A Little Help From My Friends

When I first started writing fiction, it was in a workshop environment. In fact, it was really more about producing for that workshop than writing for its own sake. Oddly enough, when I started writing long fiction, I somehow came to the conclusion that good writing was a solitary effort. It was between me and publishing professionals. Bad idea. (But probably no worse than counting on non-writer friends and relatives for critiques.)

Over the past few years I’ve started finding critical assistance from other writers via a couple of the many web-based platforms. Not only has the input helped me, but in reading hundreds of submissions I’ve sharpened my eye towards my own work. From these contacts I’ve developed a few highly productive exchange partners, and hope to continue those relationships.

This past month I joined an online critique group, and although it’s too early to know how well they’ll tolerate me, their presence is already a comfort. Having a reliable, stable group of committed writers to provide suggestions and support is a great thing for a pursuit that is so fundamentally solipsistic.

Writers who might not know where to begin should take a look at www.critiquecircle.com. which has a terrific interface. Also consider joining appropriate forum groups, where writers of similar interests often exchange manuscripts. I look back at my earliest projects and find myself wincing at mistakes any experienced reader would have noted. And I think of the long list of acknowledgements in so many wonderful books. There’s a reason for them, and should ever I be so fortunate, I’ll be proud to offer up my own growing circle of kind, perceptive folks who have helped.

 

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Read any good books lately?

At the beginning of 2012 I joined an online challenge to read 100 books in 2012. This task might appear less challenging if I admitted it was a message board catering to writers of young adult novels. Nevertheless, I failed miserably, booking only 60 or so.

I suppose I could claim special exemption for wandering so far from the compact pages of young adult novels. For instance, I read David Copperfield and Great Expectations, as part of my fill-in-the-holes project. Then I added a couple of historic doorstops, Booker award winner Wolf Hall and Pillars of Earth, Ken Follett’s attempt to dramatize the building of 12th-centry cathedrals. It definitely did not win any literary awards.

Of the books I read, the ones I’m most enthusiastic about recommending are wildly different. I loved Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, which is a post-apocalyptic tale of a psychically wounded small-plane pilot living in a population-decimated future Colorado. I also heartily recommend young and adult readers to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, especially the audio version read by the author. It was released in England as an adult book; in U.S. as a kid’s book. Read it and decide for yourself.

More recently I’ve enjoyed The Starboard Sea, a boarding school drama, Dark Waters, Laura McNeal’s YA novel set around the California wildfires of 2007, and Doris Goodwin’s widely praised Lincoln history, Team of Rivals.

 

Debunking the Self-Help Gurus

When I decided to fact check a commonly cited study used by self-help gurus (I’d heard Zig Zigler shout it, from his knees, Tony Robbins citing it with that intense look of certainty, even my old friend Barbara Braunstein from her podium) I ran into a little problem. Here’s the story of my search which was published in Fast Company Magazine:

http://www.fastcompany.com/27953/if-your-goal-success-dont-consult-these-gurus

 

My Life as a YA Author: Starting Over

It began with a single, exclusive submission to a top agent on May 1 and a request for a full within 12 hours. Five months, two manuscripts and two revisions later, my dreams of a wonderful client/agent relationship ended on October 15 with this email:

“sorry but this story is still not working: it meanders and the plot loses tension..i am afraid it is time to bow out.”

WIth that I resubbed my revised, possibly meadering, MG back to a small publisher where it had been read in its original and been returned with an offer for a second look. And began looking for a home for my contemporary YA book and newest project, a contemporary MG adventure story.

It’s All About the Words

What I’ve written, what I’m writing, the tribulations of getting published.

First Blood

I called William Cotter Murray, my University of Iowa writing professor, late on a Friday night with the letter in hand. The course I was taking from him was called New Journalism.

While still in high school in Dubuque, Iowa, I had discovered a cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on Moo U, Iowa State University. Something about that story captured me and I read it numerous times and hung onto that issue for years. One day Murray mentioned it in class, and only then did I realize I had found that story’s author.

My main project in the course was a profile of the University’s iconic retired tennis coach, Don Klotz. The embossed letterhead in my hand read World Tennis Magazine, and the letter was an offer of the princely sum of $250.00 for my profile. It was my first sale. (Just to keep this in context, this was close to two months rent — magazine rates have not kept up with inflation.) Murray, a two-time published novelist, seemed excited as well, if somewhat inebriated, and suggested I consider a fifth of Irish whiskey an appropiate token of thanks for all his help on the story. I had never purchased a fifth of whiskey (and it remains my sole such purchase to this day), but the drinking age was still nineteen back then and I had no problem procurring the liquor. When I brought it to his office on Monday he blanched and took a moment to recall the occasion. Then he seemed sheepish and mumbled that he should have never made such a request. Still, he took the bottle.

Getting paid for words. It was a heady experience. Of course, getting published would be even a greater thrill. Each month I eagerly awaited my copy of World Tennis, and each  month I was disappointed. After about six months my eagerness dwindled. They never got around to my story. Years later I sent it to a tennis trade magazine and got to finally see it in print, but it wasn’t quite the same.

Such was my introduction to the business of writing. At low moments I’ve been know to describe writing for publication as “deferred disappointment.” But the lows are often countered by highs. I once wrote a feature story on zookeepers, with mini-profiles of an ape keeper at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, a rhinocerous man at the Bronx Zoo and an elephant specialist at the Philadelphia Zoo. I got to feed carrots to chimps (after my TB test came back negative) and as I walked among the elephants in Philadelphia asked the keeper what would happen if I attempted to do so without his company. “Oh, they’d kill you,” he replied, casually.

I thought it was a good story and it was all laid out for print, laden with my own photos, when the magazine folded. On the up side, I immediately sent it back out again and it was picked up by the America Airlines in-flight, where it would reach 1,000 times the audience. So there’s one with a happy ending.

Now that I’ve devoted the past five or six years to writing fiction aimed at younger readers, I’ve know the excitement of signing with an agent (twice), and the delicious anticipation as a manuscript circulates among publishers. Also the slow pain of one “not for us” after another, and to cap it all, the heart-rending letter in which my trusted partner in composition, the agent who fell in love with my book, cancels our contract to invest her time in authors whose books pay the rent. The whole cycle measured not in weeks, as it had in the magazine world, but in years. Hence deferred disappointment.

I launched this site as a place where I could share these kinds of war stories and perhaps hear back from other writers who must experience similar ups and downs. Writing can be a lonely business. Perhaps these posts will make it less so.