Home for the holiday!

outdoor stockpot

No, this is not my stockpot, gearing up to produce gravy; since a sudden snowfall has rendered Seattle all but immobilized, cooking outside would be counterproductive, at best. I snapped this a couple of days ago, in the shirtsleeves-are-fine balminess of New Orleans; I believe the happy floating veggies were destined for gumbo. The temperature transition has been quite a shock to my delicate sensibilities, let me tell you.

For me, that is, not the vegetables. Although I would imagine being brought to a slow simmer is rather disorienting, too.

I had meant to blog more from the Words & Music conference, or at any rate since, but between travel, teaching, and networking (a word I hate, but how else to describe hobnobbing in the bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America?), mixed with such perennial joys of the book doctoring life as a client whose publisher moved her revision deadline by a month (and not in the direction any sane person would prefer) and another who changed her mind about her intended book category in mid-edit…well, let’s just say that this week has gotten away from me a little. But yes, Virginia, I shall be blogging about the conference itself soon, because it was fascinating: teaching the fine art of querying, listening to people who knew Faulkner reminisce, and, of course, chatting with folks in the industry about the radical changes the biz has been undergoing.

The best reason to go to a writers’ conference, though, is to meet other writers, established, aspiring, and everything in between. I was especially thrilled to chat with Heidi Durrow, whose The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is for my money the most exciting literary fiction debut of the last few years. She does more interesting things with commas in dialogue than most authors do in entire scenes.

I just mention that to any of you literary fiction writers whose Secret Santas might appreciate gift suggestions. Seriously, Santa, an aspiring writer with ambitions in that direction might really benefit from seeing of what remarkable characterization the English language is capable of producing — and having one’s faith restored in the possibility of genuinely experimental, intensely personal, and actually unusual novels getting published these days.

One last word on my conference weekend, then on to the business du jour: would you help me brainstorm for a moment, campers? Every time I teach a practical class on querying — or synopsis-writing, manuscript formatting, or any of the other unpleasant-but-necessary task of the life writerly — at a conference, I find myself wishing that I could take a broader view. Aspiring writers seem so hungry for information that an hour-long class seems insufficient. I’m beginning to think that perhaps I should be teaching a broader array of classes.

So I put it to you: if you could attend a fantasy conference day stuffed to the brim with classes addressing your day-to-day concerns, what classes would you want to see offered? I don’t just mean basic how-tos on querying and submission, but specific stuff, the kind of niggling little practical matter that keeps you up the night before you send something off to an agent — or for several nights after.

Hey, I believe in asking Santa for what I want, too. So have at it, Virginia.

On to talking turkey. With Thanksgiving once again upon us, I figure that if you’re tapping away at your computer today, you’re most likely not either (a) the primary cook in your extended family or (b) one of the 40 million U.S. citizens traveling more than 50 miles to eat turkey. No, I’m guessing that those of you reading this today is quite likely to be either on the way to meet relatives, friends, or total strangers likely to ask about your writing, have just returned from interacting with relatives, friends, or total strangers who asked about your writing, or are actively avoiding relatives, friends, or total strangers who might ask about your writing.

Don’t bother to tell me whether I’m right. Conserve your energy. Instead, let’s spend the rest of today’s post taking about how to deal with those well-meaning questions aspiring writers so frequently face whenever they are reveling in the warm embrace of their nearest and dearest:

“So when will your book be coming out?”

“Why is it taking so long for your book to get published?”

“Aren’t you, you know, working hard enough?”

“Isn’t the book any good?”

“Don’t you have enough talent?”

“Shouldn’t you have given up this ridiculous quest long ago, concentrating instead on some more easily-achieved dream, like making the Olympic curling team or ascending Mount Everest?”

Okay, so that’s not usually what they say verbatim — but it’s often what we writers hear, isn’t it, when we’re asked about an as-yet-unpublished book’s progress? Even the most innocuous inquiry, if it comes at the wrong time, can sound like a challenge for us to produce instantly a full and complete explanation of exactly why this book does deserve to be picked up, and pronto.

And then, before we realize what’s happened, we’ve been talking about the horrors of searching for an agent, or revising a manuscript, or finishing that last chapter in a manner that simultaneously ties up all of the plot’s loose ends and leaves room for a sequel, for 20 minutes as our original questioner looks at us with deer-the-headlights eyes and the gravy gets cold.

Such inquirers know not what they’re getting into, obviously.

Be gentle with them. Amazingly — from our perspective, at least — non-writers often do not have the vaguest conception that implications that the process is taking too long can be to writers fighting words, akin to calling someone’s mother…

Well, I wasn’t brought up to call people’s mothers that sort of thing. It’s not nice.

I tremble to be the one to tell you this, but better that I inoculate you before your Great-Aunt Rhoda’s new husband mentions it while passing you a third helping of turkey, but most working artists’ kith and kin frequently seem to be laboring under the to-writers-bizarre delusion that you will be HURT if they do not ask you how the book is going, whether you’ve managed to land an agent yet, aren’t you just being lazy if you’ve been working on the same project for three years and haven’t yet completed it, and so forth.

They don’t want to be remiss or insensitive about your little hobby, after all. In their minds, these pointed questions constitute support.

Positively aglow with sweet intentions, they fling their arms around you practically the instant you cross the threshold into their homes, bearing platters of cookies that you took hours out of your writing schedule to bake, bellowing at the top of their lungs, “Darling? Haven’t you finished that novel yet?”

Or, “Sweetheart, what a lovely color on you. When will I be able to order your book on Amazon?”

Or, “I won’t even ask if you’ve managed to sell that book of yours, so spare me the speech about how hard it is to catch an agent’s eye. And is it safe to assume that you burned the pies again this year?” (Some relatives are more supportive than others.)

If this doesn’t happen to you like clockwork every holiday season, feel free to breathe a great big sigh of relief — and bask in the envy of the rest of us. In North America, at least, it is not considered permissible, or even legal, for a writer to respond to such ripostes by taking a swing at such people, or poisoning their holiday punch, or even making fun of that completely unattractive pumpkin-orange sweater with the dancing turkey on it that the bellower is wearing.

Even though it is unequivocally hideous. Whose bright idea was it to have the gobbler’s eyes light up?

No, we’re expected to smile, hug back, and say, “Oh, it’s coming along.” Rather than, say, telling them anything that remotely resembles the truth, especially if the truth entails something along the lines of three or four years of extremely stressful querying book #1 while trying to write book #2, or a year and a half of revising a manuscript seven times before one’s agent is willing to send it out to editors, or eight months of nail-biting anxiety while s/he does send it out to editors.

Just don’t go there. Because, let’s face it, unless your relatives happen to be writers themselves, they’re probably not going to understand that clapping you on the back and telling you, “You know, the only true obstacle to publishing success is that you haven’t been visualizing your book’s selling magnificently hard enough,” is going to make you want to scream, if not fling cranberries at somebody.

Take a nice, deep breath if this impulse begins to overwhelm you: most non-writers have absolutely no idea of the difficulties that writers face getting into print. Heck, even for writers, discovering just how challenging it is to land an agent and/or sell a book often comes as a gigantic, ugly surprise.

Admit it: you probably remember precisely where you were and what you were wearing when you first realized that there was more to winning this game than mere talent, do you not? Or that, contrary to popular belief, not every great manuscript gets picked up by an agent, especially those that don’t happen to be in book categories popular in recent years. Or that even the most brilliant authors don’t produce Pulitzer-worthy material in first drafts, but routinely revise until their fingers are sore.

Catching your mother playing Tooth Fairy probably didn’t even come close in the disillusionment department. Fortunately for me (I guess), I come from a family of writers, so I already knew what agents and publishing houses long before my big brother broke the bad news about the Easter Bunny.

Hey, a kid can only take so much bubble-bursting at one time. So if you have anything negative to say about Santa Claus, kindly keep it to yourself until after the holidays.

Fortunately for overall human happiness, most members of the general public are permanently spared the disorienting shock of learning that not all good books necessarily get published, that agents don’t just pick up every piece of good writing that they read, or that speed of composition usually isn’t a particularly good indicator of writing quality, or that only a teeny, tiny proportion of authors have even a prayer of a spot on Oprah.

So when Alphonse, your next-door neighbor, waltzes into your kitchen and booms, “When are you going to be finished with that damned book of yours, Harriet?” he almost certainly doesn’t mean to be nasty. Or even passive-aggressive.

No, Alphonse just isn’t that kind of guy. He almost certainly believes, bless his heart, that by remembering to tease you light-heartedly about the book you have been slaving over for the past fifteen years, he is offering non-judgmental good fellowship. Because in his world, if you HAD finished the book in question, you would already be burbling with excitement about its imminent release — if not planning what to wear on Oprah.

Try not to judge him too harshly; you believed in the Tooth Fairy once, too.

Bizarrely enough, these unintentionally pointed questions from well-meaning non-writers most emphatically do not cease after one lands an agent. Quite the contrary: they increase, often exponentially.

Why? Well, the average citizen of this fine republic has only a vaguest sense of what a literary agent actually does with a book. So complete is the veil of ignorance, in fact, that it is not all that uncommon for one’s kith and kin to conflate an agent with an editor.

Or even — brace yourselves, the happy few of you who have signed with agents within the last year — landing an agent with landing a book contract.

Think I’m kidding, or that this level of conflation dissipates once an author lands an agent? Then how do you explain the fact that I’ve been publishing my writing since I was ten years old, and yet just last week, one of my best friends from elementary school blithely asked me how soon she could buy the book I’m currently revising for my agent?

Facebook is both a blessing and a curse, isn’t it?

As any agented-but-not-yet-published writer can tell you, these are extremely common sources of confusion. Although your Aunt Gerda may not say it outright, she, like most people, will simply assume that because a writer is so excited to have landed an agent, the agent must therefore have bought the book.

Why else would you be singing over the cranberry sauce?

“So,” these kind-hearted souls chortle at holiday time, sidling up to a writer who has been sitting on the proverbial pins and needles for five interminable months, waiting to hear back on a round of submissions to editors, “when will you be giving me a copy of your book?”

They mean to be supportive, honest. Which is why they will not understand at all when you burst into tears and empty your glass of eggnog all over their sparkly holiday sweaters. They will think, believe it or not, that you are the one who is overreacting.

And in the non-artistic universe, they’ll sort of be right. Because they genuinely mean so well, you must not, under any circumstances, throw a drumstick at such well-meaning souls for asking what are, from a writer’s perspective, phenomenally stupid questions.

No, not even if the implication of such questions is that these would-be supporters apparently haven’t listened to anything you have ever told them about the trials of writing a book, finding an agent, working with an agent after landing one, meeting editorial deadlines, or any of the other myriad trying phenomena associated with authorship, aspiring or otherwise. Nor is it considered polite to scream at them, or even glare in a manner that might frighten any small children who might happen to be gnawing on a wing nearby.

Nice person that you are, you are going to honor these social limits. Even if you’re not all that nice, you will want to retain George on your mailing list for the happy day when you do have a book out for Cousin Marvin’s roommate? boyfriend? to purchase.

So what’s a writer to do, especially when the holidays fall during unusually stressful times, such as when that agent you met at a conference has had your first fifty pages for three months and counting, or when you’ve just received three requests for material (because you were so good about sending out those query letters earlier in November, right?) and have spent the last week frantically trying to get those packets out the door before, well, yesterday?

(My, that was a long sentence, wasn’t it? You might want to avoid paragraph-long questions in those submissions. Yes, I know that Henry James was a great advocate of page-long sentences. I’m fond of his work, but I suspect that he would have rather a hard time getting a manuscript past Millicent the agency screener today — and you should hear what her Aunt Jessica has to say about the novel she has been writing for six years.)

Well, you could regard, “So how is the book coming?” as a serious inquiry, and talk for the next fifteen minutes about characterization, the desirability of semicolon usage vis-à-vis Millicent’s literary tastes in high-end women’s fiction, and just how much you hate form rejection letters. You could also launch into a spirited compare-and-contrast exercise, illustrating vividly how the publishing industry has changed from, say, fifty years ago — which is probably the period your questioner has in mind, but isn’t aware of it. You might even draw helpful charts on the tablecloth, the better to demonstrate how precipitously book sales have dropped over the past couple of years.

If you are gifted at disregarding your interlocutor’s eyes glazing over for minutes at a time, this actually isn’t a bad long-term strategy, at least as far as holiday gatherings are concerned: once you have established a firm reputation for waxing long, humorless, and/or angry on the subject, the non-writers in your social circle may well learn not to inquire how your writing is coming alone. Depending upon how sensitive one happens to be to such questions, that might be a reasonable goal.

If, however, your kith and kin’s avoiding the topic of your writing like the proverbial plague is not your idea of a comfortable Thanksgiving, I would save this tack for when you are speaking with other writers. Like any shop talk, it’s far more interesting to those who deal with it regularly than to anyone else.

I’m looking at you, Dr. Cousin. No one wants to hear the details of your last bypass operation over the pumpkin pie.

So what’s the alternative? You could, most politely, take your favorite cousin by the arm and say confidentially, “You know, Celine, I spend so much time obsessing over my novel that I’m likely to bore you to extinction if I start to talk about it. Do you mind if we give my brain a rest and talk about something completely different?”

I hate to break it to you, but Celine may actually be relieved to hear this.

Why? Because poor Celine may well have been traumatized by how testy you got the last time she asked about it, that’s why. Do you honestly think she isn’t still telling her friends the horror story about the time you began weeping copiously into the cranberry sauce when your Uncle Art said incredulously, “37 rejection letters, baby? You must be one of those artists destined to become famous only after he’s dead”? Or when you tried to choke yourself with your napkin after the ninth time your second cousin twice removed reminded you that the Mary Kay sales training that has served her so well insists that if you don’t hear no all the time, you aren’t asking often enough? Or when you threatened Cousin Germaine with the electric carving knife when all she did was suggest that if the agent you spent half a decade trying to land hadn’t sold your book to a publisher within six weeks of your signing the agency contract, you should dump him and move on?

Strange to say, in the non-writerly world, “Honey, find yourself a new agent!” are not fighting words.

There’s a good reason for that: the publishing world really, really likes to maintain the illusion that talented writers just appear out of the ether to become overnight successes. Possibly because the Book Genie plants a neon sign over their roofs, announcing HOT NEW TALENT HERE, so agents know upon whose doorsteps to appear immediately upon the placement of the final period in the first — and only, naturally — draft.

Hey, it makes for great interview copy, as long as we’re all willing to disregard the decade or more these authors often spend slogging at their craft before becoming overnight successes.

It’s not really fair to blame non-writers for buying this storyline. Yet due to the naïve-but-pervasive belief in the inevitability of publication for talented writers — what, do they think that our fairy godmothers go around whacking editors at publishing houses over the head with their wands on our books’ behalf? Don’t be silly; that’s the agent’s job — non-writers (and writers who have not yet worked up the nerve to submit) are often puzzled by the intensity of writerly reactions to casual inquiries about their work.

Especially if they only asked in the first place to be polite, just as they would have asked you about fly-fishing, had that been your passion. (It is for some people, you know.) Again, those who are going to be the most fascinated in your book’s ups and downs at every stage are going to be other writers.

Actually, after you’re agented, other writers may be your most persistent questioners, especially if they have not yet had a book subjected to the microscopic analysis that is editorial scrutiny. It can be a very lengthy process, the timing of which is utterly outside the author’s control, but even most writers don’t know that until they have been through the submission wringer themselves.

But if they haven’t, they think they’re just supporting a fellow writer when they ask, “Has your agent managed to sell that book of yours yet? What’s the hold-up?”

Or “Is your book out yet? I’d love to read it.”

Or even — not that I have any first-hand experience with this or anything — “What’s new with that memoir of yours that publisher bought a few years ago? Are they still frozen by the lawsuit threats? I can’t believe how long it’s been. Why don’t you self-publish it?”

As if you would have sold — or finished, released, or freed from lawsuit threats — your book, but neglected to shout the news from the rooftops. Or at least to your Christmas card list.

I like to think that they ask out of love — as in they would LOVE to be able to celebrate the triumphs of a writer that they know personally. Admittedly, it sometimes takes some determination on my part to cling to this inspiring little belief (when one’s memoir has been on hold at a publishing house for years, people do tend to express sympathy by venting frustration about the delay at the author, not the publisher), but ultimately, I’m quite sure I’m happier than I would be if I took every iteration of the question as a demand that I instantly drop everything I’m doing and rush off to rectify the situation.

Because that’s not really what they mean by these inquiries, is it? No matter how much such well-meant indignation might sound like criticism to the writer at whom it is aimed, badgering was probably the last thing on the commenter’s mind.

I know, I know; it doesn’t feel that way in the moment. And it may be kind of hard to believe that your Grandpa Theodore, the guy who has relentlessly picked to pieces everyone you have ever even considered dating, is trying to be non-judgmental about your publishing success.

Just hear me out on this one: this is a translation problem. Most of the time, neither writers nor non-writers mean their enthusiastic cries of, “Is it done/sold/out yet?” as criticism about not being the latest Oprah book club pick. Not even if they walk right up to you and say, as if it had never occurred to you or as if every writer in the world didn’t aspire to it, “You know, your book’s a natural for Oprah.”

What they mean is, “I like you. I want you to succeed. And even though I don’t really understand what you’re going through, I want to acknowledge that you’re trying.”

A trifle Pollyannaish of me to translate it that way? Perhaps. But permit me to suggest a little stocking-stuffer that writers can give their kith and kin this holiday season: just for this one dinner party or get-together, assume that that is precisely what they do mean, even if they express it poorly. And respond to the underlying sentiment, not the words.

Just my little suggestion for keeping the peace on that typically not-the-most-silent of nights.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that it’s healthy for you to keep biting your tongue indefinitely. So here is a constructive use for any underlying hostility these questions may raise in you: treat these questions as the perfect opportunity to cure your kith and kin of the pie-in-the-sky notion that they’re going to be on the receiving end of every book you ever publish just because they knew you when you were in diapers.

To put it bluntly, your mother has a right to expect a free copy. Everyone else should expect to help you become a success by buying his own.

Would somebody pick up Great-Aunt Ada’s chair for her? She just fell over backward in surprise.

And well might she, as this is something else the general public does not know about publishing: these days, the author herself is often the one who pays for those allegedly free copies. Even if the publishing contract is generous with advance copies, authors are generally expected to use them for promotional purposes, not as give-aways to their relatives. And while the author is generally able to purchase additional copies at a substantial discount, those books do not count toward sales totals.

Yes, you read that correctly: promising your kith and kin free copies may actually harm your overall sales statistics. Ready to stare down Great-Aunt Ada’s disappointment now, or would you rather wait until your book is about to come out?

The sooner you can get your relatives to accept that the best thing they can do to support your writing career is to plan to buy your books early and often, the happier you will be in the long run — and thus the more pleasant you will be at future holiday gatherings, hint, hint. Tell them you’ll be overjoyed to sign any copies they buy, and leave it at that.

In that same spirit of blowing off some steam, let me throw the question open to you, readers: how do you cope with this avocation-specific form of holiday stress? Have you come up with clever comebacks, succinct explanations, cunning evasions, or other brilliant coping mechanisms that you would like to share with the Author! Author! community?

Or, alternatively, a funny story about the time that you couldn’t stand it anymore and tossed a candied yam at an over-persistent relative who kept asking why you haven’t given up by now? (I probably shouldn’t encourage such behavior, but I have to admit, I would probably get some vicarious pleasure from hearing about it. Am I the only one?)

I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say. And in the spirit of sharing views, I shall be devoting this weekend to posting the award posts for the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better contest, so we may start December with forward-looking eyes.

I’ve got to hustle into the kitchen now: I’ve some ginger-pear compote to cook up for the people who will be buying my books in years to come. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

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