Do you want a reliable narrator? An unreliable narrator? If there is any first-person element to your narration, there’s one answer: all people lie to themselves, all people are unreliable. The question is of degree. While extremely unreliable narrators are fascinating to writers, they pose serious difficulties. The lens of the narrator can so diffuse the reality that the reader is lost—has no idea what’s going on. A cause for concern, but not outright panic: cueing the reader to shifts in perception is an intricate business, and it’s rarely right in the first draft. Just some backbreaking labor ahead.
When the project is funny—satire, farce, etc—it’s easier to point up a narrator’s self-delusions, and/or outright lies. A ridiculous misconception, a change of pace, a furrowed brow, a toothy grin, a silly adverb: you may not need much.
Something annoying happens to someone; that someone is a writer. The event took no more than two minutes, but the writer carries it home, works on it for three weeks, and “fixes” it. The event is now interesting (or so we hope), and not annoying. It’s one of the primary impulses to write: to fix the annoying. So, if there’s something in your own writing that annoys you … fix it. You may not be able to control all that happens in life, but you can control it on the page. The page is one of the few places you can be free of annoyances; so take care to be free of them. If there’s annoying stuff in there, no one’s to blame but you.
And if you leave it in there? When you give it to your agent or editor, they will invariably point to that thing that bugs you and say, “See, that’s amazing, that’s what I’m talking about.” And you will force a smile and nod your head, knowing in your heart it’s not amazing, it’s a little turd, and now you’re stuck with it forever.*
*Ok, if it’s a book, hopefully not forever; you can find a moment when nobody’s watching and make the excision. But if it’s a piece for a magazine or journal; yep, you’re stuck with it til the end of time. Somewhere in the archives, an annoyance glimmers.
HOW DO I GET MY MANUSCRIPT TO AN EDITOR/AGENT?
In a nutshell. Don’t do what you’re supposed to do. Query letters, manuscript requests, etc… That stuff almost never chances out of the slush pile, and even when it does, the process takes forever. You’re talking at least four months per step, per agent. That means: four months for the query to get read and the manuscript requested, four months for the manuscript to get read. That’s if everything goes right. If you eschew multiple submissions, as some agents request, you will while away your life, waiting.
A CAUTION ON NAMES
Well, you can always change the name later. Or … wait. There’s a magic to the right name; it comes less from your head than you hands. The name sticks, the readers accepts it. For no apparent reason, readers can instantly pick out a name that’s “wrong,” and very often, that name was a brainstorm of revision.
A second risk: this one more concrete. Changing a name from one syllable to two, or vice versa, will mess up the feet in every sentence where that name appears. The rhythm of the whole piece will be compromised. As a writer, you may not know why everything suddenly sounds wrong, but you’ll know you have to work on it. If you’re going to change a name, try to stay with the same number of syllables: you might also be able to get away with exchanging a one syllable name for a three syllable name (or vice versa) or a two syllable name for a four syllable name (or vice versa). And, try to keep the primary consonant the same. A name with a substantially new sound will also unravel your sentences.
Writing dialect is fun. It’s amazingly satisfying to research a period, a population, and get the spoken language exactly right. Phonetic spelling, apostrophes, hyphenations: it’s a dream.
Now, the nightmare: you’ve written a whole book, thick with dialect, and your agent says, “get rid of the dialect.” Dialect is reviled by agents and editors—all the ones I’ve spoken to about the subject. Probably for good reason, they believe that dialect is hard to read, and greatly limits the salability of a title. The first exceptions that I hear mentioned: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Ridley Scott by Russell Hoban, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. The Burgess and Scott are creative, no doubt, but science fiction (or speculative or set in the future or whatever you want to say), which has a little more wiggle room, just a little more, on the dialect question. And the Walker: if you look closely, it isn’t written in dialect. Walker indicates dialect without syllable-by-syllable detail; and always, she uses rhythm and what Robert Frost called “sentence sounds” to bring authenticity to her language. (Sentence sounds, in short, are the common rhythms or frameworks that underlie most spoken phrases.) It is a terrible, terrible lesson: to know you’ve duplicated something so rare and beautiful, only to have some cookbook peddler tell you no way. But beware, they are out there, in wait. And don’t even think about citing works published early in the Twentieth Century; your agent/editor will stop returning your calls.
BESIDES SENDING QUERY LETTERS, WHAT CAN I DO?
You can get some traction. You may already do some of this, I don’t know, but:
•Write some reviews
•Do some interviews
•Have a literary blog, which covers new books (right now, this can still work very well, very quickly)
•Get your feet wet in the publishing business
•Launch a reading series
•Launch a literary website or a literary journal (a lot of work, but probably the closest thing to a surefire approach)
You can also get an MFA, if you don’t already have one, or just plug in with a workshop taught by a well-published, respected writer (a generous instructor who’s not so well-published can also be good, but you have to exercise more caution). The summer seminars and writers retreats are also great places to make contacts. People build whole careers out of Yaddo, Breadloaf, MacDowell, etc..
WRITE WITH YOUR HANDS
There are times when your hands take over (a good moment to know how to type) and you’re full throttle ahead without knowing where you’re going. Not the foggiest. You’re instinct tells you to go, and it feels good, and you go. Perfect.
But there are also times you don’t have that unconscious momentum, and you need to somehow summon it. Sit there, and work. Prod at the material until you find an entry. (Well, I guess if you insist we could say it’s something akin to “automatic writing,” but that implies a lack of coherence that can be as limiting as the structure itself.) Tap away at your keyboard and be willing to toss every word of it, but also be willing to take unexpected directions—to transcribe semi-conscious or unconscious thinking. That idea that just eludes you in your prose may be well articulated in a coil of your cerebellum that shirks at the constraints of awareness.
A few spots to seek solutions with your hands: sticking points in revision, things you don’t want to do, names and titles. Often, when you feel reluctance at an element of revision or drafting—even if you feel like you know what you have to do—your reticence is significant of an inarticulate dissatisfaction, and/or a creative unconscious at work. In those situations, trust your unconscious more than your logical mind. You may understand your instincts better at a later date. And if you really don’t want to do something, there’s a good chance a reader won’t want to read it. Names, titles: let go, and pay attention. Listen to the barely discernable whispering in the back of your skull. As much as writing is a process of logic, it is a process beyond logic, of real magic—or if you object to the word magic, of something beyond understanding. To find that title, that name, that solution that’s beyond contrivance, beyond meddling, beyond any rhetoric or expectation or explanation, you need to yield to the unfathomable. But, don’t stop working on it in the interim. Just in case.
IF YOU’RE BORED
If you’re bored, everyone’s bored. If you don’t want to write it, if you don’t find it interesting, how interested do you think your reader will be? If you feel like you have to suffer, go right ahead: suffer poverty, suffer indignity, suffer heartbreak, suffer loss—but don’t suffer boredom. You can be offensive, you can be difficult, you can be goofy, you can be schmaltzy, but if you are boring, you have committed the gravest sin, and you will be banished. Your precious book, your precious manuscript—foregone for a rerun, or a leisurely walk to the fridge and a lowfat yogurt.
If your project is making your eyes glassy, put it down for a while. Maybe you’re finished! Or, maybe you’re not, and you’re due for an unexpected revision—could be great, could be some hard hours ahead. Either way, as you work and rework your manuscript into monotony, you’re just making problems for yourself. And a problem, on a novel, on a book-length project—that’s two months, six months, three years of work.
I GOT A REJECTION LETTER, AND I WANT TO STICK MY HEAD IN THE OVEN
Publishing is a social strategy game. Don’t think of it as having anything to do with your writing; rejection isn’t a judgment on you. For the most part, your work isn’t even getting looked at. And even when it is, an agent is asking him/herself one thing: do I have an editor, or two, to show this to? If they don’t, which they probably won’t, they pass on your masterpiece. (Remember, agents make their money selling non-fiction: mostly cookbooks and self-help books and assorted garbage.) An editor is looking for something they can sell to their colleagues at an editorial meeting, as well as something they can sell in the specific marketplace they have access to; also, most editors only get to buy a few literary projects a year, so if your timing is wrong, you’re out.*
*As a young writer, the best advice I ever got from an editor was: “toughen up.”
HOW MANY DRAFTS YOU GET
I hate this, but in my experience, an author only gets a limited number of drafts before they poop out on a project. You can always do a “tweak,” which I would define as a quick rework of a draft. Novelists and film writers and television writers and non-fiction writers, usually, will say the same thing: 4-5 drafts. The first draft to get it down. The second to organize the narrative/chapters/scenes (or, if you’re a more experienced writer, you’ll get the structure right in the first draft). The next draft to work on the paragraphs. The next to fine-tune the sentences. The last as a granular polish: repeated words, glitches, etc..
If you’re past five drafts? Try to wrap it up. Make a plan, execute it, and pull your pages together before you are defeated by ennui.
NUMBERS: DO I SPELL THEM, OR WRITE THEM AS DIGITS?
Copyeditors always say that their way is the right way. Over the years, I have interacted with many, many copyeditors, and while every one of them is sure there is only one correct method, and they are in possession of it, no two of them agree on what the correct method is. Take numbers, for example. While there is consensus on a number as the first word of a sentence (always spelled out), on the major points, opinions differ:
•Numbers under ten (and including ten) are spelled out, all other numbers written in digits
•Numbers under one hundred (not including one hundred) are spelled out, all other numbers written in digits
•Numbers with more than two words in them are written in digits (for example, “one hundred and one” is 101); all other numbers are spelled out.
•A dizzying variety of treatments for dates, times, fractions and numerical series.
Numbers, of course, are only one of the many niggling decisions you will have to make in your writing life. And while the decision is minor, it can be a chore to go through a manuscript and change all the numbers from one way to another, or change the way you deal with ellipsis, or whatever. I would strongly advise you to go to half a dozen writing handbooks—The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White, The MLA, Fowlers (Fowlers is the ultimate trump card, though you will be called an Anglophile)—assess your options, decide what you are going to do, and stick with it. Get it right in the first draft, and don’t worry about it (and the myriad other niggling problems) ever again.
HOW DO I FIND AN AGENT?
Extremely important, and difficult to metabolize: they’re looking for you, and you’re looking for them—ideally, the contact is a human one.
When agents or editors want work, they don’t care where it comes from. When they’re not looking for new manuscripts, the doors are pretty much closed. So find them when they’re looking. They’re out there and—this is the part that’s difficult to digest—they’ve put out feelers to everyone they know. So you have to talk to everyone you know, everyone, everyone, to find the overlaps: the six degrees. They’re there, I promise you. There are millions of agents: I sometimes think more than writers. And, when they need new material, they don’t care if it comes from their cousin or their maid; they will read it (or at least the first few pages of it).*
If an agent’s green, he/she might take on a project just because he/she’s “over the moon about it.” But that may not be good news: whether or not your young agent knows what they’re doing (for that matter: whether or not your experienced agent cares what they’re doing), if your manuscript makes the rounds and gets rejected everywhere … well, ask not for whom the bell tolls.
*There’s a well-known story about Jack Kerouac, begging a friend of his to deliver a manuscript to an editor. The friend agreed, and with the manuscript under his arm, paid a visit to the editor’s office. The friend said, “I have a fantastic manuscript etc., etc..” And the editor said, “Great. Who’s the writer?” The friend said, “Jack Kerouac,” and the editor pointed his finger to the corner of his desk, where there were already four copies of the same manuscript.
Try to think in word counts, not pages. You tell someone your manuscript is 800 pages long, but what you don’t tell them is that it’s formatted with 150 words on a page, or 450 words on a page. On an average manuscript page, there are 250 to 300 words. The common rule of thumb is that a manuscript gets ¼ shorter as a book. But that rule of thumb is extremely rough. If you can think in word counts, know how many words your project is, you’ll be in way better shape. A couple of examples …
•150 words: a very short review or blurb
•250-300 words: a short review
•600-800 words: an average review
•1200-1600 words: a feature review
•1600-3000 words: a major review, probably in a major venue
•500 words or under: a “slice of life” story, or a “prose poem,” or a “short short story,” or “micro fiction,” etc., a good size for journals
•1200 words or under: also called a “short short story,” a very good size for journals
•7500 words or under: a “short story,” at 7500 words, you’re getting a little long for many journals
•Under 40,000 words: a novella (this is the only hard number here, I have not heard any other cutoff for a novella)
•Around 75,000 words: usually, now, literary fiction
•Over 100,000 words: usually, now, genre fiction
Obviously, there are shorter genre books and longer literary books, but it’s interesting to note that the norm at the beginning of the twentieth century was the opposite of what it is today. The longer works (over 100,000 words), with “sprawl,” were literary works, and the shorter works (around 75,000) were more of the dimestore variety.
A note on novellas: everyone loves them, except publishers, who have a hard time selling them for enough money to justify their production costs. Yes, it’s true, and don’t point to your copy of Daisy Miller and say “what about that?” That was published a long time ago. There are contemporary exceptions, lots of them, but an editor is going to be that much more skittish about acquiring a 35,000 word project. It doesn’t mean you need to fatten it up, just be aware; could be someone will be asking you, “Can you make this longer?” On the flip side, if you’re running 150,000 words, you might find some truculence on the part of the publishers. Who wants to read 150,000 words that came out of your bean? If you’re walking in off the street, that’s a pretty tough question to answer.
Whatever you’re working on—whether it’s a Young Adult novel or a cookbook—find out the word counts for your market, and keep them in mind. The sooner you start thinking in word counts (“This is going to run 80,000 words”) the easier it will get to hit the mark. After a while, it’ll be second nature.
THE SLUSH PILE
The slush pile is doom. I would rather cold call than be in the slush pile. Don’t be in the slush pile. The readers are interns—either college students or MFA students. If you’re lucky, an assistant agent is digging through to see if there’s something they can cut their teeth on. Possible, but pretty unlikely, and probably not the best of circumstances anyway.
HOW MUCH IS PUBLISHING ABOUT THE BOTTOM LINE?
I occasionally hear writers, etc., bemoan the state of contemporary fiction in this way: all publishers care about is making money.
Well, yes. It’s a business and they’re trying to make money. At least they’re not filling the world with AK47s.
A GOOD TITLE
A good title can give you:
•The central theme or conceit of a project
•The whole story/novel/whatever
•A direction for revision
A good title will give the reader:
•The basic idea of the thing
•The time and place (especially for historical settings)
•Something scintillating (and easy to remember)
A good way to test a title. Spring it on a friend. Don’t listen to whether or not they like it; listen to whether or not they repeat it. If they repeat the title ten times—even if they’re saying they hate it—that’s an excellent sign.
A few hours or days later, ask them what the title was. If they remember, that’s good, if they don’t, that’s bad.
If you don’t have exactly the title you want, lay siege to your working title; slave over those few words for however long it takes—days, weeks. Think of this as an act of poetry. True: most good titles just arrive, out of your typing fingers or from a voice whispering in your head.* But you might not receive that blessing, so you better get to work.
And, pay attention to the first title, the “working title.” You may be sick of it, your agent may be sick of it, but it’s fresh to the rest of the world.
*The title for my second novel, “Snowball’s Chance,” occurred to me while I was walking down Lafayette Street on 9/10/01. I said to my wife, “Snowball’s Chance, that’s a great title.” She wasn’t so sure. But I knew there was something to it. The next day: 9/11. The day after that, I realized what the title meant; it meant that Snowball, from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, returned to bring capitalism to the farm. Knowing that, I had the whole novella in my head; it was an all-day, all-night, three-week sprint to get it on paper.
GETTING AN AGENT THROUGH PUBLISHING IN LITERARY JOURNALS
It could happen, I suppose. One occasionally hears of such things. A writer gets some publications; an agent sees something he/she likes; the agent takes on a novel; the gazillion dollar deal. Pretty much, it’s the story Stephen King tells. I don’t know Stephen King, or his agent or editor; who knows, maybe that really is how it all went down.
I do know one writer who had it happen that way. An amazingly gifted writer actually; if the story were to happen to anyone, it would be him/her. The short version of the story is this: the young writer studied writing in college, and then went on to get a very respectable MFA in creative writing; then he/she struggled in New York City for a while; then he/she published a story in a reputable literary venue; a young agent approached him/her; the agent took the book out; an editor bought it.
Here’s the rest of the story; the young writer went to a reputable college; her family had some pull, not a lot, but probably enough to help in getting into that good college and graduate school; after college, the young writer fell upon some money, and worked for a literary superstar; his/her classmate from that MFA program happened to be an editor at a reputable literary journal that published our young writer; the agent who approached our young writer happened to have an interest in the literary superstar that our young writer was working for; the young writer became the host of a reputable literary reading series; on the night of his/her own reading at his/her own reading series, he/she met the future editor of the major publishing house who would one day buy the book.*
And, the caveat, he/she is an amazing writer (as I said at the top) and probably deserves way more recognition that he/she has had so far. And as far as networking, he/she is half-hearted, and not all that ambitious, and much more concerned with finishing good projects.
*The literary world takes apprenticeship seriously, and I know three or four published writers who have a story very similar to this one.
You begin a project, it seems to be going ok. You abandon it. You feel guilty. You repeat the process, oh, a few thousand times.
False starts are ok. Sometimes it takes a few pages, or even a few hundred pages (sigh) to know a project isn’t for you—even if it does seem to be going well.
And … there is always the possibility you will come back to a project, and you’ll finish in a tempest of inspiration. It may well be that you put the project down because you are ill-equipped for the task. You may or may not know that the next chapter is utterly beyond you—but when you come back to the project, three years later, with the skill you need, you’ll appreciate that you just left the project there, waiting to be finished. It’s a gift to the future. If you force yourself to work on a project that you don’t have the experience to execute, your future holds a nightmare in store for you. Reams of pages, for example, of writing that’s no good, of writing that bars you from clarity of purpose, from the redemption of your aborted beginning.
And, who knows, when you put something down, it may be that next thing you touch—the old project you opened just to look at, the blank page you decided to fiddle around with—that will alight, and catch fire.
DANGERS OF BUDDY BOOKS
In a first person buddy book, the first problem is: who is the protagonist? It is often a difficult distinction: protagonist versus narrator. In this situation the question is even more complicated. Where is the focus? On the internal change of the buddy writing the book? Is the focus more on the other friend? Is it about both of them? Both getting over something? Both being horrible? Could be, but this leads into the next problem:
Are the two characters too similar? A sure way to baffle readers and muffle the impact of your dramatic scenes: buddies that are hardly distinguishable in the eyes of the reader. If you find yourself, as an author, inserting paragraphs that parce their distinctions, so that we know what those distinctions are, you’re probably in trouble. The distinctions should be clear to us. If both of the characters are reprehensible, we should be able to sort out their separate flaws, which leads to the next danger.
If the narrator, as one of the buddies, has a moral streak, you can run into a couple of sub problems. First, your reader may be annoyed by the narrator, who doesn’t do exciting things put before him. As reader, we resent missed adventures. That’s why we’re reading, of course. The right decision may be morally superior, and yet ill-justification for writing a book. Sub problem two: your buddy has a moral streak, and does reprehensible things anyway. That kind of hypocrisy can be hard for a reader to reconcile.
Is all this insurmountable? No. There are plenty of examples of books that overcome these problems. Unfortunately, they are major problems, core problems, and you’d be wise to wait on revisions until you resolve them.
Another solution: you can make the two characters very similar. Notably so.
All the time—every time I go out—somebody either tells me how great self-publishing is (how it’s the future), or about how they are planning to self-publish.
If you don’t mind selling fifty copies, self-publishing is fine. Or, if you have a really specific subculture that you can access, and that will find your book invaluable—or at least think that it’s invaluable for long enough to swipe the card—self-publishing is fine. So, for poets: good. For artists: maybe. For niche markets: ok. For break out literary novels: not likely. I know a lot of people don’t want to hear that, but, alas, it is the fact. As the books editor for the Brooklyn Rail, I’ve seen thousands of brand new books come in over the transom—from big houses, to small, to self-published. In the time I’ve been at the helm, we have not reviewed one self-published book. (We did once have a writer write about self-publication, but that writer had previously published with legitimate houses, and the book was really more performance than anything else.) Very few publications will review, or even consider reviewing self-published works. And then, distribution. Without proper distribution, you just can’t move units. Self-publishing enterprises will make all kinds of promises about distribution. Good luck.
You’re better off starting a press of your own. Many people do just that: start a collective, publish four books a year, etc.. That, for some reason I can’t articulate, is ok, or pretty much ok, and does not carry the stigma of self-publication.
THE TEN TO ONE RATIO
Occasionally, there are numbers that creep up in writing, numbers that everyone cites—from literary authors to poets to genre authors. If you repeat the following ratio, most authors will squint their eyes and nod their heads woefully: for every page you keep, you will throw ten pages away. That may mean that you rewrite and rewrite the same page over and over again, or it may mean you write a number of projects that don’t amount to much, and then you write a terrific, nearly polished project in a single sitting. You must scale mountains of stuff you’ve thrown away to find that summit. Moving on from those not-so-good pages is hard work; revising them is even harder. Take comfort; you’re not alone.
Time Shifts to Modulate Narrative “Arc”
Ok, without getting into a whole horrendous discussion of “arc” and whether it’s good or bad, and whether or not it’s a western construct (which it is, and a religious one: sin suffering redemption), I’d like to put forth something which came up in workshop recently. It is possible to modulate a traditional/normative “arc” through time shifts, as opposed to dramatic elements. Not flashbacks, exactly. But a series of moments organized in a non-linear fashion that serve to give the story a structure and progression.
It’s an appealing option, especially if you’re weary of formulaic plot templates. It also can satisfy the demands of those templates, which is why you see this structure more and more in even Hollywoodish ventures.
Agents are not the enemy
I had a rather upsetting email exchange this week with an author who describes himself as “frustrated.” He wrote about his difficulty obtaining an agent: “So weird in this business that there are some great things out there, but nobody willing to make any effort to get them out.” He was/is under the impression, like many writers, that agents are somehow between him and the publishers and market—that all it will take is one person to really believe in him. He wrote: “are there any who aren’t ruining the industry?”
Agents do not hold the keys to the gate to happiness. They take you on if they think they can sell your book; they don’t know for sure, they think they can. If they think they can’t, they don’t take you on. Do they get jaded? Yes, like everyone in everything else. Are they genuine people, with passions of their own—areas of interest in which they’re willing to take a chance? Yes. But that’s not entirely to your advantage; you really don’t want someone taking a chance with your book. An honest rejection may well be better than an acceptance that turns your book into a longshot.
There are readers, there are publishers, there are writers, there are technologies; there are all kinds of things that contribute to the book market. It’s always appealing to find a scapegoat, but the argument that it’s the fault of agents of editors or whoever; it’s essentially going to estrange you from anyone with even the most tenuous of grips on reality.
John Reed received his MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University; writing has appeared in such venues as Bomb Magazine, The New York Press, New York Arts, Cover Magazine, Paper Magazine, Timeout New York, The Brooklyn Rail, Artforum, Artnet, Open City and Playboy; Books Editor of the Brooklyn Rail since 2004; author of the novels, A STILL SMALL VOICE (Delacorte Press 2000/2001), THE WHOLE (MTV Books/Simon & Schuster 2005), the 2004 bestseller, SNOWBALL’S CHANCE (Roof Books 2002/2003), and a yet untitled “New Play by William Shakespeare” (Penguin, 2008); teaches at New School University.