Saturday, January 10, 2009
Call me old-fashioned, but I think if you're going to refer to an area of research as a field, it should probably have more than just you in it. Otherwise you risk being just another lonely laborer out standing in his field. Sure, you can define a field, and that's bold and important work, but it's also usually best done post-tenure. In fact, her field wasn't really so much an area of research as the resulting mashup combining what she had studied in graduate school with what she liked to do now.
I asked her whether she had considered writing about something a bit more accessible. Something -- perhaps -- that a university press might actually be able to list in its catalogue and sell. She sighed. "But this is what I'm trained in. It's my expertise." She held on to her topic, and who knows? Maybe she will find a home for it, though I don't see how. But what I do question big-picture is how hard it would be to take some post-doctoral courses at (for example) Johns Hopkins that is just an hour away, and branch into a second area of expertise that more clearly connects her to a recognized field. I'm not saying she needs to give up what she loves, but rather it seems she is defining "her field" so narrowly that she can't quite imagine doing anything else. And is she really an expert? Her qualifications at present are quite slim -- just a few graduate courses, and a dissertation. Why can't this change, expand, grow?
Many scholars choose a number of areas in which to educate themselves as experts. A doctorate is hardly a badge of perfection in any field. As some of my advisors liked to say, it's just a union card.
Photo above of a woman out standing in her field taken from Somebody's blog.
Friday, January 09, 2009
I made her a cup of my amazing fresh-brewed coffee with lemon zest, and I convinced her to sit by the fire at Booklab a minute and take a breath. Yes, it sounds flattering when a publisher includes mention of your future works in a book contract. But dear author, this is what is known as the dreaded Option Clause, and it always benefits the publisher, not you.
The clauses are generally written in tricky ways. You usually have to show your publisher your next work of the same genre (for example, your next work of nonfiction), and give them right-of-first-refusal. Doesn't that sound innocent and also flattering? It does, but it isn't. First of all, it gives them a chance to bid on the book with no competition, so they can "buy" you on the same terms as your first book, even though presumably you're worth more on book two if you are angling your career the right way. Second, it prevents you from shopping book two around when it is in the earlier stage of proposal and sample chapter, a stage at which many publishers may want to give you a deal. This option clause won't be satisfied if you show your current publisher that same amount of work -- you still owe them a look and a bid on the whole manuscript. The overall effect is one of squelching healthy competition.
There is an old gentleman's agreement in New York publishing (although it is rapidly falling by the wayside along with such niceties as job security) that says if authors are bound by option clauses to publishers even in a manner that they can technically wriggle out of, other publishers won't bid. The general thought was -- and sometimes still is -- that you should satisfy your obligation to the publisher by producing the books that the option clause stipulates before you are free to go elsewhere, and other publishers would expect the same, so they back off. Would this hold up in a court of law? Of course not, but publishers know that turnip-poor authors aren't usually going to go crying to the judge over such matters. They can't afford to.
There are two ways to handle an option clause if you don't have an agent. The best way is to get the publisher to strike it out altogether, and if you do, that's a complete victory. Then the publisher can bid just like anyone else for your next book. But most publishers won't do this, and unless you are valuable and they're nervous about losing you, I don't blame them... why would they? What you usually can get, however, is a time limit. I prefer sixty days, but you can negotiate and perhaps settle at ninety. Once you close the loop by giving the option clause an expiration date, you at least render it into a gentler thing, if not completely harmless.
The book image above comes from the University of Nebraska Press.
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Dads have "counseled" their offspring into fields for which they are poorly suited, while steering them away from that which could have made them famous, since forever. Songwriters, painters, dancers, actors all hear the same drivel from Dads coast to coast. Moms are guilty, too, but for that echoing voice that just won't go away when you're trying to go for it as a writer, there's nothing quite like the tuneless horn-honking of dear, old Dad to really lock things up.
In 1982, another Dad told one of my authors she should use her writing skills for something practical and go to law school. She did, and now she is a law professor (I'll bet if you scratch a thousand of those you'll find someone underneath who compromised between family expectations and inner pull a different way). Dads have told my authors that writers don't earn money, even though of the Forbes top 100 earning celebrities, 12 are writers.
Much of my job involves doing battle with a succession of Dad-voices from ages and places past. (Does that make me a kind of superhero?) I'm not saying that all fathers give bad advice. I'm just saying that many fathers push their kids away from the arts and toward business, and that is often not the right thing for the kid.
There are a number of quite successful strategies for making His voice go away, and they don't involve either electroshock therapy or drugs. My personal favorite is self hypnosis, but there are also good books you can read. Can you change your mind and your thought patterns? Absolutely! Here is my reading list of effective Dad silencers for 2009:
Loving What Is by Byron Katie. She is the queen of helping you shrug about what you can't change, and living fully in spite of it.
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. Kinda heavy on the righteous anger and the twelve steps, but she'll help you figure out who you really are. I love to work with her book in groups, and I have led five to date.
Hypnotherapy recordings by Lyndall Briggs and Glenn Harrold. You can find these at audible.com. In my heyday with the self-hypnosis I was listening to one or another of these every afternoon for over a year, and they did a remarkable job and changing the internal chatter from negative to positive. Both authors have fascinating accents. Briggs is a strong variant on Australian, and Harrold's possibly comes from within the sound of London's Bow Bells (I'm no Harold Higgins and can't quite tell). To me that's charming, but it can also be something to adjust to if you're used to listening to the BBC. I love both of them.
And yes, I realize that the man above speaking to Ben Braddock in "The Graduate" is Mr. McGuire, not Mr. Braddock, but it's just such a perfect image for this post.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
"I was reading your booklab blog, and came across your post about advice columns, where you touch on the topic of spouses and authors. It reminded me of a recent New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell about Ben Fountain and other late bloomers. I highly recommend it if you haven't read it already. It's a great story. And talk about your supportive spouses! Here's the link."
What he refers to is the story of Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award-winning author Fountain's wife, who was certainly not his unpaid editor. Instead of being forced to read and critique his manuscripts, she did what spouses can more appropriately do for one another -- she earned a living and supported him while he wrote (he had been a successful lawyer, but he quit to become a writer and it worked). Gladwell notes that she was far more than his tireless supporter, she was, to use an old-fashioned-but-accurate term, his patron. “Sharie never once brought up money, not once—never,” Fountain said. She was sitting next to him, and he looked at her in a way that made it plain that he understood how much of the credit for “Brief Encounters” belonged to his wife. His eyes welled up with tears. “I never felt any pressure from her,” he said. “Not even covert, not even implied.”
Romance author Debbie Macomber has a similar story. Her husband supported her while she wrote, long past the time when many spouses would have hung it up and said "Quit typing and get a real job." Now she (and he) are multimillionaires.
I'm not saying every partner has to spend years as the breadwinner while the other one gets to renovate the attic as an office and type away. In many ways that isn't fair or reasonable. But I am saying that partners should believe in one another. If you love somebody and they love to write, total honesty about your assessment of their talent (if it is low) is not the way to go. Love means support, usually more of the emotional and spiritual than the financial kind, but if the latter is possible, so be it.
Monday, January 05, 2009
Glam jobs? Right, whatever. Publishing has always paid modestly, except for its titans. In that way it is similar to academia. And yes, it is going through upheaval right now. I thought most houses were mindless and monstrous for scheduling their bloodbaths right before Christmas, forcing their staffs to compete for the same jobs during a financial crisis (way to stick together, teams), but that has nothing to do with the fact that "glam" hasn't described typical book publishing for a long, long time.
Tweedy? Yes. Goofy? Often. But glam?