I was recently asked by a new acquaintance what I like to read. I find this an exciting and slightly ominous question, because the truth, unhelpful as it is, is that I like to read mostly everything with words, a plot and interesting characters are a bonus. Yay for story! Part of my answer to this question is inevitably classics, those tried and true books that are bastions of the castle that is the written word. She expressed some surprise that I do this of my own volition and not because I have to for some course I’m taking. She is not the only one with this reaction over the years.
I love reading classics. Not because they’re all good, because some of them suck, but to explore the world of the classic. Why is something a classic, who decides? Mostly I like to witness the trickledown effect in reverse. When you read a classic, a lot of other random pieces snap into place. You understand references and asides in a whole new way, you see previously mysterious influences in books and movies, see how one writer’s words can launch an entire genre, world, or punchline. Some of my favorite books are classics. In what will no doubt be many highly unpopular opinions, I will randomly post reviews of them here. I’ll start with the last classic I read:
When I purchased this book, the dude checking me out let me know that the first part is narrated by a mentally handicapped man. GOOD TO KNOW. And thank you, book store guy, for telling me this, because William Faulkner doesn’t bother to until long after the book has landed in a frustrated heap on the floor. Thanks, bro!
The Sound and the Fury is about the Compson family, a southern aristocratic family in serious decline and spiralling into all kinds of tragedy. It’s told in a few different parts by a few different members of the family, all of whom are not really good or likeable people.
My biggest beef with this book is that you have no real idea what’s going on until you’re so far into the book that you’ve ceased to care. Stream of consciousness with no context. I get this book is all about ‘form’ and ‘style’ but to me, if I can’t figure out what’s going on, that’s a big fat writing fail. And before you’re like, “dude, it’s stream of consciousness, you’re just too stupid to know how to read that,” I would say, “but I’m not too stupid to know how to read that. Take Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, also stream of consciousness, also multiple perspectives, also all over the damn place, but you can figure out what’s going on.”
Once I googled it and read a detailed summary of what the book is about, I had a much easier time reading it. The part I did like was the last section from Dilsey’s perspective, who is the Compson’s aging servant. I found Dilsey the most well-rounded character in the whole book, unfortunately she’s last, and not first. Putting Dilsey first to set the scene would have made a huge difference, in my opinion, but hey, it’s a classic, right? What the hell do I know? I give The Sound and the Fury a resounding “meh.” If you do want to read it, do yourself a big favour and go through the Cliff’s Notes first.
Being a writer is a terrible idea. Welcome to a life of chasing mystical ideas through the ether, constant rejection and of course, ever present, crippling self-doubt. The good thing about this is that no writer, or any creative person, probably, would stop for those reasons. You make your life harder than it has to be, you work twice, three times as much as most people for little or no reward. Why? Because there’s no alternative. You can’t stop, so you carry on, slaving away. If you do step away for a while that’s fine because you’ll be back. We always come back. For most writers, I think the detractions are obvious and plentiful. That got me thinking about the shaky, frail support beams that somehow remain – where do they come from?
Perhaps the most precarious, this is number one for any writer because we for the most part work alone. If you are writing, then you are supporting yourself as a writer. You are winning. If you are not writing, don’t worry. As far as I can tell regular bouts of self-sabotage and loathing are part of the process. Eventually you will hate yourself enough that you’ll get back to work. Here are some ideas to help you be more supportive of the very, very stupid path you have chosen (has chosen you?) to be on.
Write – There’s a lot of banter in the writing world about writing every day, getting your butt in the chair and blah blah. This has merit because you are not much of a writer if you aren’t writing, but at the same time, not all writers write every day. That’s right, I said it and it’s true, say it with me, NOT ALL WRITERS WRITE EVERY DAY! There is no need to hate yourself for not preforming this miraculous feat. If you do write every day, that is awesome, but if you don’t, that’s FINE. I think the most important thing here is that you write regularly and always have a project on the go. Don’t stagnate.
Make a Space – One of the best things I ever did for myself was to make a space. I do almost all of my work in my office. I love my office and it loves me. It’s quiet, it’s full of things that make me feel awesome and that’s where I work, so when I’m in there, I work. I highly suggest that if you don’t have a space, you make one. I don’t care if it’s in your damn closet, or a backpack full of crap and a favorite chair at the library, have a space that is conducive to your writing, whatever that means to you. Then go there, a lot.
Never Stop Getting Better – Like any art, there is no proper way to be a writer. There are also no limits. No matter how good you are, you can always be better and the best writers know this. Read books about writing, take classes, join writing groups, go to conferences, work on your setting, your dialogue, your grammar. One of the greatest things you can do for yourself as a writer is to continually invest in yourself. Valuing yourself and your talent enough to spend actual dollars (!?) is a powerful show of support for the bedraggled writer in you.
Your Inner Circle
I’ve been pretty lucky with this one. My immediate family and friends are supportive for the most part, and if not supportive, then at least not unsupportive. One thing I will say about this is that things did change a lot when I first was published. The balance of power shifted in my favour when that finally happened.
“Oh, so you’re a writer.”
“Yes, yes I am.”
“Have you published anything?”
“Yes, yes I have.” Internal dialogue – several things, multiple things, so eat it, eat it, you smug, doubting bastard! Wipe that damn smirky look off of your face, jerk.
So if you are published, keep that in mind at all times. You did it, you made it, you got there. If you aren’t, yet, then just take yourself seriously as a writer and hopefully some of that will rub off on the people around you. If not, then your inner circle sucks, so focus all your efforts on supporting your damn self. You might want to take a long hard look at who makes up your inner circle and toss them accordingly.
The Rest of Them
We get, or don’t get, support from the rest in a myriad of ways. Having a Facebook page, a blog, a newsletter, a Twitter account are all ways that you can reach out and have people reach back. The key here, as with all things writing related, seems to be consistency and patience. Whatever you chose to do to glean support from the rest of them, be more consistent about it than I am. Also, be patient. If you start a blog, you probably won’t get thousands of followers right away. Stick with it, little grasshopper, writing is a marathon, not a sprint.
My husband recently introduced me to Patreon, which is a neat idea where creators have a page where they post things related to their work and people can sign up to sponsor them and get perks with their sponsorship. I haven’t done it, but there are writers on there, so that might be something worth looking into. Check out his page at www.patreon.com/jeremychaulk
Writing sucks and it’s hard. The other side is that it’s awesome, liberating and limitless. Always support yourself and never stop striving to do better. This is a tough, lonely road, so when you can’t get yourself going, and there will be times like that, support others. Buy books, go to readings, leave reviews, follow blogs and maybe sponsor a few creators on Patreon. Give others the support you want for yourself and it will all come back. Remember, we’re all in this together.
Ah the dreaded pitch slam. For many writers, this is the big reason to attend the Writer’s Digest Conference and also a truly terrifying proposition. All of that was true for me. There were four Pitch Slam sessions on Saturday of an hour each and you signed up for one of them. There were over sixty agents in a big room sitting at tables in alphabetical order, you had three minutes to pitch your book to however many of them that you could and get feedback and hopefully, a request to see more. The pitch slam is really its own beast. Here’s what I learned from participating in the pitch slam.
Prepare, prepare, prepare! All of those months of preparation I was yammering on about in my last post? This is where it paid off. Write a pitch you feel good about. Tell the agent about your book and get them interested in seeing more. Be yourself. Remember that you are one human telling another human about your book – that is all! You have ninety seconds, so keep it short, the shorter the better, in my opinion. Don’t ramble. There are a ton of great resources out there to help you do this, so google away, little grasshopper! I had a pretty good pitch when I arrived in New York, which I then tweaked a little after the pitch perfect information session and yammering with my fellow writers. I felt pretty good about my pitch and knew it by heart. This is key.
They limit the number of people in each pitch session. I read some horror stories about long lines, agents that were not there and all of this stuff. None of that was true for me. There seem to be a million people when you’re waiting to go in and that is terrifying. It seems like you will never get to any agent, but the room is big and there are a lot of agents. I had a list of ten agents I wanted to pitch and I made it to seven of them, which is pretty damn good. Best advice here came from Chuck Sambuchino – do not stand in long lines. Go to agents that have a short line or none at all. If Chuck is there, he will hustle you to a shorter line anyway. He knows what’s what, listen to him. On average, I had one person ahead of me. Several times I went right up to the agent. Time was not an issue.
When you’re getting ready for this, it’s easy to believe that agents are mean, scary dragon people just waiting to crush your dreams and spit in your face. Maybe, but not any that I spoke with. They tell you way ahead which agents will be there, so research them like a crazy person. Yes, the list changes, yes, there are additions and subtractions, but you need to know who you want to pitch to. Ten seems to be a good number. Anyone I didn’t make it to is getting a query. My strategy was to avoid long lines and also not to pitch my top agents first. This was my first pitch slam, I was nervous and very, very tired. I didn’t want to blow my first pitch on my top three agents. This worked great for me. My ‘last’ agent had no lineup when we first went in there, so I went for him. He was very nice, liked my pitch, asked me some questions that let me know that he understood what the hell I was trying to get across, and guess what? He requested more. First one, bam, feel good, flying for the rest of the slam. That was key for me, to start on the right foot. I tried to set myself up for success and it worked. I pitched seven agents and got five requests. Some of the best advice I read ahead of time was to remember that agents are just people and all that is happening is that you are having a conversation with them about your book. I tried to be happy, friendly, relaxed and normal as possible and it paid off in a big way. The two agents that did not request were just as excellent. One said my pitch was great and sent me to another agent she thought would like it, that agent was not on my list. She requested it. The other agent also complemented my pitch and suggested some comparison titles I hadn’t thought of whose agents I might want to investigate. She also told me that if I wrote anything with a more literary bent in the future to send it her way because she liked how I presented things.
So I got five requests to see my book and a massive boost in the confidence department. No one I spoke to at the conference regretted doing the pitch slam. Even if they didn’t get requests, they got valuable experience speaking about their work in a concise way, and some great feedback. That alone is worth the price of admission.