Self (Publishing) Help: Do You Need Beta Readers?

This is what it feels like to let someone else read work in progress. image courtesy http://www.publicdomainreview.org/images

 

A beta reader, as far as I can glean from the world wide web is a term that originated among fan fiction writers, on forums.

Fan fiction writers are people who write in the style of an author they admire, or continue story lines where the author left gaping chasms, or had the nerve to die.  These are typically fans of classics in a particular style (the victorians, for instance: George Eliot, The Brontës, et al) or contemporary commercial fiction (J. K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, so on).

My friend Robin Kaye, who is now a romance novelist (and not a shabby one, either), started out writing Jane Austen fan fiction.  Fan fiction writers are definitely a subculture, and one of which I am generally ignorant, so apologies in advance if I make any misrepresentations here.

My sense of things is that a beta reader is a developmental editor who works for free.  Another term for roughly the same thing: critique partner.

So the short answer is, yes.  You should get yourself a beta reader.  At least one.  More than one would be good.  And, as I mentioned before, you should not be related to or having sex with your beta readers.

Think of it this way: Getting the truth about your fiction (or any writing) from someone who loves you, or even strongly likes you, is as likely as an honest answer to, “Does this make me look fat?”

 Where would I get a beta reader?

If you’re already a part of a writing forum online, that’d be a great place to look.  Or a club or social organization that focuses on writing (like a poetry society or writers’ guild, these often exist by region or state), or a professional organization (like AWP or National Writers Union), or your Facebook page.

I will suggest Craigslist, but advise you to proceed with caution, and probably only if you live in a very large urban area.  Craigslist is mostly useless if you live in a small town unless you’re giving something away (like baby clothes or appliances).

On LinkedIn there are discussion forums for writers and editors.

The thing that has always bugged me about online forums is that the core group of people on a forum is often lonely and mean-spirited, and using the forum as a way to take out hatefulness on other people who they’ll probably never have to face.

OR, there’s such a long and massive history of in jokes and forum jargon and stories that it’s almost impossible to feel welcome. These lodge a stone of discomfort tight in my belly.  I have never found the forum model to be elevating.  But it works for some people.  And it’s out there.  So go do it.  Tell them I said hello.

There may also be writing courses or workshops in your community.  Check out your public or university library or any organizations and nonprofits devoted to writing, like Attic Institute in Portland, or  Mid Atlantic Arts on our fair East coast.

Please, please don’t be a dip and send these people email asking for a list of writers.  Go on their websites and look for opportunities to network with other writers, like taking a workshop or doing a residency.

There is a different way.

You could start a writers’ group.

Writers’ groups are awesome.  Not least because you can actually go to a coffee shop and look writerly with other people instead of by yourself (which is idiotic and pretentious).

The Pros

  • You actually get to look at other people. Watch other writers interact socially.  It can be revealing.  Writers are a cagey bunch.  We’re all full of self-deprecating jokes or wry comments.  And when we’re engaging on the topic of our work, unless we have piles and piles of practice at a workshop poker face, we’re defensive and possibly prickly.
  • It’s a give-and-take relationship.  It’s not some stranger giving you hours upon hours of their time for absolutely nothing.  You are as obliged as the other members of your group to provide thoughtful feedback.
  • And let’s be honest: it’s more likely that you’ll get quality critique if you’re working with a group of people who are serious enough about writing to be in a group.  On purpose, with meeting times and all the accompanying social anxieties.
  • A random beta reader that you scared up online is as likely to be a fan fiction troll as a person with something valuable to say about anything, least of all your pride, joy, and toil: your draft.

All you need is one other writer to begin, and as you meet and work together, you’ll accomplish some of the following: you’ll increase your network, you’ll open a gateway of potential for partnerships, you’ll get accountability, you’ll learn stuff about yourself and your writing, your writing and critique abilities will increase, your outlook will improve, you’ll have camaraderie, an outlet for writerly venting, or you’ll eat less cake.

Cake is like band-aids for boo-boos of the soul.

The Cons

I am of two minds on the value of beta readers and critique partners and writers’ groups.  My stronger mind on the topic feels like the value of the writers’ group–the social critique–far outweigh the potential downsides in terms of community building and potential growth.  But my devil’s advocate mind would like to make the following points:

  • It’s still better to pay a professional when it comes time to prepare the manuscript for submission to agents and publishers.  Professionals have a vested interest in your work, not in your friendship.
  • As with every social endeavor, on and off line, writing groups can turn ugly and cost you potentially copacetic relationships.
  • Groups require time and organization, and unless you’re lucky enough to know a bunch of obsessed, competent, organized humans, the brunt of the organization will fall on one person, every group needs that person, and she can be hard to find.
  • There’s always the possibility that the group will fizz out, after–of course–you’ve devoted considerable time and energy to getting started and offering critique.
  • The critique partner/writing group relationship is difficult to get right.  So resist the urge to become BFFs.  It will be strong, since when you show somebody the unedited draft, you’re inviting at least some bad news, and that is hard on the ego–and much easier to take from somebody you’d have a beer or a movie with.
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Two Weeks to Geek: Librarians are Comics Heroes!

Used with Permission from John Shableski

Don’t forget to register online a tHttp://wildcatcomiccon.pct.edu.  Only a few days left to take advantage of the March Madness sale!

Yesterday, I wrote about resources for writers.  I was thinking specifically about online resources, but as I thought through the post for today, I realized that omitting mention of libraries as a resource is a woeful and egregious error.

Libraries–which would not be except for librarians–are usually free, are convenient to almost every community, and even the smallest, least well funded libraries contain books on all manner of topics, both mainstream and obscure.  And oh yeah, it’s the future so they also have the internet.

As I’ve done the research and interviews for WCC, librarians have emerged as champions of literature.  Of course they are, it’s just, I never thought of them that way.  Shame on me.

Indeed, librarians at Madigan Library at Penn College of Technology have been instrumental in organizing WCC and supporting the efforts to bring the event to fruition.

I am embarrassed to admit that whenever I did think of librarians–which I didn’t do too often–my mind conjured a tangle of anger and annoyance, for during my youth (except for Mrs. Bressler, the elementary school librarian), librarians were stern-faced humans who went about shushing.

In my pre-WCC life, librarians were not what I now know them to be, and that is brilliant people who love all kinds of books.  They are  heroes for the graphic text, an integral bit of the infrastructure for so much comics scholarship and fandom.

The thing that thrilled me most about the librarians with whom I spoke–and this may be a quirk of comics-interested librarians, though I doubt it–is how very wide open their minds are about books. They seem to believe that all texts are worthwhile, and if they need to learn 100% of everything about a particular type of unsung text, they will.  Gladly.

The Librarians

Kat Kan, editor of Graphic Novels and Comic Books, said,

“I like to tell people I’m a reading omnivore.  I started reading at age four, but I was also reading comic strips at the same time.  I think the two very much go hand in hand.”

I also spoke with Columbia University Librarian, Karen Green, who just last weekend, ran Columbia’s Comic New York:  A Symposium, which has only three presenters in common with WCC (Herself, Dean Haspiel, and Tracy White).
Of her own event, Karen said,

“As for how it went: wow.  I’m still riding the rush of adrenaline.  I knew that it was going to be great, but I had no idea just how great.  Every moderator, every panelist, gave 110%.  It was interesting and informative and entertaining.”

Karen writes a column at ComiXology, and in this link, you may read about how it happened that Columbia began to collect comics for circulation.

Her story is a common one, and has been a theme that I’ve heard as I’ve done these interviews.  Librarian says to self, “we should get more comics.”  Takes idea to those in charge while shaking in proverbial boots.  Those in charge say, “Of course we should.  We are embarrassed that it’s taken us so long.”

There is a certain amount of academic snobbery toward comics.  Everybody knows it.  So comics emerge as a thing to be championed.  But in recent history–I’d say since about 2003 or so–it’s more about people’s fear of the antagonism than an actual and widely held belief that comics do not hold hold literary, cultural, historical, or canonical value.

In fact, quite the opposite seems to be true, where many (though certainly not all, and probably not the most powerful) librarians have been secreting away with comics since their childhoods and believe ardently in their value as both entertainment and education.

The trouble is, since intellect is the academic’s capital, it takes a certain amount of bravery, and a certain willingness to potentially commit career suicide to come out as a comics lover.

Think I’m being dramatic about that career suicide thing?  Don’t.  Not all, certainly not even most scholars in universities can be outright nasty and bloodthirsty and utterly closed off from anything unfamiliar or not classical.  Similar to how one queer cross of a petty boss can land a person in the unemployment line.  The same BS and stereotypes exist in academia, they just have bigger vocabularies.

Robin Brenner, who’s the teen librarian at Brookline Library in Massachusetts (which is right next to Boston) said,

“I think comics have become mainstream enough that they’re now kind of everywhere.  Especially for the youngest readers.  They are big comics fans.  They read everything else, though, and don’t differentiate.  Adults are different.  If they grew up with comics, they continue to be what we think of as comics fans.  They go to comic book stores, they sort of keep the fan boy alive.”

She chuckled as she said that last bit, the thing about fan boys.

But I think another reason that comics have remained a lesser-respected medium over the years is that the fan boys kind of prize their own otherness.  There are innumerable representations in film, television and literature of greasy teen boys huddled around a comic book, wearing capes and talking in funny voices.  Of pining after the skinny beautiful girl while drawing or writing their own comics, furiously, and role playing on weekends.  It’s become a badge of honor.

Still, comics are earning an ever-increasing number of spots on shelves in libraries.

But according to John Meier, who is a librarian at Penn State’s University Park campus, and who established the Lynd Ward prize  in 2011, and who was talking specifically about a very specialized sort of comic that explores sciences at all educational levels (though there are similar concerns for fictional graphic texts, as well),

“Not only are they hard to track down, but what do you do with them? Do you put a science comic in the science library?  Do you put it with the other comics? I hope no one proposes this, but a lot of times they’re stuck with the children’s or juvenile collection with the educational books.”

And then there’s the regional anime champion, Jim VanFleet, a librarian at Bucknell who gave a marvelous email interview and said,

I have watched anime rise from obscurity in the United States and “fandom” to become a legitimate subject for academic study, with courses  being taught at universities, and the publication of  journals   and books   of critical analysis.  My own web page   focuses on this critical reception and academic study of anime.  I’ve worked hard, with the help of the Bucknell Anime Club, to build a good representative collection of anime and manga for an academic library, and the supporting books and journals to allow students and faculty to “engage” with anime as a subject.

So as there’s more than corn in Indiana, there’re more than creators at Wildcat Comic Con.  And from personal experience, the panels and presentations by these librarians will be at least as entertaining as anything the creators will dish out.
Besides which, Comics and Graphic texts’ most important ally and champion is the library and, most importantly, the librarians within it.

For Writers and Wannabes and Bloggers, and a Serious Question.

This is a drawing by Harry Clarke for Edgar Allen Poe's story, "The Premature Burial." It is from http://www.publicdomainreview.org

Yesterday I wrote that you have to read in order to be a great writer.

It’s true of blogging, too.  I decided about 2 months back that it was time to try to take this blog to the next level.

As I began to read about others’ ideas about blogging, things have more-or-less fallen into place.

Here are a few highlights of the things that have set the ball in motion for this blog, and for my future as a person who makes a living doing social media:

1. I finally focused.  Not hyperfocus or microfocus, but I figured out what I write about most often, watched my hits by varying post types, and paid attention to tweets & retweets & comments.

2.  I’ve got a schedule–sort of.  A loose one anyhow.  I (almost) always write for my blog first thing in the morning, and I post at least 5 days a week.  I don’t find this to be terribly difficult, but some folks would and do.  You do what works for you, okay?

3. I am a read like a crazy person–at least one blog post or resource a day.  It’s paying off.

Next?

1. Reorganize and purge my categories and labels.

2. Get some material in he hopper for weeks I have big projects.

3.  Post two reports for sale (hopefully by end of April): one on How to Start a writers’ group (post on the topic on Friday), and one on verb tenses.  Both inexpensive and well worth it.

4.  Figure out some kind of email subscription service (a la feedburner) and do a newsletter.

5.  Post a survey.  That’s next.   If you read here regularly, or if you’re in new blog love, please take eight seconds to click your answer or write one.  I don’t feel like I have to ask people to vote if they hate it, because haters like to hate.

Blogging Resources

279 Days to Overnight Success is an amazing resource.  And it’s free.  Read it.  That’s all.  Any type of blogger with any goals would benefit from the 12,000 words (which is not a huge time committment, either).

Stanford at Pushing Social writes a lot about how to use blogging to build your own business or brand.  I find some of his tips to be too sales-y for me, but he is not over-the-top.

Penelope’s advice about blogging which was the first place I went.  That was not–though I do love Penelope–100% all the best advice for me.  You really have to find what works for you, what’ll make you feel like doing your blog.  Now, I’d say about in the middle of my journey, I’m reaching a spot where I synthesize the voices I hear.  Pluck some advice from one, and other advice from another.

My Name Is Not Bob is Robert Lee Brewer’s blog.  RLB is an editor at Writer’s Digest which is a terrific publication.  He writes about other stuff, too, but his thoughts about social media for writers tend to be more about sharing than about bossing you around.  I dig that.

Copyblogger is more about the business of copywriting and web marketing. But they’ve got loads of free info on SEO and Keyword stuff that I’ve been meaning to get back to.

Brian A Klems is one of the bloggers and editors for Writer’s Digest.  Most of the time I dislike his posts, but this one is truly excellent, and a pretty solid distillation of all the best blogging advice.

Of course, Jane Friedman’s collection of voices and solid advice is an invaluable resource for any blogger, writer, social media afficionado, or 21st century human.

Resources for Writers, Novelists, Self-published, and Wannabes

A note here:  You can tell when these various folks have done their due diligence about blogging and are doing it well.  Reading at these sites–though they are not as universally well-blogged or well-designed as above, sometimes they didn’t have to because their readers came before their blogs–can be educational on the point of what looks most professional or badass.

Justine Musk writes about creativity and authorship and being a badass.  I really dig her.

My friend Jamie writes about being an editor.  She gives great tips about excellent stuff to read, writing pitfalls and grammar issues to avoid, and has a generally enjoyable voice & aesthetic.

These two gals are @duolit on twitter, and their website is all about self publishing.

Julianna Baggott’s blog is probably weighted heavily toward being more entertainment than advice, but she does have an advice to writers section that she updates whenever she posts on the topic.  Always, the posts are beautifully written.

The Rumpus is great.  I haven’t spent enough time there, but there’s a lot of entertaining, smart writing.  Entertaining, smart writing is good stuff to know about if you wanna be a writer.

Kristen Lamb’s blog is all about writing and authorship.  Her voice is also spunky and fun.  My favorite thing she’s doing right now is her series of posts called “Don’t Eat the Butt!”  It’s about bad–but prevalent–advice to writers and how to avoid being bogged down.

Cathy Day is a force of nature, and her blog is pretty great.  It’s more academic than anything I’ve listed above, but reading her blog is an experience that’s a little like taking her class or being engaged professionally by Cathy.  Cathy is one of the academic authors who “gets it” about social media.

I just love this one.  I found her yesterday, via 297 Days to Overnight Success, and she doesn’t offer writing or blogging advice specifically, but boy oh is her site a fun place to be.

Coming Attraction

Tomorrow is the Weeks to Geek post.  It’s going to be a little bit headier than you’re used to, but the whole component of the event that’s for librarians has gone–so far–unmentioned in the press & on this blog.  And well, I’ve always been a softy for the underdog.

Thanks, people, for making it real.

How To Be a Great Writer

public domain image from http://www.public-domain-image.com

First, a writer should live some life.

And I don’t mean the pansy, TV-watching, under-mom-and-dad’s-protective wing sort.  The sort that almost all high school and college kids–and even some grown-ass people with children of their own–are guilty of living.

I mean the real stuff: having to go to a horrible job because if you don’t, you don’t eat.  Fill in your own personal blank of hell here__________________.  Then do that.  For at least a year.  Five years is better.

If you don’t emerge still wanting to be a Great Writer, you will learn much about the world and yourself.

A writer should try to live.  A writer does not necessarily have to make foolhardy decisions that have a lasting impact on her life, but it probably would help.

I read this terrific, acerbic (almost to the point of hatefulness) article at Huffington Post by Ruth Fowler.

Ruth Fowler has lived.  I get why she has little patience for tales of (and by) inexperience!

Fowler’s theory is that the MFA is to blame for the spate of ridiculous novels that are being touted as brilliant and/or revolutionary by prestigious literary prizes or the critical journalist set.  These novels came from lackluster MFA programs pumping out competent writers.  I do not think that is true.  The MFA might be the last stop on the fail line, but we don’t get to the MFA without our overburdened, under-funded elementary, secondary, and post-secondary programs failing in some way.

A specific educational failing

I think “Hills Like White Elephants” is a shitty story to show to a bunch of aspiring writers.

I read it in high school in my honors lit course, then again in one of my first writing workshop courses in college.  I get it.  It’s Hemingway.  He’s doing something clever (or at least was then).  But he also wrote the story as a 30+year old man, and had been writing professionally since the age of 17, during a span of history in our country in which we lacked the distractions of TV, tablets, iPods, the internet; when life was a little (or a lot) harder in general.

Hemingway was dead before TV made its way into most middle class households.

What it does is tell young wannabes, who’ve probably only written what was absolutely required of them to the point at which they encounter “Hills,” is to try their hand at something that’s so far beyond their depth that they’ll almost certainly fail, and then they’ll either think themselves genius or just give up.  How is either pole desirable?

For one thing, it’s difficult to tell a whole story only in dialogue.  For another thing, “Hills” is a story that it’s impossible to tell without having lived some life.  All good stories are impossible to tell without living some life.  Perspective, wisdom, and experience make good stories.

It’s been during my tenure on our green-blue globe that there’s been this cultural shift toward prizing self-esteem above achievement.  According to a documentary called Waiting For Superman about the public education system in the US, the only thing US kids score best on worldwide is confidence.

Confidence is not helpful when there is no call for it.  Confidence is a thing that needs to be earned after years of toil.  Especially as a writer. I can think of no other pursuit in which rejection and failure are such an integral part of the process. And absolute confidence is a myth for a writer: self-doubt remains of tantamount importance throughout.

I find it to be obnoxious when writers talk about their compulsion to write as an albatross, but I can understand why some of them feel that way.

I spent about a decade living and trying to escape being a writer, because almost everything else is easier.

Here’s a truth that nothing I learned before the age of 25 prepared me for: Not Everyone Can Be a Great Writer.  It is NOT true that you “can do whatever you want.”

Also, you must read.  You must, you must, you must.

Truthfully, if you haven’t been reading voraciously as long as you could–which is something all the writers I know have in common–being a Great Writer is probably out of your grasp.

If you’ve been reading since you were a child, it probably doesn’t matter what you’ve read.

If you want to be a writer and you haven’t been reading, you should start reading now.  And try to read everything that’s ever been written that is like what you want to write.

Do this before you make it to the keyboard or pick up a pen.

Once you do, remember that the widely accepted theory on expertise is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become awesome.

The Silver Lining

I should tell you that I have practiced at writing for far many more than ten thousand hours.  I have been scribbling out sentences since I could write full words.  I remember yearning to learn to write, to create with a pen.  I did not know what that meant at the time, only that I needed to do it.

At least for the time being, our fair interwebs and its voracious appetite for content makes living life as a writer possible.  I am living my life–at least half time–as a writer.  More unpaid than paid at this point, but I am working and studying hard to flip that.

You, my blog readers, are making this possible.

And my fellow writers are telling me how.  And how not to.  For free.

So maybe the new truth is that Great Writers are a thing of the past.  Because the two sources linked above  agree that the biggest ingredient of success at making a living as a writer from your blog, with social media, and by marketing yourself, is effort, energy, and dedication.

Maybe the new Great Writers will be the most driven and tech savvy with the best grasp of SEO.

Tomorrow, a survey, a collection of resources, and a Weeks to Geek teaser.

Yes, Principal. I do swear in front of my kid. What’s it to you?

Child made these, or most of them.

How is it possible that some time in the very near past, my unbelievably cool child couldn’t even write her own name?

At the present moment, she is so competent that she corrects my pronunciation.  I remember doing this to my mother.  I remember being six, and getting the stick that my mom was some kind of numbskull.

This is not true, of course, but being six and obnoxious, I believed it.

But my mom never told me that she was smarter than I was.  In order to boost my self confidence, she would feign ignorance.  I think she still blames herself for the fact that I thought she was stupid.

I would’ve gotten there anyway, just probably not as young.  I figure, bonus for my mom having a few years to get used to it before things got real bad during the teenage years.

I do tell Child I am smarter than she is.

I also do not censor my language around her too much.  I’ve waffled on this point, but here’s my reasoning.

My own potty mouth (which is considerable, though usually mixed with some money vocab) is a product of my extremely conservative, Christian upbringing, and the fact that while I lean hard on being a pretentious wanker, I have always abhorred open pretension and making people feel stupid just because they haven’t read as many books as I have.

Some sheltered, indoctrinated kids discover booze and sex and go nuts?  Nothing like the nuts I went, and continue to go, on the profane tongue.

I am amused and edified by few things as much as I am by a stream of–especially creatively strewn–four-letter words.  Yes.  I do mean edified.

And using the cussy vernacular gives my social tendrils greater reach.  I am not perceived as a goody-two-shoes, nor as someone who can’t identify with uneducated people.  And, this is the best part: people who are and would be offended by my speech can stay away.

No Words are Bad Words

So my current rationale for swearing in font of Child is that no words are bad, and thinking of words as bad or profane is kind of unhelpful.  The idea that a radio personality can’t say “f*ck” on air is nuts.  What is this? 1500?

Might as f*cking well be.

I mean, I can’t even spell out the f-word on my blog for fear of getting found by a bunch of prawn connoisseurs.  Yes.  I do mean prawn.

Anyhoo, so I’m thinking that m’child will not be so amused as I am by the swear words because she will have grown up hearing them.  Hell, she might even intentionally NOT swear just to be different from me.  Wouldn’t that be a rub.

As it stands, I do not hear my child cuss often.  Usually, if I say, “Oh sh*t.” to myself, she’ll say, “Oh sh*t what, mommy?”

But she hangs out with her Christian grandparents sometimes, and has returned from their house on a number of occasions with the news that “God doesn’t like it when you say, ‘Jesus Christ.’  It hurts his feelings.”

Child was, for a time, saying, “Jesus Christ, Mommy!”

I was, of course, amused by this especially.

But since Grandma’s kibosh, Child doesn’t say that.

What’ll You Do When You Get The Call?

Fella shakes his head at me sort of regularly and says, “You’re going to get a call from the principal.”

Last time he said, “I’ll back you up.  I mean, in theory I agree.”

Answer is, I don’t know.

I’m a total wuss about confrontation.  Though I tend to be less so where Child is concerned.  Last year, at least one time, I marched into the Principal’s office and said, “What’s up with X?”

Probably, I’ll tell Child she has to accept whatever punishment she gets at school, because sometimes the world is different than our ideals, but that she’s not in trouble at home.

And it’s not as if she thinks it’s always all right for kids to swear.  She’s been informed of the differing viewpoints.

Whenever she says something a little off color, Fella or I remind her that it’s okay with us, but that she shouldn’t say those words at school.

Kids these days

The other day, when I picked up Child, her very intense little friend who likes to talk to me ran up to me and began to squeal, “I got him!  I got the boy!”

Later discussion with Child revealed that she and the other girl have a crush on the same older boy, and they don’t know his name.  Child said that she likes his hair and shoes.

“Have you ever talked to him?”

“No.”

“Has your friend?”

“No.”

Honestly, I was sort of appalled by the inherent competitiveness and gloating absurdity of the other child.  My child seemed embarrassed about the whole thing, which was heartening.

Then the other day, we heard one of our neighborhood children shouting, “It’s Aspergers, Bitch!”

I also recently heard some sad stories about kids with drug dealer parents and the mounds of sh*t those children see, have seen, and wade through daily.

Clearly, some children have real problems.

Anybody care to weigh in with their own experience or ideas on the topic?

Guest Post: “You’ve survived it again, the Poem says.”

This Post originally appeared in Center for Health Media and Policy out of  Hunter College.  This post is an eloquent meditation on Andrew Merton’s poem, “Coming Out of a Depression.”  Thank you, Joy.  Enjoy, everyone. 

Joy Jacobson is the CHMP’s poet-in-residence. 

This week Andrew Merton’s first book of poemsEvidence that We Are Descended from Chairs, is being released from Accents Publishing. Merton may not be typical of a debut poet: he is an accomplished journalist and chairs the Department of English at the University of New Hampshire, where I was his student 30 years ago. I got in touch with him again when the founder of UNH’s journalism department, Don Murray, died in 2006. Murray and Merton had a strong influence on my writing life at that time, and now that I teach writing I’m grateful to recall what they taught me.

With this new book of poems Merton is instructing me in another way. As poetCharles Simic writes in a foreword, Merton’s “chief subject may be described as our human comedy mixed with tragedy.” A good example is this poem (reprinted with the author’s permission):


coming out of a depression

sleet

gravel in a chicken’s gut

flies buzzing feebly against a screen

crows

morels at the foot of a dead apple tree

shadow of a hawk, receding

whisper of snakes on stone

the sun that powers the heart of a flea

a history of oceans
written on the underside of clouds

in a worn wicker basket
abandoned by a stream,
galaxies blooming

We might see this poem as a topographic map, demonstrating in relief the hills and valleys of a particular psychic landscape. Or maybe, more aptly, it’s a travelogue of the byways leading out of Hell. Regardless, we have little choice but to trust our guide.

We start in a season of bad weather. A single word, sleet, acts as both noun and verb of its own endless sentence. This is a place of ineffectual flies and of many birds, caged or scavenging or predatory. One life form here, the morels, are saprotrophic, feeding on dead things, and I imagine the apple tree to be reaching for the memory of the forbidden fruit it once bore. Thou shalt not eat of it, God warned, and I wouldn’t dare. In this place I wouldn’t even gather the morels for consumption. It’s an environment that reduces its raptor to shadow and retreat.

Those first six lines seem to me to be in whispered conversation with some other famous literary depressives: Yahweh, Poe’s raven, Keats’s narrator “half in love with easeful Death” from “Ode to a Nightingale.” But in Merton’s seventh line a movement evidenced only by the swish of snakeskin on stone changes the view. It’s a sound I can see. I’m reminded of a friend’s sumi ink-stick drawings; one in particular depicts a gray road winding through gray-black trees. A simple, colorless elegance.

Now with the eighth line a real and measurable power asserts itself. It may be no more significant than the electroconductivity taking place in the heart of a flea, but a life can revolve around that sun. And it does, here. A couplet emerges, and in it a pairing of water and language—a natural history written in clouds that must fall inevitably down.

A rain of words: a poet’s dream of redemption.

Merton’s final tercet calls forth a basket, left behind and emptied, apparently, of its cargo—the infant Moses, perhaps? And why not? The poem has recovered itself enough to form a stanza, a complex interplay of lines and images. It’s a free-verse universe but it’s ordered. Even during a clinical depression, involuntary body processes like heart rhythm and respiration are kept up. You’ve survived it again, the poem says. You walked through sleet and ate gizzards, and your powers of observation were never lost to you. Take a peek inside the basket, the poem invites. Go on: you’ll be stunned all over again to discover galaxies so numerous they can’t be counted. But they can be contained in the worn wicker of your mind.

You can watch Andrew Merton’s recent poetry reading at UNH, a video in three parts, by clicking here. And you can order the book from Accents Publishing.

Self (Publishing) Help: Grammar and Influence Are Important!

First a quick note: I’m going to relegate fiction sharing to every-other Friday, possibly every third.  Partially because of Stanford’s advice at Pushing Social, and also partially because I’ve got a ton of helpful blog posts brewing, that are of use to you, and sharing Fiction every Friday feels narcissistic to me.   Onward.

What is Influence?

This image is much funnier when you know that these guys are blind. This is from http://www.publicdomainreview.org

One of the things I find to be most infuriating about artistic hacks is their insistence that they “shouldn’t” or “can’t” be influenced.

First of all, the assertion that real artists are above influence is both naive and arrogant.

Invariably, the person who makes this claim believes herself to be an artist, and regardless of her ability, believes that she is doing something original.  To make sure you’re with me: The claim is arrogant, and it highlights the speaker’s ignorance.

If an artist is actively avoiding influence, it gives her an excuse not to absorb other artists’ work.  Which is wrong and lazy.  Artists of all sorts need  to know, understand, and appreciate the artists that came before them.  I think classical musicians understand this best, because music must be a discipline before it can be an art.

So too with writing–though it seems that the notion that writing is a discipline before it can be an art has been largely lost to the masses, both educated and not.

So we’ll stick with the musicians for a moment: In order to play as well as Beethoven, one must play Beethoven’s complete work at least a thousand times, then interpret it with one’s own musical personality.

You still with me?

Fact is, folks, to quote my favorite dubious authority: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 1:9

Despite all the other absurdity that gets justified on the basis of that body of religious fiction, the notion of a collective unconscious is nothing new.

Here’s the secular authority, Jung himself in a document about his theory of the Collective Unconscious.  Jung’s thoughts on the topic are decidedly denser than those in Ecclesiastes.

My point: nobody is doing something original.  What we can and should strive for is authenticity, and a unique–or at least lesser-considered–way of filtering things.

And in order to do that, we must know what has come before, we can’t escape influence–nay, we must invite influence–and we must study our craft.

What is Craft in Writing?

My friend Jamie’s blog today talks about slang and some popular slang terms she’s personally tired to death of.  That’s what got me thinking about craft, and what it is, and why so much commercial fiction is so poorly crafted.

*Haters, remember the rules about trolls.  No personal insults just because you disagree.  I welcome your cogent, considered disagreement.  Comment away!

A lot of people who read genre fiction would agree, without really knowing what they’re agreeing about.  For example, I spoke to a woman the other evening who, after sheepishly admitting that she reads romance novels, said, “But I do it to escape.”

Awesome!  I want you to read to escape.  I’m a writer, after all!

Romance Novels and other Commercial Fiction are the literary equivalent of your favorite, mindless TV show.

But reading is healthier than watching TV, and being escape for the reader is no excuse to ignore craft, and intentionally not learn things that will make you a better writer!

Now here are some things that genre writers do super-duper well: plot, chase scenes, flashbacks, internal dialogue, tropes.

Here are some things they like to make excuses about not doing well: grammar, character depth; using sentence fragments, italics, em dashes, ellipses, and semicolons judiciously; spelling,  tense, varied language, point of view.

I spent five of my best years sitting in workshops and loving the hell out of getting critiqued, a process that I have internalized to such an extent that I am incapable of evaluating my own work because regardless of its quality, I am keenly aware of what makes writing good, and what is missing from mine.

Craft is a writer’s tool belt.  It is the larger concerns of story telling like narrative arcs and characters and settings, but it is also spelling and grammar and understanding how to use point of view and tense.

I am trained in the whole enchilada.

And knowing the difference between the following tenses: present, past, past perfect, present subjunctive, and past subjunctive does not “influence” or “interfere with” your art, it makes it better!

Restricting your use of punctuation & style short hand may be more challenging than actually writing the damn book, but it will make the book better.

Just like quality paints are easier to use and yield truer hues than their budget bin counterparts, quality writing–even when it is genre writing–is worth more to more people, and will be more clearly understood.

Novelist Wannabes?  If you are in a different career now, but “have always dreamed of being a writer,” great.  But take some classes first.  I offer them.  And private lessons.  But if you don’t live near me, there are probably courses that you could take at the nearest college or university.

Watch for my “Quick Guide to Tense: Reference Pages” sometime next month.

Being acquainted with the workshop environment will make you happier to take editorial advice when you get to publish your first book, and it will also make you a better writer and reader yourself.