Dostoyevsky

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Dostoyevsky

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I’ve had this poster of Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) hanging above my toilet in every place I’ve lived since 2000. I purchased it at a museum in Staraya Russa, Russia, which was actually the summer house where Dostoyevsky wrote Demons and The Brothers Karamazov. The poster looks ancient now but the water stains are actually from a bathroom pipe leak and the tear in the lower right corner is from when an old girlfriend of mine thought it would be funny to stick a maxi pad on it (when she removed the pad its adhesive side ripped off a big poster chunk).

Dostoyevsky was by no means a perfect man—for instance he hated Jews and basically all foreigners and he also gambled like a fiend—but if nothing else he was a true Grinder. He worked and he worked and he worked. He followed his dark visions and he wrote for money. His mother died when he was fifteen. He endured a realistic mock execution, ten hard years in a Siberian labor camp, the onset of epilepsy, and came out more inspired to write than ever. He was a man of faith, but it was not an unexamined faith by any means. Dostoyevsky knew what he was about and went about it. He worked at night while the world was sleeping.

I like having his dark Russian eyes staring at me every time I visit the bathroom. They remind me that no matter how tough life may be at times you can always be a little tougher yourself. New characters and worlds are always sitting inside you, waiting for extraction. You can find them if you’re willing to put the work in.

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The Glorious Grind

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty-Seven

The Glorious Grind

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One of the most baffling occurrences in the course of humanity’s creative history has been the glamorization of writing. You tell somebody at a party you work in an office on a computer all day while music plays faintly in the background and you drink too much coffee and they’ll be all like yep, yep, sounds like you work as an insurance actuary or perhaps as a claims adjuster or maybe a certified public accountant. What kind of salary does that pay and what are the benefits like? Do you think Patty has any more shrimp stashed in the kitchen?

But tell this inquisitive person you’re a writer and you’ll get an eyebrow raised and a set of certain expectations. What do you write? Are you published? Would I like it? Is your life filled with sun drenched villas and ocean vistas or are you one of those poor and tortured writers who live in cockroach infested studio apartments, living on Spam, Doritos, and absinthe? Rarely will their first thought be “I bet this guy was hanging around in sweatpants until eight PM today” or “Hey, I’m likely the first person he’s spoken to in three days! Lucky me!”

The fact that authors and poets used to be renowned super-celebrities in the late 19th century and the early to mid-20th century just goes to show you how little television and pop music we had back then. As we all know, humans love to set apart certain other humans with various talents and deify them—with the invention of the printing press a whole new order gods and goddesses was created in the hearts and minds of the public. Suddenly pale, weird looking dudes wearing spectacles could suddenly get laid pretty easily if they said they were a writer and everyone was agog when old Charlie Dickens came by to have a reading in their town (some even consider Dickens to be the first pop star. Weird idea, right?). Writing was cool, like being a painter, or a musician, or, later on, an actor in the moving pictures. Writers, known for their drinking, howling, and love of reading, suddenly had a little extra sparkle to them as they walked through a crowd, a little heat in their pocket.

The 21st century has seen this sparkle fade from the profession. The Internet and television have so bedazzled your average citizen with serial programing and cats doing awesome shit that your average mid-list author now possesses the glamor somewhere between a local used car dealer and a well-respected mortician. And you know what? This is probably a good thing. A really good thing. Writers should think of themselves as craftsmen like carpenters and stone masons and leave the crotch grabbing shenanigans to the reality TV stars of this saturated new world. They’ll be better for it, less distracted and feverish in their efforts at being cool and hip. Less vain. Most importantly, they’ll be able to focus more on the task at hand, which is writing their hearts out and making peace with life to their satisfaction before death all too quickly swallows them whole.

I’ve been wracking my brain to come up with a way, in this cumulative essay, to explain once and for all both the glory and the utter grind I’ve encountered in the life of the author struggling to establish a career in modern day publishing. It has occurred to me, after many false starts, to simply follow the standard advice to any author and show instead of tell—here’s a list of all fifteen of my novels, the vast majority of them unpublished, with a brief description of each and their role in my growth. This is basically a roadmap of twenty years of long nights, scorched earth, and blissful creative escapism.

Novel #1

The Nebula Quest

Genre: Sci-fi (quest, space opera)

I began The Nebula Quest when I was fifteen. It started as a short story and I had no idea it would grow into a four hundred page book. It’s your classic quest/coming of age story, owing much to Star Wars. The hero of the story is named Zil and he hails from a race of hairless, gray skinned bipeds called Trindles. For a first novel it has a rather complex, sprawling plot and features a large cast of characters. My mother surprised me one day by getting the novel printed and bound at Kinko’s with its own laminated cover and everything. That was about the extent of my expectations for The Nebula Quest, though I rewrote it several times.

Novel #2

Other Dreams (originally titled The Dreamer & The Ogre)

Genre: YA fantasy[1]

I wrote Other Dreams during my senior year in high school. Quite literally—I started it in September and finished it in May. This book was the first time I’d put a work through over a dozen drafts. Other Dreams follows a twelve-year-old boy named Wesley Vaughn in the early 1990s who has contracted the HIV virus through a blood transfusion years earlier, after a motorcycle accident that also killed his father. Wesley, as the virus blooms into full-blown AIDS, experiences a series of vivid, fantastic dreams in which he’s being chased by a nameless ogre, and as he gets sicker the dreams grow more intense. For several of my in-house readers this is still a much-beloved novel and I did send out about a dozen query letters for it to agents before moving on to focusing on college and writing short stories for the next few years.

Novel #3

Torch Lit

Genre: Literary

Written in the months after Sept. 11th, 2001, I consider Torch Lit to be the worst book I’ve written. It’s about a movie cinema owner named Gabriel who lives in the fictional small town of Paris, Minnesota. Gabriel is sort of this driftless thirty-year-old guy who is still chasing one moment from several years ago where he felt he was “truly happy”. My first stab at literary fiction, I can tell from the summary of this novel alone that the book was doomed from the start. The protagonist never has a clearly defined goal, the plot’s paper thin, and the only real drama comes from the family next door, not Gabriel. I was trying too hard to write a Great Novel

Novel #4

Knocking Over the Fishbowl

Genre: Literary comedy

Knocking Over the Fishbowl started as a fifty page unfinished short story, a really crazy, raw piece of writing, that I wrote after my mother’s death to cheer myself up (and it helped, somehow). I still remember my professor holding the manuscript in his hands and looking at me with a puzzled look on his face. “What is this?” he asked.

Knocking Over the Fishbowl takes place in the surreal suburb of Hungry Hollow. It follows the adventures of Wilson Scraggs, a Vietnam vet recently escaped from a mental hospital, and the eccentric cast of characters he encounters as he tries to rediscover his place in the world. I returned to it after graduating from college and flushed it out into a full-blown comedic novel. After much work and luck, it landed me an agent. While it never sold to a publisher, it paved the way for The Suicide Collectors and the rest of my career. Out of all the books we never managed to sell, I get the feeling my agent still likes this one best.

Novel #5

The Suicide Collectors

Genres: Post-apocalyptic speculative sci-fi, horror

The Suicide Collectors was my first published novel. I started The Suicide Collectors as a side project while I was waiting for Fishbowl to sell, a sort of challenge to myself to see if I could create a new post-apocalyptic world. The book took a major turn for the better when my agent suggested killing off a main character and upping the “grit” factor in the book.

Novel #6

The Cobalt Legacy

Genre: Literary

The Cobalt Legacy was my thesis novel while a graduate student at Hamline University. Uh oh, here again I wanted to write a literary novel, a serious Novel! The Cobalt Legacy is about a young man recovering from a shattering history of domestic violence (his father killed his mother, then himself) who inherits a castle in western Pennsylvania (did you know there are over one hundred and twenty castles in America?) I did a lot of castle-based research for the book. My agent sent The Cobalt Legacy around to some editors but we got no serious bites. Looking back at The Cobalt Legacy now I wince at its naïve earnestness—like Torch Lit, I was trying too hard to be whatever my conception of “literary” was at the time, which was very grad school-esque.

Novel #7

Wormwood, Nevada

Genres: literary, science fiction

Wormwood, Nevada was my second published novel, part of a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. I felt an enormous amount of pressure to come up with something equal to The Suicide Collectors but stubbornly avoided writing a similar book, something that would have been much easier to market than literary sci-fi. The initial reviews weren’t great and the book didn’t sell much and St. Martin’s Press never really put their shoulder behind it. I still love Wormwood, though, and I am proud of how it turned out. I wouldn’t change a word.

Novel #8

From the Void

Genres: Thriller, Dark Fantasy

From the Void tells the story of Derrick Woods, a young man who wakes up with amnesia and escapes police custody. He goes on a very unglamorous cross-country quest to figure out who is he is and what he’s done. He’s followed (or believes he’s followed) by a menacing giant named Carthage.[2] He learns that he was a gunman in a deadly campus shooting and must somehow come to terms with this.

From the Void had some great scenes and Carthage was a top-notch dark fantasy villain but the whole thing never really came together despite a lot of revision. This was post-Columbine but pre-Sandy Hook, when the real world gave us a horror no editor would have thought to be “believable” enough to “carry a novel”.

Novel #9

The Ragged Mountains

Genre: YA Fantasy

The Ragged Mountains, a fantasy adventure story about three young people on a rescue mission, almost sold as the first in a trilogy to a Big Five publisher. I actually took a phone meeting with an editor who told me how excited she was to be working with me etc. only to learn the next day the publisher would have to pass. Some big fish in the marketing meeting didn’t like the sound of the book and overruled the editor. This was the second time this had happened to me—I also took an “it’s going to be great working together” phone meeting with an editor for Knocking Over the Fishbowl, so I’ve had the pleasure of my heart being uplifted and then promptly stomped on twice!

Somehow that meeting spread bad mojo and the book never sold. I liked it so much, however, that I published it myself as an e-book and did a whole (mostly useless) round of PR for it. This novel is my big never-made-it-through-traditional-publishing regret.

Novel #10

The Floating Luminosity

Genres: Literary, Fantasy, Surrealism

Even trying to describe this book is difficult and a sure sign I hadn’t yet mastered the idea behind the elevator pitch concept. The Floating Luminosity was set in a fictional town on the Oregon Coast and is its main protagonist is a lonely retired guy named Gordon Locke. When a luminous blue light starts rolling in off the ocean strange things occur in Gordon’s life and he befriends a young woman with a kid. Things grow stranger from here on out as the story veers into surrealism.

My agent sent the manuscript to three editors to test the waters before declining to represent it and I couldn’t blame him. The Floating Luminosity doesn’t exactly scream marketing potential but it was an interesting experiment (though, alas, it was another year of labor without monetary recompense).

Novel #11

Special

Genres: Literary, Horror, Dark Comedy

Set in the burned out edges of Detroit, Special was about an amiable, specially-abled fella named Tompkins who finds himself under his murderous older sister’s thumb after the death of their parents. He escapes the house with one of her would-be victims and events escalate from there.

Special is weird, really weird, and I shouldn’t have been surprised that it never sold, despite some great feedback from editors (one editor wrote, “I can’t say I loved this novel (doesn’t feel like a novel that even wants to be loved), but I admired the hell out of its ambition…”) but I consider Tompkins one of my best characters and he’ll always have a special place in my heart. Sometimes you just write what you have to write.

Novel #12

And the Hills Opened Up

Genre: Western, Horror

Neither Westerns nor horror novels are selling spectacularly these days so of course I wrote one that spans both genres and goes all in. It never sold to a mainstream press but And the Hills Opened Up did eventually become my third published novel, ending a hard, endlessly churning period of five years in my career without outside publication. The publisher was a micro-press called Burnt Bridge, founded by Jason Stuart with the later addition of Mark Rapacz, who, besides being my good friend from grad school, was my editor for And the Hills Opened Up and a great champion of the book. Without Mark this book never would have seen the light of day or been so beautifully published in the spring of 2014. The day Hills received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly was a great day for micropublishers everywhere.

Novel #13

Genre: Literary YA

The Firebug of Balrog County

My fourth published novel, this one was picked up by FLUX, which is an imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide. As I type this it’s due out in the fall and I’m holding my breath that it will make some noise and allow my career to progress. Otherwise it’s back in the cage for old Dave Oppegaard!

Firebug is my most personal novel and draws on my own youth and the trauma of watching your mother slowly die. It’s also very humorous and crazed. It is the novel I decided I would write if I knew I only had time to write one more novel before the world ended.

Novel #14

Bring Her Back

Genre: Thriller

Still trying to get my finger on the pulse of publishing and go big, I wrote my first straight up thriller/crime novel. A Russian mobster’s fiancée is kidnapped and it’s up to PI Blake Boon to bring her back. There’s some great action scenes in this one but I was obviously out of my genre element this time and it shows. My agent said it would take a lot of work to punch Bring Her Back into prime shape and I decided to cut my losses after six months of writing and move on—I just wasn’t interested in the story enough for that kind of commitment.

Novel #15

The Town Built in Darkness

Genre: Literary YA, horror

My current project. As described in the earlier chapter about revision, I’ve written roughly 1,100 pages, or three full nearly-from-scratch drafts, to come up with a 270 page story. Hopefully this project will have sold by the time you’re reading this but, as you can see from this very history, that’s not exactly a sure bet. It’s YA horror with a dash of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

So that’s the list! If you think it was exhausting to read fifteen descriptions of some dude’s work just imagine writing every one of those motherfuckers. Sweet fancy Moses, looking back at some of those descriptions I have to wonder if I secretly didn’t want to get published or establish a career. Was I self-sabotaging or following my bliss? I guess we’ll never know. Or maybe sometimes they are the same damn thing. Maybe I’m a modern day Ancient Mariner, doomed to wander from wedding to wedding babbling about strange lights and dead birds. Maybe I am insane. Maybe the Grind has finally driven me mad!

But I feel pretty good. If this is madness, it’s not so bad. Despite all the desk time, I have had many a writing adventure and look forward to many more. I have invaded the Flat Iron Building in Manhattan for one morning and I’ve hung out with my agent at his favorite Brooklyn bar. I’ve taught writing to kids in the Boise foothills while the owls slept above us in the trees. I’ve driven around central Nevada for research purposes and bathed in its alien light. I’ve read at the Turf Club in St. Paul and the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and at my mother’s hospital bed. I’ve loitered in many a coffee shop and library. I’ve flown out to Burbank for an award ceremony and ended up getting drunk on the roof of a hotel, staring out at the sparkly fog. I’ve spent a weekend autumn camping in Decorah, Iowa while attending a writing conference, where I listened to migratory geese pass above my tent all night, softly honking. I’ve gotten very kind emails from readers who my work resonated with, readers who have dealt with suicide and depression, and I’ve helped at least a few students improve their writing and approach the publishing scene with their eyes a little wider.

I’ve also studied under some of the smartest and generous folks you ever want to meet, the kind of people who make you want to be better and kinder yourself, even if you often fail miserably. Though I am no perfect human being now, I can only imagine what kind of shiftless dolt I would have become without having writing in my life for so long and in such a focused way. Writing has been my great solace and my sexy tormentor and it has made every aspect of my life a little more interesting. Really, I am so lucky to have gotten this far I can hardly believe it.

There is glory to be found in the writing Grind, true, glory of many kinds, but when all is said and done you need to remember that nobody cares about what you’ve gone through to bring your work to the page. Writing is truly a nobody-wants-to-see-how-the-sausage-gets-made industry. Once your work is out there, shared with the world, it must stand or fall on its own without you. All the hours spent alone, grinding out word after word, toiling in the austere face of futility, belongs to you and you alone—this is the writer’s burden and great treasure.

[1] Though I didn’t know what Young Adult fiction even was back then. I just thought it was fantasy.

[2] It occurs to me only now that Carthage is an echo of the unnamed ogre in Other Dreams, though I’m no longer surprised by how much I plagiarize myself.

The Publication Reading

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty-Six

The Publication Reading

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All right! Time for your publication reading! Try to choose a venue that feels comfortable to you and can seat at least forty if you’ve got a bunch of friends and family coming. Create an event page for the reading on Facebook and invite everybody, via Facebook and regular email—you’ll be surprised who might show up. Consider coming up with a short little phrase to inscribe when you’re signing all those books at once, some favorite little mantra of yours or something that ties into the book. Use a nice fluid pen. I’m a fan of the Pilot G-2 07.

If you don’t have the reading at a bookstore you’ll need to have somebody reliable selling the book while you sign (and you’ll need to have a little cash box prepared to make change and a credit card app for your phone if you want to handle credit card sales—I usually just say cash or check only in the event advertisements). You could also consider calling your favorite indie bookstore and asking them if they’d send a seller and handle all the book sales themselves. It can be a nice little profit for them for an hour’s work. I like to do the majority of the book signing as folks arrive and then I stick around after the reading for anybody else (this way I can get to the after party quicker). Reserve a cozy backroom at a nearby bar for the after party and hand out a little map to showing the way. Prepare for people to buy you a drink or two and, like a bride at her wedding, try to float around the room and spread the happy to everyone. They’ve all come out to love and support you.

As for the reading itself, aim for around twenty minutes. Pick a few selections that are both good entry points for the novel and might play well before a live audience (humor and passages with dialogue seem to usually go over well). Prepare a little opening speech before you start reading from the book and have a written copy of it in hand. Thank everyone for coming. Tell them how attractive they look tonight. How the stars sing their praises. Thank the folks you’ve thanked in the book’s acknowledgements and anybody you forgot. Thank the venue’s staff for hosting the reading.

When you open that beautiful book of yours, remember to relax and breathe. Don’t read too fast and try to enjoy it, moment to moment.

This is the rare breather in the Grind. The shaded oasis.

Dealing with Criticism

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty-Five

Criticism

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On October 18th, 2005 I had the pleasure of meeting and co-interviewing the author Fredrick Busch, author of Girls, North, The Night Inspector, and many other novels. He was visiting Hamline University and I conducted the interview with author and program dean Mary Rockcastle before a large audience. I was the lucky grad student picked to interview the well-known author, with the entire conversation being recorded for the Water~Stone Review, a literary journal put out each year by Hamline University.

The best part of the night wasn’t the interview itself but the dinner beforehand. I got to drink whiskey and eat steak with Busch, who was every bit the kind, veteran writer I’d been told to expect. I asked Fred what was the biggest piece of advice he had for aspiring authors like myself and he had his answer ready: you needed to do your best to ignore criticism, the good and the bad, because if you believed the good press you received you’d have to believe the bad as well.

This advice seemed simple at the time, but I’ve been unpacking it ever since.

Let’s break it down:

Normal Human Writerly Inclination

Good review → Me happy! Me get happy happy drunk! Me party!

Bad review → Me sad. Me get sad drunk and eat too much cheese.

Vs.

Busch’s Recommended Stance

Good review → Acknowledge review’s existence. Go about day normally.

Bad review → Acknowledge review’s existence. Go about day normally.

This advice seems to tie into the ancient Grecian maxim Meden Agan which translates as “Nothing in Excess” and was carved into the temple of Apollo at Delphi for all to behold. Don’t let events get you too high and don’t let them get you too low. Moderation in everything. Be like the high grass that bends and survives when the great wind blows and knocks down all the stubborn trees.

Or, as it states in Chapter 44 of the Tao Teh Ching:

  As for your name and your body, which is the dearer?

  As for your body and your wealth, which is the more to be prized?

  As for gain and loss, which is the more painful?

  Thus, an excessive love for anything will cost you dear in the end.

  The storing up of too much goods will entail a heavy loss.

  To know when you have enough is to be immune from disgrace.

  To know when to stop is to be preserved from perils.

  Only thus can you endure long.[1]

And let’s not forget the Buddhist claim that all attachment leads to suffering, or the Biblical proverb:

  He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing.[2]

Because who wants a broken neck, right?

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The trouble with this keep-an-even-keel advice is the same trouble as people have with most good advice: it’s a lot harder to heed in practice than in theory. Also, fiction writers need a certain amount of ego, usually a huge ol’ heaping of ego, to assume the shit they come up with in their own imaginations and set down in words will be entertaining enough for a reader to give their time, attention, and money. Believing people will want to read what’s spilled out of your brain is a pretty massive assumption—any writer who has written with the intention of being read by another single person, much less a wide audience of thousands or millions, has stood on the firm bedrock of ego to create their story and push it forth into the world. They’ve needed to believe their great labors were worthwhile. They’ve needed to believe in their Self. Receiving critical acclaim at the end of such a long and harrowing a process as writing and getting a novel published seems like such a natural and desired outcome that when it occurs they can’t help but feel like a sunflower finally turning its face toward the sun after a long winter.

Which, sadly, sets up the invested author for the opposite emotional plunge when negative reviews come out. They did enjoy those good reviews—those reviews were totally accurate! Because they were good!—so, no matter what their friends tell them, there must also be something truthful in the bad reviews. Maybe their characters were underdeveloped, maybe the plot was too predictable, maybe the ending they’d always been so proud of, which had felt so inevitable, really was unsatisfying and confusing.

And now the author has to sit down and write a second book (as long as they haven’t expired from self-harm or gone into marketing) with all these heavy bruises on their heart, all this critical detritus floating in their mind. Their previous novel was said to have “crisp” dialogue so they need to keep that up. The setting was said to have been “vivid” so the new setting better be equally vivid. Their previous plot was said to have been unsatisfying so the next plot better be much more obvious and up front. Their previous tone was considered too heavy so the tone of the new book should be much lighter. By absorbing their reviews too seriously, both good and bad, the much criticized author has fallen into the quicksand trap of the past and writing toward reader expectation instead of writing toward the next story that’s glowing inside of them. They’re writing scared.

Fred Busch, only sixty-four, died unexpectedly of a heart attack roughly four months after we drank whiskey together on that cold autumn night in 2005. He was the author of seventeen published novels, seven published short story collections, and two published non-fiction works. I’m sure he allowed a few reviews to crawl under his skin during his long and prolific career and I can imagine that he realized his advice to me was more of an ideal to strive toward than a truly attainable maxim, a reassuring credo to return to when you’re feeling a little too excitable—when the world feels like it’s unraveling.

[1] Tao The Ching by Lao Tzu. Translated by John C.H. Wu.

[2] Proverbs 29:1, English Standard Version.

The Book Campaign

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty-Four

The Book Campaign

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I’m about to start my fifth book campaign.[1] Last week I received a digital copy of the advance reader copy for The Firebug of Balrog County from FLUX and the book is now posted on GalleyNet, which is an ARC distribution website where reviewers of all stripes can request copies of books for reviewing purposes. It’s now April and the book comes out in September, which pegs the campaign lead time for the book at about five months.

I’m excited about being published again by a mainstream press after a six year drought but also wary, with tempered expectations. In the eight years since my first novel was released I’ve attempted to sell my work in about every manner I could dream up. I’ve done readings, big and small, in a variety of venues, happy to sign anything put before me. I’ve sat on panels at conferences. I’ve read at conferences. I’ve run writing workshops at conferences. I’ve sent out splashy press releases, electronically and through the mail, methodically addressing each one. I’ve done as many interviews as my publicists and I could drum up, both via blogs and traditional local newspapers. I’ve tweeted. I’ve co-hosted a podcast that ran for a hundred episodes. I’ve maintained an email list. I’ve created Facebook pages. I’ve written craft articles for literary websites. I’ve updated my blog since 2005 with witty posts relating to writing. I’ve created an author site and redone said author site several times. I’ve created a choose-your-own-adventure game tying directly into the world of one my novels. I’ve gone online and requested my own books to be purchased by libraries across the country. I’ve made multiple video book trailers. I’ve personally mailed out free copies of my work to reviewers and industry names across the country (and once to Russia). I’ve flown across the country to attend the AWP conference and the Bram Stoker Awards in hopes of “networking”. I’ve gotten starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and a bunch of other great reviews, too, as well as my share of duds. I’ve gotten lovely blurbs from big names. I’ve lurked around Goodreads. I’ve Googled myself. I’ve responded to every fan email I’ve received. I’ve done all this—all these things that are Not-Writing—only to see my efforts drop like stones into the lake of marketing, creating naught but a ripple and having very little effect on my sales numbers.

The book campaign is a grind all to itself, set outside the deeply internal work of writing fiction. I’ve found the most exhausting aspect of it is not the labor involved in promoting your work—which can be as little or as substantial as you choose it to be—but the effort you expend trying to forget how vulnerable your book is now, how indifferent the world at large is disposed to it. The time up to a book’s publication date is a slow slog of worry and hope and each day you wake up uncertain what the news will be (or, worse yet, if there will be any news at all). The whole process can feel like a hellish/amazing rollercoaster, especially if you’re a first time author and every aspect of it is totally new to you.

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The entire idea of campaigning is slightly abhorrent to me. I’m not a big fan of war, or politics, or the Academy Awards, or any other field where campaigning plays a significant role. I don’t like thinking of myself as a “brand”. It’s stupid, right? I’m a human being and human beings change on a daily basis, depending on a myriad of factors that begin with how well their hierarchy of needs are currently being met. There’s no constant recipe for a person—we’re not soft drinks!

But the world wants to put you into a bottle anyway, and if you refuse the bottling process you won’t be shipped out to the world in any format. You will stay at home, happily oblivious to joys and many trials of having your work appraised by the multitudes, doing your thing without worrying about where it’s all headed and what others will think of it.[2]

However, throughout every book campaign I’ve been reminded that there are still many, many people supporting literature and helping writers fight the good fight. It’s not all darkness and despair and nobody buying one damn copy of your book at a reading. I’ve gone into bookstores and been recognized on sight and handed a fancy bottle of water and received warm, genuine hellos, we’re so glad you’re here. I’ve driven out to book clubs and seen that gleam in a reader’s eye when they’ve read your work and are suddenly meeting you. I’ve visited classrooms and received the laser-like focus of twenty-five students all interested in my work and how I go about it. I’ve gotten help from reviewers who didn’t care if my newest book was from St. Martin’s Press or self-published—they did not give a flip either way. I’ve found solace in phone and email interviews, in thoughtful book reviews that gave my work their full consideration.

To be fairly considered, I think, is the most rewarding part of the book campaign. Writers campaign to be read and hopefully earn a little scratch on the side. Writers spend so much time alone, hidden from the world, that to be fully considered at the end of the day is a splendid, if terrifying, reward.

[1] I’ve self-published one novel, The Ragged Mountains. That was an experience all its own.

[2] There are far worse fates than this.

Blurbs, Stan Lee, & Turning Down Marvel

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty-Three

Blurbs & Bleeps

Stan-Lee

When my first novel came out St. Martin’s Press somehow snagged me a blurb from the one and only Stan Lee, comic book scribe and former chairman of Marvel Comics. I’d never heard of a novel getting a blurb from the comic book realm before but I was glad to receive a blurb from anybody, much less a well-known figure of such creative zest and life. Chances are if you’ve picked up basically any of my novels you’ve seen the blurb already, since I’ve been coasting on it ever since.
“Just when it seems that there are no new plots left to write about, David Oppegaard has come up with a doozy. His THE SUICIDE COLLECTORS takes us to a startling theme we haven’t encountered before, with every page a thrilling new surprise.”

-Stan Lee, writer, editor, & former Marvel Comics chairman

Not only did Mr. Stan Lee blurb my first novel he sent me a copy of it in the mail which he signed “Excelsior, David!” That’s correct—he made an inscription in my own book to me. That’s when you’re big time, right?

I also had what might have been an opportunity to write for Marvel Comics, a quasi-telephone interview with a young lady who I’m guessing was some kind of intern. I pitched her the idea for a Hulk story line involving his father coming back from Hell but apparently the Hulk and all other big names were off-limits for some reason. She wanted to know if there was some second-tier character I liked, which stumped me. I asked what sort of outline or whatever they were looking for and she really couldn’t tell me much. She’d called much later than the stated meeting time and she was breathing heavily as she walked through New York City and I lost my patience with the whole rigmarole—I could only imagine this was the start of the creative bullshit I’d have to put up with going forward. I told her I’d have to pass on the vague opportunity and she sounded confused and put out. I think I might have been the first person to say no to her since she’d started working for Marvel.

I may have impulsively passed on a chance to make big Marvel money but at least I will always have Stan Lee’s magnanimous blurb and a Stan-signed copy of The Suicide Collectors in my closet, wrapped in bubble wrap and glowing like a magical orb.

#

There’s an art to writing a good blurb and good dust jacket copy and catalogue copy. A blurb should feature both the author’s name and the book’s title and seem to come from the heart in two, three lines at most. A good blurb is a sexy soundbite that doesn’t sound generic. Dust jacket copy, or the brief description of a book that goes either on the back of the book or on the interior liner, should be a tightly written description of the book that hooks the readers interest and gives them at least a vague sense of what they’re in for (kind of like a dating profile). Catalogue copy is similar to dust jacket copy except it’s much shorter—a good sale line, really—and can fit into the small amount each book’s description is allotted in the ordering catalogue they send to libraries and bookstores.

I’ve written the dust jacket copy for each of my novels, agonizing over every word. Your ability to write copy for your book goes back to the book’s elevator pitch and your ability to distill what your novel is about and why readers will enjoy it. When you write copy you get to set the expected framework for the novel and personally lead your reader to turning to that all-important page one.

The Suicide Collectors

The Despair has plagued the earth for five years. Most of the world’s population has inexplicably died by its own hand, and the few survivors struggle to remain alive. A mysterious, shadowy group called the Collectors has emerged, inevitably appearing to remove the bodies of the dead. But in the crumbling state of Florida, a man named Norman takes an unprecedented stand against the Collectors, propelling him on a journey across North America. It’s rumored a scientist in Seattle is working on a cure for the Despair, but in a world ruled by death, it won’t be easy to get there.

Wormwood, Nevada

Tyler and Anna Mayfield have just relocated from Nebraska to the sun scorched desert town of Wormwood, Nevada. They find themselves in a strange new landscape populated with old school cowboys, alien cultists, meth dealers, and doomsday prophets. Loneliness and desperation pervade Wormwood, and when a meteorite lands in the center of town, its fragile existence begins to unravel as many believe the end of the world is near, while others simply seek a reason to believe in anything at all.

And the Hills Opened Up

When the Dennison Mining Company tunnels too far, a bloodthirsty creature is set loose upon the isolated mountain town of Red Earth, Wyoming. If a reluctant alliance of outlaws, miners, misfits, and whores cannot stop the Charred Man, everyone in Red Earth will be dead by morning.

A blend of old school horror and gritty Western shootout, And the Hills Opened Up is about fighting for life in the midst of death.

The Firebug of Balrog County

Dark times have fallen on remote Balrog County, and Mack Druneswald, a high school senior with a love of clandestine arson, is doing his best to deal. While his family is haunted by his mother’s recent death, Mack spends his nights roaming the countryside, looking for something new to burn. When he encounters Katrina, a college girl with her own baggage, Mack sets out on a path of pyromania the likes of which sleepy Balrog County has never seen before.

A darkly comic tour-de-force, The Firebug of Balrog County is about legend, small towns, and the fire that binds.

I’m particularly proud of the Firebug copy because it was by far the most difficult book to describe (as more literary-type books tend to be). I think every writer should write their own copy because nobody knows the book better than you do and you should hopefully be a better writer than some random publishing house intern.

Besides, it’s kind of fun.

Working With An Editor

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty-Two

Working with an Editor

Funny Cat

I can only imagine what working with an editor must been like way back in times of yore, like the 1970s, before the rise of electronic word processing as we know it today (I’m writing this book using Word 2013 and it seems impossibly elegant). Back then you had to mail the manuscript back and forth between you and the editor, over and over again, and type out a new manuscript from scratch every single time, and it was only the mandatory cocaine everyone in publishing was required to put in their coffee that kept the whole thing running. No wonder writers were always losing their shit! All that coffee, cocaine, and retyping! And then waiting for the U.S. Mail to deliver your work! And sometimes they lost it! Hope you made a copy, buddy! No? You didn’t? Uh oh, I guess you’re fucked!

But computers, sweet sweet (but maybe evil) computers, have risen and changed the editorial process much for the easier. Now you can zip back and forth with an editor in real time and you can track editorial notes and changes in a document and it is all very slick, very efficient.  I have not worked with a large number of editors—seven or eight, on various projects—but I’ve had the great good luck to work with only the good and the great, the perceptive and the wise. I know bad, incompetent editors are still out there, but one unintentional benefit of the publishing industry’s recent crunch (shrinkage?) has been the reduction of editorial jobs in general, which one would think would cut out a lot of the dead weight, the editors who really didn’t care or lacked that undefinable awareness of when to push and when to pull back that all the best editors have. Most of the remaining editors in the industry, those who’ve managed not only to keep their jobs but keep their employers in the black, are hawk-eyed experts who are trying to help their authors as best as their limited time permits.

I tend to roll over and show my belly when it comes to most editorial notes, accepting the small changes as they come as long as I can sense the logic behind them and they adhere to the tone of the piece. I stand my ground occasionally, throwing down good old STET when I need to, but overall I accept about ninety percent of line edits. Larger things, like notes on developing a character or plot pacing or adding additional chapters, I mull over long and hard. I don’t ask too many questions, even regarding a fifty page edit, but instead try to get a core sense of what the editor is yearning for and how best to incorporate it in my own way.

The lessons I learned while workshopping stories in grad school I now apply to working with editors: I take what I can use and leave what doesn’t help me (and fight to hold my ground when necessary-STET!). The good news is almost every note a good editor gives you is useful in some way, even if not in the direct manner they intended. How well your book ends up being edited is truly on your shoulders, not theirs. Even a bad editor’s notes can be useful if they help you consider your work from a different angle with a clinical eye. Editing is not personal—no professional, constructive editorial note is intended as an attack on your abilities. Even if you have great differences in opinion, you and your editor on the same general publishing team seeking to make your work as good as it can be. Swallow your pride when it needs to be swallowed and give every edit a full consideration, whether you ultimately agree with it or not.

Here’s some (truncated) notes I received from Brian Farey-Latz, my FLUX editor (and accomplished author in his own right) for The Firebug of Balrog Country. Even if you have no knowledge of the book, I think you can sense their helpfulness.[1]

  • Mack’s clearly a bright, well-read guy. I’d like to see some of that well-read pop up a little bit more throughout.
  • One thing I remember discussing was the energy level. Right now, it feels very flat to me. There are definitely peaks (the aforementioned stuff with Mack’s mom) but the valleys are harder to imagine because there’s a sense that Mack isn’t moving toward a goal. I firmly believe HE IS moving toward a goal—maybe not one he even knows about—but even if he’s ignorant of his direction, the reader needs a sense that there’s forward motion and I worry that’s lacking a bit…
  • As I said to you on the phone when we first talked, my biggest concern is Katrina. She is the textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. She’s the mysterious girl (often Goth) who breezes into the humdrum male protagonist’s life, bringing danger and excitement he didn’t know he needed. She’s there for his wish fulfillment and to serve his needs (sexual and otherwise) then blows out of town just as mysteriously. She’s got a great voice but she’s not a character. Give her a story arc of her own. What does SHE get out of her relationship with Mack? Does she have to leave at the end? “I’m tired of my roommates” is weak. I don’t need Mack and Katrina to end up together, happily ever after, but I need her to break out of the confines of this trope in a big way.
  • I don’t buy Ox’s suicide at the end. Not for a minute. It really comes out of nowhere and “Yep, everyone hates me, might as well die” just doesn’t work for a character we really don’t know. Ox is very one note: the ornery old coot who wants you to get off his lawn. I think we need to see him one or two more times after Mack burns his wood (there’s a scene where we hear of him but don’t really see him in action). If I’m to believe his suicide, I need to see the path that leads him there. What is the chink is in his armor? The vulnerability that he hides and, in the end, is ready to die to keep hidden?
  • There are hints that Grandpa suspects Mack is the firebug. He does this whole thing where he takes Mack hunting (a subtle reminder of what an Alpha dog he is) and tells Mack the story about Vietnam that easily doubles as a cautionary tale. His message to me is very strong: stop what you’re doing or confess because, either way, I’ll get you. But then it goes nowhere…
  • We’ve already talked a bit about the justification for Mack’s confession to his father and your assertion is that it finally just weighs too heavily on him. Why? There’s no evidence of that anywhere. No mounting sense of guilt, no trepidation… I keep thinking that Mack’s confession at the end needs to tie more closely to SOMETHING in the book, either literally or thematically.
  • You’re at about 50,000 words, which is a good length. But if you added another 5,000-7500 I wouldn’t cry. It’s mainly in the name of fleshing things out, expanding storylines, and plumbing the depths of some already great characters.

Brian’s notes led me to a big rewrite at a point where I thought I’d explored Firebug as far as I could. They led to much more developed characters, a much different ending, additional vibrant details, and fifty new pages that truly fleshed the novel out. Without his counsel my novel would have been, plain and simple, a much lesser work. He made me see the fictional forest for the trees.

[1] Semi-spoiler alert here if you plan on reading The Firebug of Balrog County.

Book Deals

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty-One

Book Deals

Happy man enjoying the rain of money

“Publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and sometimes nearly evil men I have known were all writers who’d had bestsellers. Yet, it is also a miracle to get your work published … Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheesey holes. It won’t, it can’t. But writing can. So can singing.”  -Anne Lamott

Getting your first book deal with a major publisher is like capturing a dragon. You’ve worked very hard to get it, you may have patiently (or not so patiently, as in my case) waited to ensnare it, but when that day finally comes you’re over-the-moon elated about your triumph yet unsure what to do with it. What do you do with a goddamn dragon? How do you take care of it? Where can you put it? How much is this magical beast going to change your life and how are you going to manage not to get roasted alive by its fiery breath?

I was sitting in my old apartment on St. Clair Avenue in St. Paul one spring day in 2007 when my phone rang. I’d been reading by an open window and enjoying the fresh spring air blowing in through the window. I answered the phone.

“Hey, Dave. It’s Jonathan.”[1]

My radar instantly begins beeping. Agents don’t call to just have a chat.

“Hey Jonathan.”

“Are you sitting down?”

My radar goes crazy. Somehow, despite the fact we’ve been shopping The Suicide Collectors for over a year, I already know the gist of what he’s going to say.

“I can be,” I say, and then I actually sit down, like he’s in the room watching me.

St. Martin Press is interested in the book, Jonathan tells me. They’re considering making it a two-book deal. Can I send him a one-page summary of what my next book might be?

Oh boy.

Here we go.

#

I don’t mean to speak for every traditionally published writer out there but I’m guessing one of the greatest benefits of a book deal isn’t the money (there’s rarely much money to speak of, especially early in a career) or the fame (ha!) but the sense of validation you feel at finally being “published”. Especially in America, where everything is tied in to commerce. If you can’t sell your product then, the unspoken reasoning goes, your product must not be worth anything or probably isn’t even a true product at all. Okay, you write novels, but what do you do for a living? Your little short stories are a nice hobby and all but WHERE’S THE FUCKING MONEY, LEBOWSKI?

Which of course is just an absolutely toxic and idiotic way to think about any kind of art—art which springs from a deep well of torment and joy—but there you have it, folks, that’s the world we live in. You can write four novels and dozens of short stories and keep at it for a decade and attain an MFA degree but most of your relatives will think your labors are the equivalent of collecting baseball cards or rock skipping until you can put an actual book in their hands and say here, some heavies in New York liked my work well enough they were willing to throw some money behind it.

Wow, they’ll say. I guess you’re real writer now.

You’ll clench your jaw at this point. You’ve been a writer all along—the vagaries of the marketplace and the taste of editors and the timidity of marketing teams can all go fuck themselves, fuck themselves right back to the Stone Age.

You’ll be right to feel this way, very right, but you’ll still be relieved have this new stamp of approval, despite whatever your rational mind tells you. What can I say? We’re human. We all have hungry hearts. As soon as we get book deals we already start thinking about the next book deal. An urge to be accepted is wired into all of us and we’ve fed at the trough of traditional publishing acceptance for a long, long time. Champions of self-publishing and micro-publishing claim we can throw off these chains and soon be free of traditional publishing for once and for all but I don’t see it happening any time soon. The masses like brands they know. They like their quality control filters, even if those filters are often out of whack.

#

So you’ve got a book deal! Whoop whoop! Good for you, big time author! Now you can tell everybody about it! You can drink into the wee hours of the night celebrating it! You can sit around counting the minutes and days before the publication date like a kid waiting for Christmas and start wearing turtleneck sweaters and smoking a pipe. A tobacco pipe, silly! Not a crack pipe! A crack pipe isn’t distinguished (or really authorial, though I imagine smoking crack makes you feel authorial). Yes, you’ve got a book deal and when at long last the book comes out you can allow yourself to get obsessed with how the book does in the marketplace, how well it’s reviewed and how many shiny gold stars it garners on Amazon. You can allow it to affect your sleep and well-being and overall sense of self. You can become the book, in a manner of speaking, in the same way many first time parents replace pictures of themselves on Facebook with pictures of their wrinkly newborn baby.

Sound like a great idea!

Or maybe not.

No, not really. Speaking from experience, I suggest going with this all-in approach only if you predict the future and know the book will absolutely be a smash hit, loved by Oprah and everyone else. Then you will have one tremendous joyride on your hands. Oh yeah. It’ll be like you’re a bookish version of young Elvis and all darkness will fall before you. It’ll be great. It’ll be all your dreams come true. But if you go this route and the book is not a smash hit, even if it is critically well-received but doesn’t sell so hot, you’re going to endure some painful heartbreak. Getting published for all the world to read is basically the ultimate workshop, the true master class in disassociating yourself from the work you’ve created. Once that book is out there you can no longer protect it from the wolves at the gate and not everyone will be a huge fan. Worse yet, the vast majority of the world will be indifferent to your book, indifferent to your hopes and dreams and all the sweat you spilled to bring your book to the world.

Another route, the one I’m going to recommend, is viewing getting your work published as one big lark. Somebody loved your writing enough to help you edit it and package it and maybe they even paid you a little cash for it. You’re playing with house money now, so why not just enjoy the ride? Why not let go of obsessively checking your Amazon ranking and just go for a walk, or lose yourself in somebody else’s book? Let go of that urge to self-promote yet again on that social media site and instead step right up into the warm light of not giving a fuck! I mean, it’s so nice and toasty warm in this light! Like you’re a hamster in a sock!

But this second not-giving-a-fuck route is a hard one to trod, I know. So hard. So goddamn hard. You wouldn’t have written the book and gone to the trouble of finding an agent to represent it if you didn’t give a fuck about your story and telling it to the world. Didn’t really, really, really give a fuck.

So here we all, standing on the world’s doorstep in our underwear, holding out our arms and hoping for its warm loving embrace. Just remember to keep writing come what may—good, bad or general indifference—and if you do manage to thread the eye of the publishing needle don’t give in to your own delusions of grandeur (you’ll have plenty) or think you’ve got life totally solved now.

That’s what alcohol is for.

[1] Classic Jonathan phone call opener.

Literary Agents

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty

Literary Agents

Wonder-Boys-Blu-Ray-robert-downey-jr-13121481-1280-544

Okay, so now you have a fully revised novel or short story collection and you’re ready to test the publishing waters. Huzzah!

If you’re looking to go the traditional publishing route, I highly recommend having a literary agent represent your work. Unless you’re a literary agent yourself, or have some kind of special relationship with a publisher, an agent offers the modern author a unique range of skills and contacts they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. How so? Literary agents have a working relationship with editors at a variety of publishing houses. They know what editors are looking for, in what direction their personal tastes skew, and how to best approach them. They have lunch with editors, they chat on the phone with editors, they run into editors at parties and book fairs and super-secret publishing orgies. They also know how to handle negotiating book deals and can ably explain the fine print of said book deal. They serve as a buffer between publishing houses and the author, which can occasionally be very necessary. A good literary agent is a writer’s advocate, initial reader, occasional editor, fine print watchdog, and all-around champion in a world that doesn’t otherwise give a flip about an author’s fiscal success.

Also, many mainstream publishers won’t even look at your manuscript if you don’t have an agent. Right or wrong, they see literary agents as a form of quality control, keeping out the barbarians with their bad writing and stale plot ideas. If a writer has an agent, they reason, he can’t be too impossible to work with and, almost as importantly, the publisher won’t have to do any hand holding when it comes to negotiating the book deal and seeing it to press—the agent can explain all that.

#

I waited until I’d finished my fourth novel before I seriously attempted to retain the services of an agent. I’d been seriously writing for nearly ten years, but I started very young and I knew my work wasn’t yet up to publishing standards. Not until Book #4, anyway. This book I liked a lot—it really made me laugh. I thought maybe it had a chance. Maybe it was the book I could launch my publishing career upon.

I’d been enrolled in my MFA in Writing program for a semester and I had a vague notion of how the wheels of publishing turned. I read the current edition of Writer’s Market and Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. I learned that agents usually preferred to receive query letters as opposed to a chunk of a manuscript (much less the whole damn thing) upon initial contact. I studied examples of query letters and carefully crafted my own. Since it was an actual letter, and not an email, I don’t have an exact copy of it now, but I’m guessing it read something like this:

(Date)

(Agency Name)

(Address)

Dear (Agent Name),

Greetings. My name is David Oppegaard and I am seeking representation for my novel KNOCKING OVER THE FISHBOWL. A literary comedy, it follows the adventures of Wilson Scrags, an escaped mental patient on the run from the law in the suburbs. Suffering from an invisible “friend” who torments him, Scrags befriends an eccentric cast of characters as he tries to evade the police and find peace. The manuscript is 60,000 words.

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon,

David Oppegaard

(My address, phone number, and email address)

Using Jeff Herman’s Guide to research every possible agent (my logic was since Writer’s Market was the most popular of the two books I’d go with the underdog, which might give me some kind of unusual angle) and I mailed out forty query letters with self-addressed stamped envelopes (good old SASEs).[1] Weeks passed and the first “Thanks but I’ll have to pass” form letters began to trickle in. I ticked each one off the list I’d created, noting the personal letters, until the dark day came months later when the list was fully checked.

Then one day, when I was at work at my optician gig, I checked my Hotmail account and discovered this email:

Dear Mr. Oppegaard:
Further to yours of February 22nd, Re: KNOCKING OVER THE FISHBOWL, unfortunately Douglas Stewart is no longer at Curtis Brown. However, I had the opportunity to review your query and sample chapter, and the story sounds quite intriguing.[2] I am slowly taking on new clients at Curtis Brown, and would love to look at the next five chapters of your manuscript. If you would like to send me your material, please enclose a SASE for easier reply. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,
Jonathan I. Lyons
Curtis Brown, Ltd.

At first I couldn’t fully process what I was reading. I thought it might be one of those spam emails trying to trick you into realizing all your dreams would come true. Then I reread it a few times and started pacing around the eye clinic, feeling like I’d slipped into a delirious fever dream. Then I looked up Curtis Brown, Ltd. on the Internet to make sure it was a legitimate operation (turned out it was one of the oldest and most venerable agencies in New York!). This was all real. This was all really happening to me—my forty rejections in the desert and now this![3]

Well aware that fancy NYC agents were always crazy busy, I kept my reply to Jonathan short and sweet. I knew I was an idiot who was prone to saying crazy shit all the time so I thought I’d stick to as strictly professional as possible.

Dear Mr. Lyons,

Thank you for your interest in Knocking Over the Fishbowl.  I will send you the next five chapters within the week.

Sincerely,

David Oppegaard

Only eleven days later (some kind of agent record!) Jonathan emailed me to say that he liked the additional five chapters and requested the entire book, which I sent to him through the post with all due haste (this was only 2004 but it sure feels a lot longer ago when you’re talking about mailing manuscripts).

I was beginning to get very, very excited.

This was it.

This was it!

Then, only two more short weeks later:

Dear David,

I’ve been agonizing over your novel for the past week, hoping that I might be able to find a suggestion that would overcome my reservations. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find that “one thing” that would push me one way or the other, and I felt that the delay in my response has become too great. Ultimately, I also concluded that you should have an agent representing you who does not need a “push” like this.

I really have no negative comments to speak of regarding KNOCKING OVER THE FISHBOWL. I enjoyed all of the characters, and I felt that you smoothly went from person to person without losing track of the storyline as a whole. I also liked the humorous undercurrent throughout – and in this way I found your writing similar to Dave Barry, albeit a bit less farcical. You captured Wilson’s “insanity” accurately and poignantly, but never allowed the reader to feel sorry for him. The only narrative line that I felt needed some work was Officer Lance’s out-of-control antipathy towards Scrags and others, and the motivations for the behavior. Still, overall I felt you have created a wonderfully eccentric cast of characters and storyline.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t fall in love with the novel. While a few agents might feel that “enjoyed” is sufficient to take on a work, I feel differently. Getting a book published is becoming more difficult every day, and I really feel an author needs an agent who is so passionate about the work, so in love with it, that they will fight for it to the very end.

I am sure this is abundantly clear from my above comments, but even still, you should know that this business is a highly subjective one. I strongly suggest querying other agents, and I have no doubts that you will find one that feels as passionately about your work as you do. I wish I had better news for you, and I would be honored to look at anything else you might produce in the future.

Best,

Jonathan I. Lyons

Oh, the humanity! Even reading this now, having published four novels and this very book on writing, I feel my heart squeeze painfully in my chest and worry deeply for twenty-four year-old Dave Oppegaard. I can’t even remember how I processed the news, exactly, but it probably involved alcohol.

But what a generous rejection, right? Jonathan was so, so very kind and perceptive. It almost made it worse, knowing what an awesome agent I’d almost had representing me.

This was dark night of the soul, my friends.

A dark night.

#

I’ll have to give twenty-four-year-old Dave credit, though. He was young and stubborn and too dumb to fully realize the odds stacked against him. He knew he’d gotten tantalizingly close and he kept on trucking. He went to his graduate school classes and talked Mary Rockcastle, professor and chair of his writing program, into giving him notes for a rewrite. He took those notes, rewrote the whole book one more time, then sent out a fresh round of queries. He got interest from another agent, who read the entire book, and then, at the last moment, also passed.

Despondent and desperate, I sent one last email to Jonathan Lyons, remembering his previous kindness. It had been five months since Jonathan passed yet, miracles of miracles, Jonathan agreed to re-read the novel.[4]

A few months later, after a check-in email or two, he got back to me.

Dear David,

I just finished reading the revised version of KNOCKING OVER THE FISHBOWL, and I think you’ve done a great job. The novel is still ferociously witty, with rich and endearing characters. You’ve really tightened it – the second half of the novel is wonderfully paced. It also seems as if you’ve concentrated more on one dominant theme –
which I think is a better choice. I do think there are a few areas that might need a bit more work – the conclusion could be reworked a little so that the ending matches more the tone of the rest of the work, a few characters seem to disappear in the second half of the novel, and there is a small section at the beginning (maybe fifteen pages) that moves a little slower than the rest of the novel. Still, overall I think the manuscript is much improved from before.

I’d like to talk with you more on the phone about that at your convenience and gauge your reaction to considering one more, much slighter revision. Is it ok if I call you tomorrow?

Best,

Jonathan

Of course I would agree to any editing suggestions! Holy fuck! We talked on the phone the next day (me all a-tremble) and suddenly I HAD AN AGENT. I gathered all my friends at O’Gara’s on Snelling Avenue and we drank like banshees. I even got all The Lord of the Rings and claimed “it was a red day”.

This was it.

This was the next step in the Grind.

#

Jonathan and I have been together ever since. He’s been an invaluable ally. Truly. He’s read twelve of my novels, offered critiques and/or line edits on all of them, submitted most of them to editors (and squashing a few I didn’t have the heart to squash, which in of itself is very valuable, though heartbreaking at the time), and he’s even taken me out to delicious New York City dinners twice. By my rough calculation he’s currently (as I type this essay’s rough draft) earned a grand total of about three thousand dollars, spread over eleven years, by representing me and my hard-to-market genre blending work.

Talk about an artist’s champion.

[1] You can tell this was a while ago. Most agents accept electronic query letters now and many have their own submission form on their website.

[2] Remember when I was talking about luck playing a part in the career of nearly every artist? Having an agent pick up a query letter from the slush pile of his predecessor, read and respond to it with interest is like winning the lottery while getting hit by a bolt of lightning that actually turns you into a psychic.

[3] I must have miscounted or something. Around thirty rejections in I started to grow lax in my record keeping.

[4] This is all true. I swear!

Workshopping

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Nineteen

Workshopping

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Your standard fiction workshop, as made popular by the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, revolves around the idea of a round table discussion between a group of writers that is led (or, if you will, orchestrated) by a writing instructor. A small number of students, say three or four, depending on class size, submit a work of fiction to the group a week or so before the class meets in person. Everybody is required to arrive at each class having read the week’s submitted work with the understanding that they will participate in critiquing it during class. The general idea is that not only will the students who have submitted their work learn about their own work but the class will learn together as a whole, both from each other and the comments the writing instructor makes.

As you may have deduced from this setup, there’s a great number of variables in how well the workshop process works for both the student whose work is being critiqued and the class as a whole. The quality of a workshop session can fluctuate not only from week to week but from story to story.

By variables I mean things like:

Has everyone in class actually read the submitted work?
What quality is the work itself? Does it deal with any hot button issues like rape or racism that are likely to dredge up strong emotions in the other students?
What level in their writing (and reading) development are the students in the class at?
What’s the energy in the room like? Is everyone fresh faced and ready to engage or worn out and exhausted?
How well does the instructor maintain control of the workshop session without strangling it with authoritarian fervor? How adept is she at drawing out the timid students and putting a lid on the garrulous students?
Etc.
The writing workshop is a true group effort and even a veteran instructor can have their hands full with a group at odds with itself. Writers, especially younger ones just beginning to take their lumps in the gory world of fiction revision, can be as sensitive as spooked rabbits and ready to take offense at the smallest slight (either perceived or actual). They have not yet learned to distance their own personal identity from their work on the page. Having invested so much of themselves in their work they’ve not fully realized, through the magical grind of time, that there will be so much writing, so many words, ahead of them that emotionally latching on to only one small work, and such an early work, is a waste of energy that blinds you to the lessons you need to take from the workshop experience to improve.
A fiction workshop can be a very useful learning process but it can also be a minefield of prickly emotions and smoldering anguish. Its members (especially the adjunct instructor looking toward being rehired) engage in a subtle verbal dance any Japanese businessman would find familiar and employ a lexicon unique to the workshop process. Let’s say the following story is submitted to the workshop process:

The Phone Call

By David YoungWriter

Ralph woke up hungover and alone. His wife had left him the week before and their house felt empty without her. Ralph got up and looked at himself in the mirror. He was a fat, balding man with a frizzy beard and pale white skin. He had dark circles around his eyes from staying up so late drinking.
Ralph’s dog came into the bedroom and sniffed Ralph’s crotch. Ralph shoved the dog away and stood up with a big yawn. God, Ralph thought. Another day without Patty. Grumpy, chain-smoking Patty. How he missed her. At least her cooking. He did miss her cooking. The night before he’d tried to make a stir-fry and he’d burned the chicken so bad he’d set off the smoke alarm.
The phone rang. Ralph stared at it for a second while his dog ran around in a circle, chasing his own tail. Ralph answered the phone.
“Yeah?”
His voice sounded like a bullfrog croaking. A hungover bullfrog.
“Hi Ralph.”
Ralph coughed into the phone.
“Yeah?”
“It’s me. Patty.”
“Yeah,” Ralph said. “I figured.”
“How are you doing?”
Ralph scratched the side of his head and looked at his dog, who’d stopped chasing his tail and was now licking his balls like they were covered in cocaine.
“All right,” Ralph said. “I’m working at the bowling alley later. I’m picking up an evening shift for Jimmy behind the counter.”
“That’s good,” Patty said. “I’m glad you’re keeping busy.”
Ralph nodded, forgetting Patty couldn’t see the gesture.
“Ralph?”
“Yep.”
“I want a divorce.”
Ralph’s forehead creased together in a frown.
“You do?”
“Yes, Ralph. I’m not happy. I haven’t been happy for a long time.”
The dog looked up from licking his balls as if he could hear Patty on the other end of the phone. His ears were perked up and he was giving Ralph a look.
“Okay,” Ralph said. “A divorce it is, then.”
Patty sniffled.
“I’ll be in touch, Ralph.”
“Yeah.”
Ralph hung up the phone. The dog looked at him and barked.
“I guess it’s just you and me from now on, boy,” Ralph said, standing up. The dog twirled in a circle and ran to the doorway. He needed to go outside.
Maybe they both did.

The End

Ah, what a great profound literary story by Dave YoungWriter! Here’s how the workshop discussion of said story might play out (picture, if you will, fifteen students and one instructor all sitting around a table with marked-up manuscripts and various beverages in front of them—nobody’s gotten a good night’s sleep all semester) while student Dave YoungWriter, per standard workshop operating procedure, looks on without commenting.

Instructor: So, what do we like about this story?
Student #1: I like the dog.
Student #2: Yeah, he’s funny. He provides, like, comic relief.
Student #3: Ralph is so sad. I just feel for him, you know?
Student #1: But he’s got the dog to cheer him up.
Student #4: I kind of wanted know more about the dog, actually. What kind of dog is it? What’s his name?
Student #5: Yeah. Is it, like, Patty’s dog or Ralph’s dog, you know?
Student #6: I don’t know about the dog licking his balls. I don’t know if it was really necessary.
Student #7: I liked the ball licking. It was funny. My dog licks his balls all the time.
Student #8: But what she means is did it add to the story?
Instructor: You’re wondering if the ball licking was a telling detail?
Student #6: Right, exactly. I didn’t know how to feel about it.
Student #9: Maybe the ball licking is a metaphor for Ralph’s neutered sex drive.
Instructor: Now that’s interesting.
Student #10: Maybe that’s why Ralph drinks all the time and Patty’s leaving him. Because he can’t satisfy her sexual needs.
Student #11: I wanted to know more about Patty, actually. All we’re told is he misses her cooking. What does Patty do for a living? Did they meet at the bowling alley or what? What makes Patty tick?
Student #12: Maybe Patty isn’t real. Maybe the whole phone call is a hallucination.
Student #10: Like maybe Ralph’s still asleep and the whole conversation is a dream?
Student #13: Maybe Ralph’s dreaming about the phone call because he wants to get divorced in real life. Maybe he wakes up and Patty’s still lying beside him, all gross and snoring.
Instructor: I don’t think that’s what the author is going for here. I don’t see any evidence that this is a dream state—
Student #12: Maybe that’s the point! Maybe the author is saying being awake is the same thing as being asleep if you’re trapped in a loveless marriage.
Student #5: And the dog represents their child. The ball licking could mean their child is going through puberty or something.
Student #6: I still don’t think the ball licking is really necessary.
Student #2: Are you kidding? The ball licking is the best part!
Instructor: Okay, I think we’ve covered the ball licking angle sufficiently. How can we make this piece better?
Student #14: I think Ralph could be developed more. We don’t really get to see what he’s thinking very much. What’s his motivation?
Student #3: Yeah. Also, what’s the conflict here? Ralph wakes up, gets a phone call, and agrees to a divorce just like that?
Instructor: That’s a valid question.
Student #7: I think the conflict is the dog. He needs to go outside and the phone call is delaying that.
Instructor: So you think the dog is the main protagonist in the piece?
Student #7: Maybe.
Student #11: I think the main character is Patty. She’s the one who’s been unhappy for so long. She’s the one who makes the call. She’s the one who is leaving and that’s really brave, you know? Like she’s a heroine.
Student #1: But Ralph’s about to leave, too. To take the dog outside.
Student #6: Actually, I couldn’t really visualize the setting and that held me back. I want to know what the bedroom looks like. Do they have wedding pictures on the walls? Is there a mirror above the bed?
Instructor: A mirror above the bed?
Dave YoungWriter, who has long since laid his head on the table, lets out a barely audible sigh.

I could keep this patter up for another hundred pages but I think you can see where I’m going with this. If my fictional class of faceless students can find so much to critique and speculate on in a one page story you can only imagine the spectrum of conversations that can be held by fifteen very different people regarding a story five to twenty pages long. Everyone brings a unique perspective to a work of art and everybody is going to comment differently upon it. What I learned by going through the workshop process was to keep my radar tuned to observations that I found most useful and to tune out the white noise made by students who just liked hearing themselves talk (or just didn’t know what they were talking about).

Sometimes it’s helpful when a class reaches a general consensus about an issue in a story—like a character they all want to know more about, or a plot point everyone found confusing. Indeed, the beginning writer would be well advised to think of the workshop environment as an informal polling venue, with the instructor’s vote carrying extra weight and serving as a tie-breaker when needed. Rarely outside of the workshopping process will you be able to witness firsthand how your work affects a general audience until it is widely published and it’s far too late to edit anything.

I’ve noticed that interpersonal relationships play a surprisingly outsized part in the workshop process. I suppose this is inevitable, since politics creep up any time you get a bunch of people around a table, but I’m still chagrined every time I see it play out. Students in a university setting, be it graduate or undergraduate, tend get to know each other pretty well as they pass through the system. They form alliances with each other, they personally dislike each other, they grow revolted by each other. Friends sit together around the workshop table in bunches and the loners ends up in the corners, scowling at everyone else. When a story is workshopped by a member of a certain clique the other members rally valiantly to its defense, absorbing any and all critiques of the story as some kind of personal affront to all of them, which inevitably causes the members of rival cliques and the seething loners to engage in their criticism with ever more tenacity. Feelings get hurt, metaphoric blood is spilled. What started out as a friendly, detached stroll through the fictional park ends with a The Naked and The Dead-type death march. I recall leaving more than one workshop session as a student needing nothing more than cold air and silence, beautiful profound wintery silence, and it hadn’t even been my own work being discussed!

How did I handle my own writing being workshopped, you ask? Well, it was exhausting, for certain, and more than a little like being at your own funeral (though instead of friends and family in attendance near strangers stand over your open coffin and comment on your gussied up appearance). I always felt slightly feverish afterward and like doing anything except writing. I’d take my pile of marked-up manuscripts and their attached page long editorial-style notes and shove them deep in my closet, or in the bottom of my desk drawer, and wait about a week or two before looking at them. They felt radioactive to me.

But it got easier, by and by, and I learned to take what I needed and leave the rest. I realized it wasn’t personal even when it was personal. Every one of my classmates was trying to find their own voice, make their own way through the world. I learned to slowly detach myself from their constructive criticism, turn it around in my mind, and suss out the useful observations for my own ends. I found that the workshop process, when it’s firing on all-cylinders and everyone is equally invested, having more or less checked their egos at the door, is a wonderful and useful tool that cannot quite be duplicated in any other manner. You may have an agent one day, and an editor or three, but once you leave the workshop world you’ll never again be a part of a small battalion of intelligent, bookish people too raw and too green to hide what they’re really thinking, which, like iron ore, has great value as long as you know how to process it into a more refined material.