Thursday, November 27, 2014

Training as a Writer

Zestful Blog Post #81

Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving. Isn’t Thanksgiving a great weekend? Just heat ’n’ serve.

As promised, here’s more of my publishing history, all of which has informed my decision to launch an imprint and self-pub my next novel. I’ll call this installment:

2) Training as a Writer

After getting my degree in English from Michigan State University, I went to work at a small weekly newspaper in the Detroit area. I’m leaving the name out, because I’ve spoken in public about my boss’s (unwelcome) sexual advances, and in any event the paper is long defunct. I don’t know where that boss is today, but I did learn a lot from him, regardless of his clueless personal behavior.

Being a community journalist was a terrific education, way beyond anything college could have provided. You learn how a newspaper works, how a city works, and how a city really works. In many small papers, the reporters are young and green, and I was that. I remember being shocked to see decisions made by public officials (elected and appointed) that went against the public good because of some City Hall dick fight or other. I remember being incredulous at how people—citizens, officials—would form firm opinions on acutely important issues based on information they knew to be incomplete. I learned that integrity in the public sphere does exist, however, and it’s rare.

I did reporting, photography, and editing. The most valuable stuff I learned was how to write concisely and how to edit for brevity and accuracy. Also, of course, how to write under pressure of an inviolate deadline. Being young and anxiety-free, I never sweated if I didn’t have a front-page story as deadline morning approached; something always turned up.

After leaving the paper to take a finding-myself trip around the country, then knocking around in different jobs, all of which required writing (training-materials writer, tech writer, etc.) I wound up selling books for a couple of guys named Tom and Louis Borders. I wrote short stories and sent them around. Wrote a short novel which I set aside, knowing it wasn’t really publishable. Had a few stories published in another Detroit-based literary journal, Moving Out, which was a by-and-for-women venture. I served on their editorial board for a couple of years, then eventually the thing dissolved. This was in the late 1980s.

[John King’s used bookstore in Detroit, where I bought many a cheap read, and still do, whenever I get to town. Photo by ES.]

Simultaneous with starting to work for Borders (at the second store they built, in Birmingham, Michigan), I enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit for my master’s in English, specializing in composition theory. I thought maybe I should become a professor, but I eschewed the MFA program for two reasons:

1) I was wary of anybody telling me how to write; and

2) I thought the composition theory program, once I got my Ph.D, would foster more job opportunities.

But I discovered a much different school environment than I had expected. For instance, when I challenged a professor’s ideas in a paper, he wrote me a letter suggesting I drop his class. But I did have profs with normal-sized egos too. The main problem for me was academic writing: I just couldn’t get over how stilted and opaque most of it was. I was like, I’m supposed to be learning how to help students write well, and my class texts are this, and I’m supposed to write the same way?

One day the book editor for the Detroit Free Press asked my boss at Borders if he could recommend anybody on staff to write book reviews, and he suggested me. So I wrote reviews for them for a couple of years, which was really cool, because I got paid $100 or $150 per review, plus I got lots of free first editions. RIP book page of the Freep.

Wayne State holds an annual writing contest, the Tompkins Awards (with cash prizes), for its students, and for the hell of it I entered my not-ready-for-publication novel, Things to Come, in the graduate division. It won, to the chagrin (I learned) of the MFA students. I felt validated as a fiction writer, but I didn’t do anything more with that manuscript. Mainly the reason was that at Borders I was busy discovering that I had a talent for managing people, and I was enjoying learning about the world of retail and business. Plus I wasn’t sure whether I had what it took to be a real novelist. Plus I had to pay the rent.

Regardless, I did begin another novel, the beginning of which was based on my experiences at the newspaper. I called it Holy Hell, and I was a long time getting it done, and a longer time finding a publisher. But those things happened, and I’ll write about that and more next week.

Is your house starting to smell great yet? Please enjoy your day and your weekend.

To post a comment, question, or suggestion, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why Spruce Park Press?

Zestful Blog Post #80

Last week I mentioned that I’m doing revisions on and preparing to self-publish my next novel, Left Field. The ‘long-awaited’ fifth in the Lillian Byrd series, Left Field opens with Lillian doing odd detective jobs for a pair of odder recluses in one of Detroit’s last remaining prestige neighborhoods. After spotting a corpse on the next-door lawn, she… well, more on the story soon. Today I’ll be talking publishing.

I’ve heard from readers who wonder why I’m publishing under my own imprint, Spruce Park Press. Funny, I sat down and tried to answer that in a blog-postable 400-600 words, but found I had to compress and omit way too much, including how I got my first publishing contracts and representation. The micro version is simply this:

There are a number of established publishers who have expressed interest in Left Field or anything in the LGBT line I might write. I run into them at conferences, or they email me or put out a feeler via a common friend. But none of them offers terms I want.

That’s the short, literal answer, and it’s rooted, of course, in the digital revolution. How did I arrive at this point?
[The logo for my imprint, designed by TreeHouse Studios. I love it so much I’m thinking I might want to do more with it, like publish others someday.]

For a long time I thought my publishing history wouldn’t engross anybody, thus I omitted it from this blog. But when I get to talking informally with aspiring writers, especially novelists, I find that they are acutely interested in the twists and turns of my career, and they find my perspective helpful—to the point of grabbing the front of my shirt and demanding to know more. Think you’re the only one with publishing heartache? Look no further! Stick with me.

I’ll give you some detail and flavor of the whole enterprise, while keeping things chronological and more or less concise. The point is that my actions and decisions today all are based on my experiences. So here’s the story of my experience. The first installment today, more to come.

1) First Publications

Like many young people with literary ambitions, I got started writing poetry and short fiction, and had my first publications with those. In undergrad school at Michigan State I submitted all over the place, including the New Yorker, which was laughable, but they actually sent me a handwritten no-thank-you. (Aiming high never hurt anybody, I firmly believe. Aiming low, however, is a different story.)

Eventually I had some poems published in the Detroit-based literary journal The Smudge, edited by Douglas Mumm and Kurt Nimmo. (Where are they today? Thank you, guys.) I remember standing in my dorm room opening that first acceptance letter and howling with excitement. The girl in the next room came running in, fearing I was killing an animal. Hey, I told her, I’ve just skipped over the school literary journal and gone right to the hardscrabble level of an independent magazine. They want three of the six poems I sent! They want a photo of me!

So I enlisted a guy I was dating to shoot some black-and-white pictures of me looking dramatic in a dark alley, beneath a cone of grainy light. I sent those in, but the editors wrote back saying they wanted something more legible. Perhaps some shots of me indoors under better lighting? So we tried again, and the result was a picture of me smiling enthusiastically, as if someone had just told me I was really smart. This was in the late 1970s. In spite of my best efforts to suppress it, my birth date is now public information, so I might as well be honest about my vintage. The Smudge was, like many an underfunded journal, short-lived, but it gave me affirmation and confidence.

More next week, which will span quite a few years and bring us up to the publication of my first novel, Holy Hell.

Speaking of poetry, here’s something from one of our fellow zestful writers, Lidy Wilks. Her new book of poetry, Can You Catch My Flow?, is available here.

I’ll be glad to share your link too. Let me know when you have something new out, OK?

To post a comment, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Experience with a Recent Edit

Zestful Blog Post #79

Fans of my four-book Lillian Byrd series of crime novels will be pleased to learn that the fifth, Left Field, is almost ready for release. (People who hate the series will not be pleased, and will perhaps spend several minutes staring at their shoes before getting on with their lives.)

Given that I'm publishing the book under my own imprint, Spruce Park Press (more on that next week), I considered releasing it after making it as good as I possibly could. Who would know better than I? After all, I'm an editor myself—I've been a newspaper editor and corporate writer, and my title at Writer's Digest is Contributing Editor. I've done developmental editing for select clients and have judged literary competitions.

To be sure, when it comes to one's own work, one sometimes does know best. I've submitted short stories to magazines and anthologies that got published with negligible editing, not to mention newspaper and magazine articles. I know some self-published novelists who don't get their stuff professionally edited, yet sell lots of copies in spite of it.

Yeah, I say 'in spite of it.' Because novels are different.

They're long and they're complicated, and by the time you've typed 'The End' you're like Jackson Pollock looking at one of his own paintings from a distance of two inches.

I suspected I was too close to my material to view it objectively, and I'd also come down with CRD, or Creeping Rot Disease, which is a disorder characterized by the conviction that your book is irredeemably horrible. It strikes all authors at least once per book, even experienced ones. Actually I knew my novel couldn't be irredeemably horrible, but I was fatigued with the project. What if I'd missed something critical? My manuscripts are very clean, but sometimes even I make a grammatical goof or misuse a word. Left Field is complex, with several subplots and lots of action. Moreover, what if a trusted editor came up with some ideas—small or big—that could make the book better?

The thing is, a good editor—emphasis on good; many are mediocre and I wouldn't trust them with my grocery list—doesn’t merely help you improve your book. A good editor helps you learn to be a better writer. You read over the edited manuscript and see from another person's perspective. You go, "Oh, yeah!" when you come across a valuable comment, correction, or suggestion. Your perspective broadens and your understanding of good writing deepens.

I'm experienced enough to be able to read an edited version of my book and pick and choose what I want to change. (No writer agrees 100% with any editor, because editing is in part subjective.) So I called up my friend Angela Brown, who in her capacity as Editor-in-Chief for Alyson Books when it was the leader in LGBT publishing, edited all four of the first Lillians. She happily agreed to be my editor again (for a fee, of course).

What I got out of it:

1) Affirmation that Left Field is a brilliant book and I'm a true professional.

2) I had made no mission-critical mistakes.

3) I had, however, made several errors in continuity and usage.

4) Suggestions for improvements and clarifications, like word choice (I used 'muttered' too many times) and grammatical constructions ('We were friends,' changed to 'We had been friends,' for clearer meaning in a particular passage, for instance.) Also requests for more detail in some places.

5) Plot-level suggestions on making things stronger, such as: 'As a reader I wanted some kind of happier ending for [X character].'

Authors who want to pinch pennies and rush their material to market shouldn’t consider hiring a professional editor. But if you really care about your readers' experience and if you care about your legacy as an author, do everybody a favor and hire some help. After all, you will be dead sooner or later. Let readers 200 years from now read your book and tell their friends, "I just discovered this! It's FABULOUS!"

What do you think? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Lost & Found

Zestful Blog Post #78

Today let us speak of the things around the edges of life. Lost things, detritus, discards. Everything tells a story—or could, in your hands.

We can't give everything in the world around us our deep attention every minute; we're constantly making thousands of conscious and unconscious choices as to what to pay attention to. But a way to develop as an author—or artist, craftsperson, inventor, human being—is to be open. That is, to give some consciousness to the stuff around the edges.

Something catches

your eye. You can categorize it and move on, like especially if you're running late for a therapy appointment. Or you can pause and let that edge thing register a bit more deeply.

My friend Sandra Moran, a prizewinning author, routinely stops and photographs interesting litter. At first I thought, "That's cool," then I decided it wasn't, because maybe it makes you keep your head down too much. Plus litter tends to be dirty, and who likes looking at dirty stuff all the time?

Then, recently, I was walking through a parking lot and noticed a lost baby sock on the ground. I stopped, looked, and took a picture. Actually

I took two. Because somehow I saw potential, even apart from the purely visual aspect of the composition of the soft baby sock lying on the rough macadam. My heartbrain was stimulated, I saw story, I saw possibility.

There's the story of the sock itself—spun and woven in a mill somewhere, according to a pattern devised by some baby-sock designer, then mated with an identical twin, packaged, shipped, shelved, and purchased.

There's the story of the baby, the mother and father, the family. Is the family poor, and will this lost trifle cause hardship? Did the baby kick it off or did a small sibling pull it off for the hell of it and throw it? Was the baby wanted? Was the sock wanted? What else might be missing in that baby's life?

Do you see how there is story everywhere?

To post your thoughts, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.