Saturday, August 26, 2017

Dead but Dreaming

One of the most challenging aspects of being a working writer is dithering.  Shilly-shallying.  Not being able to decide.  Is this story done yet?  Should I revise it for a tenth time?  When do I stop writing fiction and get back to non-fiction?  And all of this has to be decided for a mere half-hour of writing time a day.

I’ve neglected this blog a little because I’ve been finishing up a non-fiction book.  To no one’s greater surprise than mine, an editor at Penguin is actually reading it.  You just never know.  Meanwhile novel number seven has been demanding my attention.  One through six haven’t been published yet either.

Don’t forget the children.  Stories.  Lots of stories.  Some days three or four story ideas crowd into my head at a time.  And I only have half-an-hour to write.  Decisions, decisions!

I’d pretty much decided to turn back to non-fiction for a while when I had an unexpected email.  A publisher actually wants to see the whole manuscript of my Medusa novel, Interview with the Gorgon.  For those who haven’t read my past posts, this novel was under contract with a publisher about six years ago.  Then they dithered.

The editor who’d accepted it for publication left the press.  They decided they didn’t want to do it.  No kill fee.  No thank you.  Just “my name is no.”  Funny thing about it is, since then many presses—after I went out and bought their books just so I could make comparisons—also said “not for us.”  Getting this email was completely unexpected.

I used to be a professor at Breck University.  Now I profess nothing.  I work for a faceless corporation in New York City that publishes non-fiction books.  Getting to and from work takes three hours a day.  Sleep takes a few, too.  Writing is the orphan child of my time.


I’ve never given up on Medusa.  I’ve never given up on this blog.  To read me is to love me.  Even if your name is no. If only I could make up my mind.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Vacation Blues

Stress can be great for writing.  Having too little time to practice the craft, in some odd way, makes it flow more easily.  Take the case of the working writer on vacation.

I sometimes feel bold enough to call myself a writer.  My job doesn’t depend on it, of course, but who finds meaning in their job?  My sense of purpose comes in the off hours.  Nevertheless, each day presents minimal opportunities to spend with my true vocation.  Then comes vacation time.

Unstructured days spread out before me like a trail of breadcrumbs through the forest.  I have stories I’ve been working on for months.  I have at least two non-fiction projects going as well.  At last I will have long, open days when writing will flow and I’ll live in the gooey comfort of constant inspiration.  As if such things ever happen.



Vacation is family time.  Writers—those of us who live alone in our heads—can’t simply separate ourselves from those who support us.  As if to underscore the point, inspiration has booked her vacation at the exact same time as yours.  I awake early and breathe the chilly mountain air.  I stare out the window at the beautiful scenery.  Nothing comes.

I know a fairly famous writer.  His name on the cover guarantees a stint on the New York Times bestseller list.  Sometimes he meets me here at our vacation place.  He sets up an invisible boundary around himself.  He writes.  Family leave him alone.

Writing, I know, begets writing.  The important thing is to practice.  To practice constantly.  Vacation comes and that lake looks awfully inviting when the days are so warm.  These hiking trails aren’t on offer near my home outside New York City.  I can sit and brood there.


I know when I get back to the frustration of a daily commute to a dead-end job, my muse will be cuddled around me in the morning, encouraging me to skip work so that I can write.  Ideas will be urgent and persistent.  I won’t have time to get the ideas down as they trip over one another in my head.  In exasperation I will say, “I need a vacation.”

Saturday, July 8, 2017

With Ulysses

Perhaps the most difficult thing about being a working writer is deciding how to spend the limited time you have to write.  Since I had a completely non-lucrative life as a non-fiction author while working in academia I have found those who decide whether to publish you or not often consider your last book and its sale track.  That can be bad news for those of us who were once college professors.

It’s not impossible for an employed professor to become a novelist.  Vladimir Nabokov was an entomologist and yet because of literature professor after writing Lolita.  Umberto Eco was an academic when he broke out with The Name of the Rose.  Carl Sagan published Contact.  The list could go on, but need not.  You get the point.  It may be difficult, but not impossible.

I’ve written five novels since earning my doctorate, and three non-fiction books.  Of these only one has been published, and it is my least favorite of all.  That’s the way the publishing business works.  It may not always represent your best efforts.



Over the past several months I’ve been working on non-fiction.  I can feel the creative pressures building up inside as I deny their release day after week after month.  My non-fiction publishing was growing before then—I had short story number 20 published earlier this year, but since then the rejection letters have been rolling in and I haven’t had time to retaliate.  Such is the life of a working writer.

My pseudonym is my armor.  I’ve been writing for over four decades.  While in school my submissions always earned A’s in the real world they come back F’s.  Kind of makes you stop and think who’s writing the standards here.  I have yet to go the self-publishing route.  If nobody wants to hear what I have to say, I can accept that.


Both in fiction and non, it’s been a tough slog.  Those who bother to know me encourage me to keep going.  What else can a do?  What is a writer unless s/he writes?

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Writer's Dilemma

Do you admit that you’re a writer?  If it’s in your job description I suppose you do, but for many of us being a writer presents us with a dilemma.  Do you admit to your boss that you’re hoping to get paid for what you do off the clock?

I have a friend in the publishing industry whose employer has strict rules about such things.  Any “employment” that takes away from work time has to be declared in written form and sent to the office that investigates conflict of interest.  If you’re a writer who’s paid to do something else you can already see where I’m going with this.



Inspiration doesn’t obey time-clocks.  In fact, it almost always makes a mockery of them.  When you’ve arrived at work and punched in (i.e., booted up your PC) does that story idea obediently bed down until 5 p.m.?  Of course not.  Even after you’ve dug into today’s business, it’s probably playing like muzak in the back corridors of your gray matter.  It sometimes can’t wait until the lunch break to burst out.

What boss would be glad to hear that?  Doesn’t it sound like a recipe for unproductive employees and incipient laziness?  Boss’ll say “make bricks without straw,” and you’ll be basking in that metaphor.  But those of us who write have a secret.  We know that simple binaries aren’t half the story.  We can do more than one task at a time.

Still, it’s dangerous to admit to the boss that you write.  More often than not, the thought will be there that you could be using some of that “fluff time” for working a few extra hours.  Make more money for the company.  Take one for the team.  That’s the way a non-writer thinks.


The writer has the dilemma: to say or not to say?  We also have a bit of insider knowledge.  Taking that few minutes offline during the course of the work day doesn’t hurt our performance.  As writers know, it only enhances it.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Hidden Messages

I can’t help it.  Inside every man there’s locked a puerile little boy.  The other day I was on the website of the Catholic University of America.  As everyone knows, Catholics have some of the greatest hangups about sexuality in all of Christendom.  Like most universities, however, CUA has to appeal to both genders to make ends meet.


In any case, I was looking over the undergraduate programs for a friend and the head picture struck me as impossibly funny.  All the more so because it was totally unintentional.  Over the past few years institutions of higher education have been using plenty of photos of coeds to attract the guys.  That’s just the way it is.

In this photo, however, the two women have inscrutable smiles on their faces as one makes the universal “inches” sign with her fingers.  It doesn’t help that there’s a guy sitting right there, not looking their way.  On the blackboard behind, although blurry, is the word “tube.”  The drawing on the right could be mistaken for a circumcised tube that might be measured in inches.

I’m sure the innuendo was completely unintended.  This mise-en-scène, however, says it all.  What are the girls talking about?  What else could they possibly be talking about?  The juvenile mind takes over.

The photo reminds me of Chekov’s Gun.  The story goes that playwright Anton Chekov wrote, in several variations, that if you show a gun on the wall in scene one of a play it must go off by the end of scene two or three.  Expectations have been laid.  The viewer has been primed to expect this.

The lesson here for writers is to pay attention to what you’re saying.  Something that’s funny to others but that’s unintentional can cost you.  You don’t want to go off half-cocked (that’s a gun reference, in case you’re wondering).


Many writers write too quickly.  They don’t proofread or do so too fast.  Then the inevitable happens.  Two girls get together and snicker over it.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Self Criticism

The self-critical writer is an odd beast.  In fact, I sometimes wonder if I’m not working at cross-purposes with myself in trying to get published.  You see, despite all the “no”s I receive from editors, I am my own worst critic.  I put a lot of care into my stories—there’s nothing slap-dash there.  Yet when I watch movies I often groan at the state of the writing.  They’ve made it, and I haven’t.

The same is true when I read novels.  I’ve read many—most by major publishing houses with “bestseller” splashed all over the cover that left me with a shrug and a yawn.  They get multiple book contracts.  I get rejection slips.  (Or I would if they still sent slips.)  They don’t even tell me why.



I don’t really need rejection slips to critique my work.  I critique the hell out of it.  I go over stories time and again, like a rock tumbler, even after they were pretty good to begin with.  Such is a writer’s life.  I critique, but I don’t critique  nearly enough, obviously.

This is perhaps the burden of the artist.  The one who creates a work knows its flaws best.  I’ve done some woodworking in my time, and pieces that others complement show up in my eyes as a sum of their mistakes.  I know the irregular joins and corners not exactly square.  Nobody needs to tell me.

As an altar boy I once carried the crucifix into the chapel.  Misjudging the height of the door, I rammed Christ into the jamb.  The priest harshly whispered, “Don’t bang the crucifix!”  As if I hadn’t noticed.  As if I didn’t feel the sneering eyes of the entire altar party on me.  I was at the very head of the procession.  Everybody saw.


So it is with rejected pieces of writing.  I send in polished, thoughtful pieces.  Thoroughly critiqued ahead of time.  “Thank you, but no,” the editors say.  They forgot to mention I shouldn’t bang the crucifix as well.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Makes the Wold Go Round

It’s all about the money.  As any real writer knows, we write because we’re compelled to.  I suspect it’s only after someone tastes success that s/he gets cynical enough to write for money.  That doesn’t stop agents and publishers from trying, though.



My Medusa novel was under contract with a publisher.  This was about five years ago.  After dallying around for a couple of years, the publisher cancelled the contract because the editor who’d signed it up had left the press.  That’s hardly a legitimate reason; in fact, it defeats the purpose of a book contract all together.  I’ve not been able to find another publisher since.

Nearly every rejection letter says something along the lines of “It’s well written, but it’s not for us.”  They mean they don’t see enough dollar signs.  I’m not naive—I get it.  I would, however, appreciate just a little compensation for the hundreds and hundreds of hours I put into my writing.  Self-publishing is too much work on top of work.  There’s gotta be a small press out there that likes quirky, well-written, unpublishable novels.

I’m not greedy.  I do, however, have bills to pay.  Long ago I figured out that the only salable talent I possess is my writing.  Seems I might’ve been wrong about that.  At least according to the publishers that only want material that’ll bring in big bucks.

I have friends who work in publishing.  They tell me most houses don’t make their costs back on many books, but a few punch through and make enough to cover themselves and several siblings.  The benefit is that it gives authors a chance to be heard.  I’m old enough to realize I’ll never get wealthy from my writing, but it would be nice to get a token payment now and again.


The small publishers don’t like to take chances, although a book on the bestseller list these days is called Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.  Just don’t try to get published if you’re one of them.  Nobody’s interested unless they think you can make them a mint.