Suspend Your Disbelief

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at the cocktail party, with the birds


mm_twitterAs 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?

PrintI’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:

Jessa Crispin

Jessa Crispin

…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.

Jeff Vandermeer

Jeff Vandermeer

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?


Join the Discussion

  • Jeff VanderMeer

    I don’t usually comment on reviews. But, since Jessa Crispin somewhat disingenuously says that wasn’t actually a review…

    The fact is, I agree with much of what Crispin says about how you should approach writing and a writing career, and nothing in Booklife works against that. I absolutely believe in the integrity of the writing first and foremost. Booklife, in terms of your career, just gives writers a series of mix-and-match strategies they can use in support of that creativity–and also half the book is devoted to very personal things connected to creativity.

    I’m deeply confused and saddened by Crispin’s misreading of the book, which at times seems willful. Her definition of “ally,” for example, is the same as mine of “contact.” If anything I go further by stating that “contacts” are really opportunities for collaborations and other acts of creativity. She misrepresents also the five minimum elements for success by discussing it out of context–it’s five minimum elements for doing publicity if you want to opt out of doing much at all, in favor of being a hermit-type writer, that’s all. It’s providing an option for the writer who really doesn’t want to do PR but feels simultaneously horrible about not doing any PR for their book. It’s not a cynical you-must-do-these-things-to-be-a-successful writer list.

    I appreciate you offering up some of the quotes on my blog about the book as a balance. The fact is, though, that Crispin has done my book a huge disservice just because, as she more or less admitted in a follow-up Bookslut entry, she was depressed about her own career.

    I don’t ever think of anything in writing in a cynical way and this is a terrible misreading of the book.

    Nor is there anywhere in Booklife where I don’t demonstrate how devoted I am to the idea of the personal act of writing. My entire body of fiction is evidence of this ideal.

    Jeff VanderMeer

  • http://fictionwritersreview.com Anne Stameshkin

    Thanks for your comment, Jeff. I’ll respond to this in more detail later, but for now I just want to say that Jessa Crispin’s column (1) introduced me to your book, which I hadn’t known about before, (2) made me curious about it, and (3) ultimately makes me want to read it very much. It’s at least in part that whole “no such thing as bad publicity” thing.

  • http://www.billectric.com/ Bill Ectric

    I’ll say the same thing here that I said over on Jeff’s blog:

    I just ordered Finch and Booklife together from Amazon, and I’ve got to say, the price was right! I’ve noticed some trends in Jeff’s books – fine, satisfyingly literate writing in genre settings; quality art on the book covers and tie-in products; and now – highly competitive pricing. You can’t beat a combination like that!

  • Drax

    I will most definitely be picking up a copy of Jeff VanderMeer’s BOOKLIFE, for a simple reason: I need this book.

    As a fiction writer, I live and work in a near total vacuum. I have no readers, no feedback to cull. As a newly-minted online “presence,” I am practically nonexistent… which is really perfectly fine; I have no burning desire to have a spotlight swung in my direction. But I am often distracted by the sheer enormity of online information to the point of paralysis, and I am continually dogged by the usual demons, you know: doubt, despair. Yes, I manage to assemble my sentences and meet a weekly, contractual deadline; the pages go out, the pages are ultimately read by someone, somewhere. But at times I feel I might as well be Robinson Crusoe.

    For several months now, I have been a regular reader of VanderMeer’s blog, ECSTATIC DAYS. It is readily obvious that Jeff is passionately committed to the process of writing. Not fame, writing. He displays by example the daily—even hourly—grappling of the words and the work and the precision of language required; even a casual reader will be struck by VanderMeer’s commitment to story and fiction, and glean straightaway that writing is most likely the most vital part of his life. I have come to trust Jeff’s careful and reasoned analysis of many charged and fraught issues; while he is certainly equipped with the wit and the wherewithal to thrust his own “persona” into the center ring, he has time and again focused on the issue at hand. His concerns are ultimately about the work. The work, the words, the books, and a life spent consumed with all three. Indeed, as he states in his comment above, his body of fiction stands as evidence of this ideal.

    So yes, though I am bereft of readers and I yearn for comrades, I am continually and selfishly grateful for the example set—and the daily victories won—by Jeff VanderMeer. I don’t always agree with him, I don’t want to “be” him… but I am damn glad he is in there punching the blank page every day.

    I’m going to buy this book, I look forward to BOOKLIFE. I expect it will help me find my way—my own way—as a writer in 21st century.

  • Angela Slatter

    Will I be buying Booklife? Hell yes. How often do successful writers actually write ‘how to’ books? Generally, I check you the name on the cover and it’s a case of ‘Who the?’. Not this time.

  • Nadine Wilson

    I intend to snag a copy, a.) because I like Jeff as a writer and I’d like to support him, and b.) because I strongly suspect there’s rather a lot of good information to be had in the book.

    There’s no such thing as The One All-Purpose Guide to writing any more than there is for any other topic- you mix and match information from a multiplicity of sources, all with divergent angles from which they’re coming at the basic idea. Jeff’s concentration in Booklife (as I gather it from the smattering of reviews/not-reviews/discussions I’ve read online thus far) on the matter of authorship-as-career rather than writing-as-process is a point of view that I’ve been missing so far.

  • http://www.aidandoyle.net Aidan Doyle

    I was fortunate enough to be able to read a pre-release version of Booklife and I found it one of the most useful writing-related books I’ve read.
    There are an endless amount of books on the mechanics of writing, this is one of the few useful books I’ve encountered that deals with the writing life itself.

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