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Guest Blogger #5 – August

I spent a few days thinking of ways to mortify Betsy in this space, but I don’t have a copy of her updated book, and I don’t have the patience to click on every link in her blogroll looking for things to hate. I considered writing about how your publishing ‘team’—your agent and editor and publisher—functions like a family, more specifically a family in which your publisher fucks you under the stairs while your editor pretends not to notice.

Instead, however, in an effort to be helpful, here’s some shit writers don’t need to care about:

Query Letters

If you can’t write a good query letter, you can’t write. They’re business letters—that’s a lower form of writing than Tea Party signs. Describe the book. Either your description sounds like money to that particular agent, or you get a form letter.

Still having trouble with your query letter? Try this easy tip: take up scrapbooking.

Agents

Before you have an agent, your goal is finding an agent, not making agents’ lives easier. Screw agents’ lives. The only reason they have lives is that after they clawed from the grave, they hungered for 15% instead of blood.

Worrying about guidelines is bullshit. If they like what you’ve got, they’ll ask for more. If they like that, they’ll want to represent you, and you’ll slavishly agree. That’s the nature of the relationship.

Worrying about wasting their time is bullshit. Agents are hip-deep and sinking, dealing every day with the desperate, the manic, and the spittle-flecked; and those are their –clients-. Don’t worry about alienating them. This is a group of people who one day looked at writers and thought, I want to represent them. They’re not gonna remember your half-assed crazy.

Just remember that this relationship is based on mutual trust and respect, so never reveal your true self.

The State of the Book

Is publishing in decline? Yes.

In other news, you’re fat and lazy, a talentless hack. Nothing will change any of that. Publishing is in the shitter. Our goal is to swirl around as long as possible before we’re flushed. We’re not gonna reverse the direction of spin here.

Will e-readers revolutionize publishing? Sure, because an influx of semi-literate control freaks is what every industry needs. Our problem isn’t the shortage of digital formats, it’s the shortage of customers.

The one thing that distinguishes people in publishing is that instead of faking expertise about corrugated paper products or commercial real estate, we fake  expertise about books. We’re nothing special. There’s the same proportion of assbaggery in publishing as in the Solid Waste Association of North America. The difference is one group pushes a product that’s full of crap, and you know the end of this sentence.

People are idiots. People in publishing are, largely, people. We’re working in a crazily dysfunctional industry, and when by some miracle a book actually sells, we desperately try to reverse-engineer the success. But that only works when luck isn’t a determining factor. You can’t reverse-engineer a coin toss. Why is Lethem more popular than Everett? No reason at all. Why did Harry Potter sell more than 3,000 copies? No reason at all.

None of that matters. Franzen doesn’t matter and Vargas Llosa doesn’t matter. Gish Jen and Stephenie Meyer doesn’t matter and I don’t matter and you don’t matter. Editors, agents, readers, the state of publishing, the technology of reading, the insulting advances and print runs and jacket copy, the blogging, the twitting, the social media, the self-promotion: doesn’t matter.

I’m trying to write this like a comment without worrying where it’s going, but I think where it’s going is here: the first step is admitting that we’re powerless over everything but the writing. And the second step is coming to believe that the best way to deal with all those distractions is to hate them.

What do you care about as a writer, that you shouldn’t? What do you not care about, that you should?

65 Responses

  1. Sing it, brother. The other day I actually allowed myself the book signing fantasy. The one where I show up to the shitty Barnes & Noble near the West Side Highway, the one you have to take a huge escalator to get to, in Manhattan, for my first reading ever. And I’m waiting in the greenroom with my husband (who is a fantasy as well, because it turns out he’s also my book’s editor – the book is how we met). And the lackey from the store comes in, and she’s all, “I’ve never seen anything like it before. There are so many people here. For such an unknown, your first book. It’s really extraordinary.” And My Editor (incidentally the name of my memoir about our love affair that I’ll write 20 years from now) turns to me and looks straight into my eyes, really looks long and hard into those deep blue pools, and says, “I knew it would happen all along. All you have to do is look at her and it’s written all over her face. But aren’t we lucky that she chooses to share her words with us. Those incandescent words.” A ha ha ha ha ahaha haha ahah ahaaa aaaaa aaaaa aaaaaaaa!!!!

  2. Reciting the obvious is a bit tiresome.

    The troubling truth about writing,except for a handful of folks? It’s a hobby. The sooner we writer’s accept this and learn to enjoy it like knitting or building model boats in bottles, the quicker we can got own with our lives and be happy.

  3. I feel like the length of this post contradicts the theme. 🙂

    • Next time I’ll stick with the original plan, and just try to mortify Betsy. That’s my problem, though, I do care about all this bullshit. I facilitate a twittinar about ‘crafting query letters,’ I dissect bestsellers hoping their entrails will explicate my failure, and I posted a experimental (read: WTF?) novella in some motheaten corner of the net just because.

      My publisher’s gonna call and tell me to give talks at area schools, and knowing that’s coming fills me with dread and bile, but what am I going to say? “Oh, I’d love to,” I’ll simper.

      (And I don’t actually facilitate a twittinar. There are depths to which even I won’t sink, unpaid.)

      • Oh, August….I want you…

      • i would so go to see you talk at area schools.

        in fact, if i had a teenager, i would take them with me to hear the refreshing truth of it all.

        do what you do and stop worrying about everything else. NOTHING MATTERS (except whatever makes you happy or makes you feel like you matter–my own addendum)

        i’m going to go all out on the honesty tip for my answers to your questions because i’m having to play the game at work today and am in severe need of some truthiness:

        what mattered to me about writing this week that shouldn’t have mattered was getting selected to show up as one of BL’s guest bloggers. it didn’t happen and my world did not implode on me…mostly because i’ll keep writing and partly because all the ones that did get picked were better.

        the fact that i don’t care enough to enforce a rigid writing schedule where i’m at my desk at least two hours every a.m. before my house awakes or after they all go back to sleep. my nonchalant way of putting off my writing when i should be putting it first on my list. that’s what matters that i only care enough about to comment on but not actually act on.

        ugh…that just made me a little bit sick to my stomach to see in writing.

      • If I do give talks at area schools, Amy, they won’t feature ‘refreshing truth’ so much as ‘fat man flopsweat.’

        I’m with you on the writing schedule. I don’t have a day job (a rant for another day), and I’m man enough to refuse to lift a finger around the house while my wife shoulders the family burdens, and I -still- can’t quite find the time to write.

      • It’s very wrong to tease us with the experimental novella, August. After returning from the craft store with my selection of scrapbooking materials, I spent all night with a flashlight, peering into the motheaten corners.

        I don’t know how Betsy suddenly became responsible for my weekends’ entertainment, but when she doesn’t post I feel like we’re all at a dance and the band is taking a break.

  4. Thanks for the blistering blast from the forward deck. It sure cleared the fog.

  5. Holy shit! I think that if I ever get to the point where I say there is no reason, I’m probably letting some publisher, or editor, fuck me under the stairs. You girls. What’s wrong with you? Is that flimsy old house so important? Is that image you’d kill for not giving the results you expected? Are poor slobs just not worth living for and that hard-workin’ sweaty old fart not delivering the goods? Is death not gonna come knockin’ on your tired door someday? Wow. What a whore. I’m not saying I don’t dislike listening to whores prattle on about how they have fucked up, but I do feel a little guilty that I might have put them in that position. Somehow. Maybe I just like people, so I’m extending a bit of humanness. I’d rather die than let you try to represent what I am. And sure as fuck if your boss tried to get me under the stairs he wouldn’t get that far. Why would you meet under stairs with anybody? They’re designed to walked on and not to hide under. Man, the day of the dead of is coming, I can smell it.

    P.S. Is publishing in decline? Are you retarded? Or do you have a fantasy mortgage payment that hasn’t materialized yet? Maybe you didn’t suck the genie just right? Did daddy give you a job and then let his lackeys get at you? I’d be pissed too, if I were you.

  6. Wow. You sure give good rant August.

    Oh, and thanks for including your photo with the post.

  7. take it . . . piano music (theme from Love Story)

    Woke up this morning
    with my face on my arm

    too late at night
    it does me great harm

    looked at the monitor
    and saw the bees swarm

    lost my ativan, lost my ativan
    and August is there

    rising my tail a
    and mooning the world

    the last agent I loved
    gave me a straitjacket in hand

    refrain: woke up this morning…..lalalalala… with my face on my arm . . .

    August, please August,
    reverse your sad tale

    before the world goes black
    and I suddenly bale

    ten agents waiting on
    top of the hill

    get me out of here
    give a pill

    Refrain…. work up this morning oh wee, oh wee,,, with my face on my arm . .

    piano music..(.the end of the flight of the bumble bee..)..

    (I have a psych. appointment today. Thanks, August, you gave me something to talk about)

    http://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?p=george+carlin+on+youtube

  8. Yeah, it’s this kind of snarky crap that drives me crazy. Won’t be coming back for more here. Thanks.

  9. What I shouldn’t care about but do:

    I suffer from the delusion that words are an adequate medium, that if i try hard enough i’ll find the right ones and the right sequence and the right punctuation and actually say something worthy of dissemination. (And my mother will notice.)

    What I should care about but (apparently) don’t:

    Finishing the book.

    Rant on, August…

  10. “What do you care about as a writer, that you shouldn’t?”

    Corporate governance.

    “What do you not care about, that you should?”

    Flawed incentives.

    (Maybe I got those backwards.)

  11. I care a out what other people think and always have much more than I should. I should care more about my own precious time.

  12. Rant on August. You are my kind of funny.

  13. I care when something I love (writing and America are two examples) makes people hate.

  14. jeez, August, maybe it’s time to diversify. like Shakespeare. let’s reflect. Shakespeare printed 250 copies of Folio (approx.) and made one pound on each (approx).

    that’s it.

    he did, however, invest in property, collaborate with other writers, act, co-own The Globe, and remained married to his wife for over 30 years. he was, apparently, well liked in his community.

    did he sit around complaining that no one was reading his work? nope. he bought into a theatre and self-produced. sound familiar?

    i can just see Shakespeare in a bistro in Soho, drinking red wine and singing the praises of every electronic device available to him. the man was a conduit and he created his success by diversifying.

    • Wow. Why Shakespere would have loved the Kindle. Can you write a whole piece on this? I would say for PW but they don’t deserve you.

    • Love the kick-yourself-in-the-ass spirit of self-publishing AND the notion of collaborating with other artists (being determined yet gentle with the sharing of the ass-kickery). That’s what makes this whole whatsit worthwhile and fun. Also — borrowing plots is underrated.

    • Love this comment from Rea.

    • Shakespeare is possessed by love, I doubt he has time to think what others think of what he thinks.

  15. I loved this. Perfect. So many quotable lines. So TRUE!
    Thanks August!

  16. August, you are a blog whore after all.

    What I don’t care about, but maybe should? Twitter. I try, and I try and I try. But I fear it sucks one’s life away, 140 characters at a time.

    What I care about, but probably shouldn’t? Hmm, not applicable. I have every reason to agonize. (I just don’t tweet about it.)

    • In the famous words of Betty White on SNL: Face Book — what a waste of time. I think she could have included Twitter also.

      • This is gonna be harder for me to say than for you to hear, believe me: Being Betty White doesn’t make her right. (That rhymed, Marge, and you know it rhymed!)

  17. Always a pleasure (spiked with pain) August.

    What I care about that I shouldn’t: getting a book deal before I turn a certain age that looms ever closer.

    What I don’t care about that I should: saving receipts for my ever more complicated tax returns for the freelance gigs I take to support my writing habit.

  18. August, you can get arrested for language like that in Shenandoah. They don’t like it when City People throw around the F word — long story, but that’s what the Virginia State Trooper warned me. Yes, he really said “City People”. And aside from late-night visits from law enforcement to discuss the limits of the First Amendment, the small talk in these mountain towns makes me wonder if I look very stupid or very depressed — people are talking real slow to me, in a chirpy tone of voice that sounds like they are desperately trying to cheer me up. Fuck that. But I found this roadside liberry to check in on the internets — ah. I needed a dose of August to get me through the weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

    The next time The South wants to secede, I say Let Them. Because I don’t care.

  19. Nothing like a nice Friday morning diatribe. You have the makings of a great book, August – ” Burn down the forest, fuck the trees and all the little woodland creatures while you’re at it.”

    What I care about but shouldn’t ? Editing every single word and punctuation mark and researching all the intricate facts until my brain bleeds.

    What I don’t care about but maybe should ? Turning 49 today

    • I will join you on Monday. You don’t care, really? It’s kind of eating away at my brain like mad cow disease.

      • Maybe I don’t care but should and in fact deep deep down secretly even to myself do – the number did look pretty stark in black & white after I typed it ….ah, screw it, nothing a few stiff drinks can’t help

    • 49 in December. Looking in the mirror is always a surprise these days. Existential persistence of vision: myself at 25.

  20. Not sure about the should part, so will just write what I worry about and don’t.

    Worry about writing something worthwhile, meaningful, engaging and surprising that moves in the direction of truths and that is, ultimately, good company. Would also like it to be beautiful (which could mean ugly too).

    Don’t worry about: Getting published. It would be nice, for sure, maybe even wonderful. However I decided some time ago to publish stuff myself when I feel it’s good enough.

  21. I did not find this very edifying.

  22. What I worry about? That I would sit down over a beer and have this conversation and not think it’s snark at all. You’re not bursting any bubbles here. I’ve been around the block. There are no stars in my eyes. I’m not looking at the world thru rose-colored glasses….

  23. What do I worry about that I shouldn’t? My psycho ex-husband in a cop suit, who carries several state-issued firearms and the grudge of a man with a size-8 shoe. (Made you flinch, Averil!)

    What don’t I worry about that I should? Life insurance.

  24. Perhaps a full-throated grump is okay once in awhile? Good for the soul! Especially satisfying when chased with a drink out among friends in a clean well-lit place, a walk in the rain, bit of Marx Brothers, mebbe.

  25. I worry that menopause will make me stop having orgasms. It’s not here yet – but it’s out there, lying in wait. I have it on good authority that menopause kills the ability to write. So menopause = Bad Sex & No Writing. Solving for x, we get y = Hell On Earth.

    I don’t worry that the book coming out next fall will bomb. Not that it won’t – it might – but it’s just not something I’m worried about.

    Thanks, August. Stellar post.

    • Are you married? My wife claims -that’s- what made her stop having orgasms. And what really kills the ability to write is having children, so menopause oughtta be like exchanging vaginal lubrication for Maxwell Perkins. A good deal.

  26. Woo Hoo —
    Betsy’s book is a “Parade Pick” today in the Sunday PARADE MAGAZINE:

    “5. The Forest for the Trees (Riverhead/$16, paper)
    In the updated edition of her modern classic, editor and literary agent Betsy Lerner offers invigorating, often deliciously playful advice to writers. She’s also happy to detonate notions would-be litterateurs hold dear—among them that writing mainstream fiction is a snap.”

  27. This is hilarious and I love you a little.

  28. “I don’t matter, you don’t matter”…better kept in a journal.

    To say that “none of that matters” seems a bit drastic, even jaded. These are words written, not spoken, so it seems, to me, that there is less of an excuse for retraction as there might be in a heated interview for instance. To say that you don’t matter seems unbelievable in a way, since to publicize or publish your own work is an attempt to inject the products of your mind and will into someone else’s values, its not all that of a humanitarian or noble gesture – its you doing the thing – not a group under some oath of anonymity of authorship – and that requires ego. All hobbyists who break from their studios, work in hand with the intent of throwing it at the world, throw their ego along with it so that they might graduate from being a hobbyist- or in at least some small way hoping that the world sweeps it up, even cradles it the same as we might sentimentalize our Hemingway or Joyce on the nightstand. It matters to me. If it doesn’t matter to you then why should the reader not just move on to someone else?

    • James, dude, I’m wondering if you’re missing the point. Or maybe I just see it differently: that nothing matters but the writing. Don’t worry about publishers and agents, bestsellers and literary prizes, or even one’s tiny false ego that holds back because it wants approval, because what matters is when your mind, heart, and soul—your true self—hit the page. Everything else is superfluous. It really doesn’t matter.

      I find August’s rants wonderfully life-affirming and encouraging to me as a writer. His spewings are like a bitter tonic, a cholagogue, that cleans the stale bile from one’s liver. I think most here would agree. The rest are merely hot for him.

  29. Whoa, that was refreshing. Especially liked Vivian’s rant about the Shenandoah, from my perspective in the Sierra foothills. So good to hear it like it is. Thanks.

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