Going Public

Recently I critiqued two book-length manuscripts, both novels and both promising. Before the authors contacted me, no one else had read either manuscript all the way through.

I say this not because it’s unusual but because it isn’t. Writing may be a solitary activity, but publishing is not. To publish is, by definition, to make public. (I’m not kidding about this. Look it up.) To many aspiring writers it seems easier to imagine putting their work before hundreds or thousands of strangers than to share it with people they may know personally. Is it surprising that so many writers labor for years on a book-length manuscript and then choke when it comes time to start seeking a publisher?

Puppy Travvy (right) meets Chamois, a mature yellow Lab, spring 2008.

Puppy Travvy (right) meets Chamois, a mature yellow Lab, spring 2008.

Making our work public does not come easily to most of us. It does takes practice. Think of your work in progress as a puppy. Puppies do better when they get to meet other puppies, adult dogs, and people of various sizes. At the same time, their owners learn more about the pup’s personality and maybe what the pup could use in the way of socialization and training.

No, you don’t need to let your work in progress out of the house before it and you are ready, but do get used to putting your words out in public and (if you’re lucky) getting responses from readers. There are lots of ways to do this. Blog. Contribute to the blogs of others. Review the books you read on GoodReads. Write press releases for the organizations you’re active in or occasional stories for the local paper. Join or start a writers’ group. Etc.

I’ve been taking Wolfie, my novel in progress, to my writers’ group scene by scene since early on. This has been good practice for me because I’m perfectionist enough to be uncomfortable letting anything out of my sight before it’s done. Once I was well into draft 3, I decided chapter 1 was ready to go out before a public that hadn’t heard any of it before.

Fortunately the ideal venue for such forays exists at my town’s library. Writers Read, as it’s called, meets roughly once a month. Unlike the usual writers’ group, regular attendance is not expected, but it’s developed a core of regulars that offer stability while others drop in from time to time. Six or seven writers read at each gathering. To avoid listener fatigue, the time limit of nine minutes is firmly enforced by the moderator. This presents a challenge for writers of longer works, but even novels and memoirs generally include scenes that can stand on their own without too much explanation (which is included in the nine minutes).

Personal responses from listeners are encouraged, but this is not a critique group. “I was confused by this bit” is OK; “this is confusing” is not. The moderator enforces this too. It often happens that one listener loves what another listener is confused by. This might be the most valuable lesson any writer can learn from taking her work out in public: different readers may have wildly different reactions to the same passage, which means it’s up to the writer to decide what to do about it.

Most of the participants in Writers Read are writers, but non-writers and future writers are more than welcome. I suspect that venues like Writers Read help novice writers get their courage up, first to write and then to share their work.

If nothing like this exists in your area, try starting something yourself. All you need is a space, a bunch of writers interested in sharing their work, and a few ground rules to keep the gatherings friendly and fruitful.

Writers Read, November 2016, West Tisbury (Mass.) Free Public Library

Writers Read, November 2016, West Tisbury (Mass.) Free Public Library

Readers’ Challenge

Charles French nominated me for a “readers’ challenge” award. The whole award thing in the blogosphere is a little weird. As far as I can tell, it’s circle-jerkery, with people nominating each other for awards and some people crowing about every award they get nominated for. I am intimidated by how many blogs some of these people follow. Don’t they have lives? Don’t they have jobs? When do the writers among them do their writing?

To hell with that. I like Charles French’s blog on reading, writing, and teaching, and just as important, the questions in this challenge/survey interest me, mainly because I don’t think they were directed at people like me who are in the word trades and don’t read all that much on the side. So here goes.

One of my two big bookshelves, freshly culled, dusted, and reorganized, and garnished with a few of my dog's Rally Obedience title ribbons.

One of my two big bookshelves, freshly culled, dusted, and reorganized, and garnished with a few of my dog’s Rally Obedience title ribbons.

You have 20,000 books on your TBR. How in the world do you decide what to read next?

No way in a million years I would ever have 20,000 books on my to-be-read list. I do have a dozen or so hardcopy books on the shelves at the head of my bed and several more on my Nook. How do I decide? Partly it’s what grabs my attention at the moment. If someone I respect recommends a book, it goes to the top of the list. I’m usually reading two or three books at once, but since I do most of my reading in the 20 or so minutes before I fall asleep, I don’t get through them very fast.

 

You’re halfway through a book and you’re just not loving it. Do you quit or commit?

Quit. Life is too short to waste one’s time reading crappy books. At the moment I’m about halfway through a nonfiction book that I expected great things of. I semi-promised to review it in my Martha’s Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. I’m probably going to skim through the rest and bail. No idea how I’m going to review it, because it’s very relevant to that particular blog and because the whys and wherefores of its failures are worth discussing.

I’m an editor by trade. When I start editing while I’m reading, it usually means that something has gone off the rails. This is the case with the nonfiction book I’m reading now. Where was the editor? I wonder. There probably wasn’t one, even though the publisher is legit and shows up fairly often in the bibliographies of books I copyedit. It’s two or three drafts short of done, and the factual errors are glaring and could have been prevented.

The end of the year is coming and you’re so close yet so far away on your GoodReads challenge. Do you quit or commit?

I dabble on GoodReads, but I don’t commit to anything.

The covers of a series you love DO. NOT. MATCH. How do you cope?

Well, I rarely read more than one book in a series, so I doubt I’d notice. If the series is good enough that I read more than one, I probably would have forgotten the cover of the first by the time I started the second. Here’s an interesting question: If books in a series were routinely marketed with non-matching covers and nothing to indicate that they’re part of a series, would anyone pick them up and read them?

Everyone and their mother loves a book you really don’t like. Who do you bond with over shared feelings?

I’m rarely reading what everyone else is reading at the same time they’re reading it. If I read it, it’s five years after they’ve forgotten it. So this doesn’t come up often. Sometimes, though, I’ll hear someone say that a book I didn’t like was overrated. I’ll jump in with a “Same here!” and if it leads to further discussion, so much the better. Ditto when someone says she loved a book that I think was widely overlooked. Bonding is good.

You’re reading a book and you’re about to start crying in public. How do you deal?

Doesn’t bother me at all. The big problem is that I rarely have a hanky handy, so I have to use my sleeve.

A sequel of a book you loved just came out, but you’ve forgotten a lot from the prior novel. Will you re-read the book? Skip the sequel? Try to find a summary on GoodReads? Cry in frustration?

If I really like a book, I’ll probably avoid any sequels unless I’m assured through the grapevine that the sequel is worthy of the original. If I’ve already forgotten a lot from the original, it probably wasn’t all that great. A good book stands on its own even if it’s a sequel or part of a series. In other words, I won’t worry about it.

You don’t want ANYONE borrowing your books. How do you politely tell people “nope” when they ask?

I no longer lend out books that have particular meaning to me, especially when they’ve been inscribed by the author, but I’m more than willing to lend anything else to anyone who asks. I live in a studio apartment. I frequently cull my shelves and donate the good stuff to my town library’s annual book sale. Good books are happier circulating than gathering dust on a bookshelf. All right, so the books aren’t happier — am. Good books have their work to do in the world, and they aren’t doing it cooped up in my apartment.

You’ve picked up and put down five different books in the past month. How do you get over the reading slump?

How is that a “slump”? When the right book comes along, I’ll stick with it. Till then I’ll find other things to do with my time.

There are so many new books coming out that you are dying to read! How many do you actually buy?

There are wonderful new books coming out all the time. I don’t know about most of them. This is a good thing. If the subject is of interest, if I’ve admired the author’s previous work, or if someone I respect recommends it, it’ll go on my mental “to-read” shelf. Maybe I’ll even put it on my GoodReads “to be read” shelf. I rarely buy a book until/unless I know I’m going to (a) read it, and (b) want to keep it around. Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia was one such. I’m also more likely to buy books from independent presses that I want to support. I bought Shade Mountain Press‘s first two books, Lynn Kanter’s novel Her Own Vietnam and Robin Parks’s story collection Egg Heaven. They’re both wonderful. (I reviewed them both on GoodReads.) I’m looking forward to their fall 2015 titles.

After you’ve bought a new book you want to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf until you actually read them?

I rarely buy new books, and when I do (see above) it’s because I want to read them now. And I do, though it usually takes me a few weeks to finish them. A couple of years ago I bought Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which was first published in 1988. For years I was more than a little afraid of that book, partly because Atwood is a demanding writer and partly because the subject, so I’d heard, was girls’ nastiness to other girls. Then in late 2012 I copyedited an academic essay about the book that revived my interest in Cat’s Eye and assured me that it wasn’t just about girls’ nastiness to other girls. I bought and downloaded it right then. It was more than two years before I got around to reading it, but I’m very glad I did. It is demanding, but in all the best ways.

After you’ve bought a new book you want to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf until you actually read them?

See above: I rarely buy new books, period. When I got my Nook, my first e-reader, I did buy a novel on a friend’s recommendation, mainly so I’d have something to read on the road. That was three and a half years ago and I still haven’t read it — but I will, I will! I buy more books electronically than I do in print, mainly because the two bookstores within driving distance rarely have what I’m looking for. The downside is that my ebooks tend to sit around longer because I can’t see them, take them down off the shelf, flip through the pages, and decide “Yeah, it’s time to read this one.”

Nomination time

If you blog and these questions intrigue you, please adopt them and take them home with you.