At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Failure, But Hey–

I recently had to give up on something that was a dream of mine. Something I'd worked on for nearly three years, and invested a good deal of money, too.  It was a reading app called LitWeaver,  a dot com, wherein authors could deliver contemporary young adult literature directly to English teachers in middle- and high schools. Describing building a digital library and the app itself would require a book (I'll write it, someday), but in the end our website did not get enough traction (users and paying subscribers) to make it sustainable. We peaked at 1200 English teachers from ten countries. This was admirable but insufficient. Along the way, however, we forked some lightning–winning education-technology awards, connecting with teachers and students, and developing work from an A-list of YA authors.  But in the end, we had to shut LitWeaver down.  It was an idea whose timing was off a click or two; e-reading, and digital delivery of content to schools has not fully arrived.  Schools are all over the tech and digital-reading continuum, with some fully digitized, and others several years behind the times. The whole landscape was, and remains, too unsettled for what we offered.

So let's speak to failure. As author, it's part of the landscape you live in.  Looking back through my writing files the other day, I totted up some seriously "lost" time: novels, short stories, miscellany that was never published.  A rough estimate?  Probably around 4-5 to five full years of writing that went nowhere.

But is that truly lost time?  Wasted effort?  I don't think so.  For writers, every page we write makes us a tiny bit better:  smoother, less self-conscious, more aware of our personal voice. With LitWeaver there is serious, short term loss but, I believe, some eventual reward for having stepped up and tried. In fact, "eventual" might have already arrived: I've plunged back into my own writing with energy and excitement that had, to be honest, waned over the years. Now the act of writing feels fresh and new.  With some luck my reward for failure will be a book or two that would not have been written otherwise.

Addendum:  LitWeaver  offered work from over fifty top, YA authors, including my pal, Pete Hautman.  Our authors were first to know about the shut-down of our app, and here is Pete's reply:

"About fifteen years ago a friend of mine set out to write, direct, and produce a feature length movie. Early in the process he asked me if I thought he was making a huge mistake by investing all his money, his credit, and his connections in the project. I said something like, “Would you rather be flat broke and disgraced and have made the movie, or spend the rest of your life thinking about what could have been?” He spent all his money, maxed out twelve credit cards, begged all his friends (including me) for money, and used every favor from every connection he’d ever made. He made the movie, it got no love, he declared bankruptcy, and now he’s selling real estate successfully, and seems to be quite happy. There is no moral to this story.  Anyway, you have my undying respect and admiration for giving it a shot"  (Pete Hautman)

Thanks, Pete. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

This Is Not Good News

I wanted to share one more, very recent story of working with a "Big Six" publisher.

HarperCollins has published several of my YA novels in the past, and has made good money on my titles, especially Memory Boy.  If you really want to hear about it, they've sold over a million bucks worth of my books over the years. Keep in mind that royalty rates are around 5-7 percent (my cut). In short, I've been good for HC. And I love the people there. Nothing cooler than heading to 10 East 53rd Street in NYC, the HarperCollins building, and afterward having lunch with the most literate and interesting people (editors) you can imagine.

So this year I sent an HC editor my new, YA novel. It's post-apocalyptic, in the style of Memory Boy, and occupied me a good part of two years.  It's the real thing, some of my best work, and the readers at HC picked that up immediately.  My editor, Alyson, loved it. The larger, editorial board loved it. Things were sailing along toward a book contract, and after that revisions, and an eventual hardcover release.

But then things slowed down.  My editor went silent. I had a very bad feeling, and I was correct. When the novel reached some department called "Acquisitions" (i.e., sales and marketing, I learned), it stalled.  The head of marketing opined that "Post-apoc has peaked, was on the wane, and by the time the novel came out, it might not sell."

"Post-apocalyptic fiction is on the wane," said no one, ever. Except for this marketing honcho. And that was enough to kill the deal.  My editor was completely apologetic–felt terrible–but had no say in the matter.  Which is the scary part.

This scenario illustrates a near complete reversal in the structures of publishing. It used to be that Marketing worked for Editorial:  editors decided what books to published, and marketing people then sold them.  But no more.  Nowadays, marketing types are in control.  It's they who decide what books get published.

The implications of this are profound and dark.  It encourages "safe" story lines, and books that are "like" other books (my case notwithstanding).  It eliminates any "oddball" book that becomes an unlikely bestseller.  At the far extreme, it means that book lovers, browsing for some new and different and surprising, will no longer find such titles.

I wish I had some good news regarding the current state of publishing. The only thing positive I can think of, is that it has never been easier to publish independently. An ebook directly to iBooks or Amazon.  I'm reluctant to do that, because I've had a good career in the the "old school" paradigm, but it may be, finally, that the worm has turned.  As I've written in posts below, each author has to be ready to adjust, adapt, pivot (whatever) in terms of keeping an open path forward. I've got some serious decisions to make.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Getting Back from Back on My Heels

Have I mentioned that rejection is part of the writing life?  That it never goes away, no matter how much success you've had?  Of course I have.  But these days I'm feeling it big time myself.  I've landed in that literary niche of "great reviews but doesn't sell books."  That latter part is relative of course; "doesn't sell books like Stephanie Meyer or Gary Paulsen," I would add. 

Still, my Motor Novels trilogy with Farrar, Straus & Giroux is struggling to pay back its advance (it looks unlikely unless lightning* strikes).  Teachers and librarians who struggle to get boys to read love the books.  And I get badly written but sweet emails every week from boys who "finally read a hole book", and ask me if I'm writing another in the series.   But boys don't go to malls and buy books, nor talk about them on social media.  I am, as my dear FSG editor Wes described, "doing God's work" with these little stock car novels.

And one more detail of my current literary doldrums:  my agent of twenty years went off the rails, imploded, I had to sue (it was messy but is now resolved), and so today I am "available" and looking for a new agent.  I'm finding this is not easy even though I've published a dozen YA novels, and have a fairly good 'brand,' may I 'umbly say.   One agent said that my recent submission (a new YA novel) has "undistinguished writing."  Okay, f**k you.  Two other agencies have not replied after four weeks.

In short, I am reminding myself daily that it's probably not me.  That it's the publishing industry that's back on its heels.  I need to keep the faith that good writing will out, but not necessarily sit back and depend upon the old paradigm of Big Six publisher, advance on completion of the manuscript, and eventual royalties.   It might well be time for  e-publishing along with other forms of literary life re-boot and re-invention.   Stay tuned.

*There is some interest from television for a possible tv series about my stock car novels.  Nothing firm, and a long way to go.  Still, there's talk.  

P.S.:  Writers who've had great success can be really annoying when they start bitching about their lives.  This isn't meant to be that kind of post.  The goal here is to talk about recognizing when we need to make strategic moves, career pivots, and/or new approaches.  And of course to keep faith in ourselves.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The New Publishing Landscape

Since my last post a full year has passed.  If "blogging" infers regular postings, then I must doing something different–and "different" is a good metaphor for the world of publishing right now.  In twelve months the worm has turned still more, and faster.  Notably, the Big Six, print publishers are even further back on their heels.  Their reaction is to devote more and more resources to fewer and fewer, big-name authors.  Extrapolated to the extreme, soon Stephen King, Stephanie Meyers and Neil Gaiman get all of the money available for print books.  The rest of us will be left to fight it out in the chaos of e-books and self-publication.

Mid-list authors especially (I include myself) are having an increasingly hard time placing new books.  A new novel I worked a full year on has been rejected three times, and things don't look hopeful for it.   I was also struck, recently, by the comments of a third-novel woman author who felt "grateful" for a small contract for "an actual print book."  I found that really sad.

The goal in life, however, is to remain positive, and I see opportunities in this new, harsh landscape of publishing.  On the Young Adult side of my writing, I'm working on a E-outreach to bring some of my shorter work and that of other YA authors directly to schools.  Nothing not to like about that, teachers tell me.  In short, it's up to each of us involved in literary life to find ways to grow and thrive in this new environment.  And that requires us to be energetic, creative and positive.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

National Book Award Hangover

"I've mentioned earlier in this blog my experience as a judge for last year's National Book Awards, Young Adult panel.  It involved reading 278 novels in a short summer.  I knew I'd learn a lot about writing in the process, but was unprepared for the "hangover" effect upon my writing.

 In a nutshell, the whole experience has shaken my confidence.  There are so many good writers out there, and a truly good novel is such a delicate confluence of subject matter, style, tone, voice, assemblage, et al, that my novel-in-progress is pushing back in a big way.

  It's saying, "Am I really the book you should be writing at this particular point in your life?"  It's saying, "How do you expect me to compete with all the great (mostly younger) writers out there?"  It's saying, "There are real novels and fake novels--which one am I?"  It's saying, "Hunting season is soon here, and you like fall fishing, plus the river is full of wild rice waiting to be harvested--why are you sitting here at your computer?"  It's saying, "In the end, the world prefers not to be written about.  Time and days just want to keep moving forward, so why bother trying to stop the world from turning?"

Back to my NBA experience, one of the things that seemed clear to me was the power of language to cut through the general noise of the general novel.  I mean language such as James Joyce uses in Finnegan's Wake, or Russell Hoban in Riddley Walker, or Anthony Burgess in  A Clockwork Orange.  While those are classic examples, and difficult to live up to, any type of creative manipulation of language was a relief to find in the pile of 278 novels.  So I tried that in my new novel.   I had great fun, and pressed a sample on my best editor (my wife).  Her response?  Very tactfully she said that she found it "hard to read", and if it was difficult for her, what about for today's young adults?  Here's a sample:

"The Sunstone was now large enuf to veal its markings wich were hyroglyifics of sum kynde and what had befor lookt like litel feet around the weel were now sharp likky litel tongs of fire.  Neerly to there partment bilting the Sunstone barely turnt now.  It gront and creekt lyke a wheel low on greese...." 

Of course she was right (the audience awareness thing), and so  I revised the above passage to 'regular' prose:

"The Sunstone was large enough to show that its little feet were tongues of fire, tiny solar flares licking outward, pulling it along.  Nearly to their apartment building the Sunstone groaned and creaked like a wheel low on grease."

 Though a tiny part of me still believes that when a writer is having fun, his reader will too.  The trouble is, we need more than one reader.  Lots more.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Same Title, Different Book

        In 2005, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my coming-of-age novel Full Service. Set in small town Midwest in 1965, it’s the summer when everything changes (most of have such a time) for sixteen-year-old Paul Sutton. Fresh off the farm, and from a church-going family, he takes a job at a gas station where he fills tanks, checks oil, washes windshields and, most importantly, meets the public. Tourist girls, a kindly old gangster, con artists, a beautiful and mysterious woman in a blue Mercedes, wise men and fools—you get the idea­– all stop at the gas station on their way somewhere or nowhere. Over the long summer Paul’s eyes are opened, and though he loses his religion (among other things) he gains the world.
       With attentive editing by the FSG family, and a wonderful cover by Wendell Minor, Full Service launched to starred reviews (Kirkus called it “superb . . . pitch-perfect”). But then, well, my novel sat there. Hard cover sales were very disappointing. The paperback did better, but seven years later, still paddling gamely against the tide of fantasy and vampire fiction, Full Service seemed dead in the water. Destined, though close, never to pay off its advance.
       So imagine my surprise to see a recent, dramatic spike in its sales– particularly in e-books. Of one million e-books available Full Service was suddenly below 60,000, and moving vigorously. I was beset by instant smugness: my little gem of a novel had finally been discovered. I used to tell my students that good writing will always find its audience, and here was proof.
       Then, in a quick Amazon title search, up popped the new, hot-selling Full Service: My Life In Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars. Right next to my mine. While my Full Service had all five star reader reviews, the evil twin book had mainly one star reviews that included “absolute garbage,” “yuck,” “crap,” “simply awful,” “glad he’s not my friend,” and “worst book I’ve ever read” (24 of the latter). Yet there it was, this sweaty, trashy, Hollywood gigolo tell-all memoir cozied up alphabetically and algorithmically to my tidy, earnest novel of small town Midwest. But pimping for it, too. While I hold out a slim hope that my novel is finally catching on, it seems pretty clear that fast-fingered book buyers are clicking on it by mistake.
       I’ve always believed the literary Gods to be sly but just, and now I know they have a sense of humor. Looking for sexcapades in Hollywood, my new readers instead find themselves at a gas station in Our Town. But here’s my fantasy: maybe they’ll be so surprised –and then by engaged by my characters­– that they’ll finish my book and like it. Their eyes will be opened to the transformative power of “real writing”; they’ll realize that instead of a book-buying mistake, they made the right choice after all.
     And I’ll finally pay off my advance.

(Originally published in the Huffington Post books section.)


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Approaches to Writing Your Novel

My most successful novel for young adults is Memory Boy, a draft of which I wrote in three weeks.  That should have told me something.  However, as a novelist I'm a slow learner; or more precisely, each novel is its own puzzle to solve, and it's usually a mistake to hark back to the previous book when writing a new one.   However, I'm trying just that with my new novel:  re-visiting the approach I took to writing Memory  Boy, to see if it will work again.

There are two very general approaches to writing a novel:  work on it daily, stopping and starting to attend to real life, much as one goes about a job.  The opposite tack is the Jack Kerouac method:  full tilt, full focus, writing fast and hard and continuously, real life be damned.  I know visual artists who absolutely require the latter method, but most novelists I know take the workman-like approach.

Memory Boy was written with modified Jack Kerouac approach.  I tried to "write" (visualize) a good deal of MB inside my head before anything else.  Once it began to seem real in my imagination, I made notes and set chapter headings in place. Soon I  pretty much knew the whole arc of the novel (with most of my novels I know only half or even a third of the story before I write the first word.)  My notes weren't copious, such as I imagine a mystery writer might need, and of them the chapter headings were the most useful.  Knowing all of–and only– what each chapter has to cover greatly speeds up the writing process.  Then, with MB fully in my head, I holed up at a writing retreat for three weeks of isolation, and wrote.  Just wrote.  No distractions other than to surface for food and a breath of fresh air.  The result was an organically whole narrative that, as I see now, has a tightness about it–an intensity, an urgency––that most of my YA novels do not have.  They are each good in their own ways, but not as tight as MB.  In short, I think the Kerouac method has much to say for itself as an artistic process.  Can I duplicate it?  Will it work again?  I'll find out this summer.