Friday, October 10, 2008

There's a writing spider at Booklab

Oh now this is too cute. Years ago when I lived in Carrboro, North Carolina, my novelist friend Marly Youmans lived right down the street. One day Marly had a spider on her bushes, and it made a strange, white zigzag in its web. I looked it up and learned that it was a writing spider. Marly was charmed by this (she was and is a so-prolific author), and her kids drew pictures of it. Flash forward to this afternoon, and I was leaving my house in Georgetown to take the dog for a walk. There was a spider in my pumpkin patch (okay, not quite a "patch," but one vine), and I immediately recognized it as the same kind -- a writing spider!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

And what about the Nobel prize?

Oh yes, and they announced the Nobel Prize for literature today. I'm not sure with which book of winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio to begin, so I'll ask for input.

Reading a book just because it won a prize

There are many ways to decide what to read. Though overwhelmed with manuscripts, I still like to keep up with new books, and following prize winners is one great way to do it.

But prize committees are complicated organisms, and many of us have read the confessions of past participants who admit they skim the books (how can you not, if you have to get through 70 or 100 to make a decision, and you also have a full-time job?). Also, inherent in a group vote is everyone picking the same book as a lower-rung choice, but with many books vying for #1, so the prize ends up going to a book everyone liked but nobody loved. Finally, the prize is usually awarded every year, even if a great choice isn't available each year. So sometimes an author gets a prize for being the best of a lesser bunch, whereas other times an author does not get a prize simply because someone amazing was in the running that year (or cynically, someone more famous whom prize judges thinks finally deserves a win).

Still, even though I understand all of this this (and I've served on several prize committees, one of which I resigned in disgust after the ranking phenomenon, when everyone's #3 won a huge scholarship, and the higher-ranked ones were left thinking they hadn't rated because we could not agree on them), I'm going to take a chance and read the book that just won the Thurber Prize because (a) I love humor and don't read enough of it; and (b) I've never read a Thurber-prize book before.

The book is Larry Doyle's I Love You Beth Cooper, and the publisher is Harper Perennial. I'll read it on my trusty Kindle and post my thoughts about it later.

The art of creating a "forcing system"

As all seven of you who read this blog know, I'm a big fan of success literature. It's my mental junk food. Whereas others tell me they like to read cat mysteries, or chick lit, or classic science fiction, when I relax I love to read (or more precisely, listen on audio to) some of the better podium-pounding success writers. Three of my favorites are The Success Principles by Jack Canfield (seven full listens so far), Loving What Is by Byron Katie (two reads, since I don't have it on audio, with more reads to come), and Goals! by Brian Tracy (at least eight listens). Here's a fun clip of Brian Tracy ("Your better life goals coach" -- gotta love it!) talking about thoughts.

The beauty of multiple reads or multiple listens is that you glean fresh kernels of insight each time. For example, I've listened to Goals! about twice a year for the past four years, but only now did I really hear what he has to say about a forcing system. Here's what he says on pages 97 and 100, in the chapter titled "Measure Your Progress."

"Your subconscious mind requires a 'forcing system' composed of deadlines that you have imposed on yourself for task accomplishment and goal attainment. Without a forcing system, it becomes easy for you to procrastinate and delay and to put off important tasks until much later, if you do them at all. . . . One of the most helpful actions you take in your own career is to set benchmarks and create scorecards, measures, and deadlines for every key task that you must complete on the way to one of your goals. In this way , you activate your subconscious forcing system. The forcing system will then motivate you and drive you, at an unconscious level, to start earlier, work harder, stay later, and get the job done."

Tracy doesn't spend a lot of time defining what a forcing system is exactly, but I immediately thought of several in the context of academia. Tenure review is the first and most obvious for book authors. Every faculty member at a university like this one must publish active scholarship in book form with a university press of appropriate stature (the measure of these factors being up to a committee of senior peers) in order to keep their jobs. It is even more desirable to get a second project under contract, although interest in this varies by department and discipline, and it cannot be considered a rule so much as a bit of an insurance policy, and some universities require two books. Tenure review is a classic "forcing system," and for the most part it works -- people publish. The bid for full professor is a milder forcing system, simply because there is no threat of losing one's job, but there is usually the lure of stature, pay, and improved retirement.

"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully," quoted Boswell from Johnson, and quoth WAY too many people now (I almost apologize for using it because it is so hackneyed, but it fits!). If you have no forcing system in place to concentrate your mind wonderfully, try inventing one. I added book publication to the requirements for my job, so that I would have to publish in order to stay at Georgetown, and so far it seems to be working. My agented book is now at a university press awaiting the opinion of an editor I admire and whom I hand-selected. Would it have been there if I didn't have to publish? I certainly hope so, but I can't know that for certain.

The fantasy says that we should always be self-motivated and not need a cosmic parent to make us clean our rooms or do our homework. The reality is that most of us need accountability, and the stronger the better. A forcing system -- whether inherent in your profession or set up by you as a way of keeping honest -- is a fine way to do this.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Weedle tidbit

Ploughshares magazine at Emerson College has a new editor who used to be at a university press. Here's the blurb from their website: Ploughshares is proud to welcome our new Director / Editor-in-Chief, Ladette Randolph. Prior to her move to Emerson College, she was associate director and humanities editor at University of Nebraska Press. She is the author of a short story collection, This Is Not the Tropics (winner of a Nebraska Book Award), and the editor of two award-winning anthologies: A Different Plain: Contemporary Nebraska Fiction Writers and The Big Empty: Contemporary Nebraska Nonfiction Writers. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Rona Jaffe grant, the Virginia Faulkner Award, and her work has been reprinted in Best New American Voices. Her novel, A Sandhills Ballad, is forthcoming this spring from University of New Mexico Press.

Ploughshares is certainly on the list of journals to write about in the occasional series.

The shown cover is from the Winter 1992-93 issue, where Georgetown poet David Gewanter published "Conduct of Our Lives."

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Reading the OED like a novel

Oh I love stuff like this . . . bibliophile Ammon Shea, who collects dictionaries, decided to read all 137 pounds of the Oxford English Dictionary in a year. Then he wrote a book about it. Particularly interesting (to me) was the way he began to lose access to everyday words such as "milk." We say we want more powerful memories, but as this experiment demonstrates, do we really? Forgettories are useful, too.

Whose book is it, anyway?

A scholar I know is struggling with the pitch for her fourth book. She was energized for years with an idea she had for an offbeat history, and she was excited that her career was growing to the point where she could do her book her way. Then her agent stepped in and pointed out how much more money she could get if she entered the national conversation at a different level, writing a different kind of book entirely. Since my scholar colleague just lost a lot of money in the stock market, she's cash-sensitive right now, so she took the agent's suggestions.

During this back-and-forth on the proposal (which I have been privileged to view in each stage) I've seen the book morph from the scholar's original vision to something the agent thinks would sell. And now I have a pointed question for the author: whose book is it? Seriously. Is the agent the true author, and does that agent simply speak through you? Are you an author-for-hire who realizes the agent's dream and vision in words? Or is it your book and are you the author? Another way of asking the question is "does the agent work for you, or do you work for her?"

Monday, October 06, 2008

Do you STILL expect your partner to read your drafts?

"I'm so disappointed," said Clarinda. She flopped down in the seat across from me at the coffee shop, looking dejected.

My raised eyebrow asked her to go on, and she proceeded to pour forth a litany about how her fiancé the engineer wasn't sufficiently interested in reading her manuscripts. "He makes every excuse," she wailed. "He's riveted when it's something ridiculous on television, but all I ask him for is an hour or two once in a while to comment on a chapter, and . . ."

I waited while she went on, and on, and on about his general failings. Worse, she said, the last time he actually did sit down and read something of hers, he tore it apart. Why, she almost thought he was jealous. Of a silly book!

If you are like the majority of us, then the loved ones in your life (spouse, partner, children, parents, friends, extended relations, even fellow scholars in your department) can be the absolute worst choices to read your unpublished work. Don't be surprised if, along with perfectly natural jealousy, you also encounter large-though-perhaps-artfully disguised doses ignorance and fear.

Poets report to me that their sisters read their drafts and pronounce them "dirty," following that up with a warning that publication could potentially embarrass their parents. Novelists wail about how mothers or fathers stop halfway and say the book would be much more interesting if it resembled the work of Mitch Albom, John Grisham, or Mary Higgins Clark. Scholars kvetch that their spouses seem more interested in slowing them down than helping them get ahead ("Don't you think you need to go to Russia before you can write something about these Russian authors?" "Why not put this away for a few years and work on something else?" or "Isn't this really something an expert should write?").

After years of hearing about these subtle put-downs, frenemy comments, undermining attitudes and general lack of literary support coming from the very people that my authors wish would form their core fan base, I have adopted a firm position. None of us has satisfactory colleagues. We all come from cretinous dog-packs that barely pass as human families. Each of our worthless, self-absorbed friends fails to meet the mark. This is true for every last one of us! That's why we need to seek our support elsewhere (and it's also part of why this office exists).

So please, everyone who has been living in disappointment that the lawyer you want to marry doesn't do a very good job of reading your work, lay down your arms. Form or join a support group of fellow writers instead, preferably ones who do not live with you, compete with you, or have to see you at family get-togethers (i.e. readers outside of your department, or better yet not even on your campus!). Populate it with folks of similar accomplishment and goals, and set some ground rules about who reads how much how often, and precisely how feedback is to be offered.

The sooner you get your loved ones off of the hot seat where they never belonged in the first place, the happier (I promise) everyone will be.

PS: This also goes for those who think their partners want to read their work. One time out of ten this is correct. The other nine times those longsuffering folks will almost weep with relief if the author seeks pre-publication feedback elsewhere.