Two weeks ago, I heard Daniel Coshnear talk on “The Balanced Life.”  It was the final day of UC Berkeley Extension’s Fiction Writing Intensive, and we’d gathered four panelists to talk about Where to Go From Here:  Sustaining the Momentum.  The idea was to give the students – with varying degrees of writing experience – some practical and inspirational ideas for moving their work forward.

Mimi Albert, a writer and longtime UC Extension insructor, talked about online classes.   Heather Cameron gave an overview on publishing.  Deborah Lichtman covered the pros and cons of MFA programs.  And Dan talked about making a balanced life as a writer.  Somewhere in the process, he word “successful” slipped in there.

And that’s where it got interesting.

Every writer wants to know how to make it.  In 90 percent of the classes I’ve taught for more than ten years, the inevitable question comes up over the seltzer and hummus at our final class meeting:  How do you find an agent?

On the panel two weeks ago, Heather offered up the encouraging and true fact that every publisher is looking for good books.  The trick, of course, is what makes “good” and who decides?  The industry? the market?  The writer?

For years, self-publishing carried the stigma of “vanity press,” implying sloppy standards and poor product.  That’s largely changed, though self-publishing has other daunting considerations (marketing, promotion, etc.)  But many writers consider self-publishing for the wrong reasons.  Four or five rejections, and it’s all the industry’s fault.  There’s plenty to complain about in the industry, and there always has been, but your novel’s being rejected doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than the fact that your novel needs more work.

And that’s where Dan and Laurie Ann Doyle – the other workshop leader in the Fiction Intensive – come in.

The discussion had been tipped for more than twenty minutes toward the publishing end of the table when Laurie chimed in from the back of the room.  “Your goal as writers” – and here the room grew still, pens poised waiting to hear the trick – “is not to get published.  Your goal as writers is to make your story the best story it can be.”

Her point is essential.  Sure, publication is a goal – but not necessarily the goal.  (Anne Lamott says this better than I can, in Bird by Bird.) I knew a guy in grad school who studied The Atlantic and The New Yorker for their stories in the belief that if he wrote one with the right formula, those magazines would accept it.  He titled one work “Guns and Lovers.”  He imitated Hemingway.  Nothing wrong with aiming for the top, publication-wise, or stealing from a master, or alluding  to a famous modernist in a story title.  But to give the market what you think it wants does not strike me as the way to success as a writer.  As a byline, maybe. Which, come to think of it, I’ve never seen in that guy’s name…

I may be old-fashioned, or not savvy enough, or just plain lame – or preachy – but I prefer Dan’s definition.  Read it for yourself, from the online version of the Los Angeles Review (scroll down to find “The Balanced Life”).

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About lindseycrittenden

Lindsey Crittenden is the author of two published books: THE WATER WILL HOLD YOU: A SKEPTIC LEARNS TO PRAY (Harmony Books, 2007) and THE VIEW FROM BELOW, a collection of short stories (Midlist Press, 1999). Her personal essays and articles – on topics such as prayer, the pitfalls of too much California sunshine, and visiting a group of lifers at San Quentin – have appeared in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Image, Real Simple, Bon Appétit, East Bay Express, Health, and Best American Spiritual Writing. Her fiction has won national awards and has appeared in Glimmer Train, Bellingham Review, Quarterly West, and other publications. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she graduated from UC Berkeley, moved to New York City as soon as she could, and returned to California for grad school. While in the graduate creative writing program at UC Davis, she discovered (much to her surprise) the fun of teaching. She lives in San Francisco and teaches at UC Berkeley Extension. She has completed a novel, and is writing new short stories and a (very early stages) nonfiction exploration of spirituality & sex.
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5 Responses to

  1. Callie Feyen says:

    I find this post to be inspiring, especially during a time when I hear a lot about “building a brand” or “getting known before the deal,” etc. I love the freedom to “make your story the best story it can be.” That seems to be what “essayer” is all about (I had “to try” that idea out in a post). http://notesfromnaptime.blogspot.com/2011/08/essayer.html

    • Love that you mentioned “essayer,” Callie. I always find it help to remind myself (and students) that “essay” (a word many of us dread, thanks to high school assignments) comes from the French verb, to try out, to explore. Voila. Et merci!

  2. Meghan Ward says:

    Lindsey – I agree that there is too much focus on marketing and not enough on quality writing lately (and this coming from someone who teaches social media classes for writers). From what I’ve read on many writing and publishing blogs, it’s the genre writers–fantasy, paranormal romance, thriller, etc.–who are making it big through self-publishing. I have yet to hear of a literary writer or even memoirist who made a ton of money selling $.99 books on Amazon. That said, I do think once your book IS the best it can be, you do need to learn as much about marketing as you can in order to get it published.

    It breaks my heart when I hear about writers making goals to write three books in a year (how can they possibly be good?), but what I have come to realize is that different writers have different goals. Not everyone cares about writing the best books they can. Many want to crank out plot-driven books with few typos and sell as many copies as possible. And that’s okay. It’s not for me, and it saddens me to think that with the advent of ebooks literature may be moving in that direction, but I’ve come to accept that not every writer wants what I want. I want to write a quality memoir. I could self-publish it now and market the hell out of it, but I’d rather revise and revise and revise it until it’s good enough to be picked up by a traditional publisher. I want to know I’m putting something out there that I’ll be proud of, whether it makes much money or not.

    • Meghan, this is such a helpful comment — I have to remind myself that different writers do have different goals. I find it easy to climb on my high horse, often because I get impatient about beginning writers (who haven’t finished a piece, let alone revised it) who ask me how to find an agent. I have a lot to learn about marketing my work, and thanks for remindin

      • My cat just stepped on the keyboard, posting the above comment before I’d finished. (Gosh, I thought I’d NEVER write about my cat in a comment…) So, to finish (at the risk of reminding readers of that scene in Swingers where the guy kept leaving loser messages), thanks for reminding us that successful writing careers need attention to the work and the market, at the right stages.

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