How Much Persistence is Needed?

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Answer: a little bit more than you showed.

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Hierarchy of Quality

You are Katherine Heiny, and when you’re 24, you write a second-person short story for an MFA creative writing workshop at Columbia University¬ — “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” about a graduate student who is secretly in love with her male roommate — and you send it out to 31 literary journals, all of which turn it down. One editor writes you a harsh note, attacking the story as indicative of what is wrong with MFA programs and saying that your story demonstrates you have nothing to say.

When you tell a friend that no one wants your story, she asks you what The New Yorker said about it. You admit you have not sent it to that magazine, and your friend laughs. She says you were supposed to start with The New Yorker. Read more »

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Persistence Notes

“I never would have continued as a writer if The Temple of Gold had not been taken by the first publisher I sent it to. I’m not that masochistic. There was no way I was going to write anymore. I didn’t know that then, but I know it now. There was no encouragement; no one ever said I had any talent. I had never written anything much over two pages long. I had done badly in school in terms of writing. I did not want to be a failure, but I did not have the courage to write a second book if the first had not been accepted.”

—William Golden, in Richard Andersen, William Goldman, Twayne Publishers, 1979 p 26


I imagine many have felt the same. How many of them wrote books that were not taken by the first publisher they sent it to? Or

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Reading Material

Today marks the tenth anniversary of when I began keeping a record of every book that I read.  Therefore, without further ado, I present the complete reading material of a decade.

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Miguel, ma belle
These are words that go together well
My Miguel

Miguel, ma belle
Sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble
Tres bien ensemble
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Categories: Sort Of, Writing | 1 Comment

Closing Windows

Bill Simmons ‘meditation’ on the uncertainty of the future, the ephemerality of opportunity.

The thing about sports is they tell you when it’s over.  Everybody talks about giving 110% and never quitting, but only as long as the game is going on.  When the final buzzer sounds, whether you’ve won or lost you know to go home.  Nobody calls you a quitter when you walk off the court or the field after the final buzzer.  But in other walks of life you may not know when your chance has passed.  Maybe you figure it out eventually, and eventually you do die, so I guess you know it’s over then, but while you’re alive there’s no moment when you can be sure it’s over.  The buzzer sounds silently and no one tells you.  If you think you’ve heard the buzzer and you walk off the field, then they do call you a quitter.  And if you don’t quit and still haven’t succeeded by the time you die, then they say that you sucked.

Another way sports is different from art is there are clear criteria for quality.  Nobody is going to say a team that won the championship is a bad team or a team that failed to make the playoffs is a good team.  But in art you do hear similar arguments all the time.  A writer who sells relatively few copies may not have been trying to sell many copies; his aim may have for something else, but that defense only goes so far.  A commercial writer is justified by the number of copies he sells; an artistic writer by the perceived artistic quality of his work, but only as long as his sales are above some minimum number; sell fewer than that or fail to be published at all and then they *will* say that you are bad regardless of what your aim was.

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Brain Teasers

  • I’m a big white rectangle with sheets and blankets on top and people sleep on me.  What am I?
  • I’m invisible, yet you can know what I am by using a clock or watch or a sundial or in a pinch you can just guess what I am.  What am I?
  • What’s black and white and is a four-legged ungulate native to the east African plains? Read more »
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Non-Insane Proposals for Publishing Industry Professionals

What I don’t understand is why we writers believe that those on the other side of the transom act in such illogical ways, ways in which I definitely wouldn’t act if I were in their shoes.

Agents.  If I were an agent I wouldn’t read anybody’s stories or novels.  Read more »

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Begging the Question

We call a story good because of what is written, not who wrote it.  But sometimes people invert the relationship—i.e., we believe a story must be good because a particular name is attached to it.

In “A Legend in His Own Mind” (The New Yorker, Dec. 22 & 29, 1997, pp. 54-65), John Walsh reports an exchange between editor Mike Petty and novelist James Thackara: “Once, Petty recalls, he queried a piece of dialogue. ‘Look,’ I said.  ‘You can’t say this.  It’s bad dialogue.  It’s bad art.’  Thackara said, ‘Faulkner could do that,’ and I said, ‘But, James, you’re not Faulkner.'”

So Thackara wasn’t Faulkner, but who was Faulkner?  How did Faulkner know he was Faulkner—i.e., how did he know it was acceptable for him to do the things Petty called bad dialogue and bad art?—and how did others recognize his Faulkner-hood?  And when Faulkner did whatever it was Petty was accusing Thackara of doing, how did readers know to call it good, and how do they know to call it bad when done by Thackara?

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Annals of Superhuman Persistence, Vol IV: Veronica Roth

On March 31, 2010, 21-year-old Veronica Roth wrote a blog post titled “You + $$$ = ?”  Two weeks later, Roth sold her first book, a dystopian YA novel about a society segregated by moral virtues and a girl who doesn’t fit in.  “I was in Psych learning about exposure therapy,” she recalls. She started writing about those people instead of doing her college homework, and within 40 days she had a completed draft.  Divergent sold quickly—after four days, to the first editor who finished reading it.  Divergent was published in May 2011 and spent eleven consecutive weeks on the New York Times’ children’s best-seller list; the sequel, Insurgent, debuted at No. 1 a year later. The series has remained there ever since.  Since no popular YA series is without a movie franchise, Summit Entertainment—the studio behind Twilight—will release Divergent early next year, and its cast (Kate Winslet, Next Big Thing Shailene Woodley) suggests similar expectations for the film version. Meanwhile, the contents of the trilogy’s upcoming final book, Allegiant (coming out October 22), are being guarded like Katniss Everdeen in the first half of Mockingjay.

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