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Picture Yourself In a Train In a Station

Going to a writer’s conference tomorrow where I hope to inform and inspire. Who am I kidding? I’m hoping to sell books. Lots of ’em. And try not to devastate or discourage anyone too much, or sound like a yappy insider.

These gatherings are always anxiety producing because you know that most of the people hate you, or the you that is the face of publishing, the wall of rejection that seems too tall to scale. And no matter how many tricks of the trade you divulge or yucks you get, you still feel a little shabby, a little complicit, a lot insincere even though you really mean what you’re saying and are grateful to anyone with your book in their hands which seems like a small miracle.

You know these things are valuable but want to say go home. Write. And don’t come out until you have a book. You want to say, this isn’t for you, this writing business. You want to say self-publish, release an e-book, buy Barnes and Noble (it’s up for sale). You want to say climb a tower with a megaphone, go to the Dead Sea, learn braille, imagine kissing the person sitting next to you. You want to say eat fried rice, drink martinis with your client’s parents and throw up in the Four Seasons. Or say: get insurance, think about your footwear and ordering well and what your manicurist is whispering to her friend as she rubs cheap cream into the palm of your hand. You don’t need me. You don’t need anyone. Writing is not a river from which you can save yourself. Let the current take you. Let the rocks be rocks. The water cold or bath warm. May we all rot. May we not be reminded that even the dead were once schoolchildren, plaid, small, willing.

What would you tell them?

22 Responses

  1. I told them to read your blog.
    That was after I hyperventilated, while I sweated profusely, and just before I lost track of my notes and went off on a tangent.

    Have fun at your conference. Seriously – go hang in the bar and see who has the cajones to come sit with you.

  2. I’m betting you inform and inspire – just like you do on this blog – and that you get the yucks.

    Give ’em hell.

  3. Here is what a very successful Hollywood screenwriter told me during a little one-on-one chat at a screenwriting conference:

    Don’t waste your life sitting at home alone writing movies. Go out into the world and live your life. Live it as much as you can. Live it to the fullest and spend your time doing all sorts of things. Live first, then write about it. Don’t try to do it in reverse.

    I found this inspiring.

  4. I don’t know what I’d tell your conference but I’d ask B&N why they had such an array of crap on their front shelves last time I visited. I flew across the ocean and couldn’t wait to dive into the world of English language books and latte. What a disappointment. I did rummage around in the back shelves for a purchase and then couldn’t get another book that was selling well on Amazon. But no less than 3 salespeople asked me if I had checked out the Nook. In their cue-less display. Isn’t heavy handed, in-store marketing of an electronic reading device counterintuitive? And giving the queens of the conservative right a huge chunk of prime real estate in the heart of a liberal population seems not so smart. Bottom line, I left the store with one book when I usually have at least one bag threatening to break under the weight. I didn’t go back. If you’re going to charge a premium for what can be got on the internet for much cheaper better know your local market and make the experience count.

  5. I think I’d ask, “Why are you here?” Or “Why are _you_ here?” And I’d take notes on the answers, mental notes at least.

  6. Hi Betsy,

    I’d tell them what you just wrote, which is really funny. Then I’d send them to my post and have them read the advice you give. It’s in the category the art and craft of writing. An Editor’s Advice to Writers.

    How a great time at the conference and don’t drink too many martinis. Think of the hangover.


  7. Deb, it’s worse than you experienced. They are now taking bookshelves out a replacing them with racks for games, games….I kid you not. B&N is for sale. They must need to do something to stay afloat.

    So, Betsy, I would talk about the state of the industry right now; how hard it is to get an agent, much less published; how independents are closing and the biggies are turning into Toys Are Us. Get a job while you’re writing; don’t believe that B&B bag with Kafka’s (?) saying something like if I had money I’d buy books instead of food. Kafka was a brilliant writer, but he had a god-awful life; support the small presses and get over yourself, the odds of being a 21st century Fitzgerald are about nil- he had a miserable life except Zelda loved him; ask them if they think it is true that sending your work to a new agent is worth the time because it may be true that when a new and unknown agent sends a book to an editor of one of the big six, global warming will have come to full fruition; again learn everything you can about computers and publish there and on websites for writers because you need to support your egos somewhat; as to submitting to contests- well, that’s a tough one, 25.00 and you’re up against hundreds and mostly when the prize is finally awarded it’s to Alice Munroe or someone like that….the journal has to stay alive somehow and your 25 bucks sure helps – besides – the initial judges are interns getting their BAs in Literature; conferences are fun, fun I say, I spent every night in the library at Breadloaf and met some cool people, but watch out for the cliques – you have to either want to drink or fuck – I was in the library for a reason. Lastly, read Faulkner over and over again, read ABOUT Faulkner over and over again- admire him and his endurance, but do not imitate him – that has been done in a recently published book a la As I Lay Dying- phew, how embarrassing and I won’t say which book because I have a hard time dissing writers.

    Okay, I’ll stop. All I’m saying is a dose of reality with the creativity…we all got to live. How many of you could write well with an emtpy belly or gun to your head?

    Ah, have fun Betsy.

  8. My advice to aspiring writers– ie what works for me– is to make friends in the industry. Not “I need to get to know this person because they have a reading series” or “if I am facebook friends with this character perhaps he will publish me” but actual bonafide real-life “I read and respect this person’s work, have gotten to know them and like them as a person” friends. Humanize the faces behind the names on the covers of the books you envy, the names signing the rejections and realize they are people just like you– they are not perfect, not Gods, their word is no more or less important than yours. Become a part of a community that gets why you work so hard and get so worked up over a “hobby,” something that doesn’t even pay (!). In my experience, these friends WILL invite you to read at their series, they will publish you, they will read and comment on your stuff — but the best part is that all of that will begin to matter less, because you will have friends– true friends, not just “fans” but people who know you, know your work and respect both. You will feel less alone in this world because of that and isn’t it that feeling of “less alone”– the feelingof feeling heard and understood– what we writers all looking for anyway? It is for me.

    Happy belated birthday, Betsy. Hope your day was full of love.

  9. Make it short. Just tell them the chance of a male debut novelist getting published by a major house in today’s market is Zero, Zip, Nil. Females — slightly better odds.

  10. Ha! Poor thing! Now your job sounds horrible, you big ‘ole dream-squasher!

    Just say “Bless your heart” a lot, with a southern accent. That’s what true southerners do.

    Betsy, fact is, you ARE a yappy insider, and that’s why they’re there. Hopefully they will glean something from your honesty, but by all means, don’t start getting all squeamish on us now… we like your delivery AS IS.

    Jeni 😉

  11. tell them to buy an ergonometric chair to sit in, plant their butt in it and write. remind them to move their body in a purposeful and healthy way. discuss stretching for back health. talk about the importance of loved ones. hobbies. music. friends. life. crack a joke.

    afterwards, drink cocktails at the bar.

  12. Learn the difference between its and it’s and all other esoteric uses for the apostrophe. Know what a past participle is for god’s sake. Use the damn Oxford comma.

    Follow the advise of Rumi: Think long and hard before you write, make sure it’s an improvement over silence.

    Get really, really good at one other thing besides writing. Card tricks, vacuum cleaner repair, shoe design, brain surgery, cameo carving; expertise is the best way to develop critical standards and will put writing and writers in perspective. Plus, it will make you a more interesting person to know. (Writers are boring. Boring, boring, boring.)

  13. A great question. I would be to tell them to be patient. To decide if they are in this for the long haul, and if so, to consider every contact a vital one that deserves the utmost professionalism (you never know where it might lead, and the memories of agents and editors is remarkable). To keep writing and not hang it all on one book, to move on when necessary and look forward to the next project.
    And, yes, to reward oneself at every opportunity, be it rejection or request.

  14. Write. Don’t give up.

    Repeat as necessary.

  15. Hi, Betsy.
    I had a one-on-one meeting with you at a conference a few years ago while I was there as work-study staff (editing The Crumb) and I still appreciate your straight-forward advice and bluntness.
    What I would tell these writers is that getting published is not a race, though it may seem to be when friends are getting their work out into the world and you feel stuck in no-man’s land.
    I would tell them that for the most part the work will always have to speak for itself, regardless of who one knows.
    I would tell them that there’s a vital difference between the socializing that happens at a conference (which is very necessary and useful at certain points) and sitting one’s ass in the chair for hours on end and getting the writing done on a regular basis.
    Stay gold.

  16. Have never been to a writer conference/workshop and generally stay away from such gatherings as I am not in need of a social venue to keep me writing and fear more that I would witness or hear some bullshit which would squelch my faith in the collective consciousness of readership.

    I need readers not cheerleaders.

    Your blog, surprise, surprise, has provided an unexpected, as Vivien says, clean well lit place. Thank you for that. Otherwise I’ll stay here at my desk working away whether there’s a payday or not.

  17. maybe they just want you to mostly listen

  18. “What would you tell them?”

    Write your heart out. (Rick Whitaker gave that one to me.)

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