Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Of small presses and agents

At Litquake Palo Alto last Sunday, where I was on the Breakthrough Novelists panel, an audience member asked each of us how we got our agents. When it came to my turn, I said, "I don't have an agent," and was passing the mic along when several people shouted, "Wait! Then how did you get published?"

The answer: a small press. Many people don't realize that small presses, including my publisher, Bona Fide Books, will often accept unagented submissions. Small presses are also awesome because they exist to take chances that larger publishers can't afford--on unknown authors and odd, hard-to-categorize books (like mine). The publishers are almost always writers themselves, and they love literature. They're not in it for the money, but to keep what they love alive.

Poets and Writers has a small press database, which is a good place to start looking. Another fun way to get acquainted with small presses is to play Small Press Roulette. You send them money, and they send you a grab-bag of small press publications, including books and zines. Look what I got!

All that said, however, I do plan on querying agents for my new novel, starting this fall. This book is a tad more mainstream, I think, and I certainly would like to reach a larger audience. At the same time, though, I'm going to keep the small press option on the front burner, because I've loved the whole experience, and I believe in the mission.

Think of it this way: if you like independent films, you'll like small presses, too.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How to network and not to network (by a bad networker)

I am a bad networker.

Well, I'm probably not as bad as I used to be. The need to "network" was first impressed upon me rather late in life, because I was particularly resistant to having that sort of impression made upon me in the first place. It was toward the end of graduate school, when it became apparent that simply sending out CVs and writing samples and waiting for the interview invitations to roll in was not going to work. (I can't quite convey how shocking this news really was to me. I was that naive--and that resistant to networking.) My adviser suggested going to conferences, even ones I was not presenting at (which constituted the almost infinitely greater majority), and--get this--hand out business cards.

How the hell was I supposed to actually accomplish this was not clear. This particular culture did not seem to come with a ritual of exchanging cards upon introduction. Let's just skip ahead now and say I at the first and only conference where I attempted this, I managed to rid myself of precisely one card. I did it by interrupting the conversation of someone I had talked to on the shuttle, saying "Do you want a card?," thrusting it at her, and then racing off, my face hot with shame.

That was the last networking I did for about a decade.

For some people, networking seems to come quite a bit more naturally. Not (as I was taught) because they are cynical users of others, always alert for opportunities to advance their own interests and equally blind to the pain their self-advancement inflicts on those they use and then cast aside like so many used tissues--but because they understand that people need other people just to get through life. Professional life (and related stuff like, you know, promoting your novel) is part of the life that we need help with. Asking for help is not the same as using.

This is especially--and, in fact only--true if you approach the whole networking process with the mindset of trying to help others. Of course one can never set one's mind purely on this goal (by "one," I mean myself, anyway)--but I think it's worth trying to focus on opportunities to assist others, particularly at first. To piggyback on my last post, let's say you want to join a writing group. If you only want to join so that others will help you with your work, you'll have a problem. People will notice that you show up only when you have a story under review. They may not kick you out, but they won't feel like you're fully part of the group.

To network effectively, you must sincerely want to be part of something larger than yourself, to do your part in meeting the group's goals--even if those goals include each individual's desire to advance. We all want to succeed, and we don't have to help others succeed at our own expense. In the same way, we don't have to succeed at others' expense.

Networking, done sincerely, just means helping each other. It's really that simple. I wish I'd figured that out a lot earlier.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Why you really, really need a writing community

Several years ago, I was in a writing group that I adored. But that group gradually fell away, as these things sometimes do, and so for a number of years I didn't have a group. That seemed fine; I was writing a novel, and I didn't necessarily want anyone reading it piecemeal as I went. I thought I should just stay by myself and plug away till it was finished. Then we'd see.

Of course, what I didn't realize--and what I now understand, thanks to several new groups I've joined lately--is that the community doesn't just exist to give critiques. (And it certainly shouldn't exist just to give critiques to me.) Apart from the amorphous though extremely important function of offering moral support, a community can:
  • Go to events together
  • Create events and invite speakers
  • Join together to give readings where individual speakers might not draw a big enough crowd
  • Help publicize each other's work
  • Recommend (or warn you away from) agents, publishers, publicists, etc.
  • Advocate for one another and for fellow authors worldwide
  • Eat good food and drink good wine 
  • Pull each other out of literary and personal ruts

This is only a small sample of what writing communities can do. So even if you have no work you want to share at the moment, I strongly recommend joining one or more groups, in person and/or online. It makes a remarkable difference, believe me.

Here I am with some of my writing buddies, at our party yesterday ...

Friday, July 25, 2014

A few meandering thoughts about writer's block

We've all heard way too much about this mythical ailment, mostly from the movies, because 1.) people who write movie scripts are writers and are writing what they know, and 2.) as has been pointed out repeatedly, writers actually writing aren't very interesting to watch; the "block" is the only way to get them out of the house.

That said, I don't think "writer's block" is much different from any kind of procrastination brought on by doubt or fear. In my case, anyway, my reasons for not writing usually boil down to thinking it's not going to work. I don't want to spend two or four or eighty or ten thousand hours on something that's going to be bad, do I? In the same way, I don't want to cut back on carbs because it probably won't make me feel better; I don't want to see a movie because I might not like it; I don't want to go grocery shopping because I'm afraid of the parking lot; I don't want to work because I'm lazy ... or, I mean, it might not be satisfying.

Still, in most of these cases, I do the thing anyway. Sometimes, as with work, there's a concrete financial incentive. But other times I'm able to get past my objections relatively easily. How do you know it won't work if you don't try it? I ask myself, and then away go the carbs--at least for a little while. But with writing the resistance seems greater, and I can only think that, unlike these other issues, my ability to write says something fundamental about me. Writing something bad means I'm not really a writer after all, which means the only certain way to preserve the illusion that I am a writer is not to write.

So how to combat this? Maybe by remembering that writer's block is the ultimate absurd condition--and just writing any goddamn thing you can.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Five things I miss about grad school

It occurs to me that I have said some negative things about grad school of late. Also of early. And yet I read an article just today that made me nostalgic for the kinds of issues that used to dominate my consciousness on a regular basis.

Have I gone soft? Am I forgiving, or simply forgetting? Who knows. Herewith, a gradschoolisticle of stuff I miss about those glory/gory days.

1. Heated debates about Freud in particular. (I'm mostly in the "against" camp, but I get the appeal, especially for literary folk.)

2. The sense that one's primary purpose, for the next 5-7 years, was to learn. OK, that probably sounds even more naive now than it did then. In reality, one's primary purpose was--or probably should have been, if one had any kind of instinct for material success, which I most certainly did not--building one's career. You mean it's your second semester and you haven't published anything yet? Aren't you going to MLACLAHASA? Still, living in an environment explicitly dedicated to intensive learning and intellectual discovery was quite a privilege. And being identified primarily by my ideas, while not always beneficial, was an interesting experience.

3. A very nice (for me) balance between responsibility and freedom. Papers had to be written, classes (at first) had to be attended. Still, I had a lot of unstructured time, and could get things done mostly in my own way.

4. The intense focus. Sometimes that got a little too much for me. But the ability to spend days or weeks on the meaning of a single sentence, maybe even a single word (yes, I was a New Critic at heart) seems exceedingly refreshing to me now--when often any act of reading, as opposed to skimming, feels like a chore.

5. Many of the people.

Monday, July 07, 2014

The poet's brain in a jar

Here's a little coda to my piece in the LA Review of Books on Yuri Olesha's memoir-in-fragments, No Day without a Line. I tried so hard to get this into the piece, but it just wouldn't go ... So here it is.

In the section of No Day called Moscow, Olesha writes about several famous Russian writers he befriended in the early twentieth century. He was particularly close with the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who committed suicide ... leading to this amazing memory:

When the evening after his death we had gathered on Gendrikov Lane in ... the Briks' apartment [where Mayakovsky had been living], we suddenly heard loud noises coming from Mayakovsky's room--very loud noises, unceremoniously loud, as if somebody were chopping wood. It was the opening of Mayakovsky's cranium to allow the removal of his brain. We listened in horror-struck silence. Then a man in a white gown and boots came out of the room--either an attendant or a medical assistant, but a stranger to us--and in his hands he held a basin covered with a white cloth raised in the middle almost like a pyramid, indeed, just as if that soldier in boots had been carrying a paschal cream-cheese pudding. In the basin was Mayakovsky's brain.

This scene, surreal even by Olesha's standards, defies belief. And yet, recently, an intrepid reporter from Vice Magazine, Joy Neumeyer, paid a visit to the Moscow Brain Institute. There she found Mayakovsky's brain, residing in a jar alongside those of many other luminaries. She even quotes Olesha to explain how the brain got there.

So Olesha was not making this up. As Neumeyer explains, "When a Soviet celebrity died, the brain-collection process worked in one of two ways. Sometimes, the family or the deceased had already agreed to give their brains to the Institute. Or—as in the case of Mayakovsky—they came without asking."

Thursday, July 10: Reading at Folio Books, San Francisco

Join us at Folio Books, the wonderful Noe Valley bookstore, on Thursday, July 10, at 7 p.m. to celebrate Bigfoot and the Baby. We'll have wine, a reading, Q and A, and ... possibly a Special Guest!

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Writer in Pieces

My essay on Yuri Olesha's No Day without a Line, which records his struggle to relearn how to write, is up at The Los Angeles Review of Books.