at the cocktail party, with the birds
By Anne Stameshkin
As you can see on the left sidebar, FWR is now Twitterpated (name: “fictionwriters”). Come follow us…
I had mixed feelings at first about tweeting. It’s one thing to offer readers detours and chances to read more about an author, book, or issue via hyperlinks, but as an all-volunteer labor-of-love site, did we really need to maintain multiple online presences? There seemed something homey and focused — and time-efficient — about just being and not tweeting about it. But ultimately, we’d love to let more readers know about us, to reach out to new potential writers, and to establish more relationships with authors, critics, publishers, and booksellers…and Twitter is certainly one way to tap a large number of carefully targeted people/organizations on the shoulder (even as you’re “following” them, whistling a certain Sting song).
Which brings us to some important meta-questions: How much time and energy should writers or editors spend networking, creating a web presence, selling ourselves? In an age where most books get precious little help or budget from publishers on the publicity front, how little self-promotion is too little? How much, too much? What, in [insert deity or profanity]’s name, does this have to do with writing?
Just as I was wondering about such matters, I read this Smart Set column in which Jessa Crispin, responding to Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer, delves into them and raises more questions: When and how is forming a relationship more ego-driven than community-building, and when (if ever) is that OK? And what does any of this have to do with becoming a good, let alone successful, writer? What writers would this book be helpful to, and who would it piss off?
I’ve been reading Bookslut and its blog for years and years, and I admire Jessa for having the chutzpah to publicly reckon with books she doesn’t like, and to even, on occasion, mock people, slogans, movements, etc. she finds mock-worthy; she manages to do so without ever devolving into Crossfire-ish drama for drama’s sake. She certainly risks (and has faced) conflicts because of her frankness, but when she says she loves a book, you know that her endorsement comes from a very real, thoughtful place. On FWR – where our focus is largely on emerging writers – we publish, almost exclusively, endorsements. If a contributor wouldn’t ultimately–reservations, criticisms, warts, and all–recommend a book to our readers, we opt not to publish the review; in such a case, we give the book no publicity, but we also do no harm, and there’s more space/time for writing about books we want to expose readers to. This is a fitting choice for us, for our particular purpose, but I want to take this moment to say that thoughtful negative criticism (be it witty or straightforward) is essential to the art and business of writing. (And I’m not just saying so to flatter Jessa at this virtual cocktail party. Though yeah, I’d buy her a drink.)
Here’s an excerpt from the column in question, which Crispin carefully states is not a review:
…Booklife’s first section (after the overview) covers networking, emphasizing the need to use people to get ahead in your career. “EVERYONE YOU KNOW IS A POTENTIAL CONTACT,” Booklife blares in caps. And just as a helpful reminder, everyone you meet has “connections of use to you.” So we’re back at the cocktail party, trapped in a corner, and the guy is laughing a bit too loudly and falsely at your joke because he’s pretty sure you know the editor of the magazine he wants to write for.
If you’re going to read a book about how to be a successful writer, it would help to find a book that shares your definition of success. Mine involves being able to eat nice things, of course, and being able to afford to live without roommates. But beyond that, it diverges quickly from VanderMeer’s, explained in “Five Minimum Elements for Success.” His is all about utilizing contacts, finding high profile blurbs, guaranteeing review coverage. These things are important, of course, and nothing can kill a career faster than not finding an audience. But the priorities seem so out of whack. The networking chapter comes before the instructions on how to work in the face of so much online distraction. How and whether to construct a persona shows up before how to exist within a community. One of the skimpiest sections of the book — how to find and maintain inspiration — would be a huge chunk of my ideal book about success.
In Chapter 1, VanderMeer writes, “I was 17 and beginning to think about my long-term goals.” His long-term goals included publishing his first short fiction collection in five years. There are people in this strange little world of ours who have romantic notions about being a writer, and that, to them, is much more important than actually writing. This is the order in which people like that think. “How do I get a book deal” comes before “How do I become someone who has something to say?” Writing is an act of ego, but your ego should not be the only part of your personality involved. Booklife is an ego-feeding book.
On his own blog, Ecstatic Days, VanderMeer takes a moment to clarify one of the central missions of the book:
The book constantly reminds the reader that your Public Booklife supports your Private Booklife. The goal is to find balance, yes, but that balance means the bulk of your time should be spent writing, with the things you need to do for your career done smarter, faster, and more creatively–i.e., to not just be smarter but also to find ways to feed your creative side while helping your career. The book also makes the case for how setting effective goals and being “organized”—a word that of necessity means different things to different people—will allow you to be less stressed about your career and thus more able to focus on your writing. I am the first person to want to believe in some version of the romantic vision of the writer in a cottage typing away, but if you want to exist in the reality of that vision, so to speak, you’ve got to put in the practical time, too, to build a life that can allow for it.
And here’s an endorsement from Mur Lafferty:
“Many books tell us how to write, but Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife tells us how to be an author, specifically in today’s dynamic and quickly-changing world of new media and social networking. Whether you’re a beginner or an industry veteran just getting comfortable with your presence online, Booklife will have something for you. VanderMeer made me think, question my own path, and make plans for a more focused move forward.”
Booklife publishes on Oct. 15. Will you pick up a copy? Why or why not?