Friday, December 19, 2008

The T Word and Stuff

I want to thank everyone who emailed me their thoughts on writing groups, and here is my collective response: writers' groups are great if they work for you. Maybe they support you in some way that is necessary for you to go on writing. They are just not for me, and I need to spend what little time I have actually writing. So while I appreciate offers to join online critique groups, I like figuring out how to revise on my own. Just the way I work. And I think I'm more ruthless on myself than nice people would be.

Besides, I have to spend my online time looking up obscure facts about polar bears and peacocks so I can look at the clock and think, "OMG, it's 1:45 and the boys will be home in 17 minutes, and I haven't started revising yet!" It makes me really use those 17 minutes constructively. Unfortunately, another way I work: the Internet is my endless encyclopedia of trivia.

And while I'm sort of on the subject of writing and writing groups, I had no idea so many folks out there are aspiring to be writers, and YA writers in particular. It seems to have exploded, and I feel like Rip VanWinkle. Where did all these people come from and what were they doing before?

In reading some of these emails, I found out a lot that I didn't know, so I started snooping around the Internet to see what they were referencing. Now, admittedly, I am not a writer involved in many literary social loops - okay, no literary social loops - but I discovered a huge business has sprung up to cater to the aspiration of being a writer. There are workshops run by editors and former editors who charge mightily to critique your manuscript and make it publishable. (Can/do they guarantee that? What if that manuscript is still lingering in your hard drive three years later? Do you get a refund?)

There are conferences and weekend retreats and retreats combined with spa treatments to relax you so you can write better. So a sea kelp facial and then a little plot tweaking? Oh, sure, I get that. And none of these are cheap.

Then there is a strange fellow termed "collaborative publishing" - which seems like an advanced form of Xeroxing. You pay someone to publish your book. That's putting it a little baldly, but that's what I gathered from reading their spiel. You get to say you're published even if you're out a couple of grand.

Through none of this does anyone mention talent. There is a conspicuous absence of the T-word in most publishing come ons, and there is this weird atmosphere around writing that if you work a manuscript to death, send it out enough, throw some cash at it, you'll eventually hit it right, quit your day job and start lunching with JK Rowling. Or something along those lines. The odds are never mentioned.

We live right near Atlantic City, sort of a subdued LasVegas with tons of casinos and gamblers. One of the things Gamblers Anonymous does is explain the incredibly low odds of making it big at a casino. It's logical, and mathematical, and inarguable. You would think all the examples would keep the gamblers away from the glittery lure of Harrah's. But it doesn't, and the casinos continue to thrive. They keep coming back and spending money despite the almost impossible odds.

The gamblers know there are so many gamblers and so few jackpots. And the casinos know exactly how few gamblers will accept that as fact.


Mike from NY said...

My friend paid a company big bucks to "fix" her contemporary mystery novel. They fixed some grammar, told her to "spice up the sex" and sent it back with the same typos.

She's still unpubbed, no agent, but she's not giving up. Go figure.

Carrie Harris said...

Oh, the T-word. I don't think we're supposed to say that one. We're just supposed to keep trying to get published rather than trying to, heaven forbid, become better writers.

Marcia said...

Love that feather! I have one too; a student sent it to me because she is also researching peacocks. When I opened the package I thought, "The cat is going to go NUTS." But I managed to pretty much hide it from her.

I may be completely wrong, but I think the emphasis on groups is relatively new. By relatively, I mean much more so than when I started out, when there was almost no way for writers to meet each other except face-to-face at an SCBWI event, if indeed SCBWI was active in your locality. Every piece of advice I read at that time said "NOBODY, except maybe my spouse, reads my stuff until I'm ready to send it to my agent." I got the definite impression that just about all writers went it alone. No opinions wanted while the thing was still half-formed.

Sometimes I think groups are part of all the trappings of "being a writer." Because yes, there is a whole industry out there that caters to aspiring writers. Never mind that only a small minority has the talent level, the command of the language, AND the temperament (butt in chair, alone in room, hour after hour)to make it. Some have one or two of the above, but you need all three. And how much do you want a bet that the one they will assure you they have is talent? That plus "imagination." It's their grammar that's the weakness, they'll moan. And even worse, their time crunch. Oh, where is Verla's hammer-pounding smilie when I need it?

Mary Witzl said...

I think a lot of people look at writers like J K Rowling and imagine they can do the same -- produce a book that will capture the imagination of the world and earn them big bucks in a hurry. And few have even an inkling of an idea just how hard it is or how much of a long shot -- or indeed, how long it takes to develop skill.

I'm always amused by people who pursue a sport by buying all the kit -- expensive equipment, fancy spandex stuff, etc -- but skimp on the activity itself. Writing is the same. You can buy yourself a laptop, reference books, etc., join groups, go to conferences -- but at some point it all comes down to butt in chair, black on white. And yes, the T word too.

Anne Spollen said...

I have friends who have done similar things, Mike, and they are all still unpublished. It's weird to believe that without ever having studied literature or published in the tiniest of literary magazines that you have a shot at getting a novel published. But there is no shortage of folks who believe this, and there is no shortage of folks who will encourage them for the right price.


Right, Carrie, that unspoken T-word. It's much better to run around all the time going to conferences and joining countless groups and forums than to actually WORK at your writing. Forming your identity as a writer is what's important.

And random thought: why do so so many people put WRITER or POET or AUTHOR on their blogs when they have never published a single word? Just wondering. In keeping with that thinking, I'm going to put INTERNATIONAL SPY on my blog because I think it might be fun to be one.

(I know, I sound crabby. Rough week)

Well, it's good to know that, Marcia. I always imagined writers alone, too (and alcoholic, but that was only during the Hemingway phase) When I first started getting published, I got (snail) mail every once in awhile about conferences, but not to the extent that exists now. You could spend all your time shaping your identity as a writer and never manage to get a word down.

I have enough trouble with the butt glue situation as it is, and the distraction of groups would make me nuts.

And peacocks! I love Flannery O'Connor, and that's when I first started reading about them.

I know, Mary. We have friends who buy all this ultra sports equipment, then gain weight because I think the fun was all in the idea that they would lift weights or work on elliptical machines. It's so hopeful...sort of like writing. I guess it motivates them initially, but if they lack the T-word and the butt glue, and like Marcia said, the imagination, that's the end of it.