Today we have a guest blogger. Please welcome novelist D.V. Stone. Her new novel, Jazz House, will be published in 2021.
D.V. has dabbled in many genres and published a slew of books. She’s got good advice including some seasonally appropriate editorial wisdom learned from a holly bush.
I’m what is referred to as a ‘Hybrid’ author. This means my books are both traditionally and independently published. I’ve published work across multiple genres. But whatever story I’m telling, my goal is always the same: to bring hope to the reader.
The authors and genres I’ve enjoyed over the years have, by turn, made me laugh or cry, or pushed me to the edge of my seat. In this spirit, I hope to do the same. I want my readers to sit and laugh, cry, scream, or just quietly contemplate.
So, what have I learned about writing and publishing over the years?
Perseverance and patience are critical. People ask all the time, “When is your book coming out?” Writing is a long process for me. I still work full-time outside the home in a medical office. There is a countdown app in my phone ticking off the days until retirement. I have so many ideas and parts of manuscripts waiting—especially one, in particular, begging me to finish.
Disappointment and rejection happen. The submission process can be a blow to your ego. You start out with stars in your eyes because you think you have something great. Then the first rejection comes. Then the second. And so on. You’ve got to learn to roll with it. It’s all part of the process.
Criticism and critique are important. Learn what you can from criticism and let the rest go. Don’t be a mule. If multiple people tell you the same thing about a sentence, structure, plot hole, or point of view issue, take a step back and really look at what you’ve got.
Editing and change are often frustrating and tedious, but they either make or break your book. There is so much to learn/know. Sometimes painful decisions need to be made. Characters you love may need to change. Sometimes vastly. Whole sections may need to be eliminated.
I love sharing this story about my husband, Pete. It’s an apt metaphor for the editing and publishing process.
Pete has a love-hate relationship with a holly bush in front of our house. For years he’s tried trimming it to keep it under control, but the bush seems to have a will of its own. One day Pete had had enough. Grabbing a saw, he dropped to the ground and cut it down.
Funny thing, a couple of weeks later, green started sprouting from the stump.
Editing a novel is like pruning a tree or a bush. In that initial rush of emotion, words pour over the page. Cohesion and logic take a back seat to growth. But once you take a step back, the delete key becomes your surgical scalpel, and critique partners, your nurses.
Sometimes my work is overwrought, and drastic steps need to be taken. Characters and scenes become casualties of the delete button. But the good thing is, if you have interesting characters, and are willing to listen and make the tough choices, your work can bloom beautifully.
Pete now carefully trims the bush to keep it from becoming the overpowering entity it once was. Not only is the holly healthier, so are the plants around it.
Okay, truth in advertising: My publisher sponsors the Possibilities Publishing Conference, held each year at the lovely historic Clark House in Falls Church, Virginia. So yeah, I’m not unbiased. I attended the kickoff conference last year and was super impressed with the sessions, the media room, the photographer and video offerings, and so much more.
This year I honestly went expecting it not to live up to the previous one. I mean, seriously, I felt like there was no way this little event—focused less on writing itself and more on getting your writing seen and read—could pack such power again.
I was SO wrong. Starting with the first session, Maggy Sterner, part branding maven, part life coach, part therapist, all business-savvy bulldog, handed participants a shovel (you know, metaphorically) and taught them to dig deep to find out what they and their writing are truly about. They dug, and unearthed what they didn’t even know they had, or needed, to build a distinct brand. There were tears, people. I mean it was that powerful and that effective.
Do you know the difference between an Instagram post, story, or highlight? Do you know how to best use Pinterest to promote your book—how to get the most from Facebook and Twitter, and how LinkedIn fits into it all? Children’s book author Lindsay Barry knows, and she has nearly 25,000 Instagram followers to prove it. Now Poss Pub’s biggest-selling author, Lindsay led attendees on an edge-of-their seats journey into all things social media. And man does she know how to sell. Her session ran long. Because questions. So many. And discussions, and aha moments, and all of it in breathless huffs because people were so fired up about this topic they couldn’t get enough. It could have gone on for days.
“The Truth Behind the Media” offered another deep dive into an author’s work and how it can be promoted through television, magazines, newspapers, and radio. Media booker Katie Riess took participants into the minds of journalists who can either choose to spotlight a writer’s work or not give it a second glance. What an author is thinking vs. what a media person is thinking are worlds apart, and she was able to map out the differences to help attendees pinpoint best practices for pitching their stories.
And more besides, including author Laura Di Franco, who led an inspiring workshop on building your author platform through blogging, and writer and publisher Keith Shovlin, who helped attendees learn to share their work with the world through podcasting.
The “Author Marketing Mastermind” session gave authors the chance to brainstorm marketing ideas with several of the above experts in a lively, yet intimate group setting. Participants received one-on-one attention and support to meet their goals, and were even provided with a second video meeting a month later to check in on their progress and receive additional feedback.
Between sessions, authors were encouraged to take selfies of themselves and their books in the Instagram Inspiration Room, which offered a lightbox and an abundance of props and decorations. And new this year was a podcast offering, where authors were interviewed about themselves and their work and walked away with professional podcasts for their own use.
Oh, and here are a couple of new resources I learned about while I was there. And you’re very welcome:
HARO, a.k.a., Help a Reporter Out, is a massive database that connects journalists with media sources and helps them pitch their stories.
Autocrit is an editing tool that helps you fine-tune your manuscript by analyzing your words and pointing out flaws, like poor dialogue, use of adverbs, repetitive words and phrases, and clichés. At only $10 for one month’s use, I can’t wait to try this one out.
At the day’s end, I heard so many people commenting on how much they’d gotten from this event, and every one of them said something to the effect of :
“You have GOT to tell more people about this.”
So—you’ve been told. Mark it down for next year (likely in early May), and tell your fellow writers. You won’t be disappointed!
Hannah Grieco is an education and disability advocate and writer in Arlington, Virginia. Her essays and short stories have been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Motherwell, First for Women, Hobart, Lunch Ticket, Barren Magazine, Arlington Magazine, and others. She is the founder and director for ‘Readings on the Pike,’ a series that highlights a diverse array of local writers in the Washington, DC area. She can be found at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter @writesloud.
Please welcome Hannah to Write Despite!
Can you tell us about your background? Where you went to school, your major, your early work experience?
My background is a bit of a wild ride. I was raised in the Washington, DC area. I went to the Oberlin Conservatory for clarinet, but switched to the college my second year. I tried out a series of majors, and ended up with a BA in Geology. It took slightly longer than four years to complete that journey. (Seven. It took seven years, with two year-long breaks in the middle.) But by the end, I realized I would not be able to rock climb for a living, which was depressing and triggered yet another life tangent. So I went to New York City to study acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse. (See? My poor mother!) I was overwhelmed by the reality of attempting to become a professional actress, and ran back to the DC area a year later, where I taught drama and dance to preschoolers. That sparked something new inside me, a focus (finally) outside of myself. I decided to get an M.Ed from Marymount University and became an elementary school teacher. But wait! We’re not done! After eight years, I got married and had kids. I decided to stay at home temporarily, which extended to “for the foreseeable future” when one of my children started to struggle with some pretty significant disabilities. As I dove into the very challenging world of advocacy, out of necessity, I began to share what I was learning with other parents. This led to more formal work in the area, and then writing as well.
Did you ever formally study writing? If not, how did you begin to write?
I wrote a ton of academic papers in undergrad and grad school, but I didn’t consider myself a writer. Then in early 2018, I really wanted to encourage my autistic son to read fiction. He was an advanced reader, but only wanted to read nonfiction. So I wrote a short story for him, hoping it would hook his interest, and it did! He wanted to know what happened next, and so I kept writing, then writing even more. It developed into a (very poorly-written) chunk of a middle-grade novel. An editor encouraged me to write an essay about *why* I was writing this novel, and so I did. That experience was profound, a totally different style of writing than I had ever done – and the piece sold! I got paid to write! So…I began writing more essays, which also sold, and decided to focus on the craft of writing. Both nonfiction and fiction. I’ve taken a couple of classes, but most of my learning has happened from working with amazing editors and sharing with peers in critique groups.
Your website says you’ve gone from teacher, to mother, to parenting advocate. How does writing fit into all these things?
I use my essays, and even some short stories, as a form of advocacy. Most of my published nonfiction is specifically focused on disability, education, and mental health in kids. Many of my stories are about families and relationships, and the role of disability and/or mental health issues within that context.
You’ve published fiction and non-fiction pieces in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and a number of magazines and journals. What are you most proud of?
My Washington Post piece was scary to share and seemed to have a big impact, based on the emails I received. But I am most proud of the piece about my son and his love for Eminem (in HuffPo), because autistic people are often so poorly and stereotypically represented in the media. My son is a human being, not the subject of inspiration porn, and he is one of my favorite people! I hope to elevate and inform in my work, to bring autism to the reader as something to learn about and respect, rather than perpetuate the more common narratives that usually accompany the subject.
Who are your favorite authors?
Oh this is so hard! It depends on the genre and my mood that day. For short stories, probably Meg Pillow Davis and Tyrese Coleman right now. David Sedaris and Flannery O’Connor, in terms of influence over time. I could give you a long list of brilliant authors I read and love, both in short-form and long-form, but I’m also crazy about Stephen King. I like to read about people and he is the master of that! For essays: I just read whatever is being published and try to soak it all up!
I wanted to read my work, to have an audience and learn from that experience. But I live in Arlington, and all the readings were always in DC. It can be hard to get to events regularly with three kids clinging to you! So I asked a few friends if they’d be willing to read with me if I planned a one-time event. They graciously agreed, and we ended up with a big crowd that night! Then more writers contacted me, wanting to read as well, and it took off from there, quickly becoming a monthly series. Writers want to share their words! And I love it, everything about it. I meet the most amazing, talented people and get to watch and listen as they offer us their beating hearts.
Hannah Grieco at Readings on the Pike
Do you have advice for new or struggling writers?
I think we’re all struggling, right? And I am certainly new myself! The key for me has been to connect with other writers, to find my community. I read their work, ask them questions, and save money to work with local editors. I regularly swap work with other writers and we critique each other, which is hard! It’s brutal to hear when your words don’t work! But that’s the only way to learn, to just dissolve the pride that prevents you from polishing your work into something really moving and impactful.
What are you writing or working on now?
I am constantly working on essays and short stories. I write every day in those two genres. But I am also working on a book related to special needs parenting and advocacy!
Panelists gave attendees all the tools they need to create a brand, give great interviews, effectively launch a book, and market themselves on social media. It even featured a media lounge where authors could take head shots with a professional photographer and create a video focusing on themselves and their work.
Oh, and my favorite part? The Instagram Photo Booth that offered up a professional light box and a supply of backgrounds and props so you could take social media pictures of your book. As you can see, I had some fun with this one.
Why has no one come up with these grand ideas before?
Well, maybe they have, but not that I’ve heard of.
There were also a couple of sessions on getting published—tips on self-publishing, and advice from independent publishers on what they look for when considering a manuscript.
Just for fun, the Improv Imps led a group of introverted writers through an interactive workshop to help them loosen up in front of an audience.
And check this out: Penguin Bean Designs. Oh man, I love this company. They will reproduce, even create, pretty much any design you like on a t-shirt, hoodie, tote bag, wine sack, tea towel, pillowcase, you name it. I’m getting my book cover reproduced on a tote bag for a mere $25 (based on author Lindsay Barry’s cool tote here).
All of it took place at the gorgeous Clark House in Falls Church, Virginia, and included a pancake breakfast, lunch, two snacks (we’re talking cookies fresh from the oven, you guys), and a “sip and swap” wine and cheese closeout reception where attendees could mingle and trade books.
Next year’s conference is sure to be bigger, better, and even more innovative. Keep an eye out for it by following Possibilities Publishing online. Until then, here are the best tips and quotes I collected while I was there:
On launching your book:
Create a book launch team. Strive to recruit at least 100 people who will support you in your launch by reading, reviewing, and promoting your book. This can take as little as 5 or 10 minutes a week, and in return they get advance copies of your book, return reviews for their book, etc. And the results? Session presenter Jen Hemphil, author of Her Money Matters, saw 1863 copies of her book downloaded and sold in her first month (compared to about 200 for most self-pubbed books.)
Why do we connect with a brand? Brand strategist Rebecca Gunter says it’s largely trust, quality, an inviting feel. Why do we not connect? It doesn’t align with our values, it feels yucky or false. Branding is all about feelings. How do you want readers to feel when they see your brand?
Author and holistic healer Laura Di Franco suggests you write down five reasons you don’t promote your book. Then ask, if there were no one on earth to disappoint, how would you promote it? Give five endings to the statement “My story matters because ______.”
If you do nothing else, create a signature with your book info for use on Amazon, so that when you review things, others will see your book title pop up. (Well, duh. Why am I not doing this?)
On social media:
Jennifer Crawford is owner of Social Media Rescue and Write On Social, which cater specifically to the needs of indie authors. She coached us on how to use Facebook Live as a marketing tool to reach existing fans faster and interact with readers in real time. Nifty tip: Three times more people are watching Facebook Live videos and those that aren’t live.
Use Instagram Live too. These videos last only 24 hours and are great for time-sensitive promotions, sneak peaks, and book “secrets.” And since few people are using this feature for now, it’s a less crowded area that gives you tons of room to be creative with your author brand and narrative. Instagram users in general tend to be highly engaged!
Check out these other presenters and sponsors from the Possibilities Publishing Conference!
Vijal Nathan – Washington Post’s Date Lab writer, stand-up comedienne, interview coach
Ally Machate – book collaborator, editor, publishing consultant
Meredith Maslich – CEO of Possibilities Publishing Company, Thumbkin Prints, Eaton Press
I had a blast with the coolest group of ladies this week. They not only had me come to speak about my book A Hundred Weddings with three combined book groups in their neighborhood, but they put out a food and beverage spread you wouldn’t believe–one of them even brought a wedding cake with bride and groom on top!
The best part was they brought pictures from their own weddings and challenged each other to see how many people could guess which bride was which. So very fun! They had great questions for me too, and I hope they all enjoyed the discussion.
On June 4 I’ll be having a reading/signing at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Please come out if you’re in the area to meet with author Andrew Gifford and me.
On the progress of current work, I’m now 25 pages into the new book. Yeah, it’s not much, but it’s a start. Karen is on her second or third rewrite of the full manuscript, and it’s a good one, I promise.
Oh, and I now have this awesome little video about my book on Youtube:
How goes it with you? Hope you’re renewed by the spring weather and working away.
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference happened a little over a month ago (February 8-11 in Washington, DC), and in addition to all the books, journals, and souvenirs I dragged home, I also took a ton of notes during the sessions and readings, and finally dug them out. Here are some of the best quotes, overheard remarks, and tips, most of them without attribution. Some are true gems, so please enjoy these takeaways from some great conversations about writing and publishing.
Turning Flash Pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir (Panelists: Abigail Beckel, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Lex Williford, Tyrese Coleman, Tara Laskowski)
“Prioritize clarity over adherence to the form.”
“Flash eliminates all the boring parts.”
Try writing flash stories and connecting them together for a novella or novel. This retains the strength of voice and character, and the overall tension of the book will join them and progress the story forward. (Voldemort is the big tension, little problems along the way are the smaller ones.) Tara Laskowski recommends The Desert Places as a great example of a hybrid text novel.
We All Have to Start Somewhere: How Bad Writing Gets Good (Some raw language in this one. Oh, those bawdy writers.) (Panelists: Melissa Stein, Richard Bausch, Tayari Jones, Natalie Diaz, Nick Flynn)
“Fifty Shades of Gray reads like somebody shat it out.”
“Give yourself the freedom to suck.”
“You cannot fuck it up. You can’t ruin it. You can only make it necessary to do it again.”
“Your writing isn’t bad, it’s just off. Like a sweater buttoned the wrong way. Unbutton it. Rebutton it. It’s a perfectly fine sweater.”
Distinguished Editors Panel, featuring Nan Graham, Daniel Halpern, Jonathan Galassi, and Erroll McDonald
“The author/editor relationship is like an arranged marriage.”
“Voice and territory, more than structure, are the criteria by which I judge a book. Structure can be fixed. But you can’t fix writing that’s not fresh, that’s been done before.”
You know a story is done when others you show it to disagree about what needs to be changed. If they’re all telling you a character isn’t strong enough or the pacing is slow, for example, believe them and fix the problems. But if they’re all telling you something different, it’s probably finished.
A Novelist’s Job: The Realities, Joys, and Challenges (Panelists: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Julia Fierro, Celeste Ng)
Being busy, working, having a job, makes you more productive in your writing.
Do not think about writing a successful book. Just “be true to the work.”
Do social media in an authentic way. Use it as a place of community. If you feed into that world, it will work for you too. Help other writers (with reviews, promotion, comments, etc.) and they’ll help you.
On creating more spaces/avenues for writing to exist: “We’re all fighting hard for a piece of pie, when actually there is no pie. Your job is not to get your piece, but to make more pie.” –Celeste Ng
Also try to post enough to stay connected with people, but don’t make it seem like a sales pitch. Tweet an overheard conversation. Do a daily task, like Ellis Avery who posts a haiku every day. Another writer posts dog pictures (often with a link to his book) every day.
Loose, Faithful, and Literal: Adaptation from Novel to Screen (Panelists: Christine Vachon, Neal Gabler, Magdalene Brandeis, Melissa Bank)
Screenplays make you focus on the narrative—how to bring character and plot into what can be seen and shown.
“In a movie, action is always character.”
One panelist says she tells her students not to call themselves “filmmakers” but “storytellers.” Because there are so many different forms (like streaming services) today to bring stories to life.
A movie is a “jolt,” whereas a TV show is a life. Characters grow incrementally, and that’s a “novelistic sense of life in real time.”
NO screenplay should be more than 110 pages!
By the time the Q&A rolled around, it was apparent everyone listening to this panel was there to ask the same question: How do you get your screenplay seen? Sadly, the answers were pretty vague.
“If you’ve written ‘trash’ like The Godfather, you may be lucky enough that someone will turn it into gold.” —Neal Gabler
Write a two-page summary of why this should be made into a film. Send it to a producer you think would be interested. A 20-something intern will likely read it, and will pass it along (or not) to the producer. Melissa Bank, author of Girls Guide to Hunting & Fishing, sent a story to Zoetrope. They put her in touch with Coppola.
Ask yourself who’s your dream director? Actress? Work on those connections. “I wrote this for you and here’s why.”
“Great works rise to the top. Books come to our attention through coverage, reviews, agencies, recommendations. It just happens.”
Um, yeah. But how do you get your screenplay seen?
“It’s difficult to get things read, and to work with and without an agent. The only sure way to do it is to make the film yourself.”
Kirkus Reviews was recommended as the primary route for movie companies to see synopses of stories that might intrigue them.
Foremothers: Southern Women Writers (Panelists: Charlotte Holmes, Cary Holladay, Lisa Parker, Lisa Roney, Adrienne Su)
A panelist talked about her mother, whose family moved from the south when she was young. The kids in her school couldn’t understand her because of her southern accent, so she stopped talking—for a year. She read books out loud, practicing in her bedroom, until she lost her accent.
One panelist recalled how Lee Smith studied at the Sorbonne and loved to let people there hear her talk. She could see them taking her IQ down about 20 or 30 points as she spoke. Then she would say something that would “take them out at the knees.”
Live outside the world of your past, but find your background. You have to get away from it to look back and find your voice.
The Ten-Year Novel: On why some novels take so long to write, and what writers can do to sustain themselves. (Panelists: Tova Mirvis, Rachel Cantor, Rachel Kadish, Joanna Rakoff, Sari Wilson)
“It’s the persistence that makes you a writer.”
“My sense is that publishing has changed to the point that, a few years ago, an agent might say this book isn’t quite where I want it to be, but I’ll work with the author a year or so and get it there. No more. Books today need to be as finished and polished as possible before they’re ever sent out.”
Such Mean Stories: Women Writers Get Gritty: Women writers of the south talk about “grit lit.” (Panelists: Luanne Smith, Jayne Anne Phillips, Vicki Hendricks, Stephanie Powell Watts, Jill McCorkle)
“If we think about the reader as we’re writing, we’re putting blinders on ourselves as writers.” –Jayne Anne Phillips
“There is true fear about the power of women.” –Watts
“In fiction, I love to have that alter ego character who rises up and defends herself.” –Jill McCorkle
“I’ve probably learned more from my characters than they’ve ever gotten from me.” –Jill McCorkle
On unlikeable characters:
By giving readers the history of unlikeable characters early on, they reveal a life, and it makes the characters human. So even if it doesn’t excuse their actions, it helps readers understand why they are the way they are.
Recommended story: “Lechery” by Jayne Anne Phillips
So I’m neck-deep in the third rewrite of my new novel. How’s it going? Slowly, occasionally painfully, and all I want is to be done with it. I’m fighting my usual impulse to speed ahead, and instead slow down and stay in the scene. I’m winning the battle—some of the time.
Ever been there? It’s not that I don’t like the story. I do, very much., I’m just not convinced that my skills aren’t doing it justice. And then there’s the old “Just because I like it, doesn’t mean anyone else will.”
At times like this, I like to hop onto the Facebook feed of my old MFA writing professor Richard Bausch. A master himself, Dick is also honest about how hard this is, and he doesn’t mince words. He sets you straight, in the best possible way. All these years later, I want to say, “Thank you, Dick. Your influence is still resonating and more important than ever.”
Check out some of Richard Bausch’s rewrite advice:
“In revision, try not to think of the long outcome much. Just concentrate on this morning’s work. Just be faithful to that. Try to be as good as you can be without straining it: “This morning, I’m just going to mess with this scene. See if I can get it right, or clearer, or sharper. I’m only going to think about that. And when I’ve put in my two hours, I’m going to forget about it and enjoy things without reference to the work. The work’s done for the day. And tomorrow, I’ll come at it fresh. I don’t have to write the whole thing in one morning, so I won’t think about the whole thing. Just this. This here, this morning’s work.”
“About the heavy doubt: it’s normal; it’s the territory, the province, the wallpaper in what Jim Dickey called the cave of making. It is your talent itself that produces it. So write through it. Do the work. If you let it stop you, if you let it make you hesitate, you’re making the first and most elemental mistake, and you’re acting like a dabbler, an amateur. This day’s work. Each day.”
“Be patient, yes, and how hard that is, especially when it’s yourself with whom you have to be patient. It’s very hard, of course. But nobody ever said it would be easy. And one of the traps we fall into is thinking too much about the result–whatever we imagine or hope that might be. The real thing happening is that you are using your time in a way that answers you deep, no matter what fits it gives you, and it always feels better to have worked in a given day, no matter how badly the work seemed to go or how hard it was. To engage in the activity at all is to do something sustaining; and in fact it gives meaning to everything else. That’s why I keep repeating the mantra: this day’s work. Just this day’s work. Did I work today. If the answer’s yes, no other questions. It’s enough. Try to forget about it and go have fun–enjoy that most delicious feeling of wasting time when you have used it well earlier.”
“Someone told you somewhere, or inadvertently communicated to you sometime, that it would get easier? It gets harder, because you know more. Instead of putting down the first or second line that occurs to you IN REVISION, you think of fifty-five others that each have their advantages and disadvantages, and you start really getting down into the deeps of it, including what it is you are seeking in terms that have nothing to do with the STORY: you want others to know how deeply sympathetic you are to human troubles; you want others to have a sense of the sorrows you carry around like everyone else; you want others to know how much you know; you want others–even this–to see what you can do with a sentence, with your extensive vocabulary and your gift for metaphorical speech–and all of that has to be subordinated to the demands of the STORY that you are not even, quite yet, sure of. No, it will not get easier–its complications will change away from the ones you had when you were new; but these complications multiply, and exacerbate themselves as you grow. What you can do, simply, is accept this, and do the work. Even when it seems completely closed to you. Accept it as your destiny as an artist and go on with it. You’re not experiencing anything that everyone else hasn’t also experienced. Remember Joseph Conrad, having his wife lock him in a room and then shouting “Let me out. I’m a fraud. I never could do this.” And he was working on his twelfth novel.”
“I think that no matter how hard it is and no matter how difficult the subject, and no matter how dark your vision, writing a novel is always an act of optimism, even of faith–a generous expansion of one’s being toward something outside the self, and by definition, then, a giving forth for others of your kind. Inherently beautiful and valuable as an occupation, even if it takes years, and, yes, even if no one ever sees it. And, too, even if it is destined to be forgotten, to disappear. Wright Morris: two National Book Awards, one as a photographer, sixteen novels. Gone. Vance Bourjaily, Thomas Williams, William Goyen, George Garrett–one can’t find the books. And they were such wonderful writers. So, do the work for itself. And fuck all else. Make the record, and stop worrying about your place in the scheme of things literary.”
“I used to have terrible anxiety before I’d start a session of work–this was after Iowa, and I was thirty and should have known better. I’d pace and sigh and get a stomach ache, afraid it wouldn’t go well. Such a waste of energy, and what a lot of hell I put myself through, like some atavist cowering at a shape in the clouds. I should’ve been saying prayers of gratitude for the chance to fail my way toward something beyond me. Just for the happy fact that I had this work to do, and a place to pursue it, the need to try. I should’ve been celebrating that.”
Technology is your friend. Except, of course, when it isn’t. Who among us hasn’t succumbed to the seductive whisper of Facebook or Twitter when we’re supposed to be writing? The Internet is an incalculably valuable resource in all sorts of ways, but it can also be a hugely wasteful time-suck.
Author Alex M. Pruteanu ran into a different problem when he was writing his early books. Now working on a new novel, Alex has sworn off technology and reverted to pen-and-paper while he cranks out the first draft. The benefits have been surprising.
Please welcome Alex to Write Despite.
Why have you opted for a low-tech approach in writing your new novel?
My new book (which is being read currently by—my unscientific count here—12 publishers, with at least 30+ rejections already in the bag) is called The Sun Eaters, and it would be considered “literary fiction.” It’s not a big book at all—only about 60K words—but I wrote it around my day job and life in general (dad, husband, cook, mixologist, part-time jazz drummer, thief, liar, etc.), so it took nearly two years of fairly consistent work. It’s been making the rounds (read: rejected) with both literary agents and publishers (indie and “biggies”) since June of 2014.
The Sun Eaters is a simple story set just-post WW II in an Eastern European country. The story follows two brothers (14 and 9) as they struggle to survive shortages of food, the brutal winter, and a new politically repressive ideology (communism.) It’s a happy-go-lucky book, as you can tell. But it does have a happy ending. Well, sort of.
After having written and published a novella and a collection of published short stories using all available technology at those times, I thought I’d do the same with The Sun Eaters. By the time I started writing it in 2012, “the cloud” was available as a storage option, so I decided to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, between constantly saving my in-progress manuscript in the cloud, on various laptops, thumb drives, and on a regular ol’ desktop, all to ensure the security of not losing my work, the novel became an additionally huge pain (outside of the regular ol’ pain of just writing it.)
Many times I’d forget to save the newest version on some device or other, so I’d end up with outdated versions on some devices and up-to-date versions on others. Keeping track of things like that cut into my available brainpower, all of which I needed to write my book. When I finished in 2014, I swore I would never ever use a computer for my writing, even short stories or flash.
I am now in the process of writing my second novel, which is tentatively called The Long, Oil-Stained Life of Rosetti. For this go-round, I’ve opted to write it all out by hand, with a #2 pencil, on lined legal pads. Writing by hand slows me down enough to allow me to truly cogitate about the material I’m committing to the paper and not just dump ideas that will later be cut. Now I don’t have to save ongoing manuscript drafts every day onto a dozen different devices. And what I also like about the “old-school” method of writing is that there exists a natural extra editing step when transfer the work, typing it onto a laptop.
How is the process of writing a second novel different than writing a debut?
I think every novel has its own life, its own path, and its own destiny. I think each book dictates to a writer how it should be written. My approach to writing the second one is much different from the first. Besides the whole paper-pencil thing, I’m more loose about working on it and don’t beat myself up at all if I don’t write for sometimes long periods (days or weeks even).
Also for this second book I’m doing something I’ve never done before: I’m writing down notes when I’m not working on it. Because the scope of this one is much greater than the first, I’m finding that I need to jot down on sticky notes ideas as they occur to me throughout the day. I’ve got a folder full of stickies that I often consult before sitting down at a writing session.
I’ve also learned a ton from having written a first novel. The most important thing has been: how to be in the thick of it, as I’m writing it, and still keep a general, subjective eye on the scope of the book. It’s hard for me to convey that—I’m not a teacher or professor and never have wanted to be one—but it’s just something that I can feel. I can feel myself being buried in the minutia of the words and individual ideas, yet somehow able to act like a deity of sorts—a god, really—and keep focus on the scope of the overall novel, as it’s coming together… as I’m weaving it. Does any of this make sense? If it doesn’t just know it’s not you, it’s me. But also know that I know what I’m doing, so buy the damn thing when (if it ever?) comes out. Ha.
Finally, something else that I’m doing differently on the second one: I am reading literature concurrently. With The Sun Eaters, I basically stopped reading anything literary or any type of fiction whatsoever. I found that I didn’t have the time or energy to devote to anything other than my daily life duties and writing the book (usually during very early mornings.)
But now with Rosetti, I’m not just finding that I’m inspired by reading fiction concurrent with my writing, I’m finding that I need to indeed read “big books” with “big themes.” So I’ve been gorging on novels like Bolano’s 2666 and Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost and Melville’s Moby Dick and Dostoevsky’s Demons and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
There is something truly inspiring to me about books such as these. They are all huge projects with huge scope and huge reputations, and I find that comforting to my own work. These books offer different worlds for me to enter and spend time in, and when I come out of them, I’m ready to create my own, in my own novel. It’s quite inspiring to read this sort of work.
How long had you been writing before you published a piece?
I started writing around age 14 (horribly) and the first thing I ever had published was a very short prose piece called Center St. 2B. It was published in a literary journal (now defunct) out of California, Penn., called Peer-Amid. I was 26 years old. Since then, I’ve been lucky to have some pretty decent success. I’ve published short stories in literary journals such as [PANK], Guernica Magazine, The Stockholm Literary Review of Literature, The Prague Revue, and many others.
Any advice for writers still working for their first “breakthroughs?”
Yes: work. Work, work, work. Don’t get online and say you’re working (#amwriting is the most preposterous hashtag, imo; the epitome of cognitive dissonance for a writer on Twitter using it), or lament you’re not working. Don’t surf through Facebook photos or Twitter feeds because you’re “blocked.” Work. (I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” That’s the biggest load of garbage.)
And stay persistent and focused. Looking at my overall acceptance-to-rejection numbers throughout my career, I’d say about 7% of my stories have been accepted by magazines or journals. That is HUGE. I am lucky. I’d be happy with 2%. I believe 2% is the “standard” acceptance rate for a writer. I’ve been very lucky.
As of now, The Sun Eaters has received at least two dozen literary agents’ rejections and at least 30+ publishers’ rejections. I will never give up trying to find a home for it. Every time a rejection comes in, my mission the next day is to research and find at least two potential publishers to send the book to. Currently I’m looking at foreign houses that tend to publish in the English language. The research is exhausting, but I have no other choice.