‘How’s the Book Going?’

cropped-1408767_87215604.jpegPeople love to ask this question of writers who are writing a book. I don’t blame them. What else are they supposed to ask? It does seem like the natural equivalent to “How’s work?” They’re trying to start a conversation is all. They’re trying to show interest in the writer’s life and livelihood. And for certain people (close friends and family, plus other writers) who will actually sit through a genuine answer to this question, it’s fine to ask.

But the cocktail-party version always feels fraught for me. It’s like people who ask “How are you?” in passing. They don’t want to know the real answer; they just want to express their vague interest in your well-being and then hear, “Fine. How are you?” Sometimes I also feel this pressure to make the answer super-glamorous, to live up to some kind of Hemingway fantasy people have about professional authors. “It’s great! I shot a boar and then went running with the bulls last week, and somehow when I came home, another three chapters had magically appeared on my computer in the perfect, terse prose of a master!” Given the subject matter of my work, I also feel a pressure from others to make it glamorous by Hollywood standards: “Oh, I barely have to write the thing. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David have volunteered to personally ghost-write entire chapters for me, then come over and shower me in some of the excess hundred-dollar bills they have lying around.”

The accurate answer, however, is: “I transcribed another interview today. Then I printed it out and highlighted the best quotes and stories. Then I had a glass of iced tea. Then I started copying and pasting the quotes and anecdotes from the transcribed file into the working draft of my book in what I believe are the best locations for those quotes and anecdotes. Then I started working them into the narrative, but I didn’t finish because our take-out burrito order arrived. Then I ate and watched an old episode of The Sopranos.”

If you’re really wondering how the book’s going right now, I have about five huge transcripts to get through, plus a few more on the way; the good news is I already have a 90,000-word, very messy draft. I also have several fresh highlighters in different, exciting colors.

How it actually feels every day is best described by this recent New York Times essay by Rachel Schteir about the constant failure that writing requires. Even productive days feel like a series of failures. In it, she quotes Junot Diaz:“In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.” Even writing a book on contract for a publisher feels like a kind of failure for me right now: Every day, I fail to finish the book. Then, one day, somehow, miraculously, I will not fail. I will finish. Then I’ll start failing at something else.

Nonfiction Advice from Ted Conover

GABRINERPHOTO 9875 copyAs I finish writing and start editing my Seinfeld book, I’m re-reading Robert S. Boynton’s excellent The New New Journalism to get some ideas for what I still need to work on, how I want to edit, and so forth. As I cull some tips from some of my favorite nonfiction writers interviewed in the book, I figured I’d share a few of the tidbits that stuck out for me, starting today with one of my favorite authors, Newjack‘s Ted Conover. Some of his advice:

  • “I pay a lot of attention to place in my writing, so when I arrive in a new town I try to do what Lawrence Durrell recommended in his essay “Spirit of Place,” which is to get still as a needle, as he puts it.”
  • “I feel it’s important, in first-person nonfiction, to establish the narrator’s character as well as everyone else’s.”
  • “My ideal day starts after a good night’s sleep. The first thing I do when I wake up is make sure to spend enough time in bed to figure out what I’m going to write that day. A lot of my ideas take shape before I get out of bed.”
  • “I seldom spend more than a couple of hours at my desk without taking a walk or a run, doing errands, etc. In a productive day I may have three two-hour periods when I’m actually writing.”
  • “At the end of each day I type myself a brief note at the end of the manuscript, using capital letters, describing what I want to do the next morning.”
  • “I tend to get going in the late morning and am usually tired by late afternoon. I seldom write at night.”

Writing With Friends

girl with bookThis piece on the New York Times‘ writing blog, Draft, by Bonnie Tsui, addresses something that has come up for me a lot lately: the social side of writing. In it, Tsui talks about how she used to resist hanging out with, and especially writing near, other writers; but now, she has embraced the idea of sharing an office with other freelancers.

I’m not about to get in on a communal office space — I like neither the cost nor the impingement on the freedom to go to my refrigerator whenever I want to. But lately I’ve been reminded of the benefits of talking with other writers: online, on the phone, or in person. A giant Facebook group has recently started for women writers (it’s private and closed, due to overwhelming demand) and it seems to be doing great things. Women are sharing ideas, and even landing assignments in major outlets this way. At about the same time this group started, I coincidentally launched my own minor effort to network in person with others who write about pop culture like I do. It’s a strange and specific beat, full of frustrations that no one else totally gets (like trying to hunt down celebrities for interviews or having to watch so much TV that your eyes want to bleed). We met for the first time last night, and it was a great start.

We even talked about how hard it is, particularly as a freelance writer, to share your resources with others. Often it feels like we have to beg and scrape for every $200 assignment. (You don’t want to know what we’ll do for those $2,000 ones.) The last thing we want to do is risk someone else honing in on our territory. But I’m a believer in professional karma, so I’m trying to share my knowledge, even the hard-won kind. And it seems like I know lots of generous souls who want to do the same.

‘Just Shut Up and Learn’

58251_7227I love this little anecdote from my interview with Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman, who got the job after years of freelance magazine writing:

I kind of looked at the other writers, who had been around show business a lot, and noticed that they were talking a lot during lunch, and trying to be funny during lunch. I wrote down on a piece of paper for myself, “Just shut up and learn.”

Good advice for us all.

Essay-Grading Machines? No thanks.

girl with bookThere is now quite a bit of academic chatter about the idea of computers grading essays — specifically, a much-debated study claiming that machines can handle this task as well as humans can.

As a sometime writing teacher, I cringe at the thought of a pile of assignments to critique as much as anyone. (No, really, I love my work! It’s just … so … daunting, sitting there on my desk.) But good lord, I’m not about to hand the job off to a computer. And not just because I value being paid and value the (possibly deluded) belief that I have a valuable skill set to offer the world.

I have to think that if a machine can grade an essay as well as a human, that human is doing it wrong. This guest blog on the Washington Post site, by author and teacher Maja Wilson, lays out the case as well as anyone can — and her case involves the Department of Homeland Security and sarcasm.

 

‘Daily Rituals’ Test Drives: My Schedule

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30I spent last week trying out some tweaks to my daily freelancer schedule, courtesy of the book Daily Rituals.

Here’s what I’ve settled on (for, of course, an ideal day that is unlikely to ever happen, but it’s good to have goals):

8 a.m. Wake up.

8-8:30 a.m. Meditate.

8:30-9:30 a.m. Work out.

9:30-10 a.m. Breakfast, shower, dress.

10-11 a.m. Communication. (Phone, email, blogging, Facebook, Twitter.)

11 a.m.-1 p.m. Work. (Pitches, assignments, book stuff.) Outside, if possible. In bed, if desired.

1-2 p.m. Lunch.

2-3 p.m. Optional nap.

3-6 p.m. Work. With music, if desired.

Bed by midnight.

‘Daily Rituals’ Test Drive: Joan Miro and Gertrude Stein

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30Artist Joan Miro is the first I’ve encountered in Daily Rituals who favors the healthy side of fighting one’s demons instead of the self-medicating side. (He was highly regimented and always worked in exercise to stave off the depression he’d suffered in his early years — smart guy.) Not coincidentally, he’s the first one with a schedule and work routine I’d like to emulate. Here’s my modified version of Miro’s day, which has worked quite well for me:

Got up at 8 (instead of his 6).

Had breakfast, then worked from about 9 until noon.

At noon, went for a run/worked out.

Ate lunch, then napped. (I napped for about an hour, though he supposedly “napped” for five minutes. I call that “lying down.” He, adorably, called it his “Mediterranean yoga.”)

I had an interview (with the Soup Nazi, natch) at 2, so I was back in the office to do that.

From here (3 p.m.) on, I’m planning to deal with communications and then work until dinner time. Lovely, perfect work day.

Next up is Gertrude Stein, who liked to write outside (for at least a half-hour a day) after bathing and dressing in the morning. Of course, she specifically liked to look at rocks and cows, which are in short supply here in Manhattan. But I always mean to take more advantage of the outdoor spaces nearby.

‘Daily Rituals’ Test Drives: Patricia Highsmith

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30In my continuing quest to try some tweaks to my work process as I work on my Seinfeld book, I lived yesterday at least vaguely in the spirit of Strangers on a Train author Patricia Highsmith (according to the entry about her in Daily Rituals). She seemed kinda unhinged, so I didn’t venture too far into all of her habits. (She said that she had ideas “as frequently as rats have orgasms,” which is an analogy that I will never forget. She also bred snails in her home because she could relate to them more than people, so there’s that.) She aimed for up to 2,000 words of writing a day, which I didn’t hit, but that’s because I’m still in the outlining/rearranging phase that precedes any of my book writing. (I get the info I want written in chunks in a draft, then keep moving them around until they make sense, then rewrite the whole thing; it’s like a very long and involved outline.) But I did spend about three hours yesterday with my notecards and messy, crazy outline thing. And I borrowed one of Highsmith’s specific techniques, which was to, according to biographer Andrew Wilson, “ease herself into the right frame of mind for work” by sitting on her bed surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut, and an accompanying saucer of sugar. Of course my version involved the bed and the coffee, sans cigarettes and doughnuts. She also apparently enjoyed “a stiff drink before she started to write,” but that seemed like the worst possible idea at 2 p.m., especially if I was going to get into bed. It seemed to me all that would do is bring on an afternoon nap. (“In her later years,” Daily Rituals says, “as she became a hardened drinker with a high tolerance, she kept a bottle of vodka by her bedside, reaching for it as soon as she woke and marking the bottle to set her limit for the day.” Whoa.) It’s so comforting to learn that even if given an “excuse” to indulge, some indulgences just don’t tempt me. Being in bed worked well, though — it made the process feel a little more fun and relaxed. I also blasted ’90s music, which, it should be noted, was my own addition to the Highsmith regimen.

‘Daily Rituals’ Test Drives: W.H. Auden

9780307273604_custom-b0393414440fa19a6b8301f3a6a4855bf6caf661-s6-c30I’m reading this fun book called Daily Rituals, which details the routines of dozens of artists, writers, scientists, and other famous creative types. Since I became a freelance writer three years ago, I’ve been obsessed with how people with the freedom to make their own schedules arrange their days. I made a schedule of my own after realizing how easy it was to drift into days full of baking and cleaning and errand-running instead of working. I still keep to that basic schedule, but I’ve been considering some tweaks. Thus I picked up this book and decided to test drive some of the less-destructive ideas. (There is an awful lot of drinking and some drugging that could certainly become counterproductive, and I salute those who managed to be brilliant and famous despite that.) I’ll write about some of the experiences here.

First up in the book is W.H. Auden, who does have some of those destructive habits, though he pales in comparison to some others. “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” the poet wrote in 1958. I think he’s right, obviously. He was strictly punctual, something I aspire to in my own life — yesterday, while on the Auden Plan, I skipped an elaborate shower and simply freshened up instead to get myself to meet friends for a concert in Prospect Park on time. (Good thing, since the line to get in ended up being incredibly long, and we got a decent spot by arriving when we did.) I didn’t get up at 6 a.m. like Auden, but I did get up by 7:45, and it was nice to have some time to ease into the day before my 9 a.m. phone interview. I did get to my desk for work a little before 9, and that was nice, too — I got some stuff done before hitting the grocery store around 11. I did work in a few Auden-like cocktails post-6:30 p.m., just as he did; though I had just two glasses of wine, not several martinis plus wine. Auden relied on amphetamines for energy and sedatives for sleeping, and I was hoping to avoid both.

Why Finding the Right Literary Agent Is Like Dating

cropped-1408767_87215604.jpegAlmost everything in life worth anything is like dating, in that you put yourself out there, vulnerable and asking for rejection. This couldn’t be more true of the author-agent relationship — which can actually be worse than dating, in the sense that this person controls your livelihood, and can “date” as many people as he/she wants while you can have only one of him/her. For a situation in which you’re supposedly a “client” and this person supposedly works “for” you, the power dynamics feel quite the reverse.

This week I got an email from a friend that’s very typical of the conversations I’ve had many times with fellow writers:

“A week ago my agent emailed to check on the status of the book proposal [for a nonfiction project]. I sent her everything I had. This was a week ago. I called on Monday to touch base. (Since I am a crazy phone person who thinks it’s 1987.) She *emailed* me back and said she was swamped and would call on Tuesday. Have heard nothing since. My knee jerk reaction is that she never bothered to read what I sent her. She will be taking 15% off the top of whatever this book sells for — and yet I feel like I am a very low priority for her. She hasn’t read [my sample chapters for my novel], either. At this point I want to do just this one book with her, and that’s it. I’m not feeling the love but I also don’t feel like I’m being a princess either. #thisiswhyIdrink”

I’ve heard even worse stories, too, with agents taking months to get back to writers on potential projects, ignoring email and phone pleas, etc. Now, I’m sure every agent has a dozen stories about crazy, needy writers, too — we can be a little sensitive. But given the experience I’ve had with four different agents throughout my career, I feel like I’ve learned some things by trial and error that others haven’t been able to. I’m a slightly more experienced than average “dater” who can comparison shop.

My advice in almost all of these situations, provided the writer is not being crazy and needy, is to find a new agent. If this person isn’t vibing on you, she’s not going to be passionate enough to sell your work the way it deserves to be sold. She’s the equivalent of a boyfriend who only texts you when he’s feeling horny late on a Saturday night. You’ll know when you find the right one. I’ve had an agent who didn’t like any of my ideas, an agent who couldn’t greenlight anything without first talking to her boss (who, of course, didn’t know me but somehow got to decide which projects I should do), an agent who went radio silent for months at a time and then wrote me back one-line blow-off emails. (Some of these were the same person.) When I signed with Laurie, my current agent, the angels sang like I’d just found the love of my life: She called when she was supposed to, checked in frequently when appropriate, read everything I sent her in a timely fashion … oh, and sold two books for me within four months of our first phone meeting. She’s always quick to offer an opinion on a career choice if I need it; to me, that’s the whole point of having an agent. It turned out I wasn’t crazy or needy; I just hadn’t met the right match yet.

In literary agency, as in dating, you should never feel like a “low priority.” I say keep looking until you hear those angels singing. And the one thing about this situation that’s better than dating? You can shop around all you like — it’s not cheating, just business.