Monday, April 25, 2011

A Little Reminder

I’m well aware my decision to forsake traditional publishing puts a glass ceiling over any writing career I might have, and I’m good with it. I’m even better after what happened today.

I want to state up front this is not a diatribe about agents. Agents have it tough now. The foundations of their business are set in quicksand and they’re getting squeezed on one side by publishers who want more out of authors all the time and on the other side by authors who think a book contract will buy them a villa in Capri. The agent I’m about to discuss is highly respected by everyone I know, including me. We’ve met, shared a couple of drinks in a small group, and my writing has always received a fair hearing. This rejection was complimentary, written with tact, and I have no quibble with the assessment.

It did, however, take the agent seven months to get around to it.

To me, that says more on the state of publishing than it does about this agent, and I’m too old for this bullshit. I’m fifty-five, and life is too short to live on gossamer-thin hopes that take the better part of a year to spin out. I don’t burn like I did as a young musician. I enjoy my quiet time more than I used to, and I’ve paid enough life dues that I don’t feel the need to wait indefinitely for someone to tell me to jump so I can ask how high.

I understand my path is not the way to fame and fortune; I’m not recommending it to others who may have different goals than I.

On the other hand, I’ve never missed a deadline, and I doubt I will.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide

Finding books on how to write is easy. Lay in the parking lot outside any building housing an MFA program and sooner or later one will fall on you. Actually publishing a book, or even placing more than one short story in a respected publication such as the Pennysaver is optional. Many of these books dispense such valuable information as, “show, don’t tell,” or “grammar is good.”

In much shorter supply are books about how to be a writer. What to look for in a school, what’s involved in selling a book or story, and what will be asked of you once a contract has been accepted. How to keep ends together. Even whether you should become a writer in the first place. John McNally’s The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide is a welcome addition to this niche.

McNally’s credentials are substantial: three novels, two collections of short stories, the editor of six anthologies. His fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in over one hundred publications, and he is currently an associate professor at Wake Forest University. (Full disclosure: McNally was a visiting writer at George Washington University in 2001-2002, where I was fortunate to be accepted into his workshop.)

TCWSG is broken into six parts, each consisting of several sections: The Decision to Become a Writer, Education and the Writer, Getting Published, Publicity, Employment for Writers, and The Writer’s Life. These are bookended with a brief introduction (The Writer’s Wonderland—Or: A Warning) and the notes, bibliography, acknowledgements, and index such a book requires. The layout is logical, progressing through the stages of a writer’s life as they as most likely to be encountered.

The book works as well as it does because McNally has scuffed around as much as a archetypal writer should. He never starved in a garret, though he did freeze in a trailer, where he was almost overcome by the fumes of its kerosene heater. (A plan to work Alaskan crab boats before Most Dangerous Catch made it cool was narrowly averted.) Anyone who hopes to earn a living from writing will have few life events that aren’t at least analogous to something McNally has done.

The other element to the book’s success is McNally’s writing. If easy reading truly is hard writing, then John McNally busts his ass. Conversational without becoming colloquial, TCWSG is as much fun to read as his fiction. There are no sections to be trudged through. Even what may seem at first glance to be the lair of dryness may be spiced up with an anecdote or a well-designed phrase. McNally is expert at Elmore Leonard’s credo to leave out the parts people skip, often by finding a way to make them worth reading.

Yes, I’m in the tank for him. He convinced me I had some talent, and has been encouraging throughout our relationship. Still, the only book I’ve read about the writing life that comes close to TCWSG is John Scalzi’s delightful You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop. (Stephen King’s On Writing begins with a long and informative biographical section, but it’s much of it is a purging of his demons, and, hopefully, of little practical use to other writers, except as a cautionary tale.) The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide is thought provoking and fun, which is the best way to learn anything.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Writer's Life

Once again, The Onion knows more about what we do than most of us are willing to admit.

Monday, April 11, 2011


I’ve been a devotee of Timothy Hallinan’s work since I was asked to review A Nail Through the Heart, the first of his Poke Rafferty series. The Rafferty books started strong and got better, capped (so far) by last year’s The Queen of Patpong. Knowing how much effort Hallinan puts into the Rafferty books, and the emotional fatigue that must have been induced in writing Queen, it was no surprise when he opted for something lighter for his next project.

Junior Bender is a burglar. Not some cheap smash-and-grab asshole, Junior works mainly on commission, stealing specific things on demand for pre-set prices. When stealing a Paul Klee painting from the home of a notorious gangster goes south on him, Junior finds himself engaged with two organized crime operations, a crooked cop, and the pornography industry.

The Rafferty books always had laughs in them, no matter how serious the content. Hallinan has a good ear and light touch with his humor, and an appreciation of how characters have the capacity for it—even if unintentional—during the toughest moments. Crashed is intended to be more of a humorous read, as the story breezes along with more odd circumstances and quirky characters than can be found in any of the Rafferty books.

That’s doesn’t mean it’s fluff. The core subject matter is life and death, and Junior has a harder interior than may first appear. Thistle Downing is a cautionary character, and the issues surrounding Junior, his ex-wife, and their daughter are real enough to fit far more standard occupations than professional thief. The ending isn’t sure until it’s over.  Still, the subtext is lighter, the smiles more frequent, and the cast more inclined to banter than in the Rafferty books.

What hasn’t changed is the quality of the writing. Hallinan  writes scenes as memorable as anyone working today, and his descriptions are Chandler-esque at times, without sounded dated or derivative.

It’s easy to see why Hallinan would need a departure from Poke Rafferty’s increasingly dark adventures. Crashed is just what could be hoped for, something different that still has the basic elements that make Hallinan  worth reading in the first place.

(By the way, if you haven’t read The Queen of Patpong, you really ought to get busy.)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Wild Bill Saddles Up

I just sent the manuscript file for Wild Bill in to eBook Architects to have it formatted for Kindle and other electronic formats. Once it comes back, then I guess I’m committed to getting it out there, hopefully this summer.

Stay tuned.