writing life or even a current blog, I suggest you give “the new blogging” a try—from sandbox, to golden dress, to playground.
I crawled forward from the cargo hold after the plane stopped throwing us around. I made sure to find handholds at each point in case the plane jolted again. Only when I reached the cockpit did I pull myself upright, grabbing the door frame for support.
Lieutenant Robert Jones, our pilot, smiled when he saw my reflection. “Glad you came up, Lieutenant Bowman. Sit there.” He motioned to make sure I heard him over the grating noise. The engine must have swallowed a huge amount of sand as we went through the storm, which would explained why it was now so much louder than when we’d left Malta.
I twisted into the other seat, behind a half-wheel like the one he gripped.
“Find the two ends of the seat belt and fasten it around you.”
A belt held him to his seat. Ah, ‘seat-belt’. I found the ends of mine and fitted the prong into an eyelet.
“Take the yoke.”
“That half-wheel in front of you.”
I threw up my left hand between us as if it could block his words. “But. But I can’t fly an airplane.” I shouted as loud as I could although he wasn’t much more than a foot away. I wanted to be sure he heard my objection.
“Can you drive a car?”
“Well…” I didn’t want to admit it, but I could hardly lie.
For some reason, he took that as a yes though few women had driven before the war. “The yoke moves in more directions than a steering wheel, but you’ll just be keeping it steady. You do have to remember not to move it forward or back while you keep it steady side to side. I’ll be here to make slight adjustments.”
He took one hand off the yoke to hold up a swollen finger, looking at it accusingly as he continued to speak loudly. “I jammed my finger between two levers as I flew through the sandstorm. My own fault. I’ll be fine, but I want to take my hands off the yoke for a few minutes. So, if you’ll hold it.”
I swallowed stomach acid, put my hands on the half-wheel in front of me, and tried to suppress my worry about making some mistake that would kill us all. I still believed—even though I was on my third flight within the last two days—that the laws of physics would reassert themselves at some point since these machines were obviously too heavy to really fly.
In the cockpit of a cargo (?) plane bound from Malta to an unspecified destination, a passenger joins the pilot. The passenger is a woman; the pilot a man. Both are enlisted officers, lieutenants, in whose army we aren’t told. The ride has been bumpy. One of the plane’s engines (presumably it has several) grumbles loudly, having “swallowed a huge amount of sand” while flying through a sandstorm.
The time stamp tells us the world is at war. The Battle for Stalingrad has been joined. The U.S. is poised to deploy its 1 Corps to the Pacific Theater. Meanwhile RAF bombers armed with incendiary bombs target Düsseldorf, Munich, and Saarbrücken. As these epic battles rage below, a smaller battle unfolds in the cockpit, with Lieutenant Bowman, the passenger, fighting her fear as Lieutenant Jones (the pilot) asks her to take the wheel—or the “yoke,” as it’s called.
This scene has its intrinsic drama. First of all, we are in an airplane during a war; that in itself is dramatic. That the ride has been (and will likely go on being) bumpy increases that drama, as does our knowing that at least one of the plane’s engines is unhappy and complaining loudly. On top of these things—or riding along with them in that cockpit—is the drama of strangers, a man and a woman, meeting under strained and/or unusual circumstances. In Hollywood they call it the “meeting cute” scene: the scene in which the romantic leads first encounter each other. Since the late 1940s it has been a staple of romantic comedies.
To those who may object that the mere fact of two opposite-sexed people sharing the first scene of a novel (and a cockpit) doesn’t—necessarily—imply a romantic future between them, all I can say is … yes, it does. Not that they will (necessarily) have a romantic relationship. But the possibility has been raised and can’t be ignored. Given that, the connotations of the word “yoke” likewise can’t be ignored. Though the applicable definition here is “an airplane control operating its elevators and ailerons,” according to the OED it’s also “something that connects two things or people, usually in a way that unfairly limits their freedom.” The phrase “unequally yoked” suggests a team in which one “ox” is stronger than the other. The expression “to pass under a yoke” come from the Latin passum sub iugum, to “pass under a beam,” a ritual humiliation practiced by the ancient Romans on their enemies and from which we get the verb “to subjugate.” Will our two Lieutenants be “yoked” together in an uncomfortable or unequal relationship?
But supposing the purpose of this opening isn’t to establish a romantic relationship, or a relationship of any kind, between its two characters? In that case I have to ask myself: what is its purpose? Why start this novel here?
Maybe its purpose is to foreshadow the novel’s larger drama. Foreshadowing is a fairly common device in fiction and especially in novels. Sometimes it can be subtle, as in this bit of foreshadowing that comes in the first line of A Farewell to Arms:
The leaves fell early that year.
Hemingway’s novel isn’t about autumn or leaves. It’s about war and death, specifically the death of nurse Catherine Barkley, who cares for Frederick Henry, the hero who has been injured in a mortar attack, only to die prematurely herself following the stillbirth of their child.
Foreshadowing can also be done less subtly but no less effectively, as in the opening of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It begins:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
Before the novel ends, Esther Greenwood, its protagonist, will undergo electric shock therapy as part of her treatment for mental illness.
An even more pointed example of foreshadowing can be found in Native Son, Richard Wright’s 1940 masterpiece about a young African American man doomed by destiny and circumstance. Wright’s novel opens with the sound of an alarm clock, shortly after which a rat appears in the one-room home shared by Bigger and his family. The ensuing chaotic scene ends when Bigger, having chased and cornered the terrified rat, executes it with an iron skillet. In much the same way, Bigger Thomas will himself be chased, cornered, and sentenced to death.
With the opening in question, the “taking the yoke” scene may foreshadow the novel’s main story, that of a woman officer who finds herself faced with challenges she never imagined or anticipated—as she never anticipated flying a plane. It would help, in that case, to be given at least a clue to the plane’s destination and (possibly) the nature of Lieutenant Bowman’s assignment.
Two other issues raised by this opening page. The first is implication. As a general rule with fiction—and with narrative writing of any kind—if a thing is implied, it’s best not to state it. Trust the reader; let implication do its work. Here, in this scene, I find many moments when the author relinquishes that trust, starting with the dialogue, “Glad you came up, Lieutenant Bowman”—a line obviated by the pilot’s smile. Other implied statements that could be cut: “I wanted to be sure he heard my objection”; “I didn’t want to admit it…”; “… and tried to suppress my worry about making some mistake that would kill us all.” Whenever we authors state things that are or might be implied, we rob our readers of an interactive moment, of the chance to infer those implications: among the great pleasures offered by good writing.
Lastly, this intriguing and otherwise nicely written opening suffers from the common ailment known as backwards sentences, sentences in which the emphasis is misplaced. Take the opening sentence here:
I crawled forward from the cargo hold after the plane stopped throwing us around.
Nothing grammatically wrong with that sentence, but it puts the punch line first rather than saving it for last. Just as novels have plots, so do sentences. The climax of this one isn’t—or shouldn’t be—the turbulence coming to an end, but the protagonist’s arrival in the cockpit.
After the plane stopped throwing us around, I crawled forward from the cargo hold.
That sentence points toward, rather than away from, the scene that it heralds. There are a more backward sentences to be found in this opening, but I’ll let you find them.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
Right. So you’re memoir-motivated. You’ve lived through something intense, something different, and readers will find it fascinating. You’re off to a great start with that hella-interesting story, but you’ve got to keep your readers riveted with your writing style. How you gonna do that?
Well, pop quiz. Which is more exciting: riding a rollercoaster, or watching someone else ride a rollercoaster? Yeah, duh. Same principle. To keep readers glued to the page, you write so they’re living the rollercoaster, not watching it. Here’s how.
Relive the experience yourself.
If your readers are going to put themselves in your skin and live your experiences, you need to be hyper-conscious of what those experiences looked, felt and sounded like before you write them. Starting with a list of the memories you plan to write about (more on how to develop that list here), you’re going to immerse yourself into those events, to bring back all the feels. To do that, your brain’s gotta open its doors and let you roam around. To get your brain’s consent, you need to make your brain feel safe. Phew. We’re going deep today.
So. To get access to those memories:
Isolate yourself completely. Get up at 4:30 a.m. Wear noise-cancelling headphones. Make sure nobody can see you.
Lean back, close your eyes, and mentally bring up the event. It’s in there. Let it surface.
Bathe in the details of the memory. Let yourself remember exactly what happened, what it looked like, who said what, how you felt.
If this is a struggle, write yourself a list of grit-level questions about the sensory details of the event. These questions will work like a Google search, telling your brain what to look for. A friend reached out to me for help recovering the details of her school bus bullying. I wrote her a list of questions; you can use it as a model. My list went like this:
What did the bus’s door look like as you stepped up to it? How steep was that first step? What did you look at when you got on the bus? What seat did you choose? Why? What did the seat feel like? What did you look at when you sat down?
What did you use to arm yourself against the bullies—a Le Sport Sac? Long bangs in your face? A Walkman? What were kids talking about as they walked past your seat? How did you sense what the mood was that day?
How, exactly, did the bullying start? How did your body react to it? What did the other kids do? Think micro-level—tiny shifts in musculature, in body language, in tilt of heads. Did they enjoy it, or did they feel guilty? How did you know?
What did the mean kids wear? What did their hair look like? What did they smell like? How did they move? What did you think of them? Why were they doing this to you? What were your thoughts? Your fears?
Pop in your earbuds and hit play on the music you lived for at that time. Music will flood your brain with memories. For triple points, lock yourself in a car, in a garage, in the dark, and play the music loud on the car stereo. Total immersion.
While writing my first memoir, The Dead Inside, I needed to tap into intense memories of childhood violence. So I barricaded myself in a closet. With an armchair pressed against the door. And a teddy bear on my lap. When that didn’t work, and I still couldn’t bring back concrete memories, I had to step away from the writing. I won’t write a scene with vague, broad-strokes style—borr-ring—and I won’t include a scene unless I can say, unequivocally, “I remember this happening. It’s 100% true.” This pause in my writing was frustrating and scary, as this was the pivotal scene in the book. But what choice did I have?
It came to me when I’d all but given up. For a long drive through nowheresville, I’d packed my car with CDs. Deep into Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the judgment scene came on and hit me like a short, sharp jab to the skull. This song, these lyrics—this was exactly how the event played out. I ended up writing the scene with song-lines staggering my snippets of memory, which was perfect: I needed the support of someone else’s content to recreate this unthinkable trauma. Which leads to this section’s final bullet point:
If the memories don’t come, step away from the work. Trust your brain to deliver the goods in some unexpected way.
Right after you’ve relived it, write it.
Now, quick! While the sensory deets are pulsing fresh in your brain: recreate them on paper (or pixels). Did your memories flow when you put yourself back there? Pick up your pen (or keyboard) and start writing. Did you write yourself a list of questions? Answer them and staple (or paste) your responses together into paragraphs.
Either way, consider writing first person, present tense. There’s no faster trick for ushering your readers into the experience, because when you read first person, present tense narration, you’re looking through the narrator’s eyes at events happening to “you,” right as they happen. Here, let’s try it. Read this paragraph and notice how you feel.
But wait. This was her boyfriend. He had asked her out, officially, on the phone Wednesday night. She had to let him kiss her. That’s what girlfriends did. When she came out of the bathroom, he was lying on the sofa, propped up on his elbow. He was patting the cushion in front of him. He ‘wanted’ her, which should have made her feel great. Instead, it made her want to sit in his armchair and pick up his remote.
That was third person, past tense. Now, try reading it as I actually wrote it, first/present, in my memoir We Can’t Be Friends.
But wait. This is my boyfriend. He asked me out, officially, on the phone Wednesday night. I have to let him kiss me. That’s what girlfriends do. When I come out of the bathroom, he’s lying on the sofa, propped up on his elbow. He’s patting the cushion in front of him. He ‘wants’ me, which should make me feel great. Instead, it makes me want to sit in his armchair and pick up his remote.
Do you feel the diff? Which one’s flat, and which one crackles? In the first, you’re reading about someone else, in some vague, unspecified time. In the second, you’re reading about you, now. If your goal is to make your readers experience the rollercoaster, isn’t that the goal?
Create Vivid Settings
As 3-D as your memories may be, they have to live somewhere, and your settings need to be as lucid as your events. But don’t stress. This is the fun part, the arty part.
You know why that the huge box of Crayolas was the best? Because it had 18 different versions of, just, blue. You could draw an ocean and make people see how it got darker, deeper and colder by using those 18 blues. To make your reader feel like they should be paying rent on your settings, you write ’em like you’ve got those zillion Crayolas.
You can do that with tiny observations and details; by using those to communicate the narrator’s (ie, your) point-of-view. Here, let’s do a for-instance, with another paragraph from We Can’t Be Friends. The words that we’ll analyze are underlined.
My brain is a scribble as I step onto Sinclair’s front step, a slab of rock that dates back to the Pilgrims. There’s an inch of air between the door’s base and the floor; I can feel the heat on my toes. Sinclair’s can afford to heat the sidewalk because Sinclair’s charges three bucks for a piece of penny candy. The thumb latch door handle is soft and warm. It clacks so loud, the cashmere street ladies turn and look.
Now here’s how those words work.
“Scribble” and “Pilgrims,” frequent topics of classroom discussion, put readers into the school-kid’s worldview.
“Inch of air” creates a clear visual, while “heat on my toes” links that visual to the sense of touch.
A kid’s noticing that the store can “afford heat” reinforces the poverty mindset, where everything is measured in terms of cost—in this case, the cost of a basic need, heat.
“Soft and warm” is an unexpected—but here, strangely accurate—description of a thing made out of metal. The “softness” tells a subconscious story of an old, well-worn tool that dates back to the Pilgrims.
“Clack,” a sound-word, creates…well, sound. In your reader’s ear. So they’re experiencing this swoop of the rollercoaster.
A few questions to consider, in creating a vivid setting as seen through the narrator/your eyes:
How does this place compare to the places the narrator/you feels most at ease?
Who belongs in this place?
What details make that obvious?
How does the narrator/you fit in here?
What details make that obvious?
Be a Diction Zealot
Here’s where the hippy dippy free flow stops, and we get a little technical. We do a little self-censoring. Did your sirens go off at the very thought? Censoring? Yup, you heard me. Because here’s the deal. Without careful pruning, memoir can take the form of masturbatory brain barf. Without a ruthless eye trained on diction—the careful evaluation and choice of every single word—your life story is just that: your story. You know the guy at the party who corners you to talk a loud streak about his life, his job, his ego? Don’t be that guy. You can work toward not being that guy by using these tools.
This first one might sound like a contradiction of the jerk-at-the-party advice, but stick with me. We’re gonna morph that jerk into a captivating raconteur. When you’re writing memoir, you are writing about stuff that happened to you. So tell it exactly as it happened to you. Describe events from a your-brain-looking-outward perspective, rather than from a some-observer-watching-you perspective. This means: don’t describe how something happened; describe how it felt as it happened. What you saw. Body language. Facial expressions. Your interior monologue. Dialogue. Give us all that, and let us experience how it happened, for ourselves.
For example, I don’t “cheerfully greet” my neighbor. You don’t, either. Nobody observes their own actions, then labels how they did them. Here’s what I do: I yell, “Heyyyy, girrrrl” and watch her face crack into that grin, the one like a third martini. Maybe you go, “Mornin’ Miss Shelly” or “What’s good, man.” Whatever you actually say, however you actually say it, give us that. Verbatim.
This means no adverbs. Ever. There’s no quicker way to rip us off the rollercoaster and park us on the granny-bench than to adverb your verbs.
Let me prove it. Let’s take my neighborly greeting and adverb it up. Here’s what happens: “I yell loudly.” “She grins quickly.” Ho-to-the-hum, right? Ho frigging hum. If it’s just not you to get fancy with the metaphors—with the grin like a third martini—fine. Stick with the facts. Yell. Grin. Period. No adverb.
While we’re on the topic of being not-too-fancy, beware of thesaurus overdrive in your pursuit of good diction. Let’s turn that neighbor-greeting sentence into a cautionary tale.
Maybe “yell” is too common. Does it need spicing up? Let’s try some synonyms. “‘Heyyy, girrrl!’ I screech…” and suddenly I’m a lunatic, waking up the neighborhood. Make it “squeal,” and I better have some hot, giggly little story on tap, to justify my piglet noise. You picking up what I’m throwing down?
To be clear: all synonyms are not good synonyms. Words can have nuance and connotation. Before you slip in a thesaurus gem as a replacement, read your new sentence with an eye toward those layers. Does it accurately describe the character, the scene, the motivation? Beautiful. Does it read like you’re a first-year grad student, desperate to impress? Not so beautiful.
Still, finding the just-right word is the mark of the fine writer, and the glue that sticks your reader to the page. Thesaurus.com is my best friend, but I use it cautiously. Knowing when to seek out a better word is tough to quantify; you have to kind of … listen for it: for the spots in your writing that are vital, when you need to hit your reader with impact.
When you find those spots, take the mediocre word that you’d automatically put there, and look it up on Thesaurus.com. Then look through the lists of synonyms for the just-right replacement. To be just-right, the new word must:
Match the tone of the narrator
Match the mood of the scene
Flow, syllabically, in the meat of the sentence. It can’t make the sentence rhythm clunky.
If a word that meets these specs isn’t on the lists, look up other words that convey the same thing. This can take a long, ass, time. But when you put in the effort, when you find the just-right word, it’s grease for the tracks. That coaster just flies schwings zings up and down those curves.
Okay, you’re almost done. In your drive to write crackling, pulsating memoir, you’ve done a literary Ironman: you relived your memories, put your readers into your life’s scenes, gave ’em the sensory details, and had them think your thoughts. You’ve even done the brutal work of moderating and excising your word flow. Your memoir’s greased and ready to roll, after this one last tiny edit: take out the “ea” and replace it with an “i,” because you don’t have readers, kid. After all this hard work? What you’ve got is riders.
For the past two months, I have been training for a long road race (10 miles) and the parallels between writing practice and running are once again at the forefront of my mind. Yesterday I experienced a terrible run, where I had a nagging pain in my side that slowed me to a crawl, but I kept running through it. Eventually, it went away—proving an important lesson I’ve learned about running and life: most terrible things pass if you’re patient.
That said, you have to also learn to recognize those times when something is truly wrong and you can’t continue as before.
In the latest Glimmer Train bulletin, writer Jane Delury discusses the importance of showing up and writing regardless of the conditions you find yourself in, no matter how you feel. She writes:
Make peace now, if you haven’t, with the idea of waste: waste of those scribbles, waste of energy, ink, paper, time. (I once wrote a novel that wasted four years.) Also, make peace with boredom. … Meanwhile, off the page, life gallops on. You must write through the wait for the call from the doctor about the biopsy, through the fight with the car insurance company, through the baby crying (no, pick up the baby!), through the misery of the news, through floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, blizzards, furnace puff backs. And sentences: you must write through many, many bad sentences …
I drowned three times. First, in the relentless rain of Ireland, second, in the deep gloom of mourning that settled over my mother, and third, in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.
Even when the sun blazed down fierce as the devil there was the bleakness that settled in our bones like a great damp. Once in a blue moon Mam would pull me into her lap, rocking and singing and hanging on to me for dear life, calling me Michael, her wee angel, and ask me where we were going because sweet Jesus she was lost at sea.
It’s sad, how in moments of despair when all a body wants is hope, a still small voice will tell you the truth you don’t want to hear. Because, you see, I’m NOT Michael! I’m Finn, and it’s sad how precious-few blue moons there are.
Yes, those are definitely my shoes, there in the museum case. Now who would have thought the likes of me would be famous for my shoes. And such a sad pair as that. I wore them the day I stepped onto the Titanic and the day I floated free of it, April 15, 1912.
I’m not sure if I was five or almost six when it happened, but after my death I discovered that time is an inexact measurement. Time raced ahead of me, pulling me backwards and spun me around so I met myself arriving. Even now, as the centenary of Titanic’s maiden voyage approaches, it continues to fling me forward, years speeding past me until I come to a full stop without my growing an inch or aging a single day. I’ve never felt more like a child but I’ve never been wiser. I’ve never been more me. And now, I’m almost free. I have five days to keep a promise. Five days to break a spell.
Visitors come to marvel at the miracle of my shoes, awed that a pair of innocent shoes survived the terrifying chaos when hundreds of people perished. The little shrine of the shoes celebrates a moment in time. But not what they imagine. I know their secret. You’d think a dead child’s shoes would make them grief-stricken, entirely. But then I’ve known miracle shoes before and I know how they can capture a soul with magic. I’ve seen them cast a spell. I’ve seen them break a mother’s heart. I can’t go back to Mam shoeless. Sure, she’d skin me alive. Losing my shoes is a sin and I lost TWO pairs in the one day.
First Page Critique
Though more than a hundred years have passed since she struck an iceberg and sank, the story of the Titanic has a perpetual hold on the imagination. It is our modern Fall of Man myth, the Industrial Age’s answer to the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But whereas Adam and Eve’s sin was eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, modern man’s transgression took the form of hubris: specifically the audaciousness attendant to building the world’s largest floating object, calling it “unsinkable,” and naming it after a race of mythological giants who, overthrown by Zeus, were consigned to the depths of a watery underworld. And though today it may seem as if the myth was born on that cold April night in 1912, the fact is it took forty years—until Walter Lord published A Night to Remember in 1955—for the Titanic to resurface in memory. Blame two world wars.
Since A Night to Remember was published (speaking of first pages, Lord’s masterpiece has one of the most captivating prologues ever written, guaranteed to send shivers down your spine), countless works of fiction have—I was going to say “exploited”—have availed themselves of the Titanic legend. The heroine of Danielle Steele’s No Greater Love survives the sinking. In Richard Peck’s YA novel Ghosts I Have Been, Blossom Culp can see into the future: too bad, since she’s on the Titanic.
A more recent example of “Titanic lit,” The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor, concerns a group of Irish immigrants. Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The oddest of all fictional treatments of the Titanic legend must be Donald Newlove’s yet-to-be-published The Welles Requiem. It takes place aboard a passenger train on which a fictional Orson Welles directs a movie that in turn is set aboard the doomed liner (n.b., the set occupies a series of flatcars).
But by far the most interesting fictional treatment of the Titanic disaster was one written fourteen years before she sank. Futility tells the story of the world’s biggest ocean liner and how, on its maiden voyage, on a freezing April night, it strikes an iceberg and sinks, carrying its cargo of fabulously wealthy passengers to the bottom of the Atlantic. It was penned by a struggling sci-fi writer named Morgan Robertson. The name of his fictional doomed passenger ship? The Titan.
In this Titanic opener, a narrator who is either Michael or Finn greets us with news that he has “drowned three times.” According to my dictionary, to drown is to “die through submersion in and inhalation of water,” meaning our narrator is dead and hence speaks to us from the Great Beyond.
Since I first saw Sunset Boulevard, in which (speaking of drowning) it comes to pass that the man lying face down in a pool turns out to be none other than William Holden, whose voiceover narrates his story and who is indeed dead, I have had mixed feelings about ghost narrators. As narrative sleights-of-hand go, it strikes me as a little too easy, a bit too glib. It also requires suspension of all four laws of thermodynamics.
Which isn’t to say there haven’t been successful dead narrators in fiction. To know the opposite one has only to examine the sales figures of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Sebold’s novel, narrated from heaven by a teenage girl who has been raped and murdered, was a huge—and hugely influential—bestseller, spawning dozens of novels whose narrators are likewise free of this mortal coil. Published the same year, Orham Pamuk’s My Name Is Red begins, “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.”
Lest you conclude that dead narrators are strictly a recent phenomenon, the narrator of Brazilian author Machado de Assis’ 1881 novel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, dedicates his memoir “to the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse.” More recently, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief takes the dead narrator concept a step farther, with the Grim Reaper himself narrating, though some (including me) would argue that his “Death” is nothing but Omniscience wearing a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe.
The next two paragraphs of this beguiling (and beguilingly written, in a lilting brogue) opening evade the drownings flourished by the first paragraph, and read somewhat like non-sequiturs. Only with the fourth paragraph do we come to realize our ghost narrator is visiting a museum wherein artifacts from the Titanic wreck are on display—including the shoes he was wearing when the ship went down with him aboard.
As for the narrator’s presence in that museum, it’s treated informationally (“Visitors come to marvel”) rather and as a particular experience (“Museumgoers crowd around me, jostling each other for a better view”). The “little shrine” holding that pair of shoes is labeled, but not described. Is the display case set into a wall, or on a table? What do the shoes look like? How badly worn are they? We’re left to imagine such things with no help from our ghostly narrator, who doesn’t see for us through his eyes. Nor do we know where this museum is located, or the nature of the exhibit. We are subsequently told that the narrator “has five days to keep a promise,” and furthermore that the dead child’s shoes on display have secret magical qualities, that they have “cast spells” and broken “a mother’s heart.” How much of this is to be taken literally and how much is metaphorical remains to be seen.
A dead narrator (whose name is both Finn and Michael and who has drowned thrice, lastly aboard the Titanic); a pair of magical shoes dredged up from the depths of the North Atlantic; a spell to be broken; a promise to be kept. It’s an awful lot to digest in one page, perhaps too much. It raises so many, too many, questions, chief among them: beyond that a child met his fate aboard the Titanic, what more can one look forward to in this story? The fantastic opening gambit puts an enormous if not impossible burden on whatever is to follow it, since whatever else is revealed about Finn (or Michael), his life must turn out to have been at least, if not more, interesting than his death, which is already a given, and which will be a hard act to follow for the duration of a novel. Can all the promises held out by this opening possibly be kept?
As for the museum moment in question, speaking of floating vessels, it wants ballast in the form of grounding in time, space, and event. Were this opening mine, I’d establish the action right up front, with the first sentence: our narrator looking at a pair of vividly described shoes in a tactile museum display case. The museum should be particular and not general. It may be crowded or empty, but it should be real and not, like our narrator, spectral.
To sum up: a well-written and compelling if convoluted opening. Maybe there’s a great story to go with it, maybe not. But for me the promise of that story is overshadowed by a surfeit of imaginative devices.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
When I began working as a freelancer, I wanted to find clients to pay me in the thousands. I sought out how-to books and blogs. I thought, with the right information, I would finally earn what I deserve. These books did help me fill in skill gaps and get better at the technical craft of writing—all the things I should have been doing anyways.
Once I figured out how to get writing jobs, I was working longer hours, seeking more clients, and somehow still getting paid next to nothing. I was missing something on the business side of things. An essential piece of the puzzle.
I figured it out in a coffee shop a couple years later, while I was busy trying to get some work done. I kept overhearing a business owner interviewing a potential employee for his security company.
The manager was a young man. His VP of sales was also young, ex-military, with a very permanent blank stare. Neither of them seemed book smart, but their confidence was through the roof, as if they both believed they were brilliant and on the cusp of dazzling riches.
The manager spoke enthusiastically about his business. I’m not sure if he was telling the truth, but he spoke confidently of his business growth and his ten-year plan to be the number one security company in the United States.
I realized I’d been seeing this all over the place for years: freelancers taking risks and solo creatives running businesses out of their vans. I had always assumed these people were different from me: he’s wearing a nice suit, she’s walking briskly. They were all going somewhere deliberate and they were not like me. They had more drive, more talent, more connections. They are smarter. More resourceful.
As it turns out, these other people have strengths and flaws like me. The only thing separating me from them was mindset. Everyone you meet makes millisecond judgments about you that guide their behavior. Act careless and a client will mark you as careless. Slash your hourly rate to get more work, people will see you as a low-skill grunt and treat you as such.
That day in the cafe, I decided to give a new mindset a try. Instead of thinking “I need clients so I can put food in the fridge,” I thought, “I need clients so I can grow my portfolio.”
If a client was demanding too much for too little pay, instead of thinking, “I’m lucky to be doing this at all, I should just shut up and do the work,” or, worse, “I’m worth so much more than this client wants to pay me, I’m going to rage about this and fight for more,” instead, I thought, “As a business owner, keeping this client is not profitable.”
Ditched. Done. On to better things.
This mindset shift may be difficult if you, like me, often feel indebted to the world. It will take reminders every week, every day, maybe every minute. But it will work.
The shift was colossal. Because I became more ambitious and started taking myself seriously, I began attracting clients that treat their business the same way. The pay became higher, and quickly. My satisfaction increased, and the quality of my work improved.
I can’t force a mindset shift on you: you have to do that yourself. But try and live these tenets and you may have a similar awakening.
1. Narrow Your Focus
There are millions of decent freelance writing jobs out there, thousands of great ones, and hundreds that may be just perfect for your availability and skillset. It’s like dating, in that way. Just because you’re having a decent time with your date doesn’t mean you have to get married. Respect yourself and be discerning.
A strange thing happened when I turned thirty. A filter kicked in. I learned how to say “no.” Not just to clients, but to all things irrelevant to me. Instead of shaping myself to fit an opportunity, I would simply move on, recognizing that there were other, more fitting, endeavors to spend my time on.
Believe me. There are always more opportunities, and you will not die from turning one down.
This isn’t to say you can only be one thing. We are all multifaceted. But when it comes to your writing, especially when you’re starting out, you must focus on the writing itself and identify the type of work you’re best at. As of this writing, I write marketing and advertising content for small businesses. As an expert in a niche, I can command a higher rate and obtain bigger clients.
2. Be a Fairy Godmother
The curmudgeon believes there are a limited number of opportunities, and when other writers succeed, that’s one less opportunity for her. But she is probably pretty confident because she’s been doing this for years, her skin hardened through the tough transitions brought by the digital age. She complains about content farms (rightfully, but a bit too frequently). She complains about people in foreign countries writing English articles for pennies.
The other kind of writer smiles genuinely. She’s the type who alerts her friends to new writing opportunities, or passes projects onto them when she thinks they’d do a better job. She is quick to give advice and share her tricks of the trade, and she keeps cynicism to a minimum. The fairy godmother cares about your whole life, not just what she can get out of networking with you.
Helping other writers succeed isn’t about some kind of intangible karmic magic. No, helping others has a very practical purpose. The publishing industry may seem huge, but we are incredibly interconnected. The colleague you ignore today may be the editor of the magazine you’re dying to write for tomorrow.
3. Ask for More
Clients will never think to pay you more. They aren’t trying to make your life miserable, they are just making a decision for their business. If you are an awesome writer and they can get your services inexpensively, they’ll do it. But if you raise your rate, there’s a good chance they’ll still want to work with you. If not, you’ll find other clients who only work with writers of a higher caliber .
It’s counterintuitive, but you can actually have a harder time getting clients if your rate is too low. People are wary of an extreme discount; they may become suspicious of the quality of your work.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate; many clients expect it. Give them a quote, and if they come back with another idea, send a counter offer. Don’t just take what they’re willing to give you because most of the time they’re just guessing. And it’s not like this terrifying Shark Tank situation—you don’t have to stand before a panel of judges. Negotiation can be quiet and written, and often is. Don’t forget that you’re a writer; writing an email to ask for more money is no big deal.
I won’t forget the time I raised my rate to $40 an hour. I had done some research and realized I was severely underpricing myself, so it was time for a change. I had done a couple of assignments at my former rate for a new client on Upwork, and the client came back to me a couple of months later ready to assign something new.
I told them my rate was higher now, and things turned sour very quickly. Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: I do have the availability for this, however, my rate recently changed. My new rate is $40/hr. My time estimate for the 5 press releases is between 4-6 hours.
Client: What do you mean. I am comfortable at the rate we agreed on. I would like to continue that contract.
Me: In that case, I will probably have to close the contract. I signed on with you for an initial project at $30/ hr and completed that project successfully; I would understand requesting we continue at that rate if I hadn’t done the initial project we agreed on. But since this is a new project and I’ve recently changed my rate, I can’t continue unless we open a new contract. I understand if it’s outside of your budget—I’m sure you can find another writer closer to the rate you’re looking for. Thank you!
Client: I don’t understand though. Why are we subject to a rate change? What about next month, if you decide to change it again, then we will be forced to pay the new rate again? $30 to $40 is not a small jump. I was hoping to be a long term client of yours but a increase of $10 (30%-ish) is not small as I mentioned.
Me: I really understand. If you need to nd another writer, that’s OK. I made major changes to my business and my role, and don’t have as much availability to freelance now. In addition, Upwork changed their pricing structure, which I know impacts your side, too.
It went on like this until I finally agreed to do one last project for $35 an hour instead of $40—which I shouldn’t have done. After that, I stopped writing for this client.
What I have found is that those who nitpick about one thing are likely to be hard to please in other areas, too. There will always be clients hoping to get more for less, but there will also always be good, honest clients who see the process of working with freelancers as a collaborative one.
A Final Word—About Failure
“You will fail.”
People love to say this to creative people. Sometimes, your very own sage professors from the literature department will say it like an omen. Other times, friends and family coo it at you, with the intent to protect you from the cold, hard, terrible world. Other times, they say it because they’re jealous assholes.
Well, I’m here to tell you not to worry about failing. You have my permission to tell anyone who says otherwise to f— off. Or, if you love them, a mere “Thank you” will do.
To write for a living, you have to think in small steps, and remember that any excellent project comes from many small efforts over a long time, often by many talented people working together.
So, when you find yourself obsessed with failure, revisit your mindset. If you perceive writers as brooding, impoverished types, that is what you’ll become. On top of that, if you associate being poor with being virtuous, you may develop a moral obligation to fail. Failure will enhance the brooding, and before you know it, you’ll be exactly like that terrible media archetype that won’t die—the heartsick ascetic, standing alone in her loft clutching her unpublished manuscript, eyes cold on the moving world below.
Don’t concede to a warped reality. You’ve got this.
If you’re determined to pursue a freelance writing career, you will succeed. Period. In the United States, as of 2016, about a third of workers are independent contractors. Businesses are investing more in writers than designers, social media managers, and several other marketing-related roles combined.
With the current state of technology, there are a million ways to succeed as a writer. The only true way to fail is to stop writing.