THE FANTASY AUTHOR’S HANDBOOK INTERVIEW XXII: MARK GOTTLIEB

Literary agent Mark Gottlieb began his publishing career while still at Emerson College, where he helped establish Wilde Press. After a stint at Berkley Books, Mark went to the Trident Media Group, Publishers Marketplace’s number one ranked literary agency, first in foreign rights then audio rights, and now as a literary agent. Mark has himself ranked number one among Literary Agents in Overall Deals, and other categories, as he continues to build a client list of his own.

Literary Agent Mark Gottlieb

Philip Athans: Please define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.

Mark Gottlieb: Fantasy fiction is a highly imaginative, improbable universe, often drawing upon magic or the supernatural, with many roots in the oral storytelling tradition.

Athans: Please define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.

Gottlieb: Science fiction is often comprised of imagined futures, technologies, societal changes, often with intellectual and practical thinking as a basis for knowledge.

Athans: For a while now we’ve been hearing about the about the indie/self-publishing “revolution” and the demise of traditional publishing. Has the former been overstated or is it indeed happening? And do you think we actually are seeing the demise of the traditional publishing model?

Gottlieb: Don’t believe the hype. You can’t believe everything you see and read. I remain a firm believer in that no matter how far technology takes us, there’s always a need for the human element, and I’m not talking about a “ghost in the machine.”

It is no lie that an author receives a larger share of royalties in the digital space in self-publishing, but there’s still a common misconception. In self-publishing, authors sell in smaller numbers than a literary agent and publisher could do for an author.

Authors that self-publish are primarily in the digital format, rather than being in the other revenue tributaries of major trade publishing. Overall it’s better to diversify one’s publishing portfolio with a major trade publisher, offering various publishing formats, online and physical retailers, etc.

One day I see traditional publishers having an even bigger presence in the digital sphere for books in terms of placement among online retailers in buying co-op deals, key site-placement, and more, exactly the way music and movie companies originated subscription services and digital access. Print won’t become a thing of the past but perhaps a nostalgia, much like the way in which music aficionados appreciate vinyl records. Like the LP, the hardcover book is a technology that has been perfected and is ideal to the experience of reading. Regardless, readers will always opt for their preferred format, whether that be print, audio, or eBook.

Athans: What is the single most important thing that a good agent can do to help an author start or maintain a successful career as a working professional?

Gottlieb: Remaining within the spirit of constant reinvention is important. The interesting thing is that there really is no average day in the life of a literary agent, or at least there shouldn’t be, for when a literary agent’s days begin to stagnate and look the same, then that person’s career and the careers of their client(s) is in trouble.

Every day that I walk into the office, I think of ways to try to reinvent myself in a way to make myself competitive, while improving the careers of the authors I work with in creative and innovative ways. Every day should not be about drudgery—life is an adventure.

Athans: You probably read a lot of query letters. Besides the basics like the author’s contact information and the title of his or her book, is there one thing you think every query letter absolutely must have, and conversely, what have you seen that’s an absolute query letter no-no?

Gottlieb: The single most important thing a good query letter should exhibit is good writing within the letter itself. That’s everyone’s first impression of how good the manuscript might be.

The biggest no-no in query letter writing is querying a literary agent with an unfinished manuscript since fiction can only be sold on a full manuscript to publishers.

Athans: What is the most common mistake that aspiring authors make in their writing?

Gottlieb: For the purposes of this article being about SFF, I will say that in fantasy, I see the mistake of under- or over-worldbuilding; whereas in science fiction, I see either a complete and utter lack of hard scientific evidence, or other times the overuse of hard science to the point of boredom.

Athans: What is the most common mistake that inexperienced authors make in their professional lives?

Gottlieb: The most common mistake I see among inexperienced authors in their careers is taking the very first offer of literary representation they’re presented with. Most aspiring authors are happy just to have that. Instead, they should take time to think about their decision in researching how a given literary agent or literary agency ranks on a site like Publishers Marketplace.

Athans: Can authors cross genres? If your first published novel is an epic fantasy can your second be a contemporary romance?

Gottlieb: I see no reason why an author couldn’t write across genres if they can do it successfully. Obviously it’s better to replicate success wherever possible. If the first publication within a given genre was successful, I’d usually recommend that an author continue within that genre. If the first publication in a particular genre weren’t successful, then I’d recommend that the author find another genre and a penname. Speaking of pennames, I wouldn’t recommend that a children’s book author write erotica and publish both types of work under the same name.

Athans: Tell us about a few books you’ve represented that are available now and that you’re particularly excited about.

Gottlieb: For the purposes of this article being about science fiction and fantasy, I will share some recent SFF deals I’ve done where the books are currently on sale:

World Fantasy Award Nominee Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas, on the front lines of a revolution whose fuse they are about to light, a fugitive brother and sister are harboring explosive government secrets; pitched as a novel of political dissent akin to the Americana of The Road, the brave new corporate world of Jennifer Government, or a post-9/11 Man in the High Castle; the story of ordinary people seeking to refresh democracy in a mirror America ruled by a telegenic dictator of a businessman.

Deborah A. Wolf’s The Dragon’s Legacy, pitched in the tradition of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic and the darker folkloric tales of Arabian Nights: set in a desert world of sand and honey, the series balances and contrasts the grim with the wondrous, the heartbreaking with the humorous, and takes an unflinching look at real-world issues such as the plight of indigenous peoples in a world mad for power.

Social media @XplodingUnicorn leader James Breakwell’s Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent’s Guide for Surviving Zombies, pitched as styled in the tradition of Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide and The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbooks, providing practical advice on how to raise happy, healthy children in the midst of the zombie apocalypse, by joining the genres of parenting advice books and undead survival manuals in an unholy union that is both ill-advised and long overdue—the narrator, an inept father of four young daughters, uses twisted logic, graphs with dubious data, and web comics that look like they were drawn by a toddler to teach families how to survive undead hordes.

Athans: Are you currently open to new clients, and if so, what genres/categories are you most interested in and what’s the best way for authors to contact you?

Gottlieb: I am open to receiving new clients for consideration and am open to most every genre. The best way for potential authors to contact me is through our website’s submissions/contact us page at http://www.tridentmediagroup.com/contact-us.

Athans: And I’m sure you’ll be hearing from more than one Fantasy Author’s Handbook reader/author—thanks, Mark!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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OUR FLIGHT TIME TODAY WILL BE…?

This post does contain spoilers through the episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones that aired Sunday, August 20, 2017 (Season 7, episode 6: “Beyond the Wall”), so read accordingly.

 

GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS FOLLOW:

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

 

I am a huge fan of Game of Thrones—I’m there, with bells on, every Sunday at 9:00 pm then watch that week’s episode at least one more time during the week between. This is not going to be any kind of review or condemnation of Game of Thrones. Nor am I, believe it or not, one of those people who insist on picking gnat shit out of pepper on every last detail of any TV series, movie, or book to find the tiniest mistake or inconsistency. Frankly, I don’t even do that as an editor. I not only accept but fully embrace a Story First philosophy in which fudging the occasional bit of lore is a lesser sin than telling a boring story.

And it’s with that in mind that I’ve overlooked a bunch of stuff in Game of Thrones, like the infamous question mark of Melisandre’s necklace. Does it magically make her look young and beautiful? Does she get all old and ugly when she takes it off in season six as the show seems to indicate? Because if so, she would have been old and ugly when she was in the bathtub, sans necklace, talking to Selyse in season four—but she was young and beautiful. I noticed it, but it didn’t ruin my experience of the show one bit.

But then this Sunday we had some timing issues that were, for me—and apparently, I’m not alone—a bit tougher to overlook since the implications in the story were so much greater. This was a huge escalation in the war with the white walkers and in the relationship between Jon Snow and Daenerys . . . just a big, pivotal moment in the ongoing story.

And when I said I’m not the only one to notice, I started seeing it in my circle of friends pretty much immediately, like this Facebook post from author and game designer Keith Baker:

Last night’s episode was FILLED with things that simply make no logical sense at all: by appearances, within a day one person ran the distance it took them at least a day to cover on foot; a raven flew halfway across the seven kingdoms; and then, what happened next happened. IT WAS AN AWESOME *SCENE*, and frankly, I’m OK with the fact that it makes absolutely no sense and was simply a way to hand a major weapon to the Night King… But we’re definitely in the “don’t think too hard about it” territory. I doubt this is how the books will handle things, and that’s OK.

I’m hardly abandoning the show or anything, but for me, it’s not quite as okay. And it also looks as though a fan reaction is being heard, at least enough to prompt one of the principle creatives involved in the episode to speak to Variety, as quoted in the article “ ‘Game of Thrones Director Alan Taylor Breaks Down Timeline in ‘Beyond the Wall’ ”

“We were aware that timing was getting a little hazy,” Taylor told Variety. “We’ve got Gendry running back, ravens flying a certain distance, dragons having to fly back a certain distance… In terms of the emotional experience, [Jon and company] sort of spent one dark night on the island in terms of storytelling moments. We tried to hedge it a little bit with the eternal twilight up there north of The Wall. I think there was some effort to fudge the timeline a little bit by not declaring exactly how long we were there. I think that worked for some people, for other people it didn’t. They seemed to be very concerned about how fast a raven can fly but there’s a thing called plausible impossibilities, which is what you try to achieve, rather than impossible plausibilities. So I think we were straining plausibility a little bit, but I hope the story’s momentum carries over some of that stuff.”

Fudge the timeline as necessary. I’m okay with that, but I agree with Keith Baker, who told me:

Some people are suggesting that they were supposed to have been stranded on the rock for days waiting for Dany; if that’s the case, we needed more scenes establishing the passage of time, like at least one more night scene. Whether it was their intention or not, as a viewer it FELT like it was all happening in an afternoon.

Felt like that to me, for sure.

And that interview with Taylor was picked up by Germain Lussier for iO9.com in: “The People Behind Game of Thrones Admit This Week’s Rescue Timeline Didn’t Quiet Work

Hey, at least he admits it. There are probably people out there who would vehemently defend the timeline no matter what . . . But Taylor’s reasoning at least feels honest. Either you were entertained and didn’t care, do care and were annoyed, or are somewhere in between.

For the record, I did care but was entertained.

But for all of us writing fantasy, science fiction, and/or horror, let’s take this as a good example of what happens when we play even just a bit too fast and loose with our own rules.

Let’s leave the world of complex, expensive, and time-crunched TV series production out of this for the rest of this post and fall back to prose fiction. In a novel or short story, you don’t have to worry about your effects budget, time on location, pressure from the network, etc. You have the time to stop and think before you set your rules, stop and think about how you’re following your rules as you’re writing, stop and think about when and how you want to change your rules as you’re writing, stop and think about what you’ll have to go back and revise to accommodate that rule change . . .

You have time. You’re smart. These are your rules, and you’re in charge of them. So stop and think and do the work.

Because plausibility—not realism, and I’ve hit you over the head with that often enoughdoes matter. I took at least one movie (Legion) to task for that here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, and belabored the point in both The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and Writing Monsters.

How far is it between Eastwatch and Dragonstone?

How fast can a dragon fly?

It’s entirely up to George R.R. Martin to decide these numbers. The distance between two purely fictional places is entirely up to you to decide in the course of your worldbuilding. Write that down, and once someone travels between those two places—once it actually matters in the story—that’s locked in until you decide to change it and revise accordingly. But once it’s in print in Chapter 2 it has to be the same in Chapter 3.

How fast can a dragon fly? I don’t know; dragons are pretend. I can’t look that up. You tell me. But again, once you’ve told me it’s that fast. Is there some magic item that can make them go faster? Sure—but establish that early enough so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Could they fly through some kind of magical gate that jumps them forward a hundred miles in a flash? Of course they can, because this is fantasy and in fantasy everything is possible if you establish it properly and it functions consistently within the context of your created world.

How fast does a raven fly?

Now you’ve stepped out of your fantasy world and into the real world, because unlike a dragon, a raven is a real animal—I see them in my neighborhood up here in the Pacific Northwest all the time—and we can all look up how fast they can fly. And not unexpectedly, it appears I’m not the first person to Google that in the last couple days. According to DinoAnimals.com (you have to find it in the comments, since ravens aren’t one of the ten fastest birds), they max out at 31 miles per hour.

This is the thing you can’t fudge.

Unless you show us the fudge.

Show us the little ring around its ankle that imbues it with magical speed.

Show us that these are bred from the ancient speed ravens of yesteryear.

Show us something that will take them out of the realistic and into the plausible.

But Game of Thrones never said these were magical ravens—just unusually well-trained ravens.

And Gendry wasn’t wearing boots of speed. Usain Bolt’s been clocked at “nearly” 28 mph, and that was only in a 100 meter sprint.

If this episode shows us that a dragon can fly, say, 100 miles and hour, okay—that might be uncomfortably windy for Daenerys, but okay.

The best I could find online is that it’s as far as 1900 miles between Eastwatch and Dragonstone, so that’s at least 62 hours, one way, for the raven, which is sent after some unknown number of hours of Gendry running, and if a raven could fly for 62 hours straight at maximum speed (and I’m sure it can’t), and the dragon goes 100 miles an hour or 19 hours back to Eastwatch, further ignoring the additional distance they walked north of the Wall, we get 81 hours not including Gendry’s run that they stood on that rock, surrounded not just by dumb zombies but the zombies’ clearly sentient commanders, who didn’t realize the lake had frozen over again.

Roughly estimating Gendry’s run, let’s call that four days.

If it took the raven twice as long, which is much more plausible, it’s actually more like six days.

Just standing there.

Waiting.

Maybe we can get Alan Taylor to take my next online Worldbuilding course. It starts Thursday.

 

—Philip Athans

P.S.: But then there’s this: Is the Night King holding off on purpose? Waiting six days knowing, or at least hoping, that Daenerys will come and bring a dragon for him to kill and reanimate? That will probably be how they fix this—showing us it was all part of his master plan—but that still doesn’t show us those guys were stuck on a rock for at least the better part of a week.

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PHIL’S TEN COMMANDMENTS OF WRITING (AFTER HENRY MILLER)

1. Work on one novel at a time until finished, while also writing the occasional poem, short story, article, and weekly blog post.

2. Start on your next novel only when you feel you’re done with your last novel, and take a break from the new novel only to revise that last novel according to editorial advice or flash of inspiration, then get back to the new novel as soon as you can.

3. Write in ecstasy, edit with intent.

4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.

5. Write something . . . anything . . . but write!

6. Clean up yesterday’s writing then write the next section, which you’ll clean up tomorrow before adding tomorrow’s new text. Do no further revision until the rough draft is done.

7. Keep human! Interact with other humans everyday, in whatever way you can, and from time to time, take a full week off.

8. Rejoice in the act of writing itself.

9. Give yourself a break and realize that sometimes you have to set aside the project at hand, but you can, and will, come back to it as soon as possible.

10. Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 11: WRITE FIRST AND ALWAYS

Well, we’ve finally made it to the eleventh and last of this long series of posts examining Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want a last look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

It’s come to the end, and here I finally disagree with Henry Miller on general principle when he says:

11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

If that was meant to say: Write first thing in the morning then get to everything else . . . and based on his Program, it may well be, then okay, maybe—but then there are people, like me, who don’t tend to write particularly well in the morning and for no particular reason, though I suppose I could probably teach myself to write in the morning.

Instead, what I think Henry Miller means here is bigger than a day’s schedule. He means prioritize writing (and as with most if not all of these commandment, we can sub in any career for writing) over all other things, no matter what—“first and always.”

You know what?

Nope.

After all, this is the same guy who warned us not to be a draught horse, to “keep human” and maintain our connections to the people and the world around us, and now he seems to be telling us, “Yeah, do that, but work always takes first priority.”

Sorry, Mr. Miller. I refuse to live like that, and I refuse to encourage other people to put work first—even if that work is creative writing.

Think about this with “write” switched out for other occupations:

Sell insurance first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Hang drywall first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Trade stocks first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Design user interfaces first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Again, nope.

I know a lot of people who put a lot of things before whatever job it is they do, no matter how much they love that work: kids/family, friends, pets, faith, even hobbies . . . all come before work.

It’s an interesting coincidence that this morning I happened upon Stephen Moore’s article “What the Fuck is Work-Life Balance?” This has been a concern of mine for a long time, but especially since I’ve been out on my own as a freelancer. Let’s start with Moore’s definition of work-life balance:

This balance is the ability to seamlessly juggle the responsibilities of work, with the responsibilities of life. Work all day. Party all night. It is being able to contain your work hours, allowing other hours to free up, so you can cook nice meals at home, watch movies, meet friends, spend time with loved ones and maintain some form of social life. In an ideal world, we would all live with a perfect work-life balance, and no one would have a single grumble.

This is tough for a lot of people, in a lot of circumstances. When, like me, you work from home and your “company” has an employee roster of one, and your office is in a little nook in the upstairs hallway, your commute is up a single flight of stairs, this concept of work-life balance can be almost impossible to understand, much less achieve. How do I leave work at work when I live in my workplace? If I shut off my “work” phone, well, that’s the same as my “home” phone.

And all this even assumes that everyone reading this is writing full time.

I know that’s far from the case.

Most of the people I know are writers, and maybe three or four of them do it full time. So then at some point a “day job” can come between you and your writing—especially if you’re a reasonably responsible person and have a family that at least in part depends on you, you have rent or a mortgage to pay, student loans hovering over you, or indulge in other crazy luxuries like electricity, food, or internet/phone service.

If you’re not 100% sure you’re in a position to quit your day job—don’t quit your day job!

If your kids are hungry and you haven’t written yet, feed them, get them off to school, then write. But at the same time, yes, we do need to find time, make time, even insist on time to write. Stephen Moore wrote:

A hugely important part of finding this balance is having periods of time completely switched off from work. One way to do this is to set work day hours for emails/calls. (This will probably be ignored if the matter is important). Make clients and colleagues aware that you will respond within said business hours. There is nothing wrong with that.

And I think this matches up with previous advice from Henry Miller to set aside some writing time, but to balance that with other activities—being a human out there in the world. So can you work with your family, one way or another, to provide you with some uninterrupted hour for writing? I bet you can—even if your kids are home for summer vacation.

And then how about this idea:

Who says we have to confine our lives to a set list of priorities?

Things change—sometimes on a day to day, even hour by hour basis. I often go through busy periods where I’ll pretty much stop everything to get one project done, but that doesn’t mean I’m putting that project always and forever at the top of my priority list. It doesn’t mean I even have a “priority list” to begin with.

Honestly, I think in order to achieve any kind of work-life balance, any sort of balance in our lives at all, we need to remain awake and flexible and ready to change on a moment’s notice. I said above that maybe I could train myself to write in the morning, and maybe I could—but why? I think it’s better to train yourself, especially if you have a day job, a family—any other important components to an actual human life—to write any time, anywhere, however you can fit it in. Can you write for twenty minutes on the bus in the morning? On the two hour flight to and from a business trip? While your kids are at school or at night when everyone else is asleep, or, for that matter, early in the morning when everyone else is asleep?

We might not be able to put writing first and always—let’s try to put writing in there somewhere.

I’m going to leave the eleventh commandment off my own list, since I think this is all covered under:

4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.

So, yeah . . . write. And parent. And work at whatever other job(s) you have. And play games. And go to museums. And read. And pay bills. And mow the lawn. And . . .

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 10: THINK ONLY OF THE BOOK YOU ARE WRITING

Welcome to the penultimate chapter of this rather long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. As always, if you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

This week, it feels as though Mr. Miller is repeating himself with:

10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

. . . which certainly feels of a kind with the first two commandments: “Work on one thing at a time until finished,” and “Start no more new books, add no more new material to Black Spring.” But of course I can’t just leave it at that so let’s see if we can dig into this for some separate meaning.

In “Cement Not Fertilizers,” Kat Sommers wrote:

I think my favourite is “Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing”. There’s such a disjunction between the two—what you want to write and what you’re able to write. Sometimes the fear of the latter means you write nothing at all.

We have looked at the idea of fear—being afraid to get started, afraid of committing to one project, and so on, but here I think Miller is going back to that warning against distraction. It could be that what you’re working on now is a fun, commercial, YA fantasy novel. It’s a great idea, you like your characters, and the outline at least feels good—feels like a story.

But it isn’t the Great American Novel.

First of all, who says that a YA fantasy can’t be the Great American Novel? In fact, one of the primary contenders for that crown, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a YA novel, though not fantasy. And how important to the culture, in general, is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?

Let’s just agree that as an author you have no say whatsoever in your book’s legacy. Classic status isn’t written into the text—it comes later and always from surprising directions.

So then what is that Great American Novel that’s pushing you away from the Work in Progress?

I have this idea that’s been percolating in my head for years now—a historical novel—that I’ve made some stabs at researching, but always end up setting aside for other things. It’s an idea, still, and a notebook full of historical notes and scattered character sketches and plot points, but I haven’t felt as though I’m ready to start writing it because I’m not sure I’ve done enough research—so that idea sits while I wander through other stuff. Even before I saw these commandment’s of Henry Miller’s, I’d set that idea aside—the book I want to write—in favor of the book I am writing.

And here’s the big disconnect . . .

Phil the author is waiting until he’s “ready” to start that historical novel, though in some ways that idea sometimes eclipses my enthusiasm for the work in progress—the book I do feel “ready” for. (And I’ve put “ready” in quotes because I’m not sure I have a clear definition for what that means in this context.) I’m following Henry Miller’s advice.

But as an editor, as a consultant who works with authors sometimes with their whole careers in mind, my advice would actually be—and has actually very recently been—just the opposite.

Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.

Even if it is a big, scary historical epic. Even if it doesn’t match up to anything on the current best sellers list (which, by the way, will look completely different by the time you’ve finished writing either the for-profit YA dystopian SF thing or the philosophically rich, borderline preachy historical).

I do, for what it’s worth, agree in spirit that once you’ve committed yourself to a project, you should do your best to see it through. But at the same time I’ve advised, and will continue to advise, that you walk away from a story you find wanting. If you’re just torturing yourself, trying to slog through some failed attempt, at some point the rational thing to do is recognize it as a failed attempt, learn from your mistakes, and be a better writer for the next idea.

For me, the dark fantasy will still come first, then the historical, but I think I need to move that up, research be damned. After all, another piece of advice that I actually gave to an author last week is to just dive in and start writing. The characters and the unfolding story will tell you where the holes in your research are.

I’ll take that advice to heart with my big, scary historical.

At first, I thought that this week I’d break from Henry Miller enough to simply not include this in a reworked version for my own “commandments,” but then reading back I think this bears repeating, and should be in every author’s mind:

10. Write the book you care the most about—the story that speaks to you, that won’t let you sleep at night, that won’t go away.

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 9: DISCARD THE PROGRAM

Kind of a short one today—I have a long to do list ahead of me!

I’m getting close to the end of this long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

Though meant as advice for writers, it’s struck me over the past few weeks that this list can just as easily be applied to any occupation, or as general life advice. This week, we’ll look at the ninth commandment in that light—not as how to write better or to be a more productive author, but to point us all in the direction of that elusive work/life balance, starting with Henry Miller’s advice to:

9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

The Program, as he described it, is broken down in Part 4 of this series, and you can click back to that here for a refresh, if necessary.

I am a to do lister, and pretty much always have been. Though I’ve read all the advice on why to do lists are bad, that they tend to be un-doable and so only provide a source of guilt, or contain too many little busy work/work avoidance task so that checking them off seems like “work,” but isn’t . . . I know all that. And in an effort to combat either unrealistic expectations or unreal work, I’ve massaged my to do list schemes over and over again until I’ve ended up with something that sort of works.

And let’s be honest, all you can really ever achieve is “sort of works.”

The Apollo program sort of worked. American democracy sort of works. Every computer on Earth sort of works. Why do I need to hold my to do list to a higher standard?

This is, I think, part of what Henry Miller is trying to tell us with this bit of advice. Though he had a fairly well thought through program, with things to be done in the morning, afternoon, and evening, here he’s telling us it’s okay if we occasionally fall off the wagon, or take a day off, or fail to get to an item or two. If there’s a day when we haven’t completed all the work (whether that’s writing or accounting or selling insurance or building houses) we planned to do that day, well . . . tomorrow is a new day. Get back up on that horse and get back to work.

My own to do list, which exists primarily as a Stickies window off to the left side of my computer screens, is a fluid thing. If I don’t finish all of the seven items on it for today that follow “FAH Post,” which I’m working on now, those items will be pushed to tomorrow, and so on, until I get to my standard weekend to do list item: “Catch up on any unfinished work.”

That having been said, I do beat myself up a bit when those items aren’t all completed, and sometimes end up revising the whole to do list somewhere mid-week, reprioritizing to shift maximum work to one urgent project that will clear the decks for other things next week. This process feels a lot like what Henry Miller was trying to say with:

Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

And again, this advice works just as well for my “day job” work as a consultant, ghostwriter, and editor as it does for my own writing.

In my own list of commandments, post-Henry Miller, I’d rewrite this as:

9. Give yourself a break and realize that sometimes you have to set aside the project at hand, but you can, and will, come back to it as soon as possible.

Boy, that feels easy. Almost too easy. But it really is that easy.

Every morning I like to pause, look at my to do list and calendar, and put a few minutes’ thought into what today’s biggest priority really is. Sometimes that’s multiple smaller projects, sometimes it’s one big desk-clearing uber-project. Whatever today brings, look at your version of this Program as an achievable goal, but in the same way that we can give ourselves permission to write a short, bad book, we can give ourselves permission to have a short, bad work day—to be revised with intent tomorrow!

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 8: DON’T BE A DRAUGHT HORSE

We’re rounding the final curve in this very long series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing, and if you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here. This week, Henry Miller proclaims:

8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.

On first glance, this feels like the same advice from his third commandment: Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand. But maybe not. In my run-down of that piece of advice I focused on the nervousness, if not outright fear, of facing that blank page knowing there are 90,000 words to be typed. Here, I think, the advice is more about how to write once you’ve broken past the fear of beginning or the intimidation factor a full-length novel can certainly engender in the best of us.

Having given ourselves permission just to do today’s writing today—and a novel is not written in one day!—and to think of our rough drafts as our “short, bad book,” let’s not forget that the act of writing itself should be fun.

True, there are some books that shouldn’t be particularly fun, or even pleasurable, to write. I once wrote an (as yet and very most likely never to be produced) screenplay that gave me nightmares—it was a very dark, dark thing I was making and not intended to be “fun” for anyone. I set that aside over and over again, but was always dragged back to the story and eventually finished it. I’ve also spent the last ten years or so telling myself I should rewrite it in the form of a novel (or novella) but I have yet to start that—maybe because it doesn’t seem like something that would be particularly fun to write—not like some of the definitely much more fun pulp stuff, or even the dark fantasy novel I keep semi-working on.

I have fun writing horror—scaring people in that particular context can be fun as hell. For the record, that context is that no one is actually harmed in any way and it’s sold as horror fiction so people who don’t like to read scary books can just pass from the get-go.

But I feel as though we need to concentrate on figuring out how to write difficult, challenging, disturbing (etc.) material “with pleasure” while not feeling like some kind of psychopath.

I think it’s possible, and even healthy, to take a sort of pleasure in the crafting of very dark fiction, fiction that has a difficult political or cultural message, or is set against the backdrop of real world horrors like the Holocaust. But rather than the sort of feeling you might get from writing a really fun sword and sorcery fight scene or the funny bit where the cute little robot does something silly, the “pleasure” comes from the feeling that you’ve conveyed your message in a way that will touch people.

If you feel you’ve treated that difficult subject matter correctly, there’s pleasure in that. It doesn’t mean: “I had a blast writing Night,” said Elie Wiesel, “what a hoot that was!” But there had to be some release there, some sense that he said something that needed to be said in a way that people would hear and understand it.

Don’t take this commandment from Henry Miller as an indication that everything you write has to be fun and frivolous and silly—though, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, too!

This is one of those things that I sometimes forget, myself—and really need to remember, all day every day:

Writing makes me happy while I’m writing.

Even when I’m trying to convince you of something or scare the pants off you or reveal some horrifying internal darkness from within myself or that I perceive in the word around us.

Let’s not be draught horses or factory workers. Let’s, as Jane Yolen very eloquently taught us in her must-read book called, not coincidentally, Take Joy, take joy in the work itself, in that rush of a well-formed sentence, in discovering from the depths of your subconscious the exactly perfect word for that moment right there, in nailing the emotional arc, in being surprised by a sudden idea that remaps the trajectory of your entire story . . . all that stuff and more.

With all that in mind, I’ll make my version of this commandment a little simpler:

8. Rejoice in the act of writing itself.

It will keep you writing, and it will keep you writing better.

 

—Philip Athans

 

P.S.: I’m scheduling this to post on Tuesday, July 18, while I’ll be out on vacation. I’ve never done this before, so I hope I don’t screw it up. If you’re reading this on Tuesday the 18th, it means I didn’t screw it up, and I’ll take great pleasure in that!

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