So, who will really read your book?

In 1848 a writer named B.H. Smart produced a book quite improbably titled: Manual of rhetoric: with exercises for the improvement of style or diction, subjects for narratives, familiar letters, school orations, &c.: being one of two sequels to “Grammar on its true basis”.  It was published in London by Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans and is reputed to be the oldest publication that could be reasonably described as a writing manual.  Since then, manual after manual has been produced with the objective of improving writing everywhere.

The first writing manual
The first writing manual

Today, all you need to do is plug the search term “writing manuals” into Amazon’s search function and you’ll be greeted with almost 12,000 hits; if you plug in “writers’ guides” you’ll be rewarded with almost 19,000.  Within these search results there are the direct successors of Smart’s manual such as the Chicago Manual of Style (originally published in 1906) which, along with the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, is one of the go-to, required writing manuals for academic and scholarly writers throughout the English-speaking world.  In addition to these specific style guides there are books for poets, science and technical writers, novelists, memoirists, romance writers, creators of creative non-fiction and every other conceivable type of writer one could imagine.  From the style guides and how-to manuals for specific genres the writers’ guides begin to become more esoteric with books like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing & Life, and Natalie Goldberg’s iconic Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, to the more recent offering from Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft where writers weave their personal stories around writing advice to inspire would-be writers.  If you’re a writer or aspiring writer yourself, you probably own a few of these – or at least in my view, you should!  All of this seems to be in spite of American journalist and writing guru William Zinsser’s pointed comment in his own best-selling writing guide On Writing Well, that most people have no idea how poorly they write.

Poor writing or not, the rush to publish in the 21st century is more like a torrent where the flood-gates, in the form of agents and editors, are no longer needed to stop the outpouring of book-length publications, for better or for worse.  Writers are flocking to self-publishing with a vengeance.  A quick troll through the social media communities, groups and networks of “writers” suggests that the era of co-dependency is upon us in a way never before imagined as writers look to one another for guidance and moral support in their publishing endeavors.  Rather than being connected to publishers, mentors or readers, they are connected to other writers – all as unknown as they are.

What’s truly puzzling, though, is how no one seems to notice their members who are spelling, grammar and stylistically-challenged, not to mention devoid of talent.  At least they’re not admitting it with their continual five-star reviews of every piece of drivel produced by their peers.  Yet, within all of this publishing-related noise, there are truly unique and important voices that need to find a way out of the slush.  What they all need is a reality check.  I’d like to help to provide that. And help those unique and important voices find their way out of the noise.  So, I’ve written yet another manual – well it’s sort-of a manual.

WWRYB CoverThe purpose of my new book is to provide a tough-love reality check on the vagaries of the new publishing models for aspiring writers while at the same time providing you with a kind of road map based on my experience as a writer, writing teacher, traditionally-published author and indie author.

For my blog readers who have been here a while, you might recognize some of the foundational material in the book – it did evolve from this blog (there’s a whole other story, isn’t it?  Turning blogs into books.  I could tell you…).   There is a whole lot more, though, and I’ve tried to tell readers my own story of making it onto the traditional publishing merry-go-round, and then dabbling in self-publishing.  Along the way, I learned a lot and this experience, coupled with my  research over the years as as a university prof, has resulted in this book.

Here’s the book trailer.  Let me know what you think.

Books we keep, books we toss: Helen Gurley Brown’s is a keeper

Unlike most book lovers I know, I have culled my bookshelves mercilessly over the years.  I always think that someone else could be enjoying those books that just sit there on the shelves for so long, so I donate them to used book stores, libraries and anywhere else that might appreciate those books.  I hope that my own books have found new audiences in these ways.  But when I look at my shelves and see those books that I’ve actually kept for the long haul, one jumped off the shelf at me this morning.

It is a pocket-book version of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 classic Having it All.  You can have her Sex and the Single Girl, but I’ll take Having it All.  Of course it jumped out because the venerable Ms. Brown died yesterday at 90.

I graduated from Cosmo to Vogue and now More (for women over 40) many years ago, but I always appreciated Helen Gurley Brown’s fundamental feminist advice – despite the fact that Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan (among many others) thought of her brand of feminism more as the “lipstick” type than the ‘real’  type as Simon Houpt wrote this morning in the Globe & Mail.  Give it a rest, all you militant feminists; Helen had a thing or two to say about female empowerment and equality, even if it was framed by thoughts of sex and beautiful clothes.

As the editor of a widely –circulated and wildly successful young women’s magazine, Ms. Brown was a powerful woman if ever there was one, and I can’t help but wonder the extent to which all those things that influence us in our younger years are there in our older minds when we contemplate our writing.  My main characters in my novels all do seem to emerge as women ahead of their time, with interests in pursuing lives that were not supposed to be women’s territory.  And these are women who make their mark.

Earlier this summer Anne-Marie Slaughter stirred up the “having it all” squabble in a big way with her (extremely wordy) piece in The Atlantic.  In “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” she wrote, “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too)…But not today…” as a consequence of the way “…America’s economy and society are currently structured…”[1]

Ms. Brown, back in 1982, with her brand of lipstick feminism, suggested that “having it all” meant the following:

  • “To love and be loved by a desirable man or men;
  • To enjoy sex;
  • To be happy in your work – and maybe even famous;
  • To make money — possibly a lot;
  • To look great;
  • To have wonderful, loyal friends;
  • To help your family;
  • To be free from most anxiety;
  • Never to be bored
  • Maybe leave the world a better place”[2]

I don’t know about you, it may be a bit simplistic, but this is as good a description of women having it all as I have ever seen (of course having or not having children was not part of Helen’s equation). Hmm…it also seems like the formula for her Cosmo magazine, Oprah’s everything, and chick lit.  Maybe that’s one of my influences.  Now back to my “women’s novel” manuscript and a few new ideas that spring to mind this morning.

What’s a ‘real’ book?

In light of the  the digital advances that are currently taking our breath away, any self-respecting book lover has to have considered the question of what constitutes a real book.  It used to be easy to answer: a book is that ‘thing’ you hold in your hands that has pages bound between two covers.  Maybe we were wrong.  Maybe a book is just what the writer writes and what the reader reads.  But if that’s true, then a digitally distributed haiku qualifies as a book.  Or is there a length rule?  If a piece of digital writing is a certain length, maybe then it’s a book.

Most of my books have been made available by the publishers as e-books these days.   When I say that, I mean that the books were originally published as pages bound between two covers.  But when I’m writing a book, that book resides on my computer’s hard drive.  When I put the finishing touches on the electronic file, is it a book yet?

So many questions; so many opinions.  If you haven’t seen this new video yet, you might like to take a look at their answer to the question and then join the discussion.  (By the way, it’s done with stop-motion not animation.  The producers went into the bookstore from 6 pm to 10 am for five nights and moved books and things.  Quite a job!).