Forgetting English…but remembering the penguins

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s good news is that I have copies of Forgetting English in my hands at last. This is cool.


One of the stories, “The Ecstatic Cry,” originally published in Ontario Review, is about a penguin researcher in Antarctica — which brings me to the bad news, this story in the Boston Globe’s Green Blog about the fate of the emperor penguins.

New research from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution indicates that the emperors face serious population declines due to climate change. According to this research, if climate change continues to melt sea ice at the rates reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the larger emperor colonies will shrink from 3,000 to only 400 breeding pairs by the end of this century — and there are only about 40 emperor colonies in the world to begin with.

And Al Gore’s update to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday is nothing short of terrifying. I realize I’m a little off-topic here, but a world without penguins (or polar bears, or sea ice) isn’t a world I’d want to live in. But of course, it’s not just the animals I worry about … as Gore reports, for each 1 meter of sea level rise, there will be roughly 100 million climate refugees. And Antarctica is melting fast.

This is a new one…

By Midge Raymond,

As readers of this blog know, I get a little cranky when I hear about memoirs that turn out to have been made up. Today’s NY Times has an interesting story about the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, whose two recent novels (2666 and The Savage Detectives) are not in question but whose biography is.

Apparently Bolano, who died in 2003, was not into heroin, nor was he in Chile during the military coup that brought Pinochet to power, as he has claimed. And American critics and publishers are being taken to task for “deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.”

It’s no secret that writers and publishers need to think about sales — and aside from the writing, it helps to have youth, beauty, or some other angle or platform that helps sell books. But when writers have to start re-creating their own personas to sell books, we might be taking things a little too far.

All publishing, all the time

By Midge Raymond,

Lately it seems that the publishing industry is making headlines in a bigger way than usual, with the layoff of Publishers Weekly’s editor-in-chief Sara Nelson yesterday and the former publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt joining Riverhead, not to mention the many other layoffs and reorganizations in the industry over the past few months.

In addition, I’ve noticed several articles on “the new publishing,” which in many cases refers to self-publishing, on which the NY Times has a cover story today. It begins, “The point may soon come when there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them” — though I have long wondered whether we’re there already.

The article outlines the pros and cons of self-publishing, of which most writers are aware, and mentions one surprising fact: this month, Author Solutions (which operates iUniverse, AuthorHouse, and other vanity presses) bought Xlibris — and combined, the company represented 19,000 titles in 2008: almost six times more than Random House, the world’s largest traditional publishing house. (And keep in mind that these books did not have editors.) It’s a strange statistic.

But those in the self-publishing business know that it’s not about books but about money. Lulu’s CEO, Robert Young, admits that most of its titles are published for few other than the authors and their families. “We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,” he told the Times.

And yet for all those niche books that will sell only a few copies, there are authors out there who know there is a larger audience for their work — and it is for these writers that I’m glad self-publishing is now easy and cheap. Today’s success story is Lisa Genova, whose first novel, “Still Alice,” was turned down or ignored by 100 literary agents. She self-published the novel for $450 and, though perseverance and fantastic luck, eventually sold it to Pocket Books for a mid-six-figure advance. It debuted on the New York Times trade paperback fiction bestseller list at number five this Sunday.

The Story Behind the Story

By Midge Raymond,

I’ve recently received my fall issue of American Literary Review, in which I’m thrilled to have a story of my own included. Even after having written and rewritten a piece, then editing the proofs, I still get a kick out of seeing a story in print (especially in the pages of a magazine I’ve read and admired for years). Somehow, a published, polished piece feels a little different, in a good way, and the effect this had on me today was to remind me of the origins of this one.

Years ago, when I was working in the alumni office of a large university, we received a letter that contained a ring — a lovely, expensive-looking ring — along with a note asking that it be returned to its rightful owner. The sender wrote that she had stolen it from her roommate years earlier and wanted to make things right again. (This is the kind of thing that a writer can’t get out of her mind.)

And I never did get that letter (or the letter writer) out of my mind. Much later, while in Hawaii for a friend’s wedding, I found myself noticing the couples next to me at the bar, or in a cafe — a lot of young honeymooners and a lot of older couples as well. I thought again of the ring, of relationships and regrets, and, to make a long story short, these ideas collided in my mind (as Grace Paley once said, “I don’t have a story until I have two stories”), and “Twin Falls” was born.

To see how the story evolves and how it ends, turn to page 39 of this issue of ALR. 🙂


Ah, finally.

By Midge Raymond,

This is the novel that came from the screenplay that came from the memoir that came from the story that came from the house that Herman Rosenblat built.

It’s a little convoluted, but here it is: Today’s NY Times reports that Herman Rosenblat’s false memoir will actually be published as a novel (as it should have been all along, since it was fictional). Apparently, the film rights for the memoir had already been sold, and a screenplay had been written, and now a publisher in White Plains will publish a novel based on the screenplay.

All’s well that ends well. But would it have been so hard to write a novel to begin with?

Cheaper, Wilder, Trashier

By Midge Raymond,

This is among the portents of the new era of publishing, forecast in this Time magazine article — a very interesting look at what’s happening in the industry, thanks in part to the technologies that make digital printing (i.e., self-publishing) cheaper and easier. The novel, writes Lev Grossman, is “about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever.”

The problem, Grossman writes, isn’t that people aren’t reading — it’s the publishing business itself, a system of author advances (which often translates into publisher losses) and consignment sales (more losses) that dates back to the Depression. Under this system, the publisher takes all the risks and suffers all the losses. And they are less and less able to handle that, especially in these difficult economic times.

Enter the digital age: the Reader, the Kindle, and Google. And while self-publishing used to be a last resort (and, many agents and editors warn, a career killer), it’s now becoming a more respectable option — and even a better one for those writers with a good book and a good platform, and who want to keep more of the profits themselves. And while the majority of self-published books are self-published for a good reason, the article points out just a few of self-publishing’s successes, including Brunonia Barry’s self-published novel The Lace Reader, later picked up by William Morrow in a $2-million, two-book deal; and William P. Young’s The Shack, which spent 34 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Grossman writes, “Old Publishing is stately, quality-controlled and relatively expensive. New Publishing is cheap, promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste. If Old Publishing is, say, a tidy, well-maintained orchard, New Publishing is a riotous jungle: vast and trackless and chaotic, full of exquisite orchids and undiscovered treasures and a hell of a lot of noxious weeds.”

And while he maintains that Old Publishing won’t disappear anytime soon, we’ll see lots of changes in the meantime: without the constraints of physical pages, novels will be longer and doled out episodically, Grossman predicts. “We’ll see less modernist-style difficulty and more romance-novel-style sentiment and high-speed-narrative throughput. Novels will compete to hook you in the first paragraph and then hang on for dear life.”

I agree with Grossman that this is all neither good nor bad: “it just is.” I love to see writers such as Elle Newmark find their homes in the publishing world. Newmark’s story is a great one: Her agent submitted her novel (The Book of Unholy Mischief) to publishers and received several rejections; Newmark rewrote the book and tried to find a new agent but no one would take it on; she thought about giving up. In the meantime, she turned sixty and still believed in the book, so she decided to self-publish it. She hosted a fantastic virtual launch party, and within 24 hours received several offers of representation from top literary agencies. She signed with William Morris, her book went to auction, and she eventually received a two-book deal from Simon & Schuster (and I seem to remember reading that this was a seven-figure deal).

So among many other things, New Publishing also means that there are greater chances for all writers who believe in their work enough. And this is definitely a good thing.

A Joyous Day

By Midge Raymond,

Because this is a blog All About Writing, I wasn’t going to ramble on and on about how great today’s inauguration was. We already know that.

Then I realized I could ramble and still keep it All About Writing — that one of the many (many) reasons it’s thrilling to have Barack Obama as our new president is that he’s an accomplished author. And by this I don’t mean just a bestselling one, but a truly gifted writer — which by definition means, to me at least, that he’s a gifted thinker and communicator as well as able to do lovely things with language.

Yesterday, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I remembered when I was teaching writing at Boston University, how every spring semester, we’d a have the day off, and how every year, I would give my students a copy of his “I Have a Dream” speech and ask them to tell me why it’s such a beautiful piece of writing (in case you’ve forgotten yourself, you can read and listen to it here).

And today, Obama’s inaugural address echoed King’s dream: “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

I’ve kept copies of many of Obama’s speeches as I have Dr. King’s — for now, so I can read and remember history in the making. There are probably few out there who haven’t heard Obama speak and who haven’t been moved by his words. But non-writers tend to forget that these were words on a page before they were ever spoken. So I’ll also keep them for future classes, when I might hand them out along with Dr. King’s speech and say, “Now here’s a great piece of writing.”

Now, I’m off to watch more of the the inaugural festivities…

Writers’ Routines

By Midge Raymond,

A couple months ago, I went to see Julia Glass at the Seattle Public Library, where she read from her new book, I See You Everywhere, and talked about writing. She commented that she doesn’t have a regular routine, which I was glad to hear because I don’t either. So many writers do have strict schedules for writing (which often involves getting up at ungodly hours) that those of us who don’t might be tempted to worry about it.

And then I found Daily Routines, which offers us the rituals and routines of not only writers but visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, scientists, and many more (the writers range from John Grisham to Colette to T.C. Boyle to Charles Darwin). It’s fun to see what other writers do for motivation and inspiration … and a comfort to know there’s no “right way.”

As I always tell my students, the important thing is not to have a routine but to remember that you’re always a writer — in every moment of every day. That you’re working even as you take the bus to work (observing details, eavesdropping on conversations), cook dinner (noting all the senses), or go for a jog (letting your subconscious sort out why your protagonist suddenly did something you didn’t expect). As James Thurber told the Paris Review in 1955, “I never quite know when I’m not writing.”

Of course, you’ll eventually have to clock in at your desk to get your work on the page (and routines are very helpful when you’ve got a specific project going) — but I find that the more I can stay in writing mode, the more easily the work happens once I do chain myself to the computer.

I’m procrastinating.

By Midge Raymond,

The other day at Pike Place Market, I saw that procrastination t-shirt – you know the one:

Top 10 Reasons to Procrastinate:

…and I almost bought it. I should have.

But in the midst of all this not-writing, I’m discovering new blogs, one of which I thought I’d share: the blog of YA and short-story writer Nova Ren Suma, appropriately called “distraction no. 99,” which has a post on her favorite first lines of short stories. They’re fantastic choices – and very inspiring. Enough, in fact, to get me back to my own writing.

Yes, again…

By Midge Raymond,

I didn’t expect to read another author-caught-cheating story so soon after my last cranky blog about it (see “Not Again…” below), but I suppose by now I shouldn’t be surprised. This time it’s Conversations with God author Neale Donald Walsch, and he has plagiarized a Christmas story while “believing the story was something that had actually come from his personal experience,” according to this NY Times story.

Now, I myself have a notoriously poor memory (ask my husband, who always gets a little freaked out when I can’t remember movies we’ve seen together or articles we’ve discussed) — but even I have yet to adopt other people’s memories as my own. The Times reports: “Except for a different first paragraph in which Mr. Walsch wrote that he could ‘vividly remember’ the incident, his Dec. 28 Beliefnet post followed, virtually verbatim, Ms. Chand’s previously published writing, even down to prosaic details like ‘The morning of the dress rehearsal, I filed in ten minutes early, found a spot on the cafeteria floor and sat down.’ ” Wow.

By way of apology, Walsch claims “I have told the story verbally so many times over the years that I had it memorized … and then, somewhere along the way, internalized it as my own experience.”

The true author of the story, Candy Chand, told the Times she isn’t buying it, pointing out that as the author of the Conversations with God series, Walsch should recognize that the Ten Commandments include not lying and not stealing. What’s also interesting is that Walsch’s statement to the Times — “I am chagrined and astonished that my mind could play such a trick on me” — sort of calls into question the whole premise of his bestselling works, which is that he talks to God. Or, some of his readers may begin to wonder, was his mind playing tricks on him then, too?

Too Much Information

By Midge Raymond,

I’ve just discovered Scribd, where “more than 50 million people each month are finding or sharing fun, functional or fantastical writings” and where authors can upload work so that “your screenplay, novel or even sheet music and recipes can be discovered by the world.” To me, these descriptions made it sound a little dubious, but it’s actually a very interesting site — if a little overwhelming.

Scribd goes beyond self-publishing; here you’ll find anything from resumes to coupons to interesting articles (such as Worldwatch Institute’s “Is Meat Sustainable?”). I’ve only done a little exploring so far, but groups include the National Science Foundation, the SEC, and World Library, among hundreds of others. So for anyone looking for a new procrastination tool, this one works. It works extremely well.

So if you have a great many hours of procrastinating to do, you’ll be glad to find entire novels available for download (free!), including three from Charlie Huston (in advance of his next book, to be released this month) and a bestseller by Tess Gerritsen — all from Random House’s Ballantine Books. You’ll also find easy access to downloadable content from the Gutenberg Project, Google, and more.

One thing I liked was discovering iPaper, a document format that allows easy viewing no matter what your operating system. Being completely untechnical, all I can say about it with any authority is that it’s really fast and looks cool. And it’s easy to use, send, download, etc.

Enjoy … but by all means, enter at your own risk. You may not re-emerge for quite a while.

Publishing In the New Year

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s New York Times has a couple of interesting articles about publishing and its fate — one story, “Puttin’ Off the Ritz,” considers the new austerity in the publishing industry, i.e., cutting back on expensive holiday parties, sales meetings in exotic locales, and pricey lunches. But as editor Robert Gottlieb points out, this is “small potatoes compared to the problems they face.”

Yet HarperCollins is experimenting with a new business model that addresses the two biggest concerns in publishing when it comes to profits — large cash advances and unsold book returns — and this is a solution that works for both author and publisher. Set up last year, HarperStudio will limit author advances to no more than $100,000 and give authors half of the profits from book sales (currently it’s at 10 to 15 percent). It’ll be interesting to see how bookstores deal with the issue of returns, which dates back to the Depression — but so far Borders has agreed to take on 14 nonreturnable books from HarperStudio’s 2009 list.

As an instructor, I still run across writers who think they’ll crank out a novel and make an easy buck. (For a few lucky people, this actually does happen.) But this new publishing model would engage the writer even more, while allowing publishers to take chances on more writers, promote more books, and not worry so much about creating mega-blockbusters to earn back those huge advances. (Though the article does quote an independent bookseller who’d like to see fewer books: “[Publishers] need to have some sense of what is going on in the country and what the readers are really looking for.”)

And speaking of new publishing models, this article on Google’s book search highlights the program as a way to get out-of-print books back to readers, as well as providing a great resource for researching just about anything (such as the phrase “you’re not the boss of me,” which, by the way, was coined in 1883). It’s good news for authors and publishers, too, as they receive 63 percent of revenues. According to the article, Macmillian offers 11,000 titles for search on Google through its various imprints and estimates having sold 16,400 copies through Google in 2007.

With all the bad news about the economy (and all the talk about the demise of books and bookstores in general over the years), it’s good to see the industry embracing new ideas. People are always going to want and need books — but they way they’re acquired, sold, and read is definitely changing. As Paul Courant, university librarian at the University of Michigan, told the Times, “There is no short way to appreciate Jane Austen, and I hope I’m right about that…But a lot of reading is going to happen on screens.”

Happy New Year!

By Midge Raymond,

I’m so glad it’s 2009 (for so many reasons). I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions (which I always forget by the end of January anyhow), but I do find it a good time to map out some writing goals — and having a day off is the best way to get started on them.

I’m lucky to have a couple of great friends whose life’s work helps me so much with these things. Last year, I set a few writing goals that I wasn’t sure I’d meet (it was a crazy year) — but thanks to my friend Stacey, I met each and every one. She happens to be a life coach (and a great one), but the key is to tell someone what you want to accomplish — or even several people. They will always ask, How’s that novel coming along? or Have you sent out that story yet? Finally, you’ll get tired of the questions, and you’ll just go ahead and do it already.

I also love my friend Judy Reeves’ wonderful book A Writer’s Book of Days, which has a writing exercise for every day of the year. I’m going to start today (last year, I only made it through early March, but that’s the nice thing about having a whole new year ahead). This book is one of the best things I have on my bookshelf — it’s great for writer’s block; you just pick an exercise, and you’re cured.

Happy New Year!

Not again…

By Midge Raymond,

You’d think — after James Frey (we all remember James Frey), then Margaret Seltzer (she’s the one who wrote the “gang memoir” about being a white girl raised in an African-American foster home, when in reality she grew up with her own family in a lovely Los Angeles suburb), and then Misha Defonseca (whose memoir about running from the Nazis and living with wolves turned out to be fabricated) — that we’ve seen the end of fake memoirs, canceled publishing contracts, and poor Oprah being duped. But not quite: this article in today’s New York Times tells the story of yet another one. Another amazing love story, another unbelievable Holocaust memoir — and another confession from the author that its premise is not true. And yes, another canceled book contract.

It’s not that I blame the agents, editors, and publishers — they can’t fact-check every detail of every manuscript that comes across their desks, though they might consider doing a bit more given the prevalence of fake memoirs these days. I’m just not sure what these writers are thinking. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t just go ahead and write a novel instead of a “memoir,” when they know the story is untrue and often have to go to elaborate lengths to perpetuate the lie.

I can empathize with the notion that a story can seem more powerful if readers know it’s true — but this is only the case when, in fact, the story is true. What about the power of fiction to open readers’ eyes to truth as well? (I’m not just saying this as a fiction writer but as a former nonfiction writer who remains a stickler for getting the facts straight.)

In the end, I worry that writers with legitimate stories will find it hard to earn the trust of agents, editors, and publishers, and I worry that readers may stop caring whether a memoir is true or not, as long as it’s a good story (this is especially frightening with such historic events as the Holocaust). If writers keep blurring the lines between fact and fiction — and keep getting published — then what?

Excerpt of Forgetting English…

By Midge Raymond,

I’ve just posted an excerpt of one of the stories in Forgetting English for all of you who are just dying to start reading (okay, just humor me here). Click here for the excerpt, which is from the story “First Sunday,” first published in Indiana Review.

I’d like to say a special THANKS! to Rebecca Raymond, without whom I could not have written this story (which is not in any way based on her life, in case you wonder about that after reading it…all characters and their actions are purely a figment of the author’s imagination and are not based on actual persons, living or dead, yada yada yada). But, being a former journalism type and therefore being a stickler for details even when I’m making stuff up, I wanted the fine print of the story to be just right, from the Tongan phrases to life in kingdom’s villages.

It’s so great to know people who do interesting things and don’t mind your stealing their material. Thanks, Beck.