Reading for Writers

By Midge Raymond,

Not long ago, a couple of my workshop students joked that taking my classes has really ruined their reading pleasure. That is, whereas they used to simply enjoy a book, now they read it with a critical eye, noting what works and what doesn’t, and trying to figure out why.

Francine Prose’s new book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, reviewed today in the New York Times, is about this very subject: reading books not only for pleasure but (mostly) for their didactic qualities.

Many writers will maintain that creative writing cannot be taught (including Times reviewer Emily Barton, who writes, “I used to inveigh against writing workshops — right up until the day I started teaching one.”) I myself used to take great pride in having published fiction without ever having taken a fiction-writing course … and even though I now teach fiction workshops, I’d be the first to tell any student that they don’t really, truly need me in order to write. (Though I do aim to help.)

What we all need, however, are the writers who teach us by example. Not necessarily the ones who write books on how to write — while some of these are certainly enlightening, they fall under the same category as classes: perfect for some aspiring writers, but not for all. I’ve always liked Stephen King’s second foreword to his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, in which he writes, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do — not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t work when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.”

Yet learning from other writers’ novels or memoirs or poetry is irreplaceable. It’s through reading that we learn what we like, what we don’t like, how to find our own voices, as well as how to handle all the little details that create a character, a scene, story. Prose’s new book sounds like one of the rare gems in books about writing; as Emily Barton writes, “Like the great works of fiction, it’s a wise and voluble companion.”

Love and Work

By Midge Raymond,

Freud famously said, “Love and work — that’s all there is.” Rachel Donadio’s essay, “What I Did at Summer Writer’s Camp,” in today’s New York Times Book Review, explores two of the U.S.’s most famous artists’ colonies, Yaddo and MacDowell, pointing out that love and work are alive, well, and abundant at both.

In her essay, Donadio repeats the popular saying that the sex is better at Yaddo but the work better at MacDowell, and she interviews writers from Alice Sebold to Michael Chabon to Jeffrey Eugenides about what really goes on at the colonies. It’s an interesting piece for anyone who’s ever been to such a retreat as well as for anyone who’s ever thought about applying.

Having never been, over the years I’ve thought many times about applying to one of the myriad retreats available to writers. I’ve heard a lot about them (mostly that a lot more loving than working actually happens). And I have yet to send in an application. Sometimes it’s due to scheduling, a daunting application process, already being happily married, or, in one case, the fact that the location was so remote that I’d have needed to bring my own power saw in case a tree fell and stranded me from the main road.

The main reason I have never applied, though, is that I’ve become so used to being a working writer — that is, a writer with a day job — that I’m not sure how productive I’d be if I had two weeks or a month with nothing to do but write. My writing process has become all about fitting it in when I can, and sometimes it’s the lack of time that makes me the most productive. Donadio’s essay touches on this, with one writer saying that all that free time at the colony evoked in her an “exsistential terror.” Other writers simply report sleeping a lot.

What I do try to do sometimes, and what I recommend to others who can’t get away for long periods of time, is to create a retreat of one’s own. This is similar to what Julia Cameron calls the Artist’s Date. What Cameron means is to take yourself out and enjoy some play time or leisure time. But if writing is what you need to do, set aside a day and go to the library, or the beach, or a coffee shop — somewhere you can write all day, uninterrupted by phone, family, or work. Or ask your partner to make him/herself scarce for the day, and to take the pets and kids along, leaving you with a quiet space to write. (Better have him/her take the remote control, too.)

Great work can be done anywhere; you don’t need an artists’ colony to write. However, it’s still worth looking into. As the essay points out, of the many advantages of places like Yaddo and MacDowell, with all that sex and creativity in the air, returning home with good material is one of them.

Just a Phone Call Away

By Midge Raymond,

Fact-checking is a part of any editor’s job, and a recent New York Times article reminded me of one of my best resources for random, obscure, and weird questions while I was working in Boston: The Boston Public Library’s telephone reference line. We all had the number in our rolodexes, if not posted above our phones or even programmed into auto-dial. You could call the number and ask about literally anything — and nine times out of ten, you’d get the answer you needed.

The Times article (it appeared a couple of weeks ago, actually; I’ve been a little slow on my blogging lately) was, of course, about the New York Public Library’s telephone reference service, and it even included the number (212-340-0849). Those of us on the West Coast needn’t worry — the reference librarians take calls from anyone, anywhere, and even offer to answer your question within five minutes (especially good news for anyone for whom this is a toll call). But don’t forget the time change (they’re available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time, daily except Sundays and holidays).

Check Out “Chapter One” and “First Chapters”

By Midge Raymond,

Some of us buy books based on the cover, the storyline, the genre — and many of us also open them up in the bookstore (or on Amazon) to read a few pages. (John, for one, never buys a book whose opening paragraph doesn’t hook him immediately — and I suspect he’s not alone.) We’ve found a couple of good ways to check out the first chapter of a book without hogging the chairs at Barnes and Noble or flipping through all those electronic pages on Amazon.

The Washington Post hosts a wonderful web site called Chapter One that posts the first chapter of new books — and it’s so much fun to explore. It’s also highly addictive. The site features fiction and nonfiction from a range of literary and popular authors, and most of the books have been reviewed by the Post. But it gives readers a chance to check out new prose for themselves — the best addition to any review.

The New York Times features its own selections in “First Chapters,” in the Books section of its web site. This, too, is highly addictive. But these sites are clearly win-wins — for both readers and authors (and of course, advertisers). We hope they’ll stay around.

Novel Ideas for Novels

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s Wall St. Journal features an article on new ways to sell fiction: by reaching into niche markets.

I’m fascinated by the innovative ways authors sell books, from giving readings at casinos to finding a platform. This is all for good reason — as this Journal article reports, more than 5,000 new novels are published each year, even as sales are slowing. Publishers and authors have to be inventive.

This article reports the myriad ways publishers can find readers, from cable-TV shows to nonprofit organizations to businesses. While some of these approaches are risky (approaching autism reaearch groups to help promote a novel about a boy with autism) and some fall flat (a novel about a woman who runs a bed-and-breakfast didn’t sell well in the B&Bs the publisher targeted), publishers are clearly finding it necessary to go beyond bookstores to capture readers’ interest.

And I really enjoyed reading about how authors themselves are thinking ahead — the article highlights a writing pair whose mystery novel is tied to scrapbooks, a growing market that the authors, as well as their agent and publisher, are specifically targeting. Traditionally, this sort of marketing analysis has been the concern of nonfiction writers, who sell book proposals rather than finished manuscripts. Novelists, we like to believe (especially if we are novelists ourselves), only have to worry about the writing itself.

But it’s becoming clear that novelists would be wise to think like nonfiction writers when they’re getting ready to approach agents and editors — that is, to look for innovative ways of reaching new readers. As the fiction market grows more competitive, writers with ideas that go beyond character and plot might find themselves with a big advantage…not to mention bigger sales.

Authors in Vega$

By Midge Raymond,

As we all know, author readings and book signings aren’t just for bookstores anymore. And an article in today’s New York Times shows that for some popular authors, casinos have become the new bookstores.

I’m not at all surprised by this … I had never been to the “old Vegas” of $19 hotel rooms, $5 buffets, and not much else to do but gamble (and engage in other activities that inspired the saying “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”). But the newly polished Vegas has a lot more to offer. You can still find cheap hotels and good deals off the Strip — but it’s also very easy to forgo gambling in favor of fine dining, fine drinking, shopping, shows, and now … book readings and signings.

From Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in the east to Mandalay Bay in the west, casinos are welcoming authors. The article points out that publishers see these venues as a better fit for popular writers than literary writers (Robin Cook, Augusten Burroughs, and Erica Jong are among the writers to speak at casinos this year) — but judging by the crowds a casino can draw (the Times reports that mystery writer Janet Evanovich sold 1,125 copies of her new book at Foxwoods, setting a record for sales of a single title in one day), I’m guessing that publishers and writers will begin to open their minds to it.

I, for one, would love to see a little culture in the casinos. And it sounds as if many writers are already embracing the idea. Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean, among other books, told the Times that she didn’t have a problem with her appearance at Mandalay Bay, even if she did have to read over the sound of slot machines. More important, she sold books.

Julia Cameron’s New Book

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s Los Angeles Times features an article about Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way and The Vein of Gold, among others. Cameron has just published a memoir about her life’s struggles, from the breakup of her marriages to her recovery from drug and alcohol addiction to her nervous breakdowns. She has never before revealed the extent of her struggles, and those familiar with her creativity books may not realize, as Gina Piccalo of the Times points out, that back in the 1970s, Cameron “was best known as the lush whom Martin Scorsese left for Liza Minnelli, the hotshot writer who swore like a sailor and matched Hunter S. Thompson drink-for-drink.”

But since the publication of The Artist’s Way in 1992, Cameron has been the one people turn to for guidance. I first read the book shortly after it was published — it was wildly popular among creative types in New York, where I lived then. Artist’s Way groups met regularly, working through the twelve-week creativity program together, and individuals exhorted one another to read the book — nearly everyone who recommended it to me said, “It changed my life.” I have to admit it changed mine, too. It was in the mid 1990s that I began writing fiction, and I published my first short story a couple years later. I still recommend it to students and fellow writers. And yes, I still do morning pages (most of the time).

Cameron told the Times that she wrote her memoir, Floor Sample, to let readers know of the struggles she had to overcome to become who she is today; she doesn’t want it to look as if it’s too easy. From the few examples revealed in this article, it sounds as if this book will accomplish that. I’m looking forward to reading it … but first, I might pick up The Artist’s Way again.

(Free) Summer Reading

By Midge Raymond,

Yesterday, in conjunction with New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park, Google launched its Shakespeare site, where you can view Shakespeare’s complete works online. Reading Shakespeare while sitting in front of a computer on a summer’s day may not be everyone’s idea of “beach reading” — but it’s good to see these works so accessible. While I think it’s probably more fun to browse through a hard copy of a book, one big plus about this site is that if you’re looking for a famous quote or passage in a certain play, a search will bring it to you within seconds.

Another site,, also offers free books — again, these books are free because their copyrights have expired in the United States. (The site does post some books, with permission, that are still under copyright and gives instructions for their legal use.) But you can download the works of such authors as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and Virgil. The only problem with this is that you’ll have to print them out to take them to the beach, or wait until after beach season to buy a Sony Reader that you can carry around with you.

Curling up with Virgil’s Aeneid on a Sony Reader may not appeal to everyone. For those who prefer something a little lighter, or prefer their pages in the paper version, we’ve still got bookstores and libraries. But it is fun to see books appearing in newer formats — and especially to see books in the public domain becoming ever more accessible. Of course, publishers will still be able to sell their own copies of the classics (for most of us there’s still no replacement for a physical book) and performances of Shakespeare will always be an experience that goes beyond the page. Yet it’s good to see options out there — the Sony Reader, for example, offers a larger type size than most books (especially reprints of the classics) — and there’s no downside to (legally) making it easier for people to search for and find the books they want.

What’s Your Platform?

By Midge Raymond,

There’s an interesting piece by Sheelah Kolhatkar in today’s New York Observer about “platforms” (“If You Build It, They Will Come — Hot in Publishing: Platforms!”). The article is all about how it’s not just the writing anymore that endears authors to publishers — it’s the author’s “platform,” i.e., the place from which the author can sell a great many copies of his or her book.

What, exactly, is a platform? The article offers an example most of us can understand: Oprah. She is not only a platform for herself and for anything she wishes to promote, but she provides a platform for any writer fortunate enough to get her attention.

But what about those writers who don’t get Oprah’s attention — and especially those “old school” writers who are more interested in their writing than in their own publicity? As the article makes (painfully) clear, this is no longer a luxury writers have. In today’s competitive market, publishers are looking for even more.

The article offers a couple of ideas — blogs, MySpace — as ways for authors to develop their platforms. It also notes that having a well-written book is a platform in and of itself. But even the best books out there don’t sell magically by themselves, and while I don’t think authors need to worry about platforms until their books are finished and are the best they can be, it can’t hurt to give a little thought to marketing, whether at the agent, publisher, or publicity stage of the process.

Word of mouth remains among the best ways to sell anything — so much so that a company called BzzAgent uses this as its business model: it hires “bzz agents” to spread the word about new products from chicken sausage to jeans (and, of course, books). The good news is that you don’t need to hire anyone to do this for you; we all know enough people to start enlisting our own groups of “agents” — and the “buzz” our friends and family create is bound to be more authentic. So think of who you know, where they live, what resources they have, and how they might be able to help.

Of course, you can’t depend solely on your connections; you’ll also need to put yourself out there. Even if your publisher doesn’t offer you a ten-city book tour, create your own. These days, most writers do just that: pack up the car, map out cheap hotels, and offer readings and signings wherever they can. And many of them have had wonderful success because they go beyond bookstores to libraries, schools, businesses, and any other place they might find an audience. You never know where your readers may be.

A great many writers today have their own web sites (you might want to register your name, and/or the title of your book, sooner than later), and this too can be a good platform. And whether you’ve written a novel or a memoir, a cookbook or a computer book, there are people and organizations out there that will be thrilled to hear from you. You just need to find them.

This may sound like a lot of work, but, as the Observer article also points out, poor sales of one book can harm your chances of ever publishing another one. So isn’t it worthwhile to go the extra mile from the very beginning? Then you’ll no longer have to worry about finding a platform — you’ll already have one.

Story v. Style

By Midge Raymond,

Last week, I gave a presentation to the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild on how to be your own editor. I offered tips on how to think like an editor when revising, polishing, and submitting your work, and in doing so, I had to point out some of the bleaker realities of publishing: that journal editors often read only the first page or two of a submission, that you often only have one chance to make an impression on an editor or agent — and of course, I emphasized the importance of editing, language, and making your work the best it can be.

Thursday’s New York Times challenged all that with a few comments about the quality of the writing in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. (Disclosure: I have not yet read The Da Vinci Code. I’m actually waiting to borrow it from a slow-reading family member. You know who you are.) But another reason I’ve not yet picked it up is the informal reviews from friends and colleagues, whose collective opinion is that the story is so good and the writing so poor that while most have enjoyed the book very much, others have not even finished it.

In the Times‘s review of the film, A.O. Scott referred to the novel as a “best-selling primer on how not to write an English sentence.” Scott also quoted a sentence from the book — “Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino with long white hair” — and this example was not presented as a compliment.

I would agree that the above is an unfortunate sentence. But to the millions of Da Vinci Code readers and moviegoers, does it matter? As a writer (who is also married to a writer, hangs out with lots of writers, and teaches writing), I find that language and style is as important as a good story — but that’s just me, and perhaps writers in general. When most readers talk about books, it’s usually about the stories they tell, not the style in which they’re written.

As writers, we want to tell a great story and tell it beautifully. But what do readers want? (And, most important to writers, what do editors want?) During my presentation at the Guild, I made a point of saying that if a great story has a few typos in the manuscript, a missing word or two, or even a few really bad sentences, editors will overlook these things. And that’s true. But perhaps editors are overlooking even more than that when they see a bestseller in the making.

In an ideal world, a good book is good all around, and as writers we should hold ourselves to these strict standards — even if we can’t fully achieve them, we should strive for them. But despite the myriad views of Brown’s prose, as well as the controversy over the book’s subject matter, he has certainly achieved what most writers dream of: Millions of people are reading and talking about his work.

The Mystery of Plagiarism

By Midge Raymond,

It is probably impossible that you haven’t read about the alleged plagiarism by teenage author Kaavya Viswanathan (How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life), who has been accused of copying sizeable portions of two novels by Megan McCafferty (Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings).

The topic of plagiarism actually came up recently in our memoir class — how easy it is to unintentionally echo the style of a writer you read and admire, simply because his or her language has stuck with you. But that is clearly not the case here. To compare just one or two of the passages in question is to realize that Viswanathan copied extensively from McCafferty’s books. If you’d like to see for yourself, The Boston Globe and the Harvard Crimson have laid out some of these passages side by side, and Publishers Marketplace has listed the 45 similar passages that Crown, McCafferty’s publisher, has found so far.

There are a couple of rather innocuous similiarities such as “Nike-clad” (let’s face it; no author can claim exclusive rights to that) — yet even these don’t seem entirely innocent when you look at the other, very obvious similarities. Here’s one example, from the list posted on Publishers Marketplace:

From McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts, page 183:

“Omigod! Let’s make sure junior year rocks,” she says. “Let’s make more time for each other. Friends are forever!”

I don’t want anything to do with Bridget, Manda, Sara, and the S.O.S. So I say even less at lunch than usual, totally aware of how alone I am.

From Viswanathan’s book, page 183:

“Omigod!” Stacie had finished reapplying her face. “We have to make more time for each other. Friends are forever!”

I said even less than usual, aware of how totally alone I am.

Most of the passages listed are as alike as this one, and evidently the plots and characters of Viswanathan’s book are also too similar for comfort. The New York Times reported yesterday that Viswanathan has apologized while maintaining that any similarities were “unintentional and unconscious,” a stance that is disputed by Crown, whose publisher said in a statement that it is “inconceivable that this was a display of youthful innocence or an unconscious or unintentional act.” The Times reported today that Viswanathan claims the similarities are due to her photographic memory.

But if you study these passages, it’s hard to believe any of these nearly identical passages ended up in her book by mistake. This brings me to the central question about plagiarism: Why?

I would guess that for most writers, the joys and challenges in writing come from discovering new ways of expressing what we want to say. I can’t imagine an author stealing another’s work on purpose because it defies the whole point of writing: letting your own voice evolve, saying something that has never been said before in quite the same way.

But during my years of teaching in a university writing program, I did learn a lot more about plagiarism, particularly the myriad reasons behind it. We devoted countless faculty meetings to discussions of plagiarism: how to avoid it, how to hold students accountable for it, what to do when you knew something was plagiarized but couldn’t prove it. In my six years of teaching there, I came across probably dozens of plagiarized papers — evident from a student’s voice suddenly becoming unrecognizable, from a student’s writing C papers all semester and suddenly turning in a nearly perfect assignment, from a student’s lack of knowledge about his or her own paper when questioned. But how many cases could I actually prove? Just one. This was the difficulty: we could probe and question as much as we liked, but unless we had solid proof to take to the academic affairs committee, or unless the student confessed, there was nothing we could do.

It was troubling, of course, to see students plagiarize — and worse, to see them learn how easily they could get away with it — but even more troubling to me were their reasons for doing so. In some cases, it was laziness; in others, anger — but most often I sensed that it was desperation: students stole the work of others because they were afraid they couldn’t deliver on their own. This, I think, is the most regrettable cause of cheating: the pressure to earn good grades, to please one’s parents, to stay on the lacrosse team, to keep a scholarship.

Imagine being a high-school student whose parents have hired a private counselor (to the tune of $10,000 to $20,000) to help you get into an Ivy League school. Imagine this counselor seeing great promise in your writing and putting you in touch with an agent, who then puts you in touch with a book packager. Imagine being offered half a million dollars to write two novels, before your freshman year in college is over. This is, according to articles in the New York Times, what happened to Viswanathan. Some would think of this young woman as extremely lucky (she is certainly extremely talented), yet I can’t help but think about the tremendous pressure she must’ve been under. Imagine trying to finish your first novel while carrying a full course load during your freshman year at Harvard. In theory, it sounds like a dream come true; in reality, it may have been anything but.

There is no excuse for plagiarism, of course. But perhaps we need to make it easier and more acceptable for young people to fail. Then, at least, they can handle failure on their own terms and honestly, without the more serious ramifications of plagiarism haunting them for years to come.

It’s All About the Research

By Midge Raymond,

Allegra Goodman has been garnering high praise from scientists for her new novel, Intuition, a tale about morality and ethics in a science lab that, the experts say, has been so meticulously researched that scientists are shocked to find it was written by a Ph.D. in English rather than one of their own.

“[I]t completely nails this world,” Dr. Jerome Groopman, an oncologist and professor of medicine at Harvard, told the New York Times in yesterday’s article about Goodman, whom the Times describes as “a 38-year-old car-pooling mother of three grade school boys and a 3-year-old girl.” How did she do it?

For starters, the Times notes, her husband, sister, mother, and a few friends are all scientists. But she didn’t simply rely on the overflow from their work to feed her own — she sought out other scientists who let her step into their world, and, once there, she spent a good deal of time, took copious notes, and let it all sink in.

Research like this is what closes the gap between a great idea and a great finished novel.

This certainly doesn’t invalidate the phrase “write what you know” for fiction writers — certainly we all have our own areas of expertise in life. But, perhaps because we live it, we may not always want to write about it. One of the joys of being a fiction writer, I think, is stepping out of one’s own world — taking an idea, as Goodman did, and finding a wonderful metaphor for exploring it. And this means, of course, that you will need to do research.

As both a fiction and nonfiction writer, I love research, especially the hands-on kind, and I’ve been fortunate to have had many opportunities to walk into others’ worlds. I’ve gone behind the scenes at science labs and hospitals; I’ve spent time in a medium-security men’s prison. I’ve interviewed an endless variety of people, from psychic mediums to leaders of the 1989 student uprisings in Tiananmen Square. In order to write knowingly about a character whose world is entirely different from your own, you must spend time with people in their natural habitats, becoming intimately aware of what they do and what’s at stake.

You may be wondering, “How do I get access to these people and places?” But before you despair, realize that you have more at your fingertips than you know. Think about your family and friends, your writers’ group, your colleagues, your neighbors: among their talents and professions, you will most likely find that one of them has the information you need, or knows someone who does. Whether you want firsthand information on how to prepare a witness for trial or want to know what it’s like to work the night shift in a psychiatric hospital, if you ask around, chances are you’ll find someone who can point you in the right direction. And even if you can’t find a connection that breaks the ice, don’t hesitate to reach out to total strangers: pick up the phone or send out an e-mail. Explain your project and see what happens. You will never know unless you ask.

And if you think people might be reluctant to have you hanging around, you will be pleasantly surprised by how welcoming people can be. I’ve found that most people love to have a little company, love to talk about what they do, and love the idea that someone finds it interesting enough to write about. Again, you can’t know until you ask. At worst, you’ll get no for an answer (and then you just ask someone else) — but at best, you could have the foundation for your next book or story.

Keep on Keeping On

By Midge Raymond,

Monday’s New York Times story on the Dan Brown trial, “‘Da Vinci Code’ Author Testifies in London,” covered the author’s testimony, which happened to focus mainly on his background and his writing process. The bestselling author also revealed his earlier struggles as a newly published writer. Brown said “he felt that Simon & Schuster, which published his earlier books, did a terrible job of promoting them.” He also wrote in a statement that his wife had to handle the marketing, that they had to pay for his book tour out of their own pockets, and that they literally sold his books out of their car — all of which, he contends, was enough to make him consider giving up writing.

I’m sure he is very glad he didn’t.

This reminded me of all the stories I’ve read and heard about the myriad struggles of now-successful writers — which I am so glad they share with us. If we didn’t know better, we might think that it’s easy to write a bestseller or a work of literary genius. But fortunately, we do know better. We know, for example, thanks to his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, that Stephen King was living in a trailer and working in a laundry when he tossed his novel-in-progress, Carrie, into the garbage. His wife discovered it there, encouraged him to keep working on it, and he later sold it for a modest advance, with the paperback rights selling for $400,000.

Rumor also has it that an editor once told Vladimir Nabokov that the manuscript for Lolita should be “buried under a large stone,” and that F. Scott Fitzgerald was told, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”

These writers were wise to stick with their ideas and to stand by their works, and they have proven that while it’s not easy for anyone, success is only possible if you keep trying. So when you get that next short-story rejection slip, remember that Jack London was rejected more than 600 times before he published his first story. When your agent sends you another stack of publishers’ rejects, remember that Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was rejected by 20 publishers before finding a home, and that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was rejected 21 times. And don’t forget that John Grisham was turned down by more than 30 publishers before selling The Firm — and that J.K. Rowling, once unemployed and on welfare, is now a bestselling author and a billionnaire.

All of these writers have one thing in common: not giving up. Remember that next time you think of giving up your story or poem or novel or memoir — and keep going instead.

Happiness in Writing

By Midge Raymond,

The Fall 2005 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review focuses on happiness (I’m not actually a Buddhist, but I do enjoy the review; and yes, I am still reading magazines from 2005). The issue offers many articles and ruminations on the nature of happiness, but what caught my attention was a piece by Thanissaro Bhikkhu in which he wrote of “skillful” and “unskillful” desires. He writes that we all desire happiness and that “whatever the desire, if the solution actually leads to happiness, the desire is skillful. If it doesn’t, it is not. However, what seems to be a skillful desire may lead only to a false or transitory happiness not worth the effort entailed.”

Naturally, I found myself thinking of the desires of writers — not only as a writer myself but also as a teacher of writing. As a university professor, I found that many, if not most, of my students desired a good grade more than they desired becoming a good writer. And among my adult students and fellow writers, I find that we are often attracted to being published almost more than we are drawn to writing stories that we are genuinely proud of.

Anne Lamott writes in her book Bird by Bird that her students “believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo…But this is not exactly what happens.” Having read Bird by Bird before publishing my first short story, I didn’t believe her, just as none of my students believe me when I tell them the same thing. But if and when we do become published authors, we realize that Lamott is right. Nothing really changes after you publish your work. (And, as she points out, it’s actually very discouraging when you tell people you’re a published writer, and they’ve still never heard of you.) It’s wonderful to know that your work is being read and enjoyed, of course — but in the end, if you continue to write, it’s still only you and the blank page, and it always will be.

So I encourage students to focus on the work itself, on what they have to say. I advise them not to worry about publication until their writing is the best it can be, and remind them that rushing a piece to agents or editors before it’s ready is a lesson in futility. They will most likely not believe me — and that’s okay. Part of the process of becoming a writer is discovering, through the predictable highs and inevitable lows of publication, that the joy is in the work itself.

I ended up envisioning my own writerly definitition of “skillful desire,” which is to desire what is within our reach as writers. This, of course, means the work, not who publishes it (or when or where or for how much). While the term “happy writer” may be an oxymoron, I think we’d all be happier if we focused more on our growth as writers rather than our publication credits.

Long Live the Short Story

By Midge Raymond,

As tonight’s 78th Annual Academy Awards ceremony celebrates “Brokeback Mountain” for its many accomplishments — most of which have an Oscar nomination attached — I’ll be continuing to celebrate the fact that this beautiful film originated as a beautiful short story. While turning novels into films is nothing new, there’s been a wonderful new trend over the past several years in which short stories are making their way to the big screen — with great success.

In her 1999 interview with The Missouri Review, Annie Proulx called Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s adaptation of her 1997 story “Brokeback Mountain” an “exceptionally fine screenplay.” Those familiar with Proulx’s story will note the script’s faithfulness to Proulx’s original; whereas adapting a novel to film requires a certain degree of reductionism, adapting a short story, on the other hand, usually requires fleshing out, if anything — and remaining faithful to the original work is far easier for screenwriters to achieve. (This is good news for both writers and readers.)

In addition to Oscar nominations for actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal and for director Ang Lee, “Brokeback Mountain” was, of course, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (not to mention Best Music (Score), Best Cinematography, and Best Picture). But this isn’t the first time in recent years that short stories have been successfully adapted. Previously nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay was Rob Festinger and Todd Field’s 2001 script “In the Bedroom,” based on Andre Dubus’ short story “Killings” (the film also scored nominations in the Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress categories). (More of Dubus’ short stories — “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Adultery” — were adapted to the screen in the 2004 film “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” starring Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, and Peter Krause.) And let’s not forget “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Stand By Me,” just two of many films based on the short works of Stephen King.

And the short story is being celebrated in myriad other ways — The Los Angeles Times recently named Amy Tan as literary editor for its weekly magazine, West, which last month replaced the Los Angeles Times magazine and now publishes short fiction. Small presses such as Hourglass Books are devoted to publishing collections of short stories; anthologies such as the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories publish selections from literary magazines; and perhaps best of all is The Story Prize, an annual book award honoring a collection of short fiction with a $20,000 cash award. The prize was created in 2004 by Julie Lindsey and Larry Dark to support short story collections and help abate the difficulties authors face in trying to publish them.

A lot of writers believe that they must write a novel in order to have a career as a writer. Being a short-story writer can indeed be frustrating — with a few exceptions, story collections don’t sell as well as novels and aren’t nearly as high profile. Yet a short story remains the perfect medium for today’s busy readers: it can offer all the elements of a novel in a trim, accessible format. And seeing both the film and publishing industries embrace it means the short story will be around for a long while.