Some Reading Recs for Anybody Mourning the Possibility of President Warren

Normally I avoid talking about politics online. The reasons for that are probably obvious. But in 2020 it’s going to be impossible to avoid, and you know what? This week it felt personal. I’m not going into my own political ideologies here because frankly I don’t have the bandwidth to have that conversation with The Internet. It’ll suffice to say the narrowing of what was once the most diverse class of Democratic candidates in political history to two straight white male septuagenarians is… somewhat demoralizing.

Maybe this belongs in the “disappointed but not surprised” folder, but there’s a third element here which makes this sting a little more than unsurprising disappointments past, in that it proved America simply is not ready to put a woman in the White House. Elizabeth Warren was everything the theoretically “electable” female candidate was supposed to be: smart, articulate, strong on policy, untouched by scandal, folksy and accessible while simultaneously up to the task of single-handedly dismantling the preposterous vanity campaign of billionaire Mike Bloomberg on live television. And it still wasn’t enough. (Just to add insult to injury, everyone and their mom is already jumping down her throat to endorse Their Remaining Candidate, in keeping with the great American tradition of exploiting women’s labor and expertise without actually empowering them. Not a good look, folks.)

That this primary kicked off Women’s History Month and was punctuated by an International Women’s Day which happened to fall on the only 23-hour day of the year (as pointed out on Twitter by Caroline Moss) is almost too much to stomach. These might seem like trivial coincidences–and at the end of the day they probably are–but the frustration, outrage, and hopelessness many women are feeling right now isn’t trivial at all. They’re sick and tired of watching excellent women lose races, jobs, and opportunities to men who are merely mediocre. Don’t @ me.

On the individual level, there’s not a lot I can do about this. I’m not going to throw my vote away just because I can’t vote for the candidate I wanted to vote for. But neither do I like feeling helpless or (worse) complicit in systemic sexism–hence this post. In the greater scheme of things, a list of good books by women is pretty small potatoes. That said, sexism in publishing rather than politics is something I feel better qualified to speak to, as someone who has observed and experienced and occasionally studied it.

I’ve been involved in the publishing industry since 2014, and in six years you absorb a lot of anecdata. I could bore you with statistics about the disparities in paychecks and publicity for male and female authors. I could give you figures for the gender ratio of industry workers (overwhelmingly female) vs. industry executives (overwhelmingly male). I could show you a hundred screenshots of reader reviews that start with “I don’t usually read books by women but…” I could recount the dozen times I’ve been asked how I dared to write a first-person narrator not of my gender when I have never heard a man asked that question once

I think we’d both rather not do that, so instead I’ll keep it simple: sexism in publishing exists and will continue until people decide to do something about it. One small thing you can do (which is as much a favor to yourself as anybody else) is buy, read, and talk about books by women. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of excellent books by women which you might consider picking up if you, like me, want a way to amplify female voices in a day and age where we pay lip service to gender equality by sticking apostrophes in gas station signs but can’t bring ourselves to stop relegating women to the role of cheerleader, VP, endorsement-to-be-won, or–as a creative writing professor once called a classmate of mine, out loud, in a class that was two-thirds female, in the Year of Our Lord 2012–“a pretty good writer for a girl.”

With no further ado, here’s that juicy recipe you’ve been scrolling through my boring story to get to:

10 Books by Women for Anybody Mourning the Possibility of President Warren

  1. Heather Abel, The Optimistic Decade (2018). This is a rare coming-of-age novel which depicts the trials and tribulations of adolescence without trivializing them. Abel’s teenagers are people, not punchlines. But my favorite thing about this book is its portrayal of political awakening–there are a thousand books out there about first love and first lust, but it’s not so often you find a bildungsroman founded on first ideologies. Abel’s book is as intelligent as it is compassionate, two qualities we could all use more of these days.
  2. Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)I taught this book last semester in a science fiction course, and come December I had a fascinating pile of papers on my desk discussing the web of influence between science, culture, and history. Few novels demonstrate so masterfully the ripple effect of individual human actions, and the long-term impact of systemic inequality. Perhaps most important, though, is Butler’s attention to intersections of identity and how they shape our lived experience.
  3. Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal (2008)Catton won a Booker Prize for The Luminaries in 2013, but I rarely hear anybody talk about her first novel, which is a shame. Set in a New Zealand community rocked by the revelation of an affair between a teacher and student at an all-girls high school, The Rehearsal dispenses with the sordid details in favor of exploring the social repercussions of this abuse of power. When students at the arts academy down the road decide to fictionalize the affair for their final project, they open old wounds and raise uncomfortable questions about ethics, performance, and artistic representation.
  4. Joan Didion, Democracy (1984)This isn’t usually the first book people talk about when they talk about Didion. It’s unlike any other book I’ve ever read in that the author intrudes on the narrative at will–sometimes as a character and sometimes the creator, commenting on how this person or that part of the narrative took shape. It’s a fascinating window into a gifted writer’s process, and an all-too-pertinent portrait of what it takes to be a woman in politics. And with their personal problems subsumed in the geopolitical turmoil at the end of the Vietnam War, the Victor family would have felt right at home in the 2020s.
  5. Keri Hulme, The Bone People (1984)I recommend this book constantly, with the caveat that it comes with a lot of trigger warnings. It’s not easy to read, but it’s gorgeously written–which isn’t surprising considering Hulme’s origins in poetry. Her protagonist, the loosely autobiographical Kerewin Holmes, is an artist and a recluse, an asexual woman of mixed Caucasian and Maori heritage struggling to claim her place in a world which doesn’t know how to categorize her. After an encounter with a deaf-mute boy hiding in her house, she finds herself at the center of a grisly domestic drama which forces her to reckon with the greatest extremes of human cruelty.
  6. Lily King, Euphoria (2014)I’ve been obsessed with this book since the cover art caught my eye while I was working at Barnes & Noble back when it came out. Fortunately, the pages between don’t disappoint. Loosely based on the life of Margaret Mead, Euphoria is one of the most immersive novels I read in the 2010s, but that’s not all it has going for it. King’s depiction of passionate researchers in the flush of discovery is perfection, but she wisely resists the urge to romanticize, and never lets the reader forget that triumph and tragedy are never far apart. (Her new book, Writers & Lovers, is on its way to my mailbox. You can order yours here.)
  7. Iris Murdoch, The Book and the Brotherhood (1987)This isn’t necessarily where I’d suggest you start with Iris Murdoch. It’s dense and often difficult, but also (in my humble but correct opinion) some of her best work. Murdoch has long been a favorite of mine for her inimitable ability to weave threads of philosophy, theology, and literary criticism into a compelling piece of fiction. Her characters have remarkable depth and fascinating dynamics which explore, critique, and often explode our prescribed social roles as parents, children, siblings, students, teachers, spouses, lovers, and friends.
  8. Ashley Ream, The 100 Year Miracle (2016)Set in an insular community in the San Juan islands, this evocative novel foregrounds two women–a middle-aged politician and a young biological researcher–in the story of the titular miracle, six days in which microscopic phosphorescent creatures make the water in the bay glow green. Oh and by the way, they just might be the key to a cure for a fatal disease. Ream’s attention to scientific and political ethics, chronic illness, and aging make this much more than merely interesting speculative fiction.
  9. Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014). This is another one that came out while I was working as a bookseller. Am I biased because there’s so much Shakespeare? Of course. Is it an obvious choice considering the Covid-19 outbreak? Of course. But it’s still a damn good book. Station Eleven remains the most persuasive take on dystopia I’ve ever read, and part of the reason it succeeds is its refusal to fall into the trap of cynicism. It’s not all flowers and sunshine, but ultimately Station Eleven is about where and how we find hope in the darkest of times. God knows we could use that right now. (Mandel also has a new book out, The Glass Hotel. You can find that here.)
  10. Laura Van Den Berg, The Third Hotel (2018)This is one of the strangest books I’ve read this year, and incidentally one of my favorites. Van Den Berg’s tale of two normal, troubled people in a normal, troubled marriage takes shape around a horror film festival in Havana, where the protagonist’s dead husband makes an unexpected appearance. It’s a slim volume which raises more questions than it answers, simultaneously resisting and inviting interpretation–which might just be the point. Clare’s struggle to come to grips with the loss of her husband and his influence on her self-perception is unflinchingly honest and painfully familiar. If you’re not Clare, you’ve known her.

So That Didn’t Work

I’ve said this before, but I don’t set a lot of stock in New Year’s resolutions. So far the only one I’ve ever done that worked was in 2017 when I resolved to listen to at least one song every day without doing anything else at the same time (a practice I would highly recommend for anybody trying to find a quiet moment in the midst of 21st-century chaos or reconnect with art in a meaningful way).

However, this new year happened to coincide with a series of circumstances which have forced me to reconsider the way I operate from day to day. The short version is that the class I was supposed to teach was cancelled due to insufficient enrollment, a glitch in the Matrix which might be attributable to an uninspiring–and apparently immutable–course description, the structure of the undergrad English major, the general devaluation of the humanities in American culture, my own lack of appeal as a person, or some combination of all four. The downside is a significant cut to my insignificant paycheck. (There’s no such thing as job security as a graduate student.) The upside is that this leaves me with a more flexible schedule than I have had in the last six years.

As you may have heard me say elsewhere (by which I mean Twitter), I don’t do well with unstructured time (hence the sharp upswing in my Twitter activity of late). As a result I’ve gotten to be very good at structuring my own time when there isn’t an institutional schedule in place to do it for me. But one of my objectives this year is to become less of a slave to structure. If you’ve been following this blog awhile or already clicked on that link at the top, you know I’ve been down this road before. I tried it last year. It did not work.

However, I am nothing if not stubborn, so here we are again. I’ve accepted that a reasonable work-life balance is an unrealistic goal for me, just because of who I am as a person at this particular point in my life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make some changes to the way I work. In addition to feeling generally burned out and overwhelmed, a lot of the joy that writing used to bring me has been replaced by fatalistic dread about what it will (or won’t) amount to in the end. Is this really worth my time? Will it be worth a publisher’s money? Will it grab a journal’s interest? Worry about that sort of stuff for long enough, and it’ll make you hate something you used to love.

This is not to say I hate writing. This is to say I hate the anxieties that come with writing for publication. Unfortunately, if you intend to make a career as a writer (which I still do, with characteristic stubbornness, despite trying and failing to grab a new editor’s interest for the last four years) marketability isn’t something you can afford not to worry about. But perhaps you don’t have to worry about it all the time.

My abstract and belated resolution for 2020 is to worry less and write more with no other end goal in mind than the writing itself. I want to write about stuff I want to write about without worrying whether anybody wants to buy it. To be honest, I want to write without even worrying whether anybody wants to read it. Over the last few months, I’ve been taking baby steps in the right direction. I’ve been following whims and interests which are largely unrelated to my usual fields and genres, and some of those things have been hugely rewarding.

For example:

I’m writing reviews and interviews for The Vinyl District, an online music mag with a pretty wide reach where I have pretty free rein. If you’re curious you can find links here (and keep an eye out in the coming weeks; I have a long interview with one of my favorite cover bands and a piece on Brian Wilson in the pipeline).

Years ago, I was doing record recommendations based on followers’ favorite books. Demand got so out of hand I had to stop doing it, but now I’m back at it, in a more manageable way. I’ve told nobody about this until now. For months it was a sorely needed creative outlet with absolutely zero stakes. If you want, you can find that here.

After teaching a science fiction class last semester, I’ve taken a much deeper dive into space exploration. I applied to participate in the upcoming State of NASA event at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and–to my surprise as much as yours–was actually selected. On February 10th I’ll be touring the facilities (as Cake might put it) and sharing some exciting stuff about the Artemis program, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and future missions to Mars. If you want to follow along with that, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram.

These are just a few of the proverbial irons in the fire. I may not be teaching again until September, but I still have conference papers and a dissertation to write and a novel to sell and an admin job with my university’s MedRen society. All of that keeps me pretty busy. But finding time to write just for the sake of art and curiosity and the craft itself has helped me remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. To that end, I’m hoping to also start posting writing more regularly here. (Don’t worry, it won’t be enough to be annoying.) I’m not sure yet what form that writing will take or if it will find a consistent form at all. The point is to follow my own creative whims and write without worry.

For anyone else feeling burned out or bummed out or just demoralized by how little real reward there often is for the many hours we spend working, I hope you can find time in your life to chase a few butterflies. Indulge yourself. Take a risk. Waste some time. Resist the urge to map every hour of your day or your month and let life catch you by surprise. 2020 promises to be a rough year. If we don’t want to go crazy, we might just have make our own rules and make our own fun and find the things that remind us why we’re toughing it out in the first place.

Good luck and godspeed.

M

The Readiness is All

From what I’ve seen on my own and everyone else’s social media, one of the most common questions writers get is how you know when your work is “ready”–ready to show to beta readers, ready to submit to agents, ready to send to the agent you already have, ready to submit to publishers, or ready to go to press. Like most things in writing, there aren’t any straightforward answers, to any version of that question (except the last version, to which the answer is, “When the publisher decides it’s ready, because they’ll send it to press whether the writer is ready or not”). Sometimes deadlines make the decision for you, but when there’s a degree of autonomy involved, it’s much harder stop spinning your wheels and hit “send.”

I think this gets harder rather than easier the longer you write and the more revision you do, because you’ve had the time and experience to learn that every draft that seemed almost-perfect when you fist finished it looked like a holy mess a few weeks later. Sure, you might be feeling pretty good about Draft 5 now it’s done and dusted, but that’s exactly how you felt about Drafts 4, 3, and 2, and man, were you wrong about those. I published a book that went through 45 drafts all told and I still wish I could go back in time and make changes, even though it’s way too late for that now. And I think that’s the first thing you have to accept: that no draft will ever be perfect, no matter how many drafts you do. So instead of waiting for a perfect draft, you have to settle for a draft that’s good enough, despite the nagging premonition that six weeks from now when you’ve gotten some distance all the flaws you were blind to before will glare at you in blinking Vegas neon. (Art is for masochists, not romantics. Jot that down.)

So, when and how do you summon up enough “f$#k it” energy to send that thing to agents or your agent or editors or your editor even though you know it ain’t perfect and it probably never will be? Obviously it depends where you are in the process, but the abstract answer is “when you’ve done everything you can.” When you’re getting ready to query, that probably means you’ve done at least ten drafts and you’ve gotten some beta readers and maybe a freelance editor and done some of those drafts with their feedback in mind and you think it’s the best it can be without professional (i.e., an agent’s) input. When you’ve already got an agent and you’re getting ready to give them something new, that’s a whole different ball game–because you don’t need to convince them to take you on as a client anymore. Sometimes there’s more anxiety involved with a second book because you’re both asking whether the second book is going to live up to the expectations the first one created. At the same time, the working relationship has had time to grow and develop and you’re already in this together. Of course (of course) you still want to impress your agent, but it’s also not so gauche to say, “I know I still need to work on X, Y,  and Z in this manuscript, but I wanted to get your input first.” Submitting to editors is a decision you and your agent necessarily make together, and you can multiply the number of people involved and subtract from how much decision-making power lies with you, the author, the farther along in the process you get and closer you come to pub day. But people usually aren’t asking about that part of the process, because by then they’ve got the agent and the editor and everyone else at the imprint ready to give them the answer.

As for those early stages, when the decision rests largely with the writer, it’s a lot harder to take your foot off the brake and let it go. Personally I’ve found there are a couple of telltale signs I’m reaching the point of no return:

  1. Instead of identifying big problems that span multiple scenes or chapters, I’m doing the sort of surgery that only requires local anesthetic.
  2. I’m changing things and then changing them back again in the next draft to what they were before.
  3. I’m hunting for things to fix instead of finding them right away.

When I start to notice this pattern repeating itself from draft to draft (and chapter to chapter and scene to scene) that’s usually a good sign that I’ve used up my own resources and it’s time to punt to someone else. Then I take a break from the work and walk away from it, ideally for at least two weeks and ideally when I have plenty of other things to occupy my mind. This time around it was two weeks’ cramming in the home stretch before my comps exam, when I wouldn’t have had time to think about writing if I wanted to. Having come back to the MS over the last few days, I still feel the same way I did two weeks ago–namely, that I’ve done all I can do and it’s time to make a few cosmetic changes to bring the document up to industry standards and send the cursèd thing off to my agent to read.

At this point in the process, I’m usually feeling a little ambivalent. I’m still excited about the project but don’t want to get my hopes up because I’m still too close to it to be objective about the book as a book, as opposed to the book in its current iteration. And I think when aspiring authors ask questions about how they know when they’re ready what they’re really asking about is how to avoid that feeling, that uncertainty. To be honest, I don’t think you can. Like I said, art is for masochists. Self-doubt and self-confidence will always go hand in hand. That–like the fact that no draft will ever be perfect–is one of those things you just have to accept. So instead of waiting for the day when you feel unambiguously positive about your manuscript, because that day will literally never come, you wait for the day when you feel you’ve done everything in your power to improve it, and you’re ready for someone else’s input. You don’t have to be ready to publish it. You don’t have to be ready to show it to the world. You just have to feel confident that the work that you’ve done was the best you could do on your own and you’re ready now for someone else to read it and say, “I like what you’ve got so far. Here’s what still needs work.”

M

Writing, Reviews, and the Emotional Labor of Social Media

Having any sort of public persona in the 21st century makes you a potential target for hate mail and internet harassment. This is news to no one, and accepted by most people as an occupational hazard–unpleasant, but unavoidable. Across my own social media platforms I usually accrue a handful of unpleasant messages and mentions each week. Nine times out of ten it’s a mundane variation of some criticism of my work or myself which I’ve already heard a thousand times and it’s easy to delete it and move on: the thank u, next mentality which every artist has to cultivate if they don’t want to go stark barking mad. But every now and then there’s a little more vitriol.

This week, I made the mistake of saying readers really shouldn’t tag or “@” authors’ usernames in negative reviews, ensuring that they see the post. (Hashtags–preceded by the ubiquitous #–are a different story, as the author can choose whether or not to track those and see those notifications. That’s not what I’m talking about here.) There are a lot of reasons for this which anybody with a normal sense of empathy can probably deduce without my help. But you might be surprised (I certainly was) how many people disagree and will vociferously defend their right to make sure an author sees every bad review they write. The most common justification is that authors should be interested in seeing constructive criticism of their work. This is a sound theory. Most authors I know are interested in constructive criticism of their work, and they should be. The problem is that this kind of feedback is a lot less constructive than people seem to think. The biggest hitch here is the fact that the work you’re critiquing has already been published; even if it’s an ARC or galley it’s already on its way to press and the author can’t make any changes to it, which relegates that feedback to the category of woulda-shoulda-coulda. Okay, the proverbial devil’s advocate argues, but couldn’t an author apply this feedback to future work? Sure. And they’re probably going to. But this is still a misguided approach, for three reasons: (1) reader feedback is wildly subjective and often contradictory, (2) they’ve already seen it a thousand times, and (3) there’s a big difference between knowingly approaching criticism of your work and being blindsided by it at any random hour of the day somebody feels like posting it.

To elaborate a little: all art is subjective. No book is going to make every reader happy. All authors know this and they fully expect to see some unfavorable reviews. You might see some criticisms you agree with (I see those all the time) and some you don’t (I see those, too), but more often than not you’re going to see one person complaining about something another person loved. There is no accounting for taste. This issue of contradictory feedback is nothing new to a writer who’s already made it far enough in the process to have random readers tagging them on social media. They’ve talked to agents and editors and writing teachers, many of whom have offered them conflicting advice for how to improve their work. For instance, in the last round of feedback on a manuscript my agent and I have been submitting, multiple professional editors–whose entire job is to improve a writer’s work–gave us completely contradictory opinions about what the book’s strengths and weaknesses were. Hard to know what to make of that or how to put it into practice. Now multiply it by several thousand amateur reviewers on the internet and you have some idea what navigating reader feedback is actually like and why it’s not nearly as helpful as it might sound. Moreover, by the time a book hits the shelves, the author has already seen a dizzying array of reviews, from Kirkus to Goodreads. Chances are, you’re not telling them anything they haven’t already heard.

Let me be clear about something here: I’m not suggesting readers shouldn’t bother writing reviews or should only write nice reviews in order to spare an author’s feelings. That’s antithetical to how publishing works; people use reviews and recommendations to decide what they might like to read, and your average man-on-the-street opinion is often more valuable than whatever the professional reviewer at the NYT had to say, because most readers aren’t thinking about who deserves a literary prize or a six-figure advance on their next book. They’re just looking for something they’ll enjoy, and community reviews are often how they find it. If you didn’t like a book, that’s fine. You can and should express that opinion. But making sure the author sees it by tagging their username or handle is unnecessary. Actually, it’s kind of cruel.

If that seems over-dramatic, allow me to contextualize. Once I’ve explained how this kind of constructive criticism really isn’t all that constructive, the follow-up is usually the argument that if you’re making art for public consumption you should have a thick skin and not let this sort of thing bother you. Again, the logic is sound. Authors know their work isn’t perfect and not everyone likes it and they should be open to hearing negative feedback. However, that doesn’t mean they need to hear it every minute of the day. Most authors, especially midlist or indie authors who aren’t making six-figure book deals, have other jobs. They don’t have the luxury of just sitting around all day reading reviews and musing over how to improve their work. Even if they did, to expect anyone in any job to be prepared for a performance review at any given time–whether they’re on the clock or not–is, frankly, ridiculous. But social media has made this possible and, moreover, has led some readers to treat it as a kind of inviolable right. If your profile is public, you’d better be prepared to hear how much someone hated your book whenever they feel like telling you, whether you’re eating breakfast or watching TV or trying to get a workout in. What readers who are really adamant about this may not realize is that criticism is only constructive if you can approach it when you’re in the right frame of mind for it–and when you are, you can gird your loins and browse those hashtags or sort through the pile of two-star reviews on Goodreads. But trust me, no writer is in that frame of mind when they’re just eating breakfast or watching TV or working out or doing any of the other mundane things that normal humans do. Those all-hours call-outs aren’t helpful; they’re just demoralizing. Few things suck more than swiping a notification on your phone while you’re just going about your business, only to be reminded of all the worst things you’ve already heard about your book. And yet, if you suggest that readers reconsider tagging an author’s username in a bad review, you will get a lot–and I mean a lot–of pushback.

Inevitably, these arguments take a turn toward, “Well, if you can’t take it, you should just get off social media.” Here’s why that suggestion is also not as helpful as it might seem: unfortunately, most authors need social media to reach readers. Now more than ever publishers are depending on authors to do a lot of their own publicity, and this includes reminding people that your book is out there as often as you can without becoming annoying (a very difficult line to walk, by the way). Publishing is a never-ending battle to stay relevant and visible. So as simple as the solution might seem–Don’t like social media? Just delete it!–it’s not a feasible option for authors who don’t have a lot of marketing dollars behind their books, and the authors who do probably have a publicist to handle this sort of thing for them anyway. If you’re not that lucky, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: you need to be able to use social media to connect with your audience, but the trade-off is that you have to be prepared to see not-so-constructive criticism of your book literally whenever a dissatisfied reader feels like making sure you see it.

The real irony here is that for the most part, bad reviews don’t bother me. I was an actor for the most awkward years of my life; from fourteen to about 22 not only my artistic performance but my physical appearance were subject to pretty brutal criticism, sometimes about things over which I had absolutely no control. (When I was a junior in college a director told me I wasn’t a bad actor but I could never make a career of it unless I lost fifteen pounds, dyed my hair blonde, and–here’s the kicker–became two inches shorter.) People have been telling me I’m terrible at things which are really important to me for most of my life, and I do have a sense of humor about it. A backhanded compliment from the NYTBR was so funny to me I put it in my Twitter bio. My favorite review of my book is a two-word one-star insult on Amazon which my PhD cohort (who know me well enough to know how hilarious I’d find this) had printed on a coffee mug which now sits on my desk where I can show it to my students when they’re upset about a grade. What I take issue with is not a reader’s right to criticize. I take issue with the idea that readers have a right to force their bad reviews on an author anytime and anyplace. What bothers me even more is that the suggestion that we don’t do something just because it’s unkind and unnecessary seems, to some people, so outrageous.

To be fair to the reading community, this is something a lot of authors and publishing personnel and other book lovers are talking about, and many readers agree that tagging authors’ usernames/handles in bad reviews is bad form. Still, there are plenty of people who are quick to start hurling the “special snowflake” sort of insults at writers who have the audacity to say they really shouldn’t have to be notified of bad reviews all day. The false sense of distance and anonymity fostered by social media simply makes it easier than ever before to be mean. Fifty years ago if you wanted to make sure an author knew you hated their book you would have had to make a phone call or go up and knock on their door, which probably sound, to a modern reader, like insane things to do. You could also write a letter, but writing a letter and mailing it requires enough thought and effort and expenditure that you would have to stop and ask yourself, “Is this really worth it?” And maybe it is. Maybe a book was so offensive to you that you felt a deep need to bring your grievances to the author’s attention. Fine. Post the letter. But the ease of social media has made it unnecessary to ask that question: namely, what ensuring an author sees your bad review accomplishes besides making their day a little worse than it might have been otherwise.

Long story short: Readers don’t have to like every book, but they also don’t have to make sure the author knows it. It’s a small kindness, but it costs nothing.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

M

Time is a Construct, but New Beginnings Are Nice

Like most sane people, I’ve never set much stock in new year’s resolutions. They’re usually overly ambitious, often the remedy for some perceived personal failing, and nearly always forgotten by February. However, there’s something to be said for taking a moment to reflect at the start of a new year and ask yourself what you could be doing differently—whether you’re interested in improving yourself or your quality of life or some combination of the two. I think writers are particularly prone to that impulse, as beings constantly in search of improvement and, more importantly, reasons to keep at it. Writing is hard. Publishing is harder. Trying to juggle either (or both) with another job—as all of us except the very luckiest have to do—can result in feeling a bit like Sisyphus, struggling to push a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down to the bottom again. This is part of the reason most writing resolutions I see make me sigh in a sad, cynical way, shake my head and go back to my coffee. You’re going to write 3,000 words every day this year? Sure, Jan.

However, there’s no ignoring the fact that the way I worked the last six months is completely unsustainable. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it—it was just a uniquely crappy combination of uniquely crappy circumstances which resulted in my working about sixteen hours a day, every day, because that was the only way everything was going to get done. (And still everything didn’t get done. One of my mentors kindly agreed to extend one of my deadlines until February, an unlooked-for stay of execution.) As any of my friends who have patiently endured my endless bitching about the situation would attest, I was miserable. The way I described it to someone was “tiptoeing along the edge of a nervous breakdown.” It is not easy to do good work when you’re living that way.

But enough of the pity party. The point of this post—the first in very long while, and I’m sure it’s no mystery why—is not simply to whine into the ether, but rather to start 2019 on a positive note. Which, frankly, feels like an act of defiance in and of itself, given the way 2018 went. I still don’t really believe in resolutions, but I do believe in setting realistic goals with a gameplan and a timeline to achieve them. So here’s what I’ve got in mind for 2019:

1. Find a better work-life balance.

Writing and academia are both fields where a culture of overwork is normalized and often romanticized. Add to that the fact that I have always been a fiercely ambitious person, and the result is a lot of days where I only stop working long enough to shower and eat and even when I’m doing those things I’m probably brainstorming, trying to think my way out of a plot hole or twist a troublesome thesis statement into better shape. It’s not a healthy way to live and it’s not a healthy way to work. I don’t like that I’ve become the sort of person who gets anxious when they aren’t working towards finishing a specific task—which might seem ironic, given the nature of this list. However, precisely because I’m so task-oriented, I am assigning myself the task of doing something I enjoy every day without worrying about how “productive” it is. I am giving myself permission—and a direct order—to relax.

2. Multi-task less.

Not to brag, but I am awesome at multi-tasking. I can listen to music and read a book and do laundry and eat lunch and play with the dog and keep tabs on two different group chats and three different email accounts all at the same time. It often feels like the only way to get everything done. But dividing my attention between four different things (or five, or six, or whatever) often leaves me feeling like I haven’t really engaged in a meaningful way with any of those things. I’m not too worried about having a meaningful relationship with my laundry, but I would like to spend more time doing only one thing at a time, and devoting all of my attention to that thing—even if it’s one of those non-productive enjoyable things, like reading for pleasure or listening to music. As Ron Swanson might put it, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” That’s my new mantra for 2019.

3. Get more organized.

Anybody who knows me might find this kind of a strange objective, as I’m not really what you’d call disorganized. I usually know exactly what my deadlines are and how much work I have to do each day to meet them. I outline fanatically, I love lists, and I have five different calendars color-coded in such a way to make Leslie Knope swoon. But that’s not really what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about organization in a more abstract sense. I want to get my ideas and priorities better organized. I want to think more about the big picture instead of focusing myopically on the daily minutiae. I want my headspace more comfortable and less cluttered. I don’t really know how to do this. It may be as big as trying to articulate those ideas and priorities or as small as trying to check my obsessive impulses and ask whether I’m missing the forest for the trees. “Detail-oriented,” contrary to what every job interviewer ever seems to think, is not always an indisputably good thing.

4. Follow my own advice.

I’m constantly telling young(er) writers that writing isn’t a race and that they should pump the brakes and slow down and stop panicking about not having a book deal at age 22. And yet, I have wasted a lot of energy worrying that my career isn’t moving fast enough or as fast as I want it to while we chase that notoriously difficult second book deal. I think it comes back to a deep fear that this is as good as it gets—a vague, muffled terror that I peaked at 25 and I’m never getting another book published and I’ll never be able to get a tenure-track job and I’ll probably die alone surrounded by unpublished manuscripts and rejected grant applications because I was so freaked out by the possibility of Failure-with-a-capital-F that I worked like a lunatic and left myself no time for any sort of personal life. (Thanks, capitalism.) That is, frankly, ridiculous and I am calling myself on my bullshit. Why do I think I’m exempt from all the reassuring truisms I tell my friends when they have the same concerns about life? I’m so quick to tell other people they’re smart and capable and full of potential and life doesn’t have any deadlines. I need to work on saying those same things to myself—and believing them.

5. Stay ambitious.

Just because my quality of life needs some serious improvement and I need to ameliorate my workaholism and I want to take some of the unnecessary pressure off myself doesn’t mean that I can’t still hunt down those big game goals. I have a lot of plans for the year ahead. I want to take a pretty epic research trip. I want to get another manuscript to my agent and I want it to be my best work yet. I have a couple of short stories I want to write or finish (and maybe even submit somewhere). I want to write more nonfiction, spend more time cultivating my voice as a person instead of my voice as a narrator of someone else’s story. I want to produce some articles and conference papers and knock my comprehensive exams out of the park. But I want to do all that stuff without punishing myself for falling short of impossible expectations. I want to find a balance between ambition and enjoyment and not beat myself up for wanting that balance. Because what’s the point of all this productivity if you don’t have time to enjoy what you’re producing? I refuse to fall into that quicksand again this year.

I don’t know if this list—odd and intensely personal as it is—will be helpful to anybody else. I don’t even really know if it will be helpful to me. But getting my thoughts about all this (figuratively) down on paper is, I think, a step in the right direction. I’m not going to make any sweeping declarations about what a great year it’s going to be or how it can’t possibly be as bad as last year, because both of those things seem unlikely or outright delusional, just given the way the world is turning. Instead I’ll just say I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for 2019. Bring it on.

I wish you the best balance of ambition and enjoyment in the year to come.

Xx M

Superstition Review 20

If you need something a little less dire to read than the ongoing tax debacle in the U. S. Senate, I did an interview with Superstition Review where I talked about If We Were Villains, writing, writing If We Were Villains, acting, authorship, and everything in between. You can find it here!

–M

Publishing Q&A, Part 2

Over the past week, my agent, my editor, and I have been collecting your questions about books, publishing, and If We Were Villains. You can read the first round of answers here, and the second round below (but first a quick reminder who we are):

Arielle Datz is a New York transplant from Los Angeles, who started as an intern at Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner Literary Agency in 2011. She then worked in the foreign rights department at WME, followed by the Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency. She returned to DCL full-time in 2015. She is currently obsessed with April the Pregnant Giraffe (aprilthegiraffe.com). Other loves include whales, contemporary chamber music, and noodles in all forms.

Christine Kopprasch is an Executive Editor at Flatiron Books, where she recently published New York Times bestsellers The Dry and Behind Her Eyes. She is publishing the upcoming debuts If We Were Villains and Tornado Weather. Christine previously worked at Crown, where her acquisitions included New York Times bestseller Bittersweet, New York Times bestseller The Little Paris Bookshop, and The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International and was a New York Times Top 10 Best Book of 2016. Christine is a terrible but avid gardener and an obsessive reader. She has a baby at home, so she basically hasn’t slept in a year. (Her opinions are her own.)

M. L. Rio is the author of If We Were Villains, coming to a bookstore near you on April 11th from Flatiron Books. Before she was an author she was an actor, and before she was an actor she was just a word nerd whose only friends were books. She holds a master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London, and probably won’t break away from the cult of academia any time soon. Her other favorite things include music, wine, and her dog Marlowe.

And without any further ado, our next questions from you.


For Arielle/Christine: What did you study and when did you realize this is what you wanted to do?

A: I majored in English literature, and knew when I graduated that I wanted to pursue a career in publishing, although at the time I didn’t know which part of publishing. After interning and working at a few literary agencies, I realized that I enjoyed the relationship that agents have with authors and the role that we play in the publishing world.

C: I was an English major with a Women’s Studies minor. English was a natural fit for me because I loved reading, and I interned at a literary agency when I was in college because I thought publishing might be interesting. That wasn’t a positive experience, so I actually ended up assistant teaching third and fourth grades for two years before I interned at another literary agency and got my first editorial assistant job. I always thought I would like to work with books. It’s the kind of job that people who knew me in elementary school say, “Of course!” when they hear what I do – I was always obsessed with books and writing, and I delighted in tinkering with other people’s words. I’m lucky I have the chance.

For C: 1) What types of editors are there, and what are their roles? I know of acquisitions editor and manuscript editor, but I am not quite sure what they entail. 2) What kind of education is looked for in editors? I’m interested in becoming and editor, and I know where to start. Should I shoot for an MA or is a BA fine? Also, how do I get my foot in the door at big publishing companies? What do companies look for in editors? What entry level jobs are there for me to pursue?

C: 1) I am the “editor,” full stop, in US parlance, as I both acquire and edit the manuscript. I think this may differ by country, as some UK houses have a separation between the two jobs, but I’m not sure about the details. Broadly: to acquire, I read about 500 submissions a year (or parts of them) and sort through what I like and think readers will like. To edit, I go through the manuscript very carefully and give the author my thoughts about what is and isn’t working.

2) I can go on about getting a job in publishing for too long. Real talk: It’s hard! BA is fine. I spent 6 months unemployed while I tried to get interviews in publishing, so I did an unpaid internship at a literary agency to help me connect with people in the industry. Having someone who knew me recommend me directly to the editor who was hiring was much more effective for me than going through HR. That’s not possible for everyone, of course, depending on where you live in the world and finances. I saved up on my tiny teacher’s salary so I could have some flexibility, and I had parents who lived within commuting distance of the city so I could get in for interviews and internships without committing to an apartment before I had a job.

The entry-level jobs are mostly for assistants who will do a lot of administrative work for years. They aren’t glamorous or easy! I was highly motivated (and I had a great first boss), so I was devoted to proving myself. I stayed up late reading as many of my editor boss’s submissions as I could, sending her my thoughts about what I was reading. I told her what to read first, what I didn’t love but thought she might because I knew her taste, and why I would reject the rest. I also read her edits and paid attention. She was brilliant and I would read every note she had for an author. Then I started “editing behind” her: after she was done editing a book, I would go through it and see if I had other thoughts she might find helpful. She was kind enough to not only consider and use my thoughts, but also to tell the agents & authors when a suggestion had been mine, which increased my credibility with them. (And when she left and her projects were reassigned, the agents and I could make a credible case for why I should keep the books.) Companies are looking for someone who reads widely and deeply, is fanatically interested in supporting an editor by doing lots of tiresome, often thankless work (forms, copying, mailing, setting up meetings, scheduling lunches, drafting rejections, contract requests, system admin) and adding the editorial work on top of that.

I was focused on the editorial path, but if you’re not totally sure if that’s for you, there are lots of other jobs in books to consider: working on covers or interior designs if you’re artistic, working on the accounting side if you’re math-minded, working in publicity if you like pitching books to people you don’t know, working in marketing if you are business-minded, etc. And there’s also the agenting side. All of these people are important in the process, so you don’t have to be an editor to work with books.

For C:When editing a manuscript do you only focus on things like structure, character, theme etc. or also on the language? I mean this in the sense of getting the words right or saying “I don’t think these specific words work here”.

C: All of those things! I tend to look at the big picture issues first, because there is no point in line editing chapters that may change substantially. By the final round I usually have a lot to say about specific words and phrases. For example, I always keep a running list of words that have jumped out at me as possibly being overused.  What language I think needs editing depends on the manuscript, of course. M is such an editing expert (if I may brag on her a bit!) that Villains had already been through many, many drafts when I first read it, and she had picked up on many of her own quirks and addressed them. Not only did that make it fun to read, but it left me free to notice different things than I might have if more obvious issues needed to be addressed.

For A/C: Since upmarket fiction is a bit of a “combination”: what are you more likely to be interested in, a manuscript with great characters whose plot needs some work or one with a strong plot where the characters need tinkering? Or do you feel that if either of those still need work then the story isn’t worked out enough yet, although I guess there’s always room for improvement?

A: I don’t have a clear answer for this. When I read a manuscript, if I fall in love with it, I’m willing to do the work on it. If I can find a way in, then I will try to work with the writer to realize that book’s potential.

C: It’s easier to fall in love when both characters and plot are there, but if I have to choose, I’m more likely interested when the plot needs work. I just acquired two very different books that each had wonderful characters that leapt off the page, but both needed major plot changes (in my opinion). One was brilliantly written and conceived but didn’t yet have the page-turning momentum that makes you race through a book, and the other’s central mystery didn’t yet make the best use of the amazing main character. I think they will have both of your listed attributes once the authors and I are finished with them! Even if a book isn’t quite working for me, a strong voice can keep me interested in thinking about whether I have plot ideas to contribute.

For C: For an as of yet unpublished author who’s work leans toward the literary end of the spectrum what is the best way to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher? I’ve read alot and it seems to be a combination of published submissions and contest wins which result in a literary agent which THEN results (maybe) in a book deal. How do you go about getting a publisher to invest time and money in your project? I’m not ready to publish yet (I need to improve) but when I am, how?

C: Yes, published submissions and contest wins can help you get noticed. But where I’ve worked, it really is almost all about the book on submission. If you have great credits to your name, I might decide to read that submission before something else in my pile, but in the end the only thing that really matters to me is what’s on the page. Not platform or previous publications, just how I feel when I’m reading. If I can’t put it down, that’s the best way to get my attention.

For A/C: What makes a manuscript stand out to an agent or publisher? What stood out in the case of IWWV?

A: There’s no right answer for the first part of your question. Every agent and publisher has their own unique taste, so what makes a manuscript stand out depends on the reader. For IWWV, I started reading and got immediately sucked in, and then as I kept reading my excitement for the book and about the book just grew. I can’t point to a specific thing and say, “That right there, that did it.” It’s more that, as I read, I felt energized and electrified. I’d compare it to feeling a crush for the first time.

C: Well, I don’t even think M’s ever seen this, but here’s part of the note I sent to my boss before I’d finished IWWV to tell her I was loving it and wanted the team to read with me: “I feel like it’s really smart without being pretentious, suspenseful without feeling fake, and a great friendship & coming of age story. It helps to know Shakespeare but even without being an expert it is very compelling.” Not only did the plot and conceit stand out, but also the manuscript was so clean and sharp and carefully crafted that I knew the author was someone I wanted to work with. Every word had been scrutinized, which I could tell only because the read was so effortless. And I love a book that assumes readers are intelligent and intellectually curious.

For A/C/M: How long did the whole process take, from starting to write IWWV to deciding it was ready for publishing?

A: Let’s see: for IWWV, M and I started working together in March 2015, and we did a few revisions before I felt ready to submit to publishers. Flatiron acquired it in June 2015, more revisions were done, and here we are with publication fast approaching.

C: I got the submission in June 2015, so I’ve been involved with it for coming up on two years.

M: It was definitely a longer process for me, because I worked on the manuscript for about a year by myself before Arielle came into the picture, and then a few months later, Christine. I’ve been working on this thing since just about this same time in 2014. So, three years in the making for me.

For A/C/M: What was the most troublesome or difficult part of the publishing process? Like, were there any unexpected bumps in the road?

M: I think with any creative project that takes place over the course of two years or more, you’re bound to hit some unexpected bumps. Actually the timeline was a bump in and of itself. Our original release date was in January 2017 and I don’t mind admitting that I was a little bit heartbroken when I heard we were going to have to push it back to April. Down the line I completely understand why we decided to do that and I do think it was the right call—I mean, nobody buys books in January because they all just got books for Christmas—but at the time it felt like a whole lifetime longer to have to wait. I will also admit to being the lone dissenting opinion in the cover art conversation. But that’s part of the beauty and also the challenge of having so many people work on one piece of art: there are bound to be things not everyone agrees about.

A: Speaking to what M said, I think one of the hardest parts of the publishing process (especially for a first time author), is reconciling the dream of a book with the realities of the publishing industry. Compromises are inevitable, but that doesn’t make them easy. Ultimately the author, agent, and editor/publisher all want to create the best book possible, but unfortunately agreeing on what that actually is can mean some difficult conversations.

C: I always try to share my major editorial ideas with an author before I buy her book, so she doesn’t get shell-shocked later. But if I’m remembering correctly, my biggest suggested change to Villains came out of my third (or so) reading of the manuscript. Luckily M jumped on it, but as I was sending that letter I did wonder what she would think about this rather significant plot change we hadn’t previously discussed.

 


We have many more questions in the queue, so keep an eye out!

–M

Publishing Q&A, Part 1

Over the past week, my agent, my editor, and I have been collecting your questions about books, publishing, and If We Were Villains. Here’s the first round of answers from me and Arielle (but first a quick reminder who we are):

Arielle Datz is a New York transplant from Los Angeles, who started as an intern at Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner Literary Agency in 2011. She then worked in the foreign rights department at WME, followed by the Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency. She returned to DCL full-time in 2015. She is currently obsessed with April the Pregnant Giraffe (aprilthegiraffe.com). Other loves include whales, contemporary chamber music, and noodles in all forms.

M. L. Rio is the author of If We Were Villains, coming to a bookstore near you on April 11th from Flatiron Books. Before she was an author she was an actor, and before she was an actor she was just a word nerd whose only friends were books. She holds a master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London, and probably won’t break away from the cult of academia any time soon. Her other favorite things include music, wine, and her dog Marlowe.

And without any further ado, our first questions from you.


For Arielle: Are there some things that you encounter in query letters that immediately or always make you turn them down (apart from people not following instructions)?

Arielle: People not following instructions is a big one. But more generally, if it’s clear the writer didn’t do any research on me (check out my bio on our website, maybe check my Twitter or IG, where I often say what I’m reading and loving, and it’s easy to get a sense of what I’m into), that’s a turn-off. On a smaller scale, if there are grammatical errors in the first lines, I tend to be out. This may seem trivial, but usually it’s indicative of the writing style. Some agents (and an agent is also an editor) can see the potential past sloppy writing and are willing to work with the writer to clean it up, but I get easily lost in the fog of errors to see the story. Careful writing in the query letter shows me there will be careful writing in the manuscript.

For A/M: Is it better to find an agent or send your manuscript straight to a publishing company? I’ve heard opinions on both sides so hearing pros and cons from the professionals would be fab. How do you go about finding an agent? No one ever talks about this mystical part of the publishing process, and I’d like to figure it out before I reach that point. How did you do it, how do agents suggest you do it?

M: I think I’ll let Arielle take the first half of this one, but as for how to find an agent, I can’t stress how important it is not to query at random. When you’re sending query letters you want to take a couple of things into account, which include but aren’t limited to the size of the agency (a bigger agency may have better contacts but you’ll get less attention), what their ‘mission statement’ is, and most importantly, whether they represent the kind of stuff you write and whether they’ve had success selling it. Once you’ve figured that out, you need to look at what specific agents are interested in and be able to articulate why they might be interested in your work. For instance, it doesn’t make any sense to send a query for romantic high fantasy to an agent who’s only looking for middle grade mysteries. Finding an agency is all about fit, so if you can’t say why you’re querying a specific person, you probably shouldn’t be querying them. Last but not least, don’t send query letters to agents who aren’t taking submissions, because that just wastes everyone’s time. The most important thing if and when you do finally get an agent on the line is to make sure your visions for the book are compatible. I talked to a few different agents about representing Villains, but when I spoke to Arielle I could tell she just got it. She knew exactly why the story mattered, I think partly because she grasped the fact that the precarious age of these characters is really important–that strange liminal place between adolescence and adulthood. Some of the agents I talked to wanted to make everyone older or younger so they fit in a more clearly defined category. Arielle understood that their not fitting clearly into one category or the other was precisely the point. Sharing a vision with your agent is really important. As another agent friend said to me when I was weighing my options, “Who do you want talking about your book when you’re not in the room?” It can be tempting to jump on the first agent who expresses an interest, but it’s much better to wait for an agent who’s really the right one.

A: In a broad sense, if your ambition as a writer is to be published by a mainstream publisher, then you need to have an agent. The big publishers generally don’t take submissions that don’t come from an agent, because they don’t have the capacity to field that many submissions. Moreover, an agent acts as a gatekeeper of sorts; it’s an agent’s job to have good relationships with publishing houses, so that they only get bombarded by us with submissions (and they know us, and we know each other’s tastes), rather than by every writer in the world. That said, some small, independent publishers and presses do take submissions from writers directly, and should indicate as much on their websites. As M says, research is key. There are tons of online resources with information on agencies and publishers, so you can begin to figure out which path is right for you, and which agencies or agents you think you would work well with.

For A/M: Do you have to live in a big city to get traditionally published?

M: Nope. When we sold Villains I was living in a small college town in North Carolina. Because most communication in publishing happens either online or over the phone, your physical location is pretty much immaterial.

A: What M said!

For A: What would you advise someone who does not live in an English speaking country to do differently when hoping to find a literary agent? Is it possible at all for, say, people living in Germany to gain the attention of an English/American agent?

A: This is a little bit out of my wheelhouse, but I do have some experience with foreign rights (i.e., selling translation rights for English books into other languages), and I imagine it works in a similar way. My impression is that there are agents in pretty much every country/language, and they should have resources and connections in the English-speaking world. Using your example, I would recommend looking first for a German agent, who would hopefully have the connections to get an English-language agent’s attention. However, it also depends on what language you’re writing in – if you have a manuscript that is written in English, and you just happen to be German, I’d say go ahead and submit to English-language agents. However, if the manuscript is not yet translated, that can be a barrier (and a good reason to get a German agent first). Simply put, it’s certainly possible, but a bit more complicated.


We have many more questions in the queue, but don’t forget you still have two more days to send them in–so if you have questions about writing, agenting, editing, or Villains, ask them soon! All the info you need lives right here.

–M