On Friday, Kelley and I were invited as ‘Mystery Muses’ to talk to the 2011 batch of Clarion West
victims students. We had one hour to pass along something meaningful. We pondered that morning how it should go. Between us, we’re writers (novels, stories, essays, memoir), editors (acquisition and development, of fiction, narrative non-fiction, grants, and business articles), and teachers. Once you’ve said, “Marry someone rich,” and “Live in a country with good state benefits,” it’s difficult to decide what of our experience might be most useful. So we put the choice in their hands: discuss writing techniques or writing life.
With one accord they said: Life!
It’s a big topic. We covered (that is, touched on briefly) several facets of writing life, but in the end our thoughts boiled down to two main things: play nicely and be true to yourself.
Playing nicely means be good to everyone: peers, readers, editors, agents, students, teachers, small dogs, vicious children. Everyone. Because in this business everyone really does know everyone else, and eventually your relationships will catch up with you. You never know when that gnerdy fan might turn into the super-powerful uber editor, or the irritating teen bloggermight one day control a media empire. Besides, it just feels good to help others. And when you’ve helped others, they’ll help you. It’s good to have friends, in and out of the business. Your relationships are as important as the work itself.
Being true to yourself is simultaneously simple and hard. It means maintaining the psychotic self-belief necessary for all artists, while understanding that one shouldn’t force square pegs into round holes. (This applies both to story form, and business success.) It means not being swayed by the market to the detriment of your real voice but not being stupid about money. It means being brave–with the work itself, with relationships (you have to talk to people, you really do), and with making the time to do the work. It means sticking to your guns even–especially–when things are tough. If you think your work is good enough, don’t settle for second-best in terms of publication or representation or rewriting. If you don’t think it’s good enough, don’t publish it, make it better. Having someone tell you something’s good enough doesn’t make it good enough. Being published doesn’t make you good, it just makes you published.
One of the most urgent questions was about The Future of Publishing. Sadly I don’t think I was very helpful. I laughed. I explained that there is no one future of publishing; there are a thousand. There used to be one main model, yes (the hardcover publication every three years by one of the Big Six, reviewed in the NYTBR, go on NPR, win a prize), with several subsets (e.g. mass market imprint of the B6 twice a year, reviews in genre outlets, sales in supermarkets; etc.). Now there are almost as many roads as there are writers.
Certainly most publishers are taking different routes. Penguin, for example, is going vertical–buying retail and distribution outlets for traditionally published material, while running farm teams such as Book Country, a community of writers from whom they hope to recruit to the big leagues. At least two big retailers–B&N and Amazon–are also publishers, and Amazon’s entry into New York publishing will stretch one corner of publishing world into a new shape.
So what path should an emerging writer take? It depends. Depends on your work, your energy, your appetite for risk. I think I’m heading for a hybrid career: my novels (front and backlist) with Big Six publishers, my short fiction and non-fiction (more on that another time) published independently. Other writers will make other choices.
It’s important to remember that nothing is irrevocable. Especially these days. Make sure every contract has (preferably) a term-limit for renegotiation or (at least) a solid and sensible reversion clause. Then even if you make a horrible mistake and/or publishing turns on a dime in the next two years, you can change your strategy to match.
So, anyway, I’m not sure if I inspired the writers or terrified them. Muse or ogre? Or, hey, it’s an f/sf kind of world: why not both?
Kelley’s latest Clarion West write-a-thon piece is up. If you understand love, “Beautiful Wine” will wreck you. Read with hanky handy (or, if you’re wicked butch, be prepared for your jaw to ache from clenching). I’m serious.
Then go read all the other pieces she has written so far. Then go give some money to Clarion West and get Kelley to write something just for you. You’ll not only get something beautiful, you’ll be helping those emerging writers I just talked about. Also, birds will sing and peace will reign on earth. Yeah, the power of art…