SNOOPY AS A ROLE MODEL – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I read a unique article in the Washington Post by a writer talking about something from her childhood that inspired her to be a writer as an adult. Her name is Ann Patchett and her title names the motivating force in her career choice. The article is called, “Snoopy taught me how to be a writer.”

That’s right – the Snoopy from Charles Schultz’s beloved comic “Peanuts”. The perpetual loser, Charlie Brown’s dog. Ann says she read Peanut compilation books, as I did, in her formative summers and was smitten by Snoopy. She says that she was a nerdy, uncool kid who saw Snoopy as the essence of cool. He even raised the totally uncool status of his ‘person’, Charlie Brown, just by being so quintessentially cool himself.

Snoopy was confident enough to let himself become totally absorbed in his fantasies – WWI Flying Ace, Soldier in the French Foreign Legion, figure skater, tennis star, astronaut, and so on. He brought everyone else along with him in his fantasies to the point that they too heard the imaginary bullets flying by and the roar of the imaginary crowds.

Most important, Snoopy was a writer. He let his imagination run wild here too and then he sat down on the top of his doghouse and typed. He sat at his typewriter and plinked the keys to form hackneyed and repetitive paragraphs that he knew needed ‘editing’.

He had confidence and sent his manuscripts out to editors. He got lots of rejections, like all writers, yet he kept on trying. The best thing about Snoopy was that even when he failed and his doghouse was riddled with bullets, he lost in sports or his manuscripts were rejected again, he was still cool.

His superpower was that he remained cool in failure as well as in success.

Snoopy at his typewriter

Anne says that Snoopy taught her how to survive the publishing process; to deal with rejections and then get over them; to ignore bad reviews and move on. Snoopy turned out to be her perfect career mentor and he also led her into a life with dogs who enriched and fulfilled her. She says she always assumed that her dogs have an active inner life and are always cooler than she is.

I was never inspired to write. I just always did and so did my parents. My school required creative writing and analytical writing as well as research papers from the third grade on. My high school papers are indistinguishable from my college ones.

My father published seven books and numerous articles in the field of psychiatry and anthropology, many before I was born. He spent every summer locked in his study, writing, Every day he would present his writing to my mother who would edit it and encourage rewrites when needed. There was a lot of heated discussion about content, organization and writing style throughout my childhood.

My father in his fifties

When I was around fifteen, I joined my mother and we became my father’s editing team. As he got older, his writing often rambled and went off-topic and it was our job to keep him focused. We often had to outline material for him and even rewrite sections ourselves when he resisted our ‘advice’ and insisted on his now more stream of consciousness style. That may work for fiction, but not for an academic treatise.

Writing has always been a part of my life. I went through a period of anxiety and insecurity in my own writing when I was in high school and my mother did for me what she did for my father. She helped me figure out what I wanted to say and the most effective and persuasive way to say it. She taught me how to organize my thoughts and present my ideas cleanly and clearly.

Me at seventeen

When I started writing short audio theater plays with my husband, I had to learn how to write dialogue, which is a totally different kind of writing. I was used to writing analytical prose, which is not the way people talk. Dialogue has to sound like someone is actually speaking, not reading aloud from a non-fiction book.

So my writing evolved and expanded to encompass a new format for me. It is amazing and gratifying to hear actors bring your words to life. It’s even more awesome to hear audiences reacting to your words by laughing and applauding.

Title page of one of our scripts

I loved Snoopy too growing up, but I identified more with Linus and Charlie Brown than with the fearless, adventuresome Snoopy. I can imagine that if Snoopy ever wrote short plays, he would picture the adulation of audiences and bask in their approval. I’ve had that experience, so in a way, I’ve had my ‘Snoopy moment.’

Even a nerd like me can feel cool. But never as cool as Snoopy.

MINIMALIST PUBLISHING – Marilyn Armstrong

Why do publishers ONLY publish potential best-sellers? Many books we read from in those old days were not wildly popular. Publishers understood a good book deserved publication, even if it wouldn’t be a bestseller. Our literature would be a very poor place if we only published the most popular genres.

It’s true I don’t read every kind of book anymore, but I did when I was younger. I did when I was a kid and right through most of my adulthood. Only during the past few years has my taste become more specific.

I read all of Dostoyevsky in one year. Aside from never remembering anyone’s’ name, I mostly enjoyed them. I couldn’t read them now — too gloomy — but when I was 15? It was great stuff! I’m also pretty sure none of those books ever made anyone’s bestseller list. Can you imagine Proust topping the best-seller list? Or Gorky?

All writers wrote more and less popular material. Not everyone likes every book or every genre, but that ought not to be the only reason a book gets published. It’s depressing for writers and very off-putting for those who have written GOOD books and know that there isn’t a publisher on earth who wants it because it isn’t in one of their “niche” areas.

When I worked at Doubleday, we published anything that was reasonably well-written. We had more than a dozen book clubs that catered to specialized audiences as well as two generic clubs. I ran (they made me do it) two libraries: American Garden Guild (I learned a lot about plants!) and Doubleday Romance Library. To this day I know more ways to say “fell in love” than you can shake a stick at.

None of this stuff had to be bestseller material. It had an audience. The major point of book clubs what we knew there was an audience for just about everything, so we published for everyone. From military book clubs to science fiction and crime, if you wanted to read it, Doubleday published it and probably had a book club dedicated to it, too.

Many books were published because a real, live human editor felt it was worth the paper and ink.

Today, if you aren’t writing something the company’s editorial software thinks is “hot,” no human editor will so much as look at it, much less publish it.

Which is why writers end up with a boxful of computer-generated rejections. The computer scanned it, didn’t find the right buzz words, and threw it away. I finally had ONE editor willing to look at my book … and — this is true — he died a few days before he got to it.

I gave up. Not that I wrote anything really great, but it was worth at least a read or two.

My collection of Gretchen Archer’s books and cup, if you please

It really is going to be a sad batch of literature we leave to the next generation. Good thing there are still books from earlier years to read. So many great writers will never publish or will self-publish and no one will notice them.

Okay, this is my rant of the day. It worries me that so few writers get properly published. Excellent writers are rare beasts and deserve notice. Deserve publication. And all good writers deserve to have at least one hardcover book that comes with the delicious smell of ink fresh from the press.

SO MARTHA ASKED, “CAN YOU ENFORCE IT?” – Marilyn Armstrong

Wednesday RDP – COPYRIGHT

Martha wrote a little piece this morning titled “Can You Enforce it? (and Rambling Nonsense) by Martha Ann Kennedy. It’s good reading. Pretty much everything Martha writes is good reading, even when I don’t agree but especially when she waxes lyrical and I feel I’m in Grammarian Heaven.

In this case, much of the post is about getting a copyright on your book. Government and other versions of copyright are almost free or very cheap, so we pretty much all get one. Because just in case someone wants to make our little book into a major motion picture (BILLIONS at the box office, or maybe TRILLIONS) — or even a very minor one ($1500, opened at two movies nationwide and went to cable where it is rarely seen), it would be nice to get a bit of whatever money might accrue.

Most books don’t make much money. Some make a lot, but the number of authors whose books make oodles of money can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Even well-published authors who can count an occasional bestseller in their collection usually need another job. I don’t know if it’s the terrible contracts we sign. Authors are not contract lawyers. I often think our contract lawyers are also not contract lawyers. Their degrees were bought and paid for on the Internet. The cheap kind on which they misspell the name of the university.

I commented how I copyrighted my book as if someone was likely to steal it. Meanwhile, publishers, producers, TV moguls, and the staff of Saturday Night Live steal ideas from people who interview for the show (I know a few of them) or steal the writing of living and sometimes rather well-known authors. They don’t pay anything for the work, so while they are raking in the big bucks, authors can barely pay rent.

The original French Angelique

Anne Golon spent a lifetime fighting to get some of the money from the widely published set of books titled “Angelique.” She kept writing them, too and was still writing when she died last year. She also finally won her lawsuit over her publisher (French courts). By then, she was well into her 90s and had been fighting for her ownership rights for more than half a century.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were stolen by everyone and printed by everyone everywhere for decades. I remember when I read them in the 1960s — while I was having my back fused, so I had plenty of time — there was a whole chapter at the beginning of the book saying that unless you could read this section, you were reading a hijacked copy of the book. Of course, if you were reading a hijacked copy, there was no page to read, so you’d never know it anyway.

His son, Simon Tolkien (J.R.R. was long gone by then) recovered the copyrights, got some kind of payment from whatever publishers still existed.

American version

All four of Shirley Jackson’s children spent much of their lives fighting for her rights. They won — maybe twenty years ago? — and now you actually have to pay to buy her books, which I do gladly because she was brilliant and is credited by many authors (including Stephen King) as one of the authors whose work lighted their way.

ALL of these books were copyrighted, for whatever good it did. The theory of big corporations is (1) they have a lot of money while (2) you, the author,  don’t. (3) Even though you legitimately own the rights to the book (which may have been previously published under your name and they are stealing the book AND your name), whatcha gonna do about it, eh?

Funny how rigid the copyrights of corporations are and how flimsy are those of authors, composers, et al, isn’t it? There’s a book about how this applies in the music industry, called YEAR ZERO, a novel by Rob Reid which I have read a few times and written about. It never stops making me laugh and cry. It’s science fiction, but with footnotes. It’s available in print, Kindle, and as an audiobook. I recommend all of them.

As the final thought in her post today, Martha points out that most of us can’t run and would make a tasty snack for any large predator. Here, in charming Uxbridge, we have acquired black bears. We are supposed to call the cops if one shows up in our driveway, probably heading for our trash can, which bears refer to as “brunch.” I assume that our two police officers (it might be one and a half, I’m not sure) will try to shoot the bears being as even counting the trash, there’s not enough for a bunch of hungry bears to eat. But maybe they can fish in the Blackstone? There are trout, I’m told.

I personally think I’m the kind of person who would make a light snack for a bear lacking hunting energy. I don’t think I’d be particularly tasty. Too old and stringy.

BESTOWING THE GIFT OF WORDS – Marilyn Armstrong

And thus shall I bestow upon you the gift of gab, the talent of words, the ability to write with clarity and precision.

Congratulations. You are a writer. But — how do you know?

Because you write. Could you be a better writer? Probably. We can all be better writers. I’m a much better writer now than I was when I started blogging and I was a pretty good writer before that. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write because as soon as I could read, I could write.

Every style of writing has special ways of handling issues.

For children’s books, much is made of making sure kids never have to look at a word that’s too “hard” for them. With which I disagree because that’s how I got a vocabulary. You see a word you don’t know. You ask someone or look it up. Now, you know a new word.

Technical writing, when I started doing it, was a wholly different. With a few other people, we sort of invented it since it was a new field and the “rules” didn’t yet exist.

I learned to write tightly using almost no adjectives or adverbs unless those words were a specific definition of an item. It produced something that has served me very well — and extremely clean style of writing that makes it easy to adapt to other styles. Non-fiction, mostly.

The baseline for tech writing is making complicated information easy to understand for anyone with any kind of background, technical or not — and that includes old people, little kids and everyone in between. It also means I give really good directions.

Just remember: You are a working writing, even if no one ever sends you a check.

Maybe now you want to join a writing group or take a seminar. As you are already a writer, you are many steps ahead of where you were. Writing classes can be useful. You can focus on refining and organizing your work — and on finding how to get a publisher. Seminars won’t teach you to write, but they might teach you to market your product.

I never took courses, per se, but I needed to learn a lot about style and design. I read books. I also read other documents to see how they handled material.

I also needed to learn to design books. In big corporations, they hire designers to do that, but I didn’t work for people who had a budget. Instead, I did it all.

It turned out, designing was the MOST fun I ever had while getting paid.

As for whether or not blogging “is writing?” What a silly question. Writing is. Blogging is no different than writing short features for newspapers or magazines. All kinds of writing are writing. We give them different names, but it’s all the same creative process. How you apply your talents has a million applications.

Names don’t matter. Ignore the fools who feel like they need to put everything in a box. Keep doing what you’re doing!

You GO!

PONDERING PUBLISHING AND THE WORLD GONE BY

I usually say I wouldn’t want to ever work again, but I got to thinking about that. I realized if I could get back my job as editor at Doubleday? I’d do it in a heartbeat. How many jobs give you unlimited sick days, two-hour lunches, and require you to read sleazy novels during the day? And pay you for the privilege? And give you the best bunch of people as colleagues you could hope for.

We met at Doubleday!

I also had to write stuff about the books I read, but a long review was still shorter than any of the pieces I write for this blog. Even in my crumbling state of health, I think I could handle it.

The trouble is, the job doesn’t exist. Publishers are thoroughly conglomerated. Each is a subsection of some über corporation where books are one of many products — and not an important product, either.

The 1970s were wonderful years for reading. It was a tremendous period for books and book clubs — and for literature as an art. In those days, reading was major entertainment. People read books and talked about them by the water cooler. If you got excited about a book, you told all your friends … and they read it, too.


Before the internet.

Before cell phones.

Before cable and satellite television.

Before computers and many years before WiFi …

We had books.

Other entertainment? Of course there were movies, but you had to see them in a movie theater. Television was there, but it had limitations. We had — in New York which was entertainment central — seven channels. Unless you had a really good antenna on the roof, you rarely got a clear picture. There was interference called “snow.” Pictures rolled — up, down, and side-to-side. Vertical and horizontal holds on your TV were designed to help control it. Sometimes, they did, but I remember many nights of giving up and turning the set off because we couldn’t get a decent picture. Meanwhile, many of us used a set of rabbit-ear antennas that worked sometimes — if the wind was blowing due west.

I spent more time trying to convince the rabbit-ears to receive a signal than watching shows.

Doubleday in Garden City, NY

Not surprisingly, television wasn’t our primary source of entertainment. Instead, we read books — and we talked to each other — something we old folks continue to do. Sometimes, we had conversations that lasted for hours and in my life, occasionally ran into weeks. Blows your mind, doesn’t it? All that talking without a phone? Without texting, either.

Books were big business. If you wrote anything reasonably good, there were more than enough publishers who might be interested in printing it. I miss that world, sometimes more than I can say.

All of this got me thinking about how hard it is to get books published these days. So many people I know have written really good books and have never found anyone to back them. It’s rough on writers, and it’s not a great sign for the art of literature. Not only has our political world caved in, but our literary world is sliding down a long ramp to nowhere. In theory, many more books are published today because anyone can publish anything — and sell it on Amazon. All books — the great, good, mediocre, and truly awful are lumped together. Most of them are rarely read since none of them are being promoted by a publisher. This isn’t a small thing. Publishers were a huge piece of what made books great. If your publisher believed you’d written something excellent, you could count on being visible on the shelves of bookstores everywhere. You’d also be part of book club publications. People — reading people — would see your book. There were book columns and reviews — and people read them they way they read stuff on upcoming television shows today.

Of course, we are also suffering from the vanishing bookstore … a whole other subject.

A great idea followed by a well-written manuscript was just the beginning of a book’s life story. From the manuscript, publishers took books and did their best to sell them to the world. Today, all that pushing and pitching is left to authors, including those whose books typically sell well.

Can anyone imagine how Faulkner, Hemingway and Thomas Wolf would do trying to “work the marketplace”? No doubt there were writers who were able to do the balancing of writing and marketing, but many authors are not particularly sociable. A good many are downright grumpy and a fair number are essentially inarticulate. They are not naturals to the marketing gig.

And … ponder this … what kind of blog do you think Faulkner … or … Eugene O’Neill … would have written?

I miss books. I miss authors. I miss publishers. I miss carefully edited manuscripts and beautifully published books where you could smell the ink and paper as you cracked the cover open. It was a heady perfume.

RENEW NOW AND SAVE BIG!

2016 was the year that we stopped ignoring the news and began watching it with a kind of horrified fascination. At first, we thought it was funny. Ridiculous. This couldn’t be serious. It was a goof and everyone was going to end up popping champagne, slapping each other on the back and saying, “Good one!”

Except it wasn’t a joke and after a few weeks, it also wasn’t funny. The news was scary. Unnerving. Disturbing. To keep from total nervous collapse, I started reading articles by Andy Borowitz, the wit of “The New Yorker” magazine. After a while, I found I was following the magazine and reading many — almost all — of the major articles by all the writers. Not to mention loving the cartoons and The New Yorker has always had the best cartoons.

300-new-yorker-29122016_01

Finally, I ponied up the money and bought a two-year subscription which came with a free New Yorker book bag in which I now keep my frequently used computer and camera accessories (as opposed to the never or almost-never used accessories). No sooner had I set up my account and started receiving both the hard and electronic copies of the magazine than Condé Nast, The New Yorker’s corporate owner, began besieging me with other magazine offers … and renewal offers for The New Yorker.

The renewal offers get more desperate sounding with each passing day, as if my subscription will make or break the entire corporate structure. Give me a break!

I started my career as the assistant subscription manager of Architectural Digest. I wasn’t there long because I got pregnant and the long commute by Long Island Railroad got to be a bit much for me … and I knew my future was not in subscriptions. I was a writer and I was going to find somewhere I could do what I do and get paid for it. But, for the seven or eight months in subscriptions, I learned a lot about the business.

The first rule of subscriptions is that unless the subscriber is known to be deceased and the place he or she lived has been bulldozed, you never cancel a subscription. Why not? Because magazines do not make money from subscriptions. They make money from advertising, Advertising rates — the cost for a full or part page in a publication — is based on the number of subscribers, so you never want to lower that number. You want to show growth. Only growth. It’s self-defeating to cut off subscribers.

newyorker-renewal

Now, with all magazines doubling up as both web and paper, the equation is a little different, but the concept remains: you set your price for advertising based on the number of people who you can “prove” read your publication … and that is done via subscription numbers. Whether the subscriber is via Internet or postal delivery, that is the only solid evidence you have of who reads you. That is why, when you follow a publication on line, after a few hits on the web site, they require you to open an account. Even if it’s free, an account is a subscription. It counts toward making up the numbers which allow the publication to set good rates.

So why all the hysteria to get me to renew? I suppose because revenue is revenue, even if it’s a trickle rather than a raging river.

The problem is that all this badgering is counter-productive. It doesn’t make me want to renew. It makes me resent that they don’t seem to appreciate I did actually pay them when I could have continued to follow them for free on the Internet. Hounding subscribers to renew when they just subscribed is not endearing. They should stop doing it.

I probably will renew … when this subscription is nearly over. But in the meantime, I’d appreciate an end to the spam. It’s annoying.

RENEWAL | THE DAILY POST

A HARD AND ROCKY ROAD: WHY AUTHORING DOESN’T PAY

I probably will never need to buy another book. I’m a popular reviewer. When I worked at Doubleday, I was extremely popular there, too. Probably because I read the books. So many reviewers don’t read the books they review. You can tell when you read their reviews that all they did was skim the first couple of pages and work from the publisher’s summaries. TV critics seem to be doing the same thing these days. Sometimes movie reviewers, too. It’s why we read a book or see a movie, then check reviews and wonder if it’s the same book or movie.

english-writersI remember at Doubleday I would discover that the publisher’s summary was factually wrong. Wrong names for major characters. Wrong relationships between characters. Incorrect plot description. It was clear whoever wrote the summary had not read the book.

So … who did read the book? Did anyone read it? That was in the mid 1970s, when most people did read, at least sometimes. Now? Does anyone read books before they are published, and have reviewers read the books they are praising or panning?

Until this year, I was a judge for a major book award. I did it for more than a decade. It started out as fun. You’d get a bunch of books, read, review, and rate them, picking a few to move on to the finals. A few years ago, they started sending me more books … so many I could not possibly read even half of them in the allotted time. Last year, I think I had almost 100 books to judge with an average of more than 300 pages per book. And just five weeks to read them all.

It was hopeless. A couple of books were more than 500  pages. These were books that needed considerable stage-setting before the story began. Depending on genre, authors may devote a couple of hundred pages to explaining how their world works. If there’s magic. Rules of the physical world. Some geography. Who and what gods are extant — or were. What languages are spoken. A bit of history, so characters don’t walk onto an empty stage.

Tolkien was a genius at world-building, which is why he remains the gold standard for the fantasy genre.

mugar_library

If you only have an hour to give each book you’re judging, how can you, in good faith, even get a sense of what the book is about, much less if it’s good? Were you to put J.R.R. Tolkien to this test, you’d never get out of Hobbiton. More than 300 pages of Lord of the Rings is geography, language, history, and demographics.

All history books require substantial background, as do historical novels and time-travel books that are historical novels in science fiction garb. A lot of writers use “the wormhole in time” to get readers to be “in the time” rather than looking back at it. It’s been a popular ploy for generations.

quill penSo this year, I said no to judging. It wasn’t fair to the authors to judge them without giving them a proper reading. I have to wonder how many other “awards” are done this way, with over-burdened judges who have too many books or whatever to review without adequate time in which to do it. I’m sure I was not the only one who got down to the wire and was unable to even skim several books before “judging them.” I wouldn’t do it again.

For all of these reasons, I’m diligent about reviewing books — or anything else. I’m not getting paid and reviews won’t make me famous or rich. They won’t even buy me a quick meal at Mickey D’s. But it is a big deal to authors. Reviews make or break books, even for established authors.

I suspect all authors are perpetually being judged. Reviewed. Each book is a trial by fire. A book doesn’t sell and suddenly, your publisher forgets your name. The industry wants nothing to do with a failing author. Even if you have written a string of major best-sellers, you are only as good as the sales figures of your most recently published volume.

I doubt any of the great authors of the past would thrive under these conditions. Can you imagine Hemingway doing his own PR? Or Capone? Can you imagine Shakespeare dealing with focus groups and fighting for his contract to be renewed?

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So I do my bit. Not for money or glory, or even for the authors, who I love. I do it because if no one cares about the quality of books being published, eventually it will all be pulp and garbage. There will be classics from days of yore and nothing new worth reading.

I have had people tell me I’m stupid for doing so much work for free, but authors don’t have money — and publishers won’t pay. Even successful authors — unless Hollywood has bought their books — aren’t financially secure. Maybe Stephen King and Michael Crichton don’t have to worry about where the next check will come from, but every other author I know — and at this point, I know more than a few — are scraping by. Many still keep their day jobs because there are mortgages to pay and kids to feed.

You have to love writing for its own sake. As a profession, authoring is a hard and rocky road. Glory and riches come to few.  Maybe publishers get rich. I hope someone is making money, because as far as I can tell, most authors don’t.