Really, this is all you need to know to get started and keep going, by Shawna Kenney, from Brevity:
Really, this is all you need to know to get started and keep going, by Shawna Kenney, from Brevity:
I was delighted when Jorden Rosenfeld, novelist and writing-guide author, agreed to be interviewed here.
Jordan, you’ve published two novels, ‘Forged in Grace’ and ‘Night Oracle.’ Can you tell us a little about each of them? How did you conceive them? What was your path to publishing? With whom did they come out? What was after-publication like for you?
Hi Jane. I’ve actually published three novels, the latest, Women in Red is published by Booktrope, a hybrid press I’ve really enjoyed working with—quality team, I was very happy with the people involved in making my book. The other two I published through a writer’s collective I co-founded several years ago called Indie-Visible, and I learned so much about publishing at the time and had immense support from this collective of fellow writers (though I have not much to do with its current, fabulous incarnation due to time constraints). Night Oracle was actually originally represented by the same literary agent who represents Gillian Flynn; she thought we had a similar tone and style, but ultimately the book didn’t sell in NY publishing despite some “wonderful” rejections. So I took Forged in Grace and Night Oracle into my own hands when I saw the magic and persistence happening in indie publishing. I think all of my novels are conceived out of the rich, bohemian, but also dark sensibility of growing up a child of the 70s to parents who grappled with addictions of one sort or another, drug dealing, multiple partners, etc, but were also passionately cultured and into books and art and film. Reading and writing were my escape. All my characters are fragments, I think, of my own fascination and horror with people and their secrets, their failings.
You’ve also published three guides to writing: ‘Make a Scene,’ ‘Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life,’ with Rebecca Lawton, and the recent ‘A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice.’ Which is your favourite form to write in, fiction or non-fiction?
And again, I’ve also added a fourth writing guide, my latest from Writer’s Digest Books, co-authored with Martha Alderson, called Writing Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story Through Action, Emotion & Theme. My heart, when it comes to writing, is fiction. I like to analyze the craft of writing and digest it for other writers, but I’m not really wholly myself unless I’m storymaking and playing with language. I’ve found the essay form to share some similar satisfaction, and I love the how-to, and analytical aspects of the other non-fiction but I’ll die a novelist first and foremost.
Where do you think most new writers run into problems?
Ten years ago, I’d say writers ran into craft problems like not knowing how to write strong scenes or develop compelling characters. Today I feel like writers run into the problem of rushing their work out for publication and many don’t even consider the issues of craft, so you get sloppy storytelling or incomplete characters.
What advice would you give them to get started?
To me starting is the easy part, it’s staying with it, being persistent, and really loving the craft (and your eventual readers) enough to learn to write and rewrite stories so that you’re not just settling for mediocre. In my book on persistence I talk about how necessary it is to find what makes you passionate about your writing so that you will be likely to persist with it, to treat it as a writing practice. Also, one of my graduate teachers said that the only way a story works is if your characters are real to you, living, breathing people, not simulacra.
What about that tenacious bear, the writer’s block? Do you have schemes to keep it from the door?
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in fear, resistance, stubbornness, excuses, lies to avoid writing. The fact is, if you sit down and write something, anything every day, you’ll get through the block. The only real exception I’ve seen is if you’ve dealt with a huge loss; grief is a creativity killer sometimes.
What main problem do you think writers who’ve completed MFAs discover?
I can’t speak for all writers and all MFA programs. I went through one—Bennington’s writing seminars—and on the one hand it expanded me in so many ways, gave me access to writers I needed to learn from, and forced me to work really hard, which every writer needs. In other ways, I think I so wanted to please my professors rather than write from my guts that I think I compressed some of my own voice out of my writing for a few years and honestly, I have rarely been able to write a short story again since I graduated in 2005.
Do you have any comments about the state of literature and publishing today?
I refuse to be a pessimist. Publishing is about dollars and business, and it will always be at the whim of the masses and the corporate bigwhigs. But literature is always sneaking out the cracks, and I am so buoyed and thrilled by the writers that I feel are my contemporaries and what they are producing; it feels like a revolutionary time to be part of any literary scene.
My Years As A Kleptomaniac by Jordan Rosenfeld
Jordan Rosenfeld’s website.
sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014
We’ve all been there on the receiving end of rejections that are ill-conceived and thoughtless. Your work is crap, these notes say, in whatever arguably neutral language they couch this in. Your work made me vomit. Go shovel walkways. Go work at Goonies. Just go away and please, please, please, and whatever you do, stop writing.
They aren’t actually that bad, and most of them aren’t bad at all. But we feel like they are, right?
It may be that, in fact, our work is crap. It happens to the best of us. After 35 years at this, I still write reams of garbage, and, sometimes, I send it out. But regardless of the status of my submissions, good or bad or in between, the stats for rejection/acceptance stay about 20-1. Which means that I get one acceptance per couple dozen rejections.
Does being queer enter into that? Of course it does. Pieces aren’t judged only by merit. Unless there’s a push for affirmative action at a magazine, an article/story/poem that is even tangentially about being queer is often overlooked. Oh, we published a lesbian piece last month. Not quite for our demographic. A little too avant garde for us.
Do I care? Yeah, a lot. I hate homophobia, and at my age, it’s a tired old saw. Go play with knives, already. Get over yourselves and ask more of your readers.
But even so, if I send a piece out–no matter what kind of piece it is–for long enough, with enough diligence, it will eventually find its home, and that won’t be the bottom of the barrel, that’ll be at a magazine/journal/online site where I’ll be proud to publish and they’ll be proud to have you.
Most of being a writer is showing up, keeping at it, being persistent when the whole damned enterprise seems keyed to shutting you down.
Here’s what I know, though. You can do one thing better than any other writer anywhere: you can be yourself.
Authors might have talents and skills you don’t have, but you have talents and skills they don’t have, as well. That’s the thing that strikes me over and over in this long-game: No one can write like I do. Often I whine and grumble about that–how I can’t stop being me for five minutes in order to write as brilliantly as, say, Eudora Welty–but really, ultimately, my uniqueness is a good thing. In fact, in an over-crowded marketplace, it’s the sum total of what I’ve got. My idiosyncracies? Those are my only commodities in publishing-land.
Do I wish I had other styles, other skills, other talents? Of course I do. Absolutely I do. If I could write like Arundhati Roy, or Karrie Higgins, or poetry like, say, Alice Anderson or Jane Hirschfield or Marilyn Hacker, or essays like Roxanne Gay, or one true sentence the way Ray Carver could, or a Lidia Yuknavich short chapter, I would die a perfectly fulfilled human being. If I could turn a sentence like Rebecca Brown or Lorrie Moore or Mavis Gallant or Toni Morrison I would be incandescent. But I can’t. That’s them. That’s their kick at the can. It’s not supposed to be mine.
Mine is the bit I got.
And that’s a lucky thing. Because if we all wrote like each other, reading would be a grim task indeed.
Your work is crap? Make more crap. Do it the Beckett way: If you’re going to fail–and you are going to fail–fail better.
The Writer’s Handbook – 1988 by
1. Be talented
This, of course, is the killer. What is talent? I can hear someone shouting, and here we are, ready to get into a discussion right up there with “what is the meaning of life?” for weighty pronouncements and total uselessness. For the purposes of the beginning writer, talent may as well be defined as eventual success – publication and money. If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented. Now some of you are really hollering. Some of you are calling me one crass money-fixated creep. And some of you are calling me bad names. Are you calling Harold Robbins talented? someone in one of the Great English Departments of America is screeching. V.C. Andrews? Theodore Dreiser? Or what about you, you dyslexic moron?
Nonsense. Worse than nonsense, off the subject. We’re not talking about good or bad here. I’m interested in telling you how to get your stuff published, not in critical judgments of who’s good or bad. As a rule the critical judgments come after the check’s been spent, anyway. I have my own opinions, but most times I keep them to myself. People who are published steadily and are paid for what they are writing may be either saints or trollops, but they are clearly reaching a great many someones who want what they have. Ergo, they are communicating. Ergo, they are talented. The biggest part of writing successfully is being talented, and in the context of marketing, the only bad writer is one who doesn’t get paid. If you’re not talented, you won’t succeed. And if you’re not succeeding, you should know when to quit. When is that? I don’t know. It’s different for each writer. Not after six rejection slips, certainly, nor after sixty. But after six hundred? Maybe. After six thousand? My friend, after six thousand pinks, it’s time you tried painting or computer programming. Further, almost every aspiring writer knows when he is getting warmer – you start getting little jotted notes on your rejection slips, or personal letters . . . maybe a commiserating phone call. It’s lonely out there in the cold, but there are encouraging voices … unless there is nothing in your words which warrants encouragement. I think you owe it to yourself to skip as much of the self-illusion as possible. If your eyes are open, you’ll know which way to go … or when to turn back.
2. Be neat
Type. Double-space. Use a nice heavy white paper, never that erasable onion-skin stuff. If you’ve marked up your manuscript a lot, do another draft.
3. Be self-critical
If you haven’t marked up your manuscript a lot, you did a lazy job. Only God gets things right the first time. Don’t be a slob.
4. Remove every extraneous word
You want to get up on a soapbox and preach? Fine. Get one and try your local park. You want to write for money? Get to the point. And if you remove all the excess garbage and discover you can’t find the point, tear up what you wrote and start all over again . . . or try something new.
5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft
You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. You think you might have misspelled a word? O.K., so here is your choice: either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right – and breaking your train of thought and the writer’s trance in the bargain – or just spell it phonetically and correct it later. Why not? Did you think it was going to go somewhere? And if you need to know the largest city in Brazil and you find you don’t have it in your head, why not write in Miami, or Cleveland? You can check it … but later. When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.
6. Know the markets
Only a dimwit would send a story about giant vampire bats surrounding a high school to McCall’s. Only a dimwit would send a tender story about a mother and daughter making up their differences on Christmas Eve to Playboy … but people do it all the time. I’m not exaggerating; I have seen such stories in the slush piles of the actual magazines. If you write a good story, why send it out in an ignorant fashion? Would you send your kid out in a snowstorm dressed in Bermuda shorts and a tank top? If you like science fiction, read the magazines. If you want to write confession stories, read the magazines. And so on. It isn’t just a matter of knowing what’s right for the present story; you can begin to catch on, after awhile, to overall rhythms, editorial likes and dislikes, a magazine’s entire slant. Sometimes your reading can influence the next story, and create a sale.
7. Write to entertain
Does this mean you can’t write “serious fiction”? It does not. Somewhere along the line pernicious critics have invested the American reading and writing public with the idea that entertaining fiction and serious ideas do not overlap. This would have surprised Charles Dickens, not to mention Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Bernard Malamud, and hundreds of others. But your serious ideas must always serve your story, not the other way around. I repeat: if you want to preach, get a soapbox.
8. Ask yourself frequently, “Am I having fun?”
The answer needn’t always be yes. But if it’s always no, it’s time for a new project or a new career.
9. How to evaluate criticism
Show your piece to a number of people – ten, let us say. Listen carefully to what they tell you. Smile and nod a lot. Then review what was said very carefully. If your critics are all telling you the same thing about some facet of your story – a plot twist that doesn’t work, a character who rings false, stilted narrative, or half a dozen other possibles – change that facet. It doesn’t matter if you really liked that twist of that character; if a lot of people are telling you something is wrong with you piece, it is. If seven or eight of them are hitting on that same thing, I’d still suggest changing it. But if everyone – or even most everyone – is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.
10. Observe all rules for proper submission
Return postage, self-addressed envelope, all of that.
11. An agent? Forget it. For now
Agents get 10% of monies earned by their clients. 10% of nothing is nothing. Agents also have to pay the rent. Beginning writers do not contribute to that or any other necessity of life. Flog your stories around yourself. If you’ve done a novel, send around query letters to publishers, one by one, and follow up with sample chapters and/or the manuscript complete. And remember Stephen King’s First Rule of Writers and Agents, learned by bitter personal experience: You don’t need one until you’re making enough for someone to steal … and if you’re making that much, you’ll be able to take your pick of good agents.
12. If it’s bad, kill it
When it comes to people, mercy killing is against the law. When it comes to fiction, it is the law.
That’s everything you need to know. And if you listened, you can write everything and anything you want. Now I believe I will wish you a pleasant day and sign off.
My ten minutes are up.” –Stephen King
For more advice from Stephen King, check out his Reading List for Writers.