Sunday, October 20, 2013

I Am Not Michael Chabon

I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. Still live there, in fact. And when I was in my early twenties--around the time I started to think of myself as being an author--the biggest thing in Pittsburgh was Michael Chabon.

Chabon's debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, hit the stands in 1988 and made him a household name. Chabon, though not originally from Pittsburgh, had attended school in my hometown, and his rendering of certain familiar places--the University of Pittsburgh campus, Schenley Park, the Strip District--was close enough to the real to satisfy a native. More importantly for Chabon's career, his imagined Pittsburgh was raved about by book critics nationwide, and his coming-of-age novel shot to the top of the bestseller list.

And was I envious?

What do you think?

I certainly was. Here was a guy about my age (he's a couple years older) living the dream I desired for myself. Here was "the boy with the golden pen" (as one swoony review dubbed him). Here was the fame and fortune that should have been mine.

I wanted to be Michael Chabon.

That was in 1988. I was twenty-three. Now I'm forty-eight, and my first novel has finally been accepted for publication. It's a good novel, I believe, and I hope it's the first of many. I like to think I'm a pretty good writer.

But I'm not Michael Chabon.

I'm just not. He's an incredible talent, a brilliant writer, a once-in-a-generation kind of guy. His The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer and just about every other award you can name, and it deserved to. His most recent book, Telegraph Avenue, contains a sentence that's twelve pages long. And he barely seems to be breaking a sweat when he writes it.

The funny thing, though, is that I'm okay with not being him. Call it the wisdom of my years, but I've accepted my place in things. When it comes to writing, there are people like Michael Chabon--a very few people--and then there's everyone else.

I'm everyone else. And that's okay.

I met Chabon a month or so ago at a reading. He was smart, funny, self-mocking (if not exactly self-effacing), eloquent, genuine. At the end of the event I asked him to sign my copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and he did. I didn't have time to tell him I'd written a short story, "Mishap" (which you might be able to track down online), in which a group of failed writers who hang out at a coffee-shop are unexpectedly visited by the boy who used to frequent their gatherings, but who's now become a best-selling author. I called that character Michael. I modeled him after Chabon. Maybe that was my way of exorcising the demons.

The woman who would become my wife gave me my copy of Mysteries back in 1989, half a lifetime ago. On its inside cover, she wrote: "May you be the next twenty-some-year-old author from Pittsburgh." Turns out I had to wait another twenty-four years.

But that's okay too. I've got my own book now.

And I've got Chabon's signature to boot.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

On Not Being On Submission

I started publishing fiction in 2008. For fifteen years before that, I published academic books and articles.

During that entire twenty-year span, I've always had something or other on submission. Whether it was a monograph, an essay, a story, a memoir, or a novel, someone somewhere was reading something I'd written and weighing whether or not to publish the thing.

But now, for the first time in a very long time, I'm not on submission. My debut novel, Survival Colony Nine, is beginning to work its way through the production process. (I just got an email today asking for my author bio.) I've got a couple creative nonfiction essays coming out in the fall and winter, but nothing new making the rounds of literary journals. I'm working on a new novel, but it's nowhere near ready to show my agent or editor.

So here I am, not on submission. No anxieties, no watching the inbox, no middle-of-the-night questions for my agent, no drama. Just peace and quiet.

It's weird.

For anyone who finds her/himself in the same position, I offer twenty suggestions on how to fill the time (not in any particular order):

1. Read.

2. Write.

3. Review books.

4. Tweet.

5. Spend time with your significant other.

6. Spend time with your children/parents/extended family/neighbors/friends.

7. Take walks.

8. Work out.

9. Meditate on the wonders of creation.

10. Volunteer.

11. Fight racism, poverty, and environmental degradation.

12. Watch old movies.

13. Write your author bio.

14. Play with non-human animals.

15. Play with human animals.

16. Support writer-friends (or complete strangers) who are currently on submission.

17. Sleep.

18. Careen down water-slides.

19. Watch the stars at night.

20. Take a deep breath, center yourself, and thank whatever entity you feel deserves it for this moment's respite.

In short, LIVE! You'll be back on submission before you know it, and some of those mundane things will be swallowed in a sea of waiting and worry.

Monday, July 22, 2013

When Classic Becomes Camp

Last night I went to see Mysterious Island, one in a series of movies the local art-house theater is showing to honor the achievements of legendary stop-motion artist Ray Harryhausen, who died earlier this year. If you haven't seen it, it's an adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, with castaways encountering perils and (this being a Harryhausen film) giant monsters on a remote island. Though not one of the master's best films--the drama is slow and plodding, and some of the effects, particularly the glass paintings and traveling mattes on the island, are poorly executed--Mysterious Island is still an impressive piece of special-effects movie-making.

But you know, every time I go to see one of these older fantasy films, whether it be King Kong or The Valley of Gwangi, I have to sit through the lunkheads in the audience cracking up every time an effects sequence appears on screen. Last night, it was an older couple, probably in their sixties, sitting right behind me, yucking it up over Harryhausen's creations. It ticked me off.

I'm more sensitive to this than most, since Harryhausen was my boyhood hero, one of the main reasons (along with Star Wars) I grew up believing in the power of fantasy. But in a broader sense, the hilarity of last night's audience made me wonder: when did classic become camp?

There are campy movies out there, for sure. Many of them were made in the fifties and sixties, when Harryhausen was at the peak of his form. But his films weren't among them. They were designed as spectacle, perhaps, but not as camp. They were meant to be taken seriously: to inspire awe and wonder, not giggles.

Now, as a literary critic and film scholar, I know that what a creator intends for her or his artwork has nothing to do with how an audience receives it. If, in today's era of soulless but realistic computer effects, a film with stop-motion monsters appears silly, audiences will, perhaps naturally, perceive it as such.

But I can't help thinking you'd have to exist in a historical vacuum not to recognize artistry as artistry, regardless of its relationship to present standards. Cave paintings might look quaint today--but they were pretty damn impressive in their time. The acting in Citizen Kane is over-the-top by today's naturalistic standards--but that's still a pretty darn good film. Harryhausen, working alone and with budgets in the mere thousands, couldn't produce what immense teams of technicians equipped with multi-million dollar machines can produce today--but that doesn't make him a hack.

It's inevitable, perhaps, that a consumer culture such as ours--a culture that can't wait to get its hands on the next technological gizmo, simply because it's the next--will equate past with surpassed. It's perhaps inevitable that such a culture will perceive anything classic as campy.

But I'm going to stick with my convictions. Something that was good in its own time--something that was great in its own time, as all of Harryhausen's films were--can still be meaningful in ours. If we fail to acknowledge this, then we're the ones who have become silly and irrelevant.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Climate Deniers Versus Reality, Once Again

In a major speech yesterday, President Barack Obama laid out a plan for dealing with climate change. It's not a perfect plan--it gives too much away to "clean coal," which doesn't exist, and to fracking, which causes more problems than it solves--but it's a start. It's good to see the president finally delivering on the promises he made throughout his first and second election campaigns.

When I posted on Facebook praising the president's speech, I received the anticipated response from a climate denier. With roughly 250 friends, I was bound to have a denier or two among them.

We're rapidly reaching the point where the voices of climate deniers, for all their sound and fury, are being drowned out by common sense. Within a decade, I anticipate, climate deniers will be seen pretty much the way people who claim to have been abducted by aliens are seen: as odd, sad, strange people who, for whatever reasons, refuse to live in the reality the rest of us live in.

Because you know, it is strange.  A recent study demonstrates that over 97% of climatologists--those are the experts who study climate--agree with the consensus on anthropogenic global warming. That's a significant percentage of experts. The proportion of experts who disagree, the study concludes, is "vanishingly small."

When I pointed this out to my climate denier friend, he objected that science isn't based on opinion polls. And I agree. But expert consensus is not the same as an opinion poll.

Experts are those who know a subject best. Opinion polls involve random samples of people who probably know very little about the subject under debate.

We base many of our decisions on expert consensus. When more than 97 percent of cardiologists tell us we have a heart problem, most of us decide to get heart surgery. When more than 97 percent of plumbers tell us we have a plumbing problem, most of us decide to get the pipes fixed. When more than 97 percent of ex-girlfriends tell us we have a bad breath problem, most of us decide to invest in some Tic Tacs.

Opinion, as I tell my students, isn't the same as informed opinion. And informed opinion isn't the same as expert opinion.

We're all entitled to our opinions. But only if we're informed--or better yet, experts--are we entitled to have our opinions count.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


I'm thrilled to be doing something new on the blog today: a COVER REVEAL of Rachel O'Laughlin's forthcoming COLDNESS OF MAREK.  Check it out:

Book Blurb:
Serengard has been under Orion rule for centuries. Centuries of insufferable adherence to laws and traditions that none of its people ever asked for or agreed to. Raised by her scholarly grandfather in the fiery southern city of Neroi, Trzl is out to turn the monarchy into a free society where knowledge is king and no one has to be subject to the whims of an Orion.

As the rebellion escalates, her choices have an eerie impact on the revolution at large, elevating her to a position of influence she has only dreamed of attaining. But there are downsides to her power: appearances and alliances that must be upheld. One of them is Hodran, a rich rebel who wants to aid her cause, and another is Mikel, a loyalist farmer who wants to destroy it… and who just might be winning her heart at the same time.

By the time Trzl realizes she is in too deep, she has an infant son and a dark mess of betrayal and lies. She runs, to the farthest corner of the kingdom, in hopes she will be left alone with her child. But she has a few too many demons. Someone she once trusted takes her captive among the chilling Cliffs of Marek. She is thrown back into the political mess she helped create… at the mercy of a man she never wanted for an enemy.

Author Bio:
Obsessed with all things history, Rachel grew up reading adventure stories the caliber of Rafael Sabatini and only recently fell in love with fantasy as a genre. She lives in Maine with her husband and children, grows roses and tweets often. In addition to reading and writing, she loves coffee, spy series, and alternative rock.
Release DateAugust 6, 2013

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Reader Is Always Right

I received my editor's notes on SURVIVAL COLONY NINE yesterday.

She suggested a number of major changes concerning chronology, world-building, character relationships, narrative arc, plot developments, and more. My eyes nearly popped out of my head.

But the thing is, she's right about everything.

Which leads to the point of this post: the reader is always right.

I tell my students this when we're peer editing. I would say the same to any writer who's received a comment they didn't like from a critique partner or beta reader. I'd say the same to any writer, anywhere, any time.

The reader is always right.

Now, let's be clear about this. I'm not saying readers are always smarter than writers, or writers always have to listen to their readers. You're the writer, so you should, hopefully, be pretty smart and know your book pretty well. And if you don't like your reader's suggestions, don't follow them. The fact that the reader is always right does not obligate the writer always to follow the reader's advice.

In my case, of course, I'm going to follow the reader's advice. She's my editor. I'm trying to get a book published. I have one question for her concerning her comments, but once she clarifies that one point, I'm going to do as she says.

The way I'm going to do as she says is, of course, my own business. No one's telling me exactly how to make the changes I need to make.

She's just telling me I have to make them. And I will.

I think this is important advice for writers to learn. Many writers--students and otherwise--get all hot under the collar when anyone dares suggest there's something that could be improved about their brilliant prose. They storm, they pout, they sulk. And then they retaliate by not doing what their reader tells them to do. Or, worse, they refuse to show their work to readers at all, and they go ahead and self-publish something that's nowhere near ready. So there!

Yeah, that'll really show 'em.

As writers, I think we'd do ourselves a great service if we just remembered that the reader is always right. If we'd remember that, then we could focus on what we're supposed to do as writers. Not storm, pout, sulk, or retaliate. Not lash out at our readers. Not curl up into a little ball and hide from the reality of the writing life.

But listen to our readers.

And then write.

Friday, June 7, 2013

... And More Bad Writing Advice

Bad writing advice comes in all forms.

In some cases, as in yesterday's example, it was bad advice about the content of the writing.

In other cases, as today, it's bad advice about the path to publication.

This morning, I found this guest post in a blog I follow. I usually like this blog, so I don't want to suggest that it's a bad place to get writing advice. Usually, it's not.

Today, it is.

In the post, the author--who by no coincidence is a paid ghostwriter--suggests that everyone who's seeking an agent or a publisher had better first employ the services of, you guessed it, a paid ghostwriter. Here are her exact words:

You don't want your book to be passed over. So it's best to always hire a professional book editor to give your manuscript a thorough going-through before presenting it to an agent or publisher.

I'd suggest that if you do hire a professional book editor, you don't hire this one, who obviously doesn't know what a split infinitive is.

But leaving that aside, is her advice sound?

Well, it depends. She tells us later that "spending money on your book is worth it" in today's competitive marketplace. But she also tells us that the kind of services she's advertising can run anywhere from 2,000 to 50,000 dollars. Do you know what the average advance for a debut author is?

I'll give you a hint: it ain't 50,000 dollars.

Look, there are some books that are in desperate need of editorial assistance.  There are some writers who don't write very well.

But those writers are probably not going to get published no matter how much someone else tinkers with their books. Those writers just aren't good enough.

Other writers can discover the weaknesses in their manuscripts with the assistance of unpaid critique partners or beta readers. And they can fix what's wrong themselves before subbing to an agent or editor.

Then there are some writers who are good enough to get published, but who need a paid editor to get a book into agent-or-publisher-ready shape. Those authors should consult their consciences and their pocket-books and make their own decision.

But to say it's "always" best to hire a paid editor is to put false hope in the minds of those writers who are unpublishable, while putting unnecessary fear into the minds of those writers who don't need to pay anyone.

And it's all done in the name of making a buck.

I'm an old-fashioned guy. I believe you don't lie to people or take advantage of them. In that respect, I guess I'm out of step with the whole capitalist mantra, which seems to be: anything goes.

So on the one hand, as a blogger, I'm thankful for all the bad advice out there. It gives me something to do. It keeps me in business (though obviously, I don't get paid for these posts).

But on the other hand, as a writer and a human being, it really ticks me off.