The Kool-aid Writers Drink, Part 1

[Vaccine update: Fully vaccinated!]

Rather than speculate on upcoming travel plans, like wondering what it will be like to eat at a Palm Springs restaurant—outdoor dining? What steps are involved for eating while masked? How to assess for ventilation?—I am actually going to write about writing.

Funny thing, that.

I would make a terrible writing workshop instructor. I’m not afraid of presenting before an audience. Actually, I think I’m pretty good at it, having done trainings for groups of 100 or so physicians, nurses and clinic staff. I actually love making slides. Less words more pictures! Games and quizzes! Keep the audience from falling asleep after lunch, especially when jet lag is operative.

The reason I haven’t jumped into this for the art of writing is that I can’t explain my methods. Because they’re all over the place. I don’t outline. I keep lists of names and places. I work linearly, from the start of the book to the end; I never write scenes out of order. I don’t use a white board or post-its or the old fashioned index cards.

For me, novels are easier than short stories, although short stories—at least the ones I like—should be formulaic. To a point, anyway. Novels, too. I’m not a fan of the “experimental” novel, whatever that is. The husband, who has read Joyce, Günter Grass and Nabokov, who read Russian novels while in junior high school, has a fascination for and a frank love-affair with language. He hears and appreciates the music of such writers, their singing sentences, word juxtaposition, and amusing syntax. I just find such writers difficult.

Well, damn. I just like a good story.

In my correspondence with writing friends, we try to bolster each other up as much as we can. Many of these folks are long-term friends I’ve met in workshops and writers groups. One recently reported that she was depressed by all the rejections she was getting, but got a piece of great news which cheered her greatly: one of her short stories is being turned into a podcast. She has cultivated relationships with local literary groups, participating in written word programs and live radio plays. I greatly admire her.

Another friend, after recovering from a long and serious illness, is back to writing at last; I’m beta-reading one of his novellas; a deeply interesting science fiction piece set on a space ark. His attention to detail, characterization, conflict, and technical skill with prose has got me totally hooked.

The problem with practicing the art of writing these days is, basically, the problem of how to make money. Experts I listen to all have their methods. Write, write write. Write every day. Set a word goal and meet it. Self-publish.

Back when I stepped from the writing-for-myself room to the trying-to sell room, self-publishing equalled vanity press. You wrote a book and paid someone to publish it. You paid an editor or you edited yourself. You hired someone to help you distribute it or you did it yourself. Us, the serious ones, sneered at vanity presses. We didn’t need that. We were too good for that.

What we needed, we were told in our workshops, was an agent.

In those days, before New York publishing imploded, agents were easier to get. I never got one, though, despite taking query-letter classes, going to writers conventions and signing up for pitch fests. I collected rejection letters. Saved them, re-read the ones with little hand-written notes—this from the agents who bothered to get back to me. I had a spread sheet of my books and which agent might be looking for my type of book and entered the date I sent the synopsis-first three chapters-query, and when their reply came and what it was.

There’s a lot of kool-aid being shared in the writing world these days. The cults evolve from a roster of firm beliefs on how to make money, how to get noticed, how to make a living. I threw out the get-an-agent kool-aid and got myself a batch of a self-publishing flavor. The last agent-related workshop I attended—presented by the agent himself who made a tons of money from his workshop and books and the lousy contracts his hapless writers signed—was in the late 1990’s. I almost got snagged again a few years later when I took an extension course in novel writing at the University of Washington. The teacher ran her own publishing business which, I learned as I listened to her sound editing advice, was a hybrid vanity press scheme. If she liked your work, you paid her a whopping bunch of money and she would publish, distribute and advertise your book.

This all left a sour taste in my mouth. Someone had spiked that kool-aid with lemon juice.

Part 2, self-publishing. Next week.




About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


The Kool-aid Writers Drink, Part 1 — 2 Comments

  1. Yes, my experience with agents has been less than cheery — both in querying, and with the different agents I’ve had. Many writers conferences offer “speed-dating agents,” and most of it is a waste of time and money.