Notes from the Drunken Editor: Forging Your Own Independence

I don't have a drinking problem, because I rarely drink. When I drink, I don't get drunk. The reason I'm calling this series "Notes from the Drunken Editor" is because I would like to catch a particular kind of reader's attention, and if you are reading this, it seems to have worked.

That's part of the gimmick, too. For some readers scanning the new LitReactor articles, seeing the word "drunken" will be a turn-off. It would be a turn-off for me on most days, because it instantly brings to mind the Bukowski stereotype, that literary drunkard. And since I do not enjoy reading Bukowski and I know there's a Bukowski collection called Notes of a Dirty Old Man, the whole unconscious association would probably stop me from reading my own article on a bad day.

The point is that I adopted a strategy. I know that many LitReactor folks like the Hunter S Thompson tell-it-like-it-is, bullshit-killer approach, so I'm trying to reach a compromise between expectations and my original intention.

This is the intention: to speak (as an author and as a publisher) to those who wish their editors and publishers would get drunk and loosen up a little and speak their minds.


Places like LitReactor help writers feel serious solidarity, and I think that's why they work in the long run. Classes with professional novelists are certainly exciting, but solidarity is what keeps people around.

In mid-2011, when I joined the team involved in creating LitReactor, I was especially interested in opening up a space where professional authors could teach new writers directly, with as little interference as possible. That was the great motivator for going along with the idea. Since then, though, my own career has changed in unexpectedly wonderful ways, and I've had to take some distance from LitReactor. I run a fiction press and co-run a political, philosophy, and cultural criticism press as well. This means I switch, daily, from speaking with writers who haven't published anything at all to working with authors of eight or nine published books, only some of which are known.

Places like LitReactor help writers feel serious solidarity, and I think that's why they work in the long run. Classes with professional novelists are certainly exciting, but solidarity is what keeps people around.

Still, you need to cultivate solitude, too, and that's what I want to address in this article. You should be able to stand on your own feet as a writer, and I don't just mean that you have to be able to look at your own writing objectively. The publishing world is changing drastically, and the ways in which it's changing should be something you understand. It will make your life easier in the long run. You won't have to rely on the expertise of others so much; you'll be able to figure out the best way to approach an agent, or a publisher, or a publicist for your specific project. You won't just go around searching for places with a fast response time on duotrope.com because you'll have developed very particular standards to help you.

Standing on your own feet involves having a sense of competence in the publishing world. It means developing at least a mild curiosity for the key terms in publishing. What are subsidiary rights, and how important are they when a publisher offers a contract? When there's a clause about first refusal in that contract, does that make sense? Is it necessarily an Epic Win if your publisher prints 20,000 copies of your first book? (What happens if it only sells 3,000? Will you be dropped from the publisher's list? Does it cost money to pulp books? Why do publishers destroy their own books…?)

It also means understanding how flawed any publishing company can be. I spoke very recently to someone who's been running a small academic series with a big UK publisher, and was surprised to hear how incompetently a few of the titles were handled by that publisher: three people on the same publishing team writing to ask the same question without ever checking with each other to see if an answer had already been given; a cover design totally at odds with the rest of the series because, oops, I thought it was another series.

We publishers can be truly incompetent. We often are, because we're overwhelmed, or bored, or we have cheating, manipulative spouses who ran off with our best friend and we can't focus on your fucking book right now, which, by the way, is not going to change the world and your little questions about a specific copyediting mistake are not our top priority, okay?

Protect yourself and learn a bit more about what's going on in the industry, so you don't have to rely on editors and publishers who happen to be people with delightful flaws.

How do you start learning on your own? Start by reading around, trying to connect different concepts. If you're not happy with the way a particular story of yours was handled, find out in some detail what should have been done according to professional standards — maybe you're just being a wimp, but it's also perfectly possible that you got screwed over. Ask around, read about it, then ask about what you've read.

It will, in the end, boil down to adopting a strong attitude of independence toward your own fate as a writer. The other side of knowing about the industry is knowing about yourself, and what you can do, and how you can do it. Here are some ideas that have worked for me.

Don't rely on existential maxims to justify things which, in fact, do more harm than good.

There's a great literary tradition of philosophically-inflected novels out there. Authors of such novels can make that their main "thing" and it can work well. Sartre and Camus are obvious examples, as are Iris Murdoch and Walker Percy. But the existential maxims I'm talking about have nothing to do with fiction; they are fictions, and they influence you, the author as a human being. "Pain is weakness leaving the body" is a great example. "One must imagine Sisyphus happy" is another. Little soundbites taken out of context do not constitute a personal philosophy, and they can do you harm. They can make you incapable of admitting that your writing isn't very good yet. They can turn the question of your writing's quality into a matter of whether it is good or not, full stop, instead of whether it is good yet, whether it is improving.

I'm not going to tell anyone to eat more veggies and drink enough water, but there is a difference between standing by your fiction for good or bad, and standing by your desire to improve it. The latter requires a bit of compromise. A heroic streak is great in an author and I believe many great artists would fail without it, but the heroism can be attached to incompatible projects. One of the most infuriating things I've had to deal with, as far as helping other authors goes, has been their misplaced egotism. They see themselves as misunderstood, and therefore superior to their critics. Or they think their books are ahead of their time, and that those books are therefore good. It's delusional, and while delusion can be your best strategy in some cases, it's incredibly off-putting when you're trying to form a professional relationship that revolves around writing.

There's nothing controversial in saying that writers are, on the whole, egomaniacs. They get off by writing, then being praised for their writing, then they solidify an "author personality" with particular opinions on things, even things totally unrelated to writing. That's fine. We are guilty, to whatever extent, of a tendency to self-inflation. It's a matter of making that self-inflation work for you, not very badly against you. When a publisher turns you down, don't sulk, and especially: don't bite back. When a publishing deal goes awry, unless there was something seriously unprofessional or immoral about the circumstances, leave it alone. Learn from it, investigate the circumstances, and keep going.

Make an ally out of Suspicion when you read any writing-related article that tells you not to do something.

This is trickier than it looks, and it may also contradict what I've just been saying. (On the whole, I think it's important to figure out the contradictions for yourself and decide how much they bother you.) Hey, I've just been giving you advice in a negative, don't-do-it way. I accept the hypocrisy as part of talking about independence in general.

Standing on your own feet involves having a sense of competence in the publishing world. It means developing at least a mild curiosity for the key terms in publishing... It also means understanding how flawed any publishing company can be.

When you're learning a new sport or a new musical instrument, you tend to listen very attentively to warnings from those who know better. When someone says, "Don't use this technique," or, "Avoid this as much as possible," it's hard not to take it seriously as long as you accept that they know more than you about this. They've been in the game longer than you.

The thing about writing articles for aspiring writers is that, if you're like me, you know what sorts of writing you prefer, and you think you've got it figured out. Almost everyone tells you adverbs are bad, but very few people make a convincing case for the inherent badness of adverbs. I used "almost" in the previous sentence to avoid too sweeping a generalization, and "almost" is an adverb. Handy, and it shows you what I mean. Think it through: If you're going around telling people adverbs are bad, are you full of shit? Probably not, but that teeny-weeny element of bluffing creeps into advice of that sort, because it ignores subtleties — the things that make style so important to people who look at it — just to create a rule that sounds simple, even if it's impractical.

The American novelist John Gardner was fond of making bold assertions about "good" writing, but these assertions were never so pointlessly reductive that you could take 'em or leave 'em or helpfully point out, in an online discussion, that there are exceptions, guys. Take the following, from his famous guide, The Art of Fiction:

"Sanity in a writer is merely this: However stupid he may be in his private life, he never cheats in his writing. He never forgets that his audience is, at least ideally, as noble, generous, and tolerant as he is himself (or more so), and never forgets that he is writing about people, so that to turn characters to cartoons, or treat his characters as innately inferior to himself, to forget their reasons for being as they are, to treat them as brutes, is bad art."

Opinionated, yes, but if you read it through a few times, you can get a good understanding of the author's personality, his philosophical attitude toward the writer's task, and his style of expression. If you spent fifteen minutes simply reading that quotation, I expect you'd find yourself inside its world, even without a sense of its context. What is your ideal audience — is it as noble, generous and tolerant as you, or is it debauched and looking for someone to push the boundaries of what fiction can do, thematically or structurally? Do you treat your characters are innately inferior to yourself, or is everyone in your story a kind of John Galt? Does this matter? If it doesn't, then what does matter, to you, about your characters? Should a writer even be sane, and what does "sanity in a writer" even mean if you agree that there's such a thing but that Gardner's got it wrong?

Forget adverbs for a few days. What is it about your attitude to writing that is most helpful to you? And what's just bullshit?

Redefine professionalism to make it work for you.

Steven Pressfield, whose books on writing are worth reading for their great discussion of the need for discipline in writing, has laid out the "habits and qualities that the professional possesses that the amateur doesn’t" — my favorites are:

  • The professional shows up every day.
  • The professional is committed over the long haul.
  • The professional is patient.
  • The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique.
  • The professional does not hesitate to ask for help.
  • The professional does not take failure or success personally.
  • The professional does not identify with his or her instrument.

These speak to me because, although they're not always easily spotted in my own behavior, they are the ones that get me inspired to be serious about writing. Showing up every day, as a writer, is not just about wanting to write every day. It involves making room for writing in your everyday life: often that seems to involve sacrificing social relationships, sometimes permanently. Once that happens, the writing life seems to get a bit less lonely, because although you're spending more time on your own, you don't feel like you have to explain it to everyone.

Not identifying with your instrument is crucial, too. Everyone is a writer; few of us are good writers. Even fewer of us are actually thought to be any good by our friends, no matter what anyone tells us in person. If you start submitting your manuscript to agents because that's just what writers do, or because you want to be in print very badly, then you're playing the role of a writer a little too earnestly. Writing and "being a writer" are different things, and writing can be combined with business sense, social intelligence, and even social media savvy.

It's a lot more enjoyable to work with authors who don't give the impression of just wanting a goddamn contract please-please. When you can talk about your own book, not just as the embodiment of spiritual purity that you believe it to be, but as something that could take years before anyone ever reads it, or reads it properly, the way you want it to be read — that's when working with you will be a pleasure. Until then, you are probably more of a pain in the ass than you might realize.

There is nothing wrong with being a pain in the ass. But time it properly.

Image of The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
Author: John Gardner
Price: $12.34
Publisher: Vintage (1991)
Binding: Paperback, 240 pages
Image of Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life's Work
Author: Steven Pressfield
Price: $11.83
Publisher: Black Irish Entertainment LLC (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 146 pages

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Comments

Scott MacDonald's picture
Scott MacDonald from UK is reading House of Leaves December 5, 2012 - 4:12pm

Really enjoyed this article, with a few tough lines that it's difficult not to get too hung up on (writers as "egomaniacs" and "pain[s] in the ass" being two of the more obvious ones), but it's hard to deny that most of your observations are right.  I spotted a few don't-be-like-this traits that I can identify in myself (most obviously,  not consistently making time for writing or taking success/failure too personally), and this has given me some clear areas to aim at improving.

Not sure about others on here, but I don't quite agree with the "[writers] see themselves as...superior to their critics" as I think a lot of defensiveness about my own writing comes from a deep insecurity about the quality of my own writing, and having that exposed by someone (especially someone who does it with a verbal bludgeon rather than a bit of consideration of the weeks and months that have gone into writing a large piece of work) can result in the deflated writer making rash statements.  There should be a method for a writer to respond to criticism that he/she disagrees with and for those comments to be taken on board, without the writer simply being seen as temperamental arsehole who is too close to their own work.  However, I do think that some people who critique a piece get equally as defensive of their own opinion if it is challenged as the writer does about their own work and this is where stalemate kicks in and tempers fray.  Yes, I realise that the writer (especially the unpublished one) is at the mercy of the publishing world, but there is a fine line between sensibly accepting criticism to improve and allowing your work to be diluted by opinions that have missed your point.  This is where being choosy about your publisher potentially comes in.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life December 5, 2012 - 5:22pm

I agree, don't use adverbs.

@@@@ A+ would read again @@@@

wickedvoodoo's picture
wickedvoodoo from Mansfield, England is reading stuff. December 5, 2012 - 8:00pm

Good read here. Makes a lot of sense.

I think this is going to be an excellent column.