• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

I want to go out on a limb and respond to some of the comments that expressed frustration with publishing and my comments about credentials and so forth. First, I really do get the pain associated with being on the margins or feeling marginalized. As most of you know, I’ve been knocking my head against the Hollywood sign for decades. And I’m fairly certain I will go to my grave without any of my scripts being made, I’ll never be in a writer’s room, and certainly never collect my Oscar for which I have many speeches prepared. I always tell myself I’m going to quit and yet I keep writing. That is my choice. Most people break through by working in the industry and working their way up. I didn’t do that. It’s a disadvantage. So be it.

If you don’t get an MFA, work in journalism, attend writer’s conferences, publish in literary magazines, pitch essays, etc. then you are at a disadvantage. Think of it this way. You pick up two books in the store. One has blurbs on the back, one by a writer you admire. The other is blank. The first book has an advantage at the cash register. If I get two submissions in a day and one writer has a writing prize and a couple of publications and the other has nothing, the first submission has an advantage. It’s also true that the title will grab me as well as the first line and paragraph. All the credentials and referrals are not going to get your work accepted if it sucks, but it will probably get looked at first. But tons of crap gets published, you cry. Yes, this is also true. How do we explain in? My mother always said, that’s what makes horse racing. To each his own. There’s no accounting for taste.

When I was an editor, a project was brought up at the editorial meeting. It sounded amazing and we all read it for the following meeting. I was out that week, but the following meeting I asked, “Whatever happened with that treacly piece of shit?” I was told that the editor acquired it for a tidy sum. Awkward! I invoked my mother’s horse racing metaphor. Well, that treacly piece of shit sold millions of copies and spurred a cottage industry of similar books.

Quit if you must. Quit if you can.

Tell me your dreams.

14 Responses

  1. I have zero writing credentials, but I managed to write a sweet little novel that I have finally decided I love. It’s being published solely because a friend (and better writer) allowed me to drop her name in my query to her agent. Having a novel in the world is my dream as is a laundry room. Once I have both, quitting is definitely on the table.

  2. You’re telling us the truth… Ouch, but okey doke. Lemme get my bandaids and get back to work.

  3. I found the last post very useful and inspiring. As you said, credentials means publishing in literary magazines as well as MFA, contacts, etc. Being a writer means (for me) getting work off my computer and out into the world. The more I can do this the more I feel I am a “real” writer (others will define this in their own way). Submitting to literary magazines means I prepare work for publication (ie. complete it), have the difficult experience of being assessed by people I don’t know, and learn to take rejection (and temper the exhilaration of acceptance). I was heartened to read in your post that while (at the moment) this is not bringing in any income, it may pay off in the long run. Thanks – love your practical advice.

  4. Fuck quitting, quitting’s for quitters.

    I wasn’t discouraged by anything you said in that post, Betsy. Years ago I might have been, but now I understand it’s MY job to keep my feet moving, bob and weave best I can, land some powerful punches when I get the chance — and to not take it personally when I get smashed in the nose and the ribs and the ears and the eyes and the chin, and even hit low once or twice. That was what I signed on for when I stepped into the ring, and started to write.

    I have none of the sorts of credentials you listed — but I have sold many more books than most people who do. Real readers buy my books every day every year. They lay out their own cash to read them, then most do it again and again til they’ve read all the books published under that pen name. Some review them using big or small words that, in both instances, explain how they loved the experience of reading those books. But are those things meaningful credentials, in the eyes of important agents and big publishers?

    If they’re not, I’m happy to stick to my lane, effectively self-publishing my genre fiction and making six figures from doing so most years. I have no MFA, but I’ve worked my arse off studying how to write better fiction — and actually WRITING, not just TALKING about it like so many “writers” do. Book after book, I’ve learned from my mistakes, built on my strengths, strived to make readers happy. I’ve done this in two different genres, become a biggish fish in those two quite different, somewhat smallish ponds. And no, I don’t pluck the cheap sexy fruit from low branches, if that’s what you’re assuming. I write real stories that old and young both enjoy. I write books I’m proud of, and have the balls to put them into the marketplace, where they can be judged on their merits — ridiculed by thousands perhaps, if it’s what they deserve.

    But what of The Dream? To write the Books of My Heart, experience the validation of having them acquired by a great Agent, Editor and House, see them well published to great acclaim, then made into films that don’t quite measure up to the books?

    Here I stand, Big Dream in hand, at a crossroads of sorts. I have finished drafts of these other novels I’ve written, Books of My Heart, let us call them. Books that would also make readers happy, but are certainly NOT genre fiction.
    (Upmarket Fiction is a term I recently saw that perhaps would describe them. Sounds fancy, right? Maybe not… Books with plot, but writ literary somewhat, is a rhymey description for Upmarket Fiction.)
    I’ve never bothered self-publishing those books — it would certainly be less effective. Unlike genre fiction, such books cannot realize their sales potential without a big publisher behind them. To work those books up to a publishable standard would take significant time away from my genre work — I’m not happy to invest that time (yet) unless I can reasonably expect to get a publisher’s attention, based on my proven sales of books in two different genres.

    So, what of dreams? I contend dreams come in different sizes, and we dream different dreams from one night to the next. People I’ll never meet read my books, and some have compared me to truly great writers — writers I’m not fit to lick the boots of, and perhaps never will be. But I guess that would have been a dream of mine at some time — not the bootlicking part, the… you know what I mean. To sell books every day, was another dream I must have had. Fuck me, to sell ONE book to ONE stranger, and have them write a review that said, “Pretty good.” Surely THAT was a dream I’ve forgotten — that’s another thing about dreams, they’re slippery suckers, drifting into the ether to haunt someone else, once they’re done fucking with us.

    So, my dream for today is that you’ll read my letter below:

    Dear Betsy Lerner.
    I have written a novel that isn’t quite finished, so I’m gonna go Finish The Fucker. And I hope you understand how much you’ve helped me to keep doing that, over and over again, even though it ain’t easy.
    A writer who writes and doesn’t quit, because Forests, and Trees.

  5. You aren’t out on a limb, Betsy – you are stating facts. We all know this is how it works, but we don’t do have to like it or think it’s a good system. I wrote/ write if a story is busting to be told. But what if there’s no one listening? I’d rather quit than get bitter about not being read – a very real danger. Quitting does not make you a “quitter”, it makes you a person who wants to use their energies more fruitfully.

  6. This all suggests to me that along with writing the best thing you can and getting whatever credentials you can, finding an agent and/or getting a novel published is also a numbers game. The more queries you have out there, the more likely one will find the person with matching tastes or interests (or who knows the niche in the marketplace that is perfect for your work).

  7. “Tell me your dreams.”

    Are the dreams of the young same as those of the old? Can they be? Should they be? What dream I now that I once before dreamed? What dreamed I just last night that I could see fit to tell you this morning, in any detail? She seemed very familiar, though I am not certain her name.

    Of some other dream, my dream was that it would matter. That I could make it matter, through my making out of it that which would matter even more.

    Quit? Can I? Must I? This game? The writerly game? Noble pursuit of the ahts? Quit that? Then what? A life forsaken, confession of the great gift wrongly taken, all time wasted, all work for no good? How could I do that? How could I dare? I would be smitten down in wrath, erased from the book of life.

    There’s this. What Gordon said. I’ll paraphrase. There are no guarantees but one. This will cost you nothing less than your life. If you’re not ready to give it that, then get out now.

    I believed him then, when I dreamed a younger man’s dream, and I believe him now, as I wander through the wilderness of my own devise. Dream? Nightmare? It doesn’t matter. It is what I chose to be chosen by. I cannot quit. I dare not. I will not.

  8. Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute.

    If hundreds of bylines are credentials than I qualify. Two newspaper columns, op-eds, essays, assigned pieces and I still get recognized because my picture topped the columns. I have two of the largest newspapers in the state that I believe would most graciously do a profile (IF) I turned out something a bit off my mark, (Awesome Fiction), and broke through the age stereotype of traditional publishing.

    I didn’t date until I was out of high school, lost my virginity at 26, married after 30, first published at 38, and had children while approaching my forties. All my milestones tap-out on the high side of age. Do I give up having a debut Title Page past 70, (egads that’s sounds old), no not yet.

    Fiction is the dream Betsy. Hanging in and turning out the goods is my plan. Even if my novel is beyond amazing the industry says I don’t have much of a publishing future left. Um…excuse me boys and girls …fuck that kind of thinking.

    I’m making the cover of Writers Digest as the SECOND oldest debut novelist of a NYT bestseller. I would like to be a little younger than Lorna Page when I do it though. More time to enjoy my fame.

  9. I find most everything you write helpful. Not pandering just saying.

    Your post on writing credentials is like a manual. Do this, do that, screw this piece in here, and twist that lug nut over there. Some follow directions to a “T” and the contraption looks nothing like what’s on the box. Some wing it, and it mirrors the picture on the box exactly.

    You tear it apart and build it again. That’s the stage I’m at, building the thing – again.

    I view dreams as goals. So, my goals are NYT bestseller list. Book into a movie. International sales . . . etc. Will I ever reach them? This is where the sticky wicket comes in – no idea b/c unfortunately not my monkeys, not my circus.

  10. I dreamt I was naked in public and it didn’t bother me, so I just kept writing.

    If you want to write a money earning movie that might garner some critical acclaim, write an action packed western and disguise it as an interplanetary romp starring an obscure, insecure Marvel superhero with daddy issues. Having the word Squid in the title could be helpful also.

  11. I just hang out here lurking, thinking, wishing. Learning. And maybe someday… Or not. But I’m too tired and too cynical to believe I can beat the system. I will say this: passion is all, and all that matters. So write on, writers. Exit writing.

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