“Millions” in writing advice, paid out in pennies


Practical Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing

Fine advice for writers – especially those in or graduated from one of the many MFA programs – but a bit too wordy with not enough practical advice. Sort of like grad school itself.

An apprentice artisan observes the economic realities of his or her discipline. My father and grandfather were carpenters. They built homes and remodeled bathrooms. They worked when other people slept or relaxed. They had to create things that were beautiful and useful in order to make money to help feed their families. Their profession required the synthesis of artistry and practicality.


Three readers = three interpretations

I find it fascinating that a group of people can read the exact same text and each one can take a different meaning from it.

Take this interview, for instance: I was led to it by Seth Godin, who found in it a “right” and “wrong” interpretation of what an “author’s job” should be. Godin’s take was that he disagreed with Raab, who interpreted her job as being: “The most important thing an author can do is have his or her book in on time.” (At least that’s Raab’s belief according to the interviewer, Jeff Rivera, who is the original reader of Jamie Raab, publisher.)

But that’s not the interpretation I had when I read the interview. The first thing that caught my attention was that Ms. Raab had originally majored in something entirely unrelated to books – City Planning. It interested me because it’s an anomaly. One would expect a business or literature major to go into publishing, but a city planner? I’m now intrigued by how she ultimately became a publisher.

For me (a writer) Raab represents a mini-lesson in the “chaos” of character-building, because as a writer I find such anomalies make for a more interesting “character” – which is essential when creating a protagonist, skillful when creating secondary characters, and distracting when creating background characters.

But that wasn’t what interested the other two readers. For Mr. Godin (a philosopher) her major was irrelevant, because his focus was on a perceived anomaly in the job description (what’s “the most important thing a publisher can do”). His interpretation represented a mini-lesson in the “chaos” of the publishing industry in the midst of a transformation – a topic which also fascinates me.

And for Mr. Rivera, the interviewer (a reporter), the major was also irrelevant. It was an item on a list of background information. He didn’t ask a single question about it, for example (or at least not for publication), but focused on the business aspects of her job, on how successful publishers make money from authors and books.

Why care that three readers gleaned three insights for three reasons? Because of what it tells me about the differences between writers.

Mr. Rivera is paid to be interested in certain topics, and if that’s not what interests him as a person we aren’t supposed to know that. He’s a reporter: his product is an interview.

Mr. Godin is also paid to be interested, but his specialty is the philosophy of the internet. As a philosopher, what interests him is his product.

I am paid to create interesting characters and utilize their anomalies in fiction. I would never create a protagonist that’s a publisher (because in my world they are never protagonists!), but the anomalies in Ms. Raab’s character – how she started out on one career trajectory but wound up in a completely unrelated field – would work for any protagonist. A detective. Or a spy. Or a zombie.

And who knows? I might need an anomalous publisher-character as a secondary, and she may well be based on my interpretation of Ms. Raab.

“Not all who wander are lost.” – Gandalf

How I became a Runaway Serfer

I didn’t start out as a Runaway Serfer. I originally wanted to change careers.

I was working as Executive Administrative Manager at a biotech company and hated it (hint: they are vivisectionists!). I had originally wanted to write, and abandoned it for personal reasons, and since I still wanted to write, I quit my job one summer day to ease back into writing, re-enroll in graduate school, teach elementary education as my new profession, and create a few writing websites on the side. (I’m a multi-tasker!)

Six weeks later: 9/11/2001.

In the years while I obtained my teaching credential and earned my MFA, the world – and both my planned professions – changed.

  1. Elementary education changed from wanting to educate to wanting to test children. (Might as well have stayed with the vivisectionists!)
  2. The internet morphed into social media, meaning simple websites were not so simple anymore and weren’t the only formats a writer needed.
  3. Graduate school turned out to be a lot more interesting than I had imagined (when I left it was a place to get a degree to impress agents and publishers).
  4. And September 11 really did change everything, and not in a good way

I re-emerged into a society that didn’t want to employ someone my age, then didn’t want to employ anybody, really.

So now I’m learning how to be a Runaway Serfer (a Serf without a Master).