Category: On Publishing

More drama in digital publishing

By Midge Raymond,

Last week, when Macmillan announced it would begin setting higher prices for e-books, Amazon reacted by removing access to the publisher’s Kindle editions as well as its printed books. As you probably know by now, it’s Amazon, not publishers, that sets the prices for e-books — and at $9.99, which includes new releases and bestsellers, publishers and authors worry about books being devalued (not to mention pirated).

But on Sunday, as the New York Times reports, Amazon agreed to Macmillan’s terms, though not at all happily: “‘We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles,’ Amazon said [on its web site]. ‘We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books.’”

Apple’s new iPad has set the stage for giving publishers the upper hand again, by allowing them to sell books in its iBookstore at their own prices, and it looks as if this is having a ripple effect. Under Macmillan’s new terms, reports the Times, the publisher will serve as an agent, taking a 30 percent commission and setting e-books at prices between $12.99 to $14.99. The Macmillian arrangement will happen in March, around the time the iPad tablet hits the stores.

How the Apple tablet will affect publishing

By Midge Raymond,

Today is the big day: Apple will unveil its new tablet, which will be interesting not only for those who love Apple toys but for everyone involved in publishing as well. As this NY Times article observes, “Apple may be giving the media industry a kind of time machine — a chance to undo mistakes of the past.”

That is, whereas print media has been suffering as more and more readers resist paying for content, the Apple tablet will introduce new ways to market — and charge for — digital content. As the Times notes, such devices make consumers more willing to pay for content: “In the last decade, while people downloaded music illegally to their desktop computers, they happily paid small amounts of money on their cellphones to download ring tones and send text messages.” So far, at least three magazine publishers are preparing to distribute content on the new tablet.

The iPad will also have an effect on Amazon’s Kindle. As the Daily Beast reports, “Only two years ago, [Apple founder Steve] Jobs contemptuously predicted that the Kindle would flop.” And now that readers have embraced the Kindle (and its very low prices, set by Amazon to the dismay of publishers), Apple will come out on the publishers’ side by allowing them to set their own prices. This will be a relief to those in the industry who worry about readers getting accustomed to paying $9.99 for Kindle versions of hardcover bestsellers.

And so the rules of the game are changing once again. The Daily Beast notes, “In anticipation of Apple’s tablet launch, Amazon announced that it would begin giving a more favorable split of Kindle sales dollars to publishers and authors. Amazon also decided to allow outsiders to create software to run on its device.”

I’m eager to see the tablet, not only because it’s a cool new toy but to see what effect it ultimately has on publishing. Even though it’s Amazon that is taking a loss by pricing books so low, this does affect the entire industry, and it’ll be interesting to see whether this new device levels out the playing field a bit.

Author, Inc.

By Midge Raymond,

I found this NYT article about James Patterson fascinating: the story of this author’s spectacularly successful career, from the struggle to get published in the 1970s, when he sold 10,000 copies of his first book, to today (last year he sold 14 million, outselling Stephen King, John Grisham, and Dan Brown). It also shows how, depressingly, the publishing industry has changed: “Thirty years ago, the industry defined a ‘hit’ novel as a book that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover. Today a book isn’t considered a blockbuster unless it sells at least one million copies.” (No pressure, writers.)

The article offers a little background on the history of the blockbuster, pointing out that Patterson is not only a beneficiary but a catalyst (he’s described in the piece as “Little, Brown’s most prized possession”). These days, bestselling authors are not writers — they’re brands. (And, like a handful of other bestselling authors, Patterson doesn’t write his books himself but with a series of co-authors.)

The piece reminded me of something a writer friend of mine recently heard at a conference: a literary agent, when asked what she was looking for in an author, replied, “A franchise.” For most writers, this isn’t great news.

But as always, I try to look for the silver lining. As the article notes, “Patterson built his fan following methodically … like a politician aspiring to higher office, he was shoring up his base.” He also discovered the joys of reading later in life than many writers and blew off a chance to go to graduate school. And yes, his first book was rejected more than a dozen times.

I got a kick out of the story’s glimpse into Patterson’s book tour — he calls a gathering of 300+ people “a fairly respectable crowd” — and it shows well the bond between author and reader, no matter the genre (or brand, as the case may be). Of his own work, Patterson says, “this is not high art,” but his devoted fans don’t mind: the woman who read his books with her grandmother and wanted to bury a signed copy with her; the trucker who has listened to every book while on the road.

A writer can’t have everything — and in Patterson’s case, it’s the love of critics (the Daily Beast’s William Boot calls Patterson’s detective Alex Cross “a moron”). But as Patterson tells the Times, his readers are happy: “So what’s the big deal?”

Goodbye to the slush pile

By Midge Raymond,

Even when I worked in publishing back in nineties, the slush pile (i.e., that pile of unsolicited manuscripts sent in directly by authors and put aside while agented manuscripts were given priority) was rapidly becoming a thing of the past. (And yes, it literally is a “slush pile”: towering stacks of manuscripts all leaning and falling into one another until you can barely tell where one ends and the next one begins). In fact, as this Wall St. Journal article notes, the last time Random House found a book from the slush pile was in 1991.

These days, the article also notes, “most unsolicited material has gone unsolicited for good reason … Book publishers say it is now too expensive to pay employees to read slush that rarely is worthy of publication.” Yet back in the day, this was how authors were discovered — Philip Roth and Judith Guest among them — and even screenwriters could send a script directly to a studio (now, most studios won’t even accept emails due to concerns about being sued for plagiarism).

Now agents are the ones discovering new writers — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for emerging writers to be discovered: finding an agent is “harder than ever to accomplish in the wake of agency consolidations and layoffs.”

While this may seem depressing, what always saves these tales of publishing woe are the exceptions, the success stories that are too few and far between but nevertheless give emerging writers just enough inspiration to keep going. One story is familiar by now: “In 2003, an unknown writer named Stephenie Meyer sent a letter to the Writers House agency asking [about] a 130,000-word manuscript about teenage vampires.” Normally this sort of query would’ve been tossed out — but assistant didn’t know that a typical YA book came in at 40,000 to 60,000 words, so she asked for the manuscript. And we all know how that turned out.

As always, there are rules in publishing that writers are wise to follow — but remember that it’s just as wise to break the rules on occasion. See the WSJ’s list of slush pile Dos and Don’ts for tips. But most of all, keep writing — becoming a better writer will help your chances — and keep submitting.

When in doubt, hit “send”

By Midge Raymond,

I enjoyed this NYT piece, “The Perils of ‘Contact Me,'” on authors being all-too-accessible to their readers. Ben Yagoda writes that for him, being contacted by a reader is “flattering, and it’s actually kind of fun” — though some authors get stranger messages and are a little more wary (Mary Karr, for example, says, “I get a handful of jailhouse marriage proposals every time I publish a book”).

These days, it’s hard to imagine a time when, as Yagoda notes via this excerpt from Catcher in the Rye, authors weren’t at all accessible, when a reader of a good book once wished “the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Now (with the well-known exception of J. D. Salinger, of course), most authors go out of their way to be accessible, whether they write for a magazine or newspaper or whether they’re writing books. It’s what we have to do.

The writer Laurence Leamer tells Yagoda he always answers notes and queries from readers: “Every author I have ever known answers the phone the same way — on the first ring. We’re all so desperate for anything to intrude on our solitude and to take us away from that blank screen. E-mails do the same thing, and I’m embarrassed to say how quickly I read them.” This is so true.

But in addition to getting a reprieve from one’s own writing, it’s great to build relationships with readers in general. Perhaps because email makes this easier now than ever, I loved hearing this story on Larry Dark’s blog in which he shares his experience receiving a note back from Raymond Carver after Dark sent him a letter expressing his admiration for Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” Dark writes: “I had just quit law school to pursue writing fiction, and getting a response from the great man himself thrilled me, almost seemed to validate my choice. I swore that when a fan wrote to me, I’d write back, just as Carver had.” I think hearing back from a favorite author meant even more back in those days, when a response took so much more than hitting the Reply button.

But the point is: Write to authors whose work you like. (And rest assured that if you don’t like the work, the author has likely heard about it from a zillion others already.) Ask questions. And if you’re a writer on the receiving end of a kind note, always write back.

Will it be a happy new year for writers?

By Midge Raymond,

Here we are in 2010, and with that comes more predictions about the publishing industry.

The IdeaLogical Blog‘s Mike Shatzkin has posted twelve predictions for publishing this year, much related to digital content as well as a couple interesting predictions about authors and retail.

The Huffington Post offers 10 more predictions, and these too focus on e-books as well as on the publishing houses and what’s likely in store for editors as well as authors in the new year and beyond. A few takeaways: six-figure advances will likely be a thing of the past; publishers will take on fewer titles; demographics will favor books for young adults.

Richard Curtis offers a few predictions on GalleyCat, among them that e-book enthusiasts will return to print books and that at least one major publishing house will be acquired by a retailer.

Robert Gray offers Publishing Trends of Futures Past, a look at predictions and insights from 1850 (when Harper’s quoted the North British Review likening publishers to “a kind of moral vampire, sucking the best blood of genius, and destroying others to support themselves”) to 1985 (bringing another Harper’s piece, titled “Will the Book Survive?”).

And this CNN article notes that Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, simultaneously released in hardcover as well as in e-format, “offered a peek at the future of bookselling”; in other words, it’s a cautionary tale about digital piracy. The challenges mostly surround the mega-bestselling authors, the ones who need to worry about their books being pirated on a large scale. Some writers, such as J. K. Rowling, simply avoid digital format — but few emerging writers will be able to have this luxury.

In fact, for emerging writers, times are going to be tougher than ever (even in good times, the writer’s life has never been for the faint of heart). But persistence is everything: The writers who end up with book contracts are going to be the ones who don’t give up. They’re also going to be the ones who, if need be, take matters into their own hands and self-publish — in a smart way: good editing, good design, good marketing.

So if your New Year’s resolutions include writing, keep this in mind: 1) make sure your resolutions are things you can actually control (i.e., not “publish my novel with major publisher” but “submit my novel to agents”), and 2) to be open-minded about the myriad possibilities for emerging writers in a time when just about everything about publishing is up in the air.

Looking back at 2009 and ahead at 2010…

By Midge Raymond,

Okay, it’s now that time of year when we look ahead (and make New Year’s Resolutions) and look back (at all the things we accomplished — or not, hence the New Year’s Resolutions).

On the publishing front, literary agent Nathan Bransford looks back at 2009 in his blog … while this Booksquare post looks ahead by forecasting publishing trends in 2010. It’s going to be another interesting year in publishing — and this post covers everything from rights to pricing to independent booksellers. (Yes, e-books “will be huge.”) And it’s hard not to love this Guardian blog post: 2009 was the year of the short story, which proves that “reports of the short story’s death have been greatly exaggerated.”

I also took a few moments to look back on the most popular posts on this blog, and among the top five were posts about social media: Twitter and Facebook. It was great to see readers checking out the Forgetting English Reading Guide and my Q&A with essay writer Brenda Miller, and rounding off the top five were the Stuff for Writers posts. Thanks so much for reading last year — I hope you come back often in 2010!

And finally, there’s nothing like a new year to inspire new writing goals. I recently met with a wonderful group of fellow writers to set goals for 2010, and it was incredibly inspiring (especially hearing about those writers who set and met their 2009 goals).

If you’re ready to do the same, I suggest a three-step process:

– What were your goals last year? If you don’t usually write down your writing goals, this year would be a good time to start. The years  have a way of slipping by if we don’t articulate our goals, and whether this is the year to write your novel, to find an agent, or to start journaling, putting it down on paper will hold you accountable. Better yet, find a writing buddy or writing group so you’ll be able to share the joys and challenges, as well as stay inspired.

– Did you meet last year’s goals? Whether you wrote them down or just had a vague idea of what you wanted to accomplish with your writing, how’d it go? If you achieved your goal — finished a first draft, submitted a story for publication, took a writing class — then think about what enabled to you do that: What had to align in your personal and professional life to make that happen? Take note of what worked, and make it happen again in 2010. If you weren’t able to meet your goals, why not? Take a look at what got in the way, and work to resolve this issue so you’ll have a better chance of completing what you set out to do this year.

– What are your writing goals this year? Finally, make that list. It doesn’t have to be grand, like Writing the Great American Novel — it just has to be something you’ve always wanted to do but have never made the time for. When you outline your goal(s), think about how you can use time to your advantage — this is the one time all year in which you’ve got 12 months (52 weeks, 365 days) in which to work on your goal. Don’t waste a single day. If you start out strong, you’ll find yourself inspired, you’ll get into a routine, and you’ll accomplish more than you ever thought possible.

Happy new year.

Found in Translation

By Midge Raymond,

The New York Times recently profiled Open Letter Books, a small press affiliated with the University of Rochester that has found itself a nice niche in translation.

Open Letter Books has published only sixteen titles so far, but some have made it onto the 2009 Best Of lists, and Amazon recently awarded the publisher a $20,000 grant for a new anthology by East European writers.

Like any small press, Open Letter focuses on quality, not marketability, when it comes to what it publishes. As University of Rochester professor Joanna Scott (faculty members help comprise the publisher’s selection committee) told the Times, “What we are looking for is excellent work, from any language, eclectic modern fiction that is overlooked. Commerce does not enter the discussions; I wouldn’t know a commercial book if I saw one.”

What I find most interesting about this publisher is its subscription service. For $100 a year, or $60 for six months, readers receive a copy of each book Open Letter publishes during that time period, with free U.S. shipping. This comes out to about $10 per book. (Archipelago Books, a nonprofit press also specializing in translation, also offers a subscription service.)

After the last distressing couple of years — as this article notes, “the publishing industry is in a tailspin” — it’s nice to hear about the continuing good work of small presses. And here’s hoping 2010 is a much better one for publishing.

Short stories on the Kindle

By Midge Raymond,

The New York Times reported that The Atlantic will publish two short stories (by Christopher Buckley and Edna O’Brien) today on the Kindle. The stories, which will be offered at $3.99 each, will be available only on Amazon’s e-reader (not in the print version), and they’ll be the first of many more — about two Kindle stories every month, says The Atlantic.

It’s not the first time individual short stories have been made available on the Kindle — for example, my husband, John Yunker, made his award-winning short story, “The Tourist Trail,” available on the Kindle after it first appeared in Phoebe — but it’s great to see that The Atlantic, which stopped publishing monthly fiction in 2005, is embracing a new format.

The format is a bit limiting, since one needs a Kindle to access these stories. The authors will split earnings with both The Atlantic and Amazon and are restricted from publishing these stories in other e-formats. But publishing in e-format is still attractive; as author Curtis Sittenfeld (Prep and American Wife) told the Times, she didn’t mind selling a story to The Atlantic for the Kindle only because “had she sold it to a small academic journal, it would have had ‘limited distribution anyway.’”

We still have to support the small journals — both by reading them and submitting to them — but it’s great to see The Atlantic take this step, as it allows the magazine to publish stories that may not be affordable to publish in print form. How many readers will pay $3.99 per story is what I’m eager to see; I hope readers will embrace e-stories as they do e-books.

What I learned from John’s adventures with the Kindle and “The Tourist Trail” is that he had to charge $1 because Amazon won’t allow anything to be posted for free; this is why he also made the story available for free as a PDF … and while not all writers are willing to give away content for free, it’s a reminder that, in the end, what’s most important for writers is having readers.

Query letters and slush piles

By Midge Raymond,

After reading this article, “A Good Author Is Hard to Find,” in this week’s Stranger, I realized it’s been a while since I posted anything on query letters — and while I don’t want to be redundant, writing queries can be almost more challenging than the book you’ve just finished — and in many ways, more important: If you don’t have a great query, agents won’t be asking to see your great novel. So let’s chat about query letters.

The best thing I can do is point you to the experts. The Stranger piece, written by a literary agent’s assistant, is a lesson in and of itself, basically teaching what not to do: “The world of the unsolicited query is a strange one … Potential audiences in the millions are cited (e.g., ‘There are 3,456,787 people who like horses in the United States, all of whom will read my book Love on Four Hooves‘). The query’s author is regularly the next Dan Brown/Stephenie Meyer/William Faulkner or some combination of the above.” (If you want to get past the agent’s assistant, don’t do these things.)

Another great resource for what not to do is Janet Reid’s Query Shark. For fiction only, Reid will post and critique queries on her blog; she’ll tell you when she stops reading (at the first misspelled word, for instance), what word count is appropriate (160,000 words is too long), and whether she’d send you a form rejection, read a few of your pages, or ask to see the whole manuscript. Even if your query doesn’t get picked up for her blog, you’ll learn a lot from the way she shreds others’ queries. (She’ll also point out what works in a query, though she doesn’t seem to get as many of these.)

AgentQuery also has a basic how-to for query letters, always helpful and a great place to start.

Yet sometimes the trouble begins even before the first line of the query does. Many writers, when they write The End, want to get their books out the door as soon as possible. This is exactly when you need to slow down, take a short vacation from your book, and revisit it with marketing in mind. Here are a few things to keep in mind before even thinking of sending queries to agents:

Have someone (besides you) read your book. You’ll always want to have a friend, partner, writing buddy, or even a professional editor read your book (or proposal) before you send it out. You’ll likely have only one chance with your first-choice agents, and you don’t want to send a typo-ridden manuscript, or to have a major logic flaw in the first chapter that you’ve somehow overlooked (and this can happen). Make sure your project is solid before querying.

Do your research. It’s often a great idea to research agents while you’re writing — a perfect task for when you need a break from the work but still want to be doing something for your project. Create a list of agents that represent the type of book you’re writing; check out their sales histories; visit Writer Beware to figure out which agents you don’t want to query. When you’re done, you’ll have a nice long list of reputable agents to choose from. (How long should this list be? One never knows. You could get representation from the first agent you query; it could take fifty queries before finding the right fit. So be optimistic as well as realistic.)

Proofread, polish, prepare. You’ll want your manuscript to be clean (by this I mean free of typos and coffee stains), in the best shape it can possibly be, and you’ll want to be happy with it (while at the same time remaining open to changes). You’ll also want to follow each agent’s guidelines carefully so that a simple mistake doesn’t send your manuscript straight to the recycle bin.

For more insider info on agents and what makes it past the slush pile, check out The Rejecter, who blogs about working at a literary agency and answers queries about queries (but not queries themselves); and The Rejectionist, the agency assistant and author of the aforementioned article, who writes great experience and insight when it comes to the slush pile.

A list of “best of” lists

By Midge Raymond,

Now that we’re in the year’s eleventh month, we’re also in the season of Top 10 lists — opinions on the year’s best of all things cultural, including, of course, books. So I thought I’d include a list of the lists … at least a few of them.

For The Guardian, Howard Jacobson has compiled a list of the Top 10 Novels of Sexual Jealousy. From James Joyce to Jane Austen, the list includes Shakespeare’s Othello, “only not a novel because novels weren’t a going form yet.”

Publishers Weekly released its Top 10 Books of 2009, which includes not one book by a woman. This NY Times article on the reaction to the all-male list is followed by reader comments.

The Atlantic lists only five Books of the Year, but also includes a long list of runners up.

The New York Times has posted its critics’ Top 10 Books of 2009 — Dwight Garner, Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin — and the NYT Book Review has posted its list of 100 Notable Books of 2009, compiled from the year’s reviews.

I was very happy to see that the Seattle Books Examiner’s Best Books of 2009 includes three short story collections (happiest of all that one of them is Forgetting English, which is in excellent company among Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry and Amanda Eyre Ward’s Love Stories in This Town).

And this post from literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog is a top ten list of another sort: Top 10 Myths about E-Books, an important read for readers and writers alike.

I will be adding to this post periodically — the year’s not over yet! — but this should be enough to cover holiday reading and holiday shopping over the long weekend.

And what’s on your top ten list?

Bad sex

By Midge Raymond,

It’s that time of year again … yes, the Literary Review‘s Bad Sex Award shortlist has been announced.

As The Guardian reports, among the dubious honorees this year are Paul Theroux (for A Dead Hand), Philip Roth (for The Humbling), and Sanjida O’Connell (for The Naked Name of Love). Previous winners include Tom Wolfe, Rachel Johnson, and Sebastian Faulks — and last year, John Updike received a lifetime achievement prize after four consecutive nominations (wow).

The Literary Review’s Jonathan Beckman told the Guardian that this year’s shortlist is “very strong, with a good mix of well-known writers and others who are less well-known.” Check out the article for the full list.

Despite the fact that the Bad Sex Award was founded by Auberon Waugh to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it,” the writers seem pleased with their nominations. Anna Frame of Nick Cave’s publisher Cannongate (The Death of Bunny Munro) told the Guardian, “Frankly we would have been offended if he wasn’t shortlisted,” and nominee Richard Milward (Ten Storey Love Song) said, “There’s so much bad sex in my book that this is a nice accolade.”

Click here to read the not-so-sexy excerpts. The winner will be announced on November 30 in London.

And for all you writers who are suddenly wondering how you might keep your books off this list? Visit the Guardian’s Book Blog for a post in which Sarah Duncan muses about the challenges of writing about sex — as well as Steve Almond’s awesome Boston Phoenix article, “Writing Sex.”

And may all your writing be sexy.

Self-publishing (and romance) takes an interesting turn

By Midge Raymond,

Interesting news in the world of self-publishing arrives in this NY Times blog, which reports on the partnership of Harlequin Enterprises (the romance publisher) and Author Solutions (a self-publisher). The resulting imprint, Harlequin Horizons, intrigues me for its mix of traditional and what used to be called vanity publishing.

Of note: a VP at Harlequin pointed out that editors will not vet the books (probably the main reason self-published books get such a bad rap). Also of note: authors will be charged $599 or more to publish and distribute their books, mostly in electronic format (the “and more” likely refers to editing, design, and other things that allow self-publishers to earn a profit). And one final note: authors will receive royalties equivalent to 50 percent of net proceeds on each sale, with Harlequin and Author Solutions splitting the rest.

In a time when traditional publishing is suffering greatly, this is an innovative solution: writers can self-publish in conjunction with a reputable publisher, and Harlequin editors have direct access to manuscripts and sales figures to see which books might be worth publishing under “more traditional contracts.” Harlequin VP Brent Lewis told the Times, “We’re hoping to find new authors through this new venture, which is the lifeblood of any publisher,” and also acknowledged that the new initiative provided a way for Harlequin to get involved in self-publishing, which has been a remarkably fast-growing sector in the world of books.

I’m guessing that the biggest reason writers self-publish is because they’ve been rejected by traditional publishers in an increasingly competitive market. But I’ve also spoken to many writers who have self-published, or plan to, because they have a great platform, and they want to have more control over the process and to keep more of the profits. Getting 50 percent of a book’s revenues sounds great to someone under a traditional publishing contract — but it doesn’t sound so great if you yourself have to pay to get the book published in the first place. But maybe the fine print makes it sound more attractive.

With the publishing industry in a crisis and self-published books still carrying such a strong stigma, it’s interesting to see this partnership emerge as, possibly, a sign of things to come. And romance isn’t the only genre: the blog also reports that Author Solutions has joined with religious publisher Thomas Nelson to create a new self-publishing imprint. It makes me wonder, What’s next? Whatever it is, I’ll be eager to see what happens.

How writers write

By Midge Raymond,

Any writer who’s talked to me over the past week or so knows by now how much I love this Wall St. Journal article about writers sharing their processes. Maybe it’s the onset of fall, the recent time change, or the fact that Mercury was in retrograde for a while — but I’ve found that this article has really resonated with fellow writers, not only for the insider’s view into some of our favorite writers’ practices but for the comfort of knowing that there’s no “right way” to do things, and that the work can sometimes be a struggle for even the most successful writers.

Take Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, who “shuts himself in the bathroom and perches on the edge of the tub with his notebook when he’s tackling a knotty passage” — or Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, who “often rewrites the first line of his novels 50 or 100 times.”

And then there’s British novelist Hilary Mantel, who writes in the morning, before before having even a sip of coffee (can you imagine?!). Russell Banks writes his novels in longhand, while Anne Rice writes on a computer in 14-point Courier.

Dan Chaon writes on color-coded note cards. Laura Lippman creates her mysteries using plot charts, index cards, sketchbook pages, colored ribbon, magic markers — and Edwidge Danticat begins her novels with collages of photos and images clipped from magazines.

And, like the rest of us, these writers don’t work without false starts. Kate Christensen was two years and 150 pages into her first novel before she started over; Junot Diaz tossed out about 600 pages before The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao finally began to come together.

What about when they’re not writing? Mantel always carries a notebook to jot down ideas, while Margaret Atwood scribbles “on napkins, restaurant menus, in the margins of newspapers.”

Sometimes when I read about writers and their rituals, I can’t help but feel as though I’m doing something wrong. For example, my schedule is such that I have no daily set writing time; I take it when I can get it. I wouldn’t dream of committing words to paper in a pre-coffee state (I need some tea, at the very least). And sometimes I write on the computer, sometimes longhand, sometimes in my head. It just depends: on time and timing, on where I am and when, and the story and how it wants to arrive in the world.

This is why I love articles like this one, showing the myriad ways that writers work — they’re good reminders that what matters is not how the writing gets done but the fact that it does.

Q&A with Brenda Miller

By Midge Raymond,

I met Brenda Miller at the Get Lit! festival this past April, almost two years after I first read her wonderful essay “Blessing of the Animals” in The Sun. I was reminded of the exquisite beauty of her writing when I heard her read and promptly devoured her new book (titled after that essay) as well as her first collection, Season of the Body. Brenda’s essays have been described as “affecting and thought-provoking” (Publishers Weekly), “glistening, sensuous” (Kirkus Reviews), and “memorable for their sensuality and unflinching honesty” (Library Journal).

Brenda graciously agreed to do a Q&A for my memoir students at Hugo House, who I knew would benefit from her advice and experience — and I’m posting it here knowing that any other writer who reads this will benefit as well.

Q: What led you to personal writing as opposed to, say, fiction?

A: Well, the easy answer is that I’m a terrible fiction writer! I wrote quite a bit of fiction in grad school, because back then “creative nonfiction” was not recognized as a valid creative writing genre. So to write prose, I had to be in the fiction workshops. But all my stories were a bit “forced,” that is: they never quite found their authentic voice and instead relied on standard plot elements I cribbed from writers I admired. Dialogue, too, was always my weakness. When I discovered creative nonfiction, my voice naturally emerged and I was able to be much more fluent in my writing. I found I was able to bring in what I love about poetry (I also wrote poetry for years and years)—metaphor, unexpected images, the sonic quality of language—into prose in ways that kept me excited and interested in my own work. It began to feel more like a process of discovery than fiction had been for me. I also spent a year writing a very bad novel, and so I got that out of my system!

Q: How much distance do you need from a topic to write elegantly and clearly about it?

A: It depends. For certain things, I still don’t have enough distance, even though the events may have happened thirty years ago. For others, I write about them as they’re happening. In either case, I don’t think it’s the literal time, but the mind’s perspective on the topic or event that creates enough breathing room for something literary to happen on the page. Also: form. If you find the right form, or voice, for a piece, it can provide just the “container” you need for whatever the topic might be. And some of my essays span quite a bit of time; so I might start off by writing about an image from my childhood, which leads me to something quite close in the present day; once I’m on that train I’m not going to jump off.


Q: When do you know a piece is finished? And how do you know what is essential and what should be eliminated?

A: This may sound weird, but I think I hear an audible “click” when a piece has found its ending line. But then again, I’ve heard that “click” and then have to go back and “unclick” it, or sit with my ear up against the essay, listening, listening for just the right moment when it all comes together. It takes a great deal of patience. I think you only know it’s finished when it gets published, and even then there are things you’re going to want to go back and change.

When I’m in the final revision stage, I read the piece aloud. When the writing begins to bore me, I stop and see what’s going on in that section. It’s usually something I’ve written to get me to the next stage, and it can be cut. That’s the fun part: once you know what your essay is about and its trajectory (where it’s going to end up), it becomes pretty easy to gently put aside those things that are getting in the way and save them for something else.

Q: When the people in your life become a part of your essays, how do you anticipate/handle their reactions? Have you ever written/published something you wish you could take back?

A: I just don’t think about while I’m writing new work, or else I would never write a word. I save those decisions for when I’m in the revision stages, and then I think about if I’m being fair or exploitative of other people. There are some things I’ve written that will never see the light of day. And yes, there are definitely things I’ve published that I cringe at a little now and wonder if I should have said what I said. It’s as if I’m in a trance while I’m writing and forget that these are actual people and not just characters. I forget that anyone else would ever read this. I could get away with that thirty years ago, but not so much anymore!

I think in most of my writing it’s very clear that I’m telling my own story, from my own very particular perspective, and that I don’t claim to be telling a grand “truth” with a Capital T. I’m trying to understand my own experience, not indict anyone or tell their truth. I think that’s the essential piece of this particular puzzle. If you’re trying to discover your own story, and in the process see how your own story fits into a larger consciousness, you’re not using other people in ways that are vindictive or selfish. You have to be mature about it (or at least give that impression!).

Q: How do you decide how to structure a piece?

A: Well, I’m not really all that intentional about it. The pieces seem to structure themselves to a certain extent. I just start with some image that is bugging me and then ask the question “why?” Why do I remember that? What’s going on there? These days, I can pretty quickly sense how long the essay will be: from a couple of paragraphs to a twenty-pager. And if it’s something that will lend itself to research, it’s nearly always going to end up in a braided form so that I can play cool images and facts against one another.

Q: You sometimes choose the second-person voice (“How to Meditate” from Season of the Body) or the third-person voice (“Table of Figures” from Blessing of the Animals) – is this a conscious decision, or do the stories simply come to you in these voices?

A: I may have answered this in the last question! Both of those essays were started in classes I was teaching; I was doing the writing exercises along with my students, so I was doing whatever the teacher said!


Q: Which writers taught you the most about craft by reading their work?

A: Oh, such a hard question. E.B. White first showed me the power of the first-person voice. Bernard Cooper showed me what could be done with scene, humor and structure. Joan Didion continually teaches me about the sentence. Mark Doty allows me to revel in language and transcendence through language.

Q: Do you have a writing group? How do know if a writing group is a good fit?

A: I now have a couple of writing groups. In the most consistent group, we do new writing together, usually at a café, in formal timed-writing segments. It’s where we get the bulk of our new writing done for the week. And because we just meet at the same time every week, we don’t have to do too much fiddling with our calendars; the space is held for us. In the other group we give writing assignments to one another and bring those in, but that group has a harder time finding the consistent way to be together. I think that may be one of the things to consider: if it’s just too hard to arrange calendars with a group of people, it’s going to end up being stressful rather than a pleasure.

At this point in my writing life, I don’t have a group for feedback on work-in-progress; I’d rather just give to one friend and meet over coffee. I also try to have a “writing contract” with a long-distance friend, especially in the summer. We actually write out monthly contracts on how much work we will accomplish each week and send to the other, with consequences if it doesn’t happen! We don’t often give feedback; it’s just the expectation that you’ll write that gets you in the chair to write. I’m finding that feedback needs to be done only when I’m ready; otherwise, it becomes a hindrance rather than a help. I know it might be heretical for me to say this, since I make a living as a teacher, but I think we may have created student writers who are too dependent on feedback—too eager to please–and so they don’t develop their own intuition and stamina for writing on their own.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A book in collaboration with my friend Holly Hughes called “The Pen and the Bell: Reading, Writing, and the Contemplative Life.” I’m also toying with a memoir in short fragments that are emerging from the writing practice group.

The End — with many thanks to Brenda, and to the Hugo House writers for the great questions.

Brenda is also the author of Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (with Suzanne Paola) and her work appears in numerous literary journals and anthologies and has received five Pushcart Prizes. For more info, visit Brenda’s web site.