Once upon a weekend sunny, I was feeling . . . kinda funny . . .
As I cruised the stories sketched upon my laptop’s memory core.
While I noodled, idly hashing over plots, there came a crashing,
As of someone wildly thrashing—thrashing in my stovepipe’s bore.
“’Tis some chipmunk brash,” I muttered, “thrashing in my stovepipe’s bore—
Only this and nothing more.”And the steely, harsh, resounding echoes of the stovepipe’s pounding
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some chipmunk brash that’s greeting from inside my stovepipe’s bore—
some brash chipmunk with his greeting from within my stovepipe core;—
This it is and nothing more.”
Unlike Edgar Allan Poe, Gentle Reader, I cannot keep this up indefinitely.
The part about fantastic terrors is true, though.
The space where I hatch my writerly triumphs is not heated by the furnace that serves the rest of the house. So in this otherwise pleasant room, we have a woodstove instead. Its black chimney rises four feet, turns horizontal to shoot through the outer wall, and zooms skyward again, rising another ten feet outdoors to disperse the smoke above the roof.
A frantic scrabble sounded forth from the two-foot horizontal run just inside the wall.
Something alive was inside the stovepipe and, from the sound of things, wanted out.
The stove and its pipe were cold, but I had plans to lay a fire there soon. That might smoke the occupant out—or else, gruesomely, cook it.
How had something gotten in there? Not through the stove: The firebox door was closed and in any case, we don’t have wildlife wandering through the sunroom. The outdoor chimney has a cap on top that ought to keep things out. It had failed in its duty.
I wanted this new tenant evicted. But how to dismantle a stovepipe, I do not begin to know; much less how to put it back together afterwards. I would need to call for professional assistance, at about eighty dollars an hour. As the late Chester A. Riley would have said, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”
I sat and pondered.
There came a great whump!, and from the edges of the loose-fitting firebox door rose a cloud of gray ash.
Time to relapse into verse. I’m sorry, Dear Reader, I can’t help myself.
Down the chimney a sparrow had come with a bound.
He was dressed all in feathers, from beak down to toes,
And stood amid soot which on all sides arose.
He spoke not a word but made straight for the light
With a flap and a flutter as he took his flight.
Fancy that—not a chipmunk at all.
A Small Bird
An English sparrow, or house sparrow. Male, to judge by his black bib.
One of the commonest, almost the least of birds. The kind that, in olden days, you could buy two for a farthing at the temple in Jerusalem.
He stood on a bed of fly ash and blinked as the light struck him when I opened the cast-iron door. Then he flew up and bounced off the ceiling.
He bolted for daylight and bounced off a window. He tried again and bounced off another window. His little brain clearly was be-twittered.
I went out through the wide-open door, hoping to set a good example. I came in and did it twice more, to make sure he got the idea. Then I stayed out, went around the corner, and looked in the end window from outside.
Left to his own devices, the winged warrior hopped across the tile floor, closing the distance to the open door, hop by hop, until he stood on its threshold. He hopped out, cautiously, to the low deck outside.
One more hop, testing the alfresco, and off he flew. None the worse for wear, I hope.
Just another day in the life of a literary lion.
The Preachy Part
Close encounters with God’s wild creatures always leave Your New Favorite Writer a bit breathless. I’m glad the little guy slipped his predicament with all feathers accounted for.
But on a deeper level, I stand in awe of the Creative Power that fashioned both a geezer like me and a striving sparrow, and put us together in one space for a few moments’ mutual instruction in the sketchy parameters of life.
In the 1950s we watched professional wrestlers of the day: Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Dick the Bruiser, and the unprecedented Gorgeous George.
These TV wrestling matches were not sporting events; they were melodamas. Beefcakes with crafted personas played hero or heavy for the crowd. No villainy was too base, no gallantry too phony to be aped in the ring—or even outside the ring.
Nothing about this spectacle was authentic or uplifting. Absolutely nothing. And we, the people, ate it up.
Which reminds me: The Presidential Debates are coming our way.
The first Presidential Debates ever, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, took place in 1960. Both men played serious adults seeking to guide our nation’s future. Since then, many such debates have been held, the seriousness and adulthood slipping a notch or two downward every four years.
Modern presidential debates were probably inspired by the seven three-hour, open-air arguments held between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, candidates for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858.
The stakes could not have been greater. Slavery’s hour of reckoning was at hand. The nation paid close attention as the Railsplitter and the Little Giant spoke forth two divergent views on the great question of the day.
No moderators fed questions to the candidates. There were no assigned topics, no short answers. Everybody knew what the topic was.
Each man spoke at length, without interruptions by the other. One candidate would speak for an hour. Then his opponent spoke for an hour and a half, after which the opening speaker got half an hour in rebuttal.
Lincoln and Douglas spoke for up to ninety minutes at a stretch, made themselves heard without amplification by vast crowds of farmers and townsmen. They spoke without notes or prompters, analyzed the issues in detail, used good grammar, and unleashed rhetoric that sometimes rose to the sublime.
Those who heard their speeches or read verbatim transcripts in their newspapers could know Lincoln’s and Douglas’s views and know exactly on what points they differed.
Here are two brief samples from their fifth debate, in Galesburg.
DOUGLAS: I say to you, frankly, that in my opinion, this Government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by white men in all time to come. But while I hold that under our Constitution and political system the negro is not a citizen, cannot be a citizen, and ought not to be a citizen, it does not follow by any means that he should be a slave. On the contrary . . . [h]umanity requires, and Christianity commands, that you shall extend to every inferior being, and every dependent being, all the privileges, immunities and advantages which can be granted to them consistent with the safety of society. If you ask me the nature and extent of these privileges, I answer that that is a question which the people of each State must decide for themselves.
LINCOLN: Every thing that emanates from [Judge Douglas] or his coadjutors in their course of policy, carefully excludes the thought that there is any thing wrong in slavery. . . If you will take the Judge’s speeches, and select the short and pointed sentences expressed by him—as his declaration that he “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down”—you will see at once that this is perfectly logical, if you do not admit that slavery is wrong. . . . Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.
These are small fragments of much longer speeches made on this occasion. I quote them only to show the candidates engaged in making complex arguments, drawing lawyerly distinctions with as much precision and power as possible. They supposed their hearers, no matter what their level of education, could follow their arguments.
What if I challenged you, Dear Reader, to read any one of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in its entirety? (Go ahead. It’s easy to Google them up. I’ll wait.)
I predict you will find, as I do, that reading these speeches and comprehending them is a heavy intellectual workout.
In so many ways, both physical and mental, we are not up to our ancestors.
Leaving aside any elegance of expression, consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates for gravity alone.
By comparison, one may confidently predict that Trump and Biden will appear as bull elks in rut, pawing the earth, shaking their antlers, banging heads with great thuds.
The political world has no incentive to include rational content in these debates, because when the spectacle is over we will all go and vote as we had planned to vote all along.
Neither high rhetoric nor weighty arguments can sway us. Tribe is all that matters. We lay our bets on the fighter who punches the chords of our ancient tribal harmonies.
If we had a shred of honesty, we would admit this fact and stop fussing about debates.
Perhaps, instead, we could spend some of our energy tracing the sources of our tribalism, seeking to learn what unwholesomeness it is within ourselves that nurses our blithe, reflexive hatred of The Other Tribe.
Today we wrap up our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
The final step is to build what is called an “author platform.”
Step Six: Build Your Platform
Suppose, Dear Reader, you have written a book. You have sold your book to a publisher. And your publication date is fast approaching.
Now comes the fun part. You and your publisher will strive to sell your book to hundreds—no, make that thousands—no, make that tens of thousands of people.
Sounds like a big job, doesn’t it? And one which is not much related to the skills and urges that led you to write the book in the first place. (Unless, God help you, you wrote a book on how to market, platform, and sell a book.)
But do not despair, Dear Reader.
There is a time-honored way to do this.
Have your publisher send you, a publicist, and one or two assistants on a junket called a “book tour.” You will ravage all the major cities in the United States. Your publicist will have paved the way by arranging dates with the biggest newspapers, radio outlets, and TV stations.
You will sit for magisterial interviews at each outlet and come back at the end of each triumphal day to a fine dinner, followed by exercise, massage, and sauna; after which you will retire to your well-appointed suite in a four-star hotel—a suite freshened with a new bouquet of roses and several bottles of Dom Perignon to celebrate your—well, let’s face it—to celebrate your celebrity.
We are only kidding, Dear Reader.
In the actual, dystopian world of today, your publisher will spring for exactly none of the aforementioned flourishes and furbelows. If you are lucky, the publisher will buy cookies and ginger ale and will help you arrange an indoor venue for your official book launch party, which will be counted a smashing success if two digits’ worth of loyal supporters show up to munch the Lorna Doones and a few of them buy copies of the book, which you will smilingly autograph for them. Unless, of course, you hold the darned thing on Zoom and refer attendees to a website where they may buy the Kindle version for the special introductory price of $0.00.
About this, we are NOT kidding, Dear Reader
And, by the way, about one week after your book launch, the publisher will be off to the next book launch, featuring some other up-and-coming author.
But we repeat, do not despair. After all, we are here to help you through this dark valley.
It helps to have a long-term strategy. Pause for a moment to reflect that most of a book’s sales do not occur at the launch party, or even during the first week.
Any book, successful or less successful, scores most of its sales weeks, months, and years after publication. And a prime factor in the strength of those sales, which can generate increasing royalty checks for you year after year, is, wait for it . . . dumb luck.
That’s right. You may get lucky and some random, unpredictable factor may cause people to buy your book. Or maybe not so much.
Because another, completely separate, prime determining factor is your own strategy, skill, and persistence in raising the profile of your book by building your author platform in the months before publication and the years after publication.
What is a platform?
Here’s an example: Suppose you commit a string of sensational murders before being caught by the police after a highly-publicized and hazardous high-speed chase in a crowded tourist mecca like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon—or, better yet, Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons (the ones on Long Island, not the nationwide motel chain that offers free and usually satisfying breakfasts).
Yes, make it the Hamptons, by all means. Because thereby you add snob appeal and a dash of carefree wealth to the revolting barbarity of your crime spree.
As soon as the police allow you to do so, call your lawyer. And make sure your lawyer calls an agent. Because there’s a sure-fire book in this.
We kid you not, Gentle Reader. Millions of people will shell out real U.S. simoleons for a book, almost any book, written by a notorious serial killer nabbed in a glamorous high-speed chase in a well-known playground of the rich. As long as your book has some tenuous connection with your celebrity. For instance, The Long Island Murder and Mayhem Guaranteed Weight Loss Cookbook. Perfect.*
* The asterisk to this particular achievement is that in most jurisdictions, crime is not allowed to pay. So the court will confiscate your million-dollar advance and distribute it to the families of your victims. (The Hamptons may be an exception, for all we know, Fair Reader. But don’t say we offered you any legal advice, because we will deny it. We would never think of doing such a thing even if we were allowed to, which we are not.)
But our point is: This would be a platform.
So now, to translate it into something where you are allowed to make money: Let’s say your crimes are only political. You are a major party candidate for president or any other high-profile political office. Perfect. Feel free to cash in by writing a book.
It’s a reliable platform—at least in the sense that the effete eastern snobs and nattering nabobs of negativism who run the Big Five publishing houses will pay you a million bucks up front—before a line is written. Whether any copies of your books get sold is surely beside the point.
“But what,” we hear you say, “what if my political appeal is limited and I can’t get on the ticket? What else might be a platform?”
Well, perhaps you are a leading national authority on welded joints. You make fifty speeches a year to state welders’ associations. It’s an average of two hundred attendees per conference, and they all love you. Now suppose you write a book about about your favorite subject: Spot Welds, Brazes, and Heliarcs I Have Known; or, What Are You Doing in a Joint Like This?
You can probably sell twenty or thirty books after each speech, if you carry them with you in a cardboard box. You’ve got a platform. Your fame as a welding expert is your platform. In that case, we’d advise self-publishing, as long as your book is professionally done. Why split the profits with a traditional publisher?
You see how it works?
“What if I’m just the author of a book I enjoyed writing and want lots of people to read? I mean, I’m not a celebrity or a noted speaker with a built-in sales base.”
Then, Dear Reader, you will have to build yourself a platform, plank by plank.
There are lots of books and articles on how to build an author platform. Most of them recommend the heavy use of social media. We will not gainsay that. Social media can help you build a nationwide, even worldwide, coterie of friends who will encourage you. A few of them may even buy your book.
But you don’t have to be a whiz at Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or anything else like that to build a platform.
Unless there is something else you are widely noted for, your book itself will be the main plank in your platform. Once you have a book in print, you have something you can flog. You can, literally or figuratively, hold a copy up to the camera and say, “Buy this book!”
The existence of your published book gives you a perfect reason to call podcasters and arrange to be interviewed about your book. Why podcasters? Because they are among the most powerful influencers in America today. Noted book marketing guru Dan Blank says, “Again and again, I hear from authors how they would get an appearance on a major TV morning show, and saw barely a blip in book sales. But that a podcast appearance would cause a huge ripple effect in their book sales.”
For some reason, readers get attached to podcasts and give them their trust. So when you and your book appear on their favorite podcast, they are likely to buy the book.
Podcasters are known in the marketing business as influencers. The same is true of bloggers. If you get the opportunity to do a guest blog, take it. What will it cost you? A few hundred well-considered words, that’s all. And those words can and should be about yourself, your passion, and your writings.
Also, get yourself invited to every local book club you can. Now that we are all hooked on Zooming, you can even make this a national quest. If your book is chosen as book of the month by a book club, x readers will buy it just so they can take part in next month’s discussion. When you, The Author, appear and answer their questions, some of them will talk up your book to their friends, and you’ll get additional sales.
Lastly, whenever you do one of these “influencer” gigs—a podcast, a guest blog, or a book club—mention it prominently in whatever social media posts you routinely do. In this way, with a little thought and careful coordination, you can build yourself a brand.
If you have written an RGB (Really Good Book), then your efforts in the first year after publication will pay off handsomely down the road. Many books with sluggish but persistent sales in the first few years suddenly reached a take-off point purely by word of mouth after three to five years, much to their authors’ surprise.
When your first book has sold thousands of copies, that itself becomes another plank in your platform. People who liked your first book will be more likely to buy the second.
With chagrin, Dear Reader, we must admit that what we have just written is, well, theoretical. In other words, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
But we wouldn’t know, because our first book is yet to be published. We’re still working on that part.
Today we resume our series, “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
Step Five: Submit
Previously, we urged you to embrace your role as literary lion, to write something, to seek honest feedback from readers that you can use to improve your text, and to form supportive friendships with fellow writers and others in the literary community.
But sooner or later, you will wish to submit your work for publication.
So here, in Step Five, we offer tips on getting your work accepted and published. Of course, you may choose to publish it yourself, as Walt Whitman and others have done. However, we shall leave self-publication for others to address.
Here we will focus on traditional publication, a process in which you need somebody—most likely a stranger, and often more than one stranger—to say yes.
Fiction and nonfiction take somewhat different paths to publication, but in all cases there are certain overarching principles you should observe.
Submit only your best work, in its most polished form.
Research the publication, publishing house, or agent to make sure you are submitting an appropriate piece.
Address the editor, publisher, or agent by name, not “Dear Editor.”
Find the applicable submission guidelines and follow them. Every periodical, book publisher, and literary agency posts submission guidelines on its website.
Communicate cordially, courteously, and professionally. Never whine.
Now let’s look at the submission processes for fiction and nonfiction.
Fiction is usually written before it is sold. You have an idea and you develop it into a manuscript that says what you want it to say. Then, with completed work in hand, you begin to shop around for a publisher.
If you have written a short story or a short-short story (“flash fiction”), the process is simple. You seek out magazines or literary journals that publish fiction, or contests that award prizes for short stories, and you submit.
Pay close attention to submission guidelines. Usually they’ll want the complete manuscript with a cover letter stating something about yourself. Most contests, and some publications, charge a small reading fee, but plenty of others do not.
Some journals and magazines pay money for short fiction, but many highly respected literary journals pay nothing. You write for the prestige of publication in their pages. But that feather in your cap may pay big dividends later.
With a whole book—a novel or novella—the process is more complex. You will pitch to a publisher, usually to an acquisitions editor at a publishing house; or you will pitch to a literary agent who might agree to represent your work to publishers.
“Why do I need an agent if I can submit directly to publishers?”
Almost all books accepted by the Big Five publishers and their many subordinate imprints come to them through established literary agents. The only practical way to sell your book to Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, or Macmillan is through an agent. That’s why you need an agent.
But here’s the Catch-22 of the publishing industry: It’s difficult for an unpublished author to get an agent.
Not that you shouldn’t try.
But while you are pitching agents, you can also pitch directly to many smaller publishers—independents, regional publishers, and specialty publishers. These presses are just as real and legitimate as the Big Five. They are more numerous, and they may be more responsive. Many books, perhaps yours, naturally “belong” with a smaller publisher.
Note: Make sure you know whether you are dealing with a traditional publisher, who will own the publication rights and pay you a small royalty on each book sold, or with a fee-based publisher who charges you money up front to publish your book.Either arrangement is okay, but a publisher who tries to take money at both ends may not be your best partner.
Whether you pitch your book to an agent or directly to a publisher, follow the submission guidelines. You will need three well-honed documents:
A one-page query letter, briefly and powerfully characterizing the contents of your book and telling a bit about yourself as author.
A synopsis of your book’s plot, about one page single-spaced—no more than about four hundred words.
The first part of your manuscript. Most publishers or agents will want to see the first ten pages; or they will ask for the first chapter or the first two chapters.
Some agents and publishers want to see only the query letter. On that basis alone, they will decide whether or not to ask for more. So make sure your query letter is great.
Some want you to send the synopsis along with the query letter. Some want the query letter, the synopsis, and the first ten pages. Send what they ask for—no more, no less.
Do not throw these documents together casually or on the spur of the moment. Put as much work into their composition as you gave to the manuscript itself.
It will seem unfair that, having spent a year or more writing an 80,000-word book, you must now encapsulate the same story in a synopsis of 400 words! But remember, Dear Reader, life is not always fair. And a great 400-word synopsis may get an agent or editor to read your 80,000-word book. So get to it.
Since agents and editors may take their first impression of your work from its first ten pages, you might think it’s a good idea to go back and revise the first ten pages one more time, to make them as compelling as possible. If that’s what you think, you would be correct. Make it so.
Oh! And then, by the way, go back one more time and make the rest of the book as good as the first ten pages.
Remember, we said these steps to literary stardom were simple. We never promised they would be easy.
What if you write nonfiction?
If your nonfiction is of the special kind known as personal memoirs, the submission path for most agents and publishers will resemble that of fiction.
All other types of nonfiction follow a different path.
The model for nonfiction is: Pitch the work first, get a deal—or at least an understanding—and then write it.
If you’re thinking about a short piece like a magazine article, send the editor of the magazine a brief query letter—usually by email—describing the content of the article you hope to write, pointing out its timeliness and likely appeal to readers, and stating your qualifications as its author.
Give the editor a fair amount of time to respond—at least a couple of weeks—before following up with a cordial note reminding her or him of your original query.
If the editor says no, say “Thank you” and move on.
If you get a positive response, it will come in one of two forms. You may receive a definite assignment, which is an offer to buy the article, provided you write and submit it by a given deadline. The editor will specify a “kill fee” to be paid if you deliver the piece as promised but for some reason it is not published.
Formal assignments usually go to established writers. The next best thing is a general statement of interest, such as, “Yes, we’d like to see it.” Such a statement does not guarantee your piece will be bought and published, but it means the editor would like to publish a piece like the one you have proposed, if it’s well done.
If an editor says, “Yes, we’d like to see it,” your best move is to get back to the editor right away to seek further guidance. Is he or she looking for any particular angle? What is the preferred length? Is there any sensitive area where you should tread lightly? When the editor answers even one or two intelligent questions of this nature, you now have a blueprint for the piece. Write the article as specified in that conversation, and how can the editor say no?
What if you want to write a whole nonfiction book?
The same approach applies. You pitch the general idea and get a commitment before you write the work.
Instead of a magazine editor, you will pitch to a book publisher or a literary agent.
And instead of a simple query letter, you will submit a book proposal—a multi-page document outlining the book’s scope, organization, potential audience, and marketing possibilities. The publisher or agent may give you a very specific format for submitting this information. If not, there are good books and articles readily available on how to prepare a book proposal.
A successful proposal will result in a publishing contract. You will then need to write the book and turn in the manuscript by a date certain. Contract provisions will cover what happens in the event of non-performance by you or the publisher or in the event of creative differences with respect to your execution of the work.
“Can I submit the same material to multiple publishers or agents at the same time?”
Yes, or no.
Pay close attention to what you read on the publisher’s or agent’s website, and use common sense.
Agents receive thousands of queries. Even the most conscientious agents are sorely tasked to respond to all of these queries. Many say, right on their website, “If you do not hear from us within eight weeks, consider that a pass.” If you are an unrepresented author sending a cold query, you need not wait for an agent’s rejection before querying another agent. However, do not query two agents in the same agency at the same time.
Some journals want to have time to read your short story before you submit it elsewhere. They don’t want to invest time and effort evaluating your work, only to learn someone else has bought it. So if they promise to respond within a period you can live with, submit the piece and respect the editor’s prerogative.
Other publications are okay with simultaneous submissions, asking only that you let them know promptly if the piece is accepted elsewhere.
Book publishers live in a world of simultaneous submissions. In fact, some agents, when in possession of a great manuscript, will try to start a bidding war between two or more publishers. If you’re querying publishers directly, you may do the same.
Keeping track of what’s okay with whom is part of your job as a writer. Let your conscience be your guide. Treat others as you would like to be treated, but remember that you and your work work have value.
A Final Thought
Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, short pieces or books, the process of seeking publication is frustrating because (1) there are thousands of worthy manuscripts seeking publication and (2) the market for literary content is highly specific and differentiated.
Each agent or editor has a particular list of wants and preferences, which your piece may not match. That does not mean your work is worthless.
Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen’s Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 144 times before finding a publisher. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance scored 121 rejections. Both of these books became classics and sold millions of copies. Persist. You only need one agent or editor who lights up when reading your work.
But here’s something to think about. If it will take 300 submissions to get your work accepted, what would happen if you went back over your query letter, your synopsis, and your manuscript itself, and made them even better than they are now?
Maybe you would cut that down to 100 rejections. Just sayin’.
Today we continue our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
In our first three installments, we covered (1) achieving literary lionhood immediately, (2) actually writing something, and (3) getting feedback on your first draft.
Once you have gotten that feedback, you can use it to revise the first draft into something better. You might think it will then be time to submit your work for publication.
But first, Dear Reader, let us mention another step you should not overlook or skip in your understandable haste to be published. You can perform it while you are revising; or earlier, as you seek feedback; or even while you are writing the first draft.
You can actually do this step from the first moment you become a literary lion. In fact, it is an essential part of being a literary lion.
Step Four: Associate
Writing is a lonely occupation.
Alone, you put words on paper. Alone, you revise those words. Alone, you submit your work for publication. And when your book, story, or poem is not chosen—it is you alone who faces the rejection.
It takes strong character and steadfast purpose to keep going.
To counter the loneliness inherent in the craft, you will bless yourself and others by forming as many friendships, alliances, and acquaintances as possible in the literary community. Think of it as a “Lonely Pens Club.”
A quick way to get started on this is to attend a writers’ conference.
The Writers’ Conference
Real testimony from writer and literary lion Larry F. Sommers:
Writers, agents, editors, publishers, and writing coaches thronged the halls and meeting rooms of the conference venue for four glorious days. Some of them I knew already. A couple of the event’s organizers were UW writing instructors, Christine DeSmet and Laurie Scheer, old friends of mine. Three or four members of my writers’ critique group, Tuesdays With Story, were fellow attendees. But there were hundreds of other people, previously unknown, just waiting to be met.
As I chatted idly with these folks, attended workshops with them, conversed with speakers, teachers, coaches, agents, and various kinds of promoters, it dawned on me: “THESE PEOPLE ARE MY TRIBE!”
Some of them are as different from me as it’s possible to be. They’re working on stories and projects far removed from mine. But all of us know the thrill and the terror of writing one’s ideas down on paper, revising and rewriting, showing our work to others and receiving the inevitable critiques.
We may be fighting in different wars, but we’re all in the same foxhole.
Some people you meet at a writers’ conference will become close friends, with whom you feel a deep sympathy. Some, not so much. But even the kooks and the weirdos are worth meeting, listening to, and getting to know. Almost every writer has something to share—some bit of craft, philosophy, or marketing knowledge—that you can use. And they are amazingly generous with their knowledge.
It may surprise you to learn that they consider you a valuable contact and a source of useful information. In this foxhole there are no strangers.
When you attend a conference, it’s wise to go “loaded for bear.” Study the conference schedule to dope out which workshops and learning sessions are musts for you. Bone up on any presentation materials thata may be distributed in advance. Learn the names and reputations of agents, publishers, and other key participants.
If the conference offers opportunities to share your work or to compete in impromptu writing challenges, figure out what you have to do to be included.
A writers’ conference is like a large, juicy, orange. In view of its dollar cost and relative infrequency—you really should suck it dry.
Bring business cards and hand them to everybody you can hand them to. Accept theirs as well, and write down or remember what you know about each person. The day after the conference ends, send each new contact a message of friendship and hopes for future engagement.
Follow your new friends on social media. Attend their book launches, readings, signings, and other events. Be a social butterfly in the cage of literary lions.
The Critique Group
In Installment Three: Get Feedback, we touched on the importance of joining a writers’ mutual critique group. We won’t repeat that advice here but will mention a couple of ways this kind of group can help you befriend others in your tribe.
In the first place, some of these writers you interact with month by month may attend the same regional writers’ conference you attend. So you’ll already have friends at the conference; your initial plunge into the larger milieu need not be cold turkey.
Also, because of frequent contact with these people, you will come to know them and their writings very well, as they will you.
If anybody’s support will combat the cloud of gloom that may envelop a writer in her solitary task, it is these folks. They are your tribe-within-a-tribe.
Make it a point to pop in on readings, signings, or book launches in your community. Be there for your friends. Buy their books, post reviews, and spread the word. It’s a matter of supporting your fellow writers and your local independent booksellers. This support may come back to you when it’s your turn to make a personal appearance—but it’s what you would do for friends in any case. And it also helps you to become known among the writing and publishing community in your locale.
In all this, Dear Reader, remember that your writing is a gift. In the first place, it’s a gift to you from your Maker. In the second place, it’s a gift you may give to your community. Only when the gift has been recognized, realized, and given away may the chance arise to earn money as a result. And the fruits of that quest are unpredictable at best.
So don’t get ahead of yourself. Play the long game.
In all your comings and goings with writers, agents, publishers, and others involved in the business of turning stories into the commodity known as “literature,” don’t be afraid to mention and defend the work you’ve been doing—but only within the general context of sharing within the tribe. Never commandeer center stage in order to promote your work.
Make sure to express your genuine regard for fellow writers and your appreciation of their work.
Today we continue our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be.
If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
In our last installment, we mentioned the importance of actually writing a first draft. This time, we will cover what to do once you have written it.
Step Three: Get Feedback
Having typed “The End” on a first draft—and having madly yet responsibly celebrated that achievement—you now have the raw material on which you may Revise Your Way to Greatness.
But revision cannot happen in a vacuum. You need to let someone see—and critique—your first draft.
This brings vulnerability. Maybe you cannot endure it. In that case, forget about being a writer.
There is no choice but to open yourself to others. Or do you write only for your own private amusement?
Of course it’s hard. When we’ve poured our time, effort, and care into a story, it becomes our baby. We see all its beauties and none of its faults.
For this reason, any revision you may attempt before seeking outside opinions is guaranteed to be trivial. You may fix a typo, change a comma to a semicolon, or break one paragraph into two. Because when something is basically perfect, it needs only little tweaks to become fully perfect. Right?
Enter the outside critic.
That would be anybody but yourself. They go by many names: collaborator, writing group member, beta reader, consultant, developmental editor, spouse. All these sources of valuable feedback have one thing in common.
They are not you.
They offer a perspective you cannot attain on your own.
Here is what will happen: You will share your manuscript with an outside critic, trembling a bit lest your brilliant writing style go unappreciated. You will fear being asked to make your language a bit less flowery—or a bit more flowery.
Instead, you will find out that your reader did not even grasp what you were saying.
When you wrote “There was a Prussian cast to Emil’s appearance,” you assumed readers would have the impression of a stiff German soldier, maybe even wearing a spiky helmet. But then your actual reader says, “Why was his complexion blue?”
And speaking of Prussians, Field Marshal von Moltke said, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force.”
But your “main hostile force” is not hostile at all. It is your reader, who only wants to understand. She wants you to succeed as an author, and all she asks is that you say what you mean, in a way she can understand. Is that so much to ask?
Well, yes. It is.
Our mother tongue is a marvelous thing. It includes thousands of words, each with multiple meanings. You must string words together in a way that conveys meaning without ambiguity. (We mean, without unintended ambiguity. Purposeful ambiguity is an advanced technique we shall not bother with here.)
It turns out—stupid as this seems—that the only way to avoid confusing your reader is to go ahead and confuse a few readers, but ask them to report back to you.
Writing for public consumption is like lobbing artillery shells over a distant horizon. Your first shots fall short, or long, or to left or right of the target. That’s why gunners use spotters—remote observers who report where the shell actually landed. Then they change their aim and shoot again.
That’s what you must do as an author.
Perhaps you noticed the use of the plural—readers, spotters, observers—in the paragraphs above. That’s because any one outside critic will only trip over a few of the obstacles you have put in the way of understanding. You need reports from several readers to find all, or even most, of them.
Bill Martinez, a veteran writing coach, calls obstacles of this sort “snags.” They snag the reader’s attention away from the story, to focus instead on some verbal tic or point of confusion. You want to eliminate as many snags as you can.
This kind of feedback is so essential to your success as a writer that you need systematic ways to solicit, interpret, and exploit it. We recommend a tiered approach such as the following:
A first reader. The very first person with whom you share your first draft. It could be your spouse—if your spouse is intelligent and supportive, yet unflinchingly honest—and if your marriage can survive such honest critiques.
Or your first reader could be someone else with those same qualities. Someone whose judgment you trust, whose views you cannot help but respect.
If you cannot find such a person, then skip the first reader. But if you are lucky enough to have a first reader, that person can save you time, effort, and embarrassment by short-circuiting your worst ideas before they go any further.
One (or more) writers’ group(s). You need to join a small group of writers—no more than a dozen or so—who meet regularly to read and critique one another’s work. Wherever there are writers, such groups exist.
Writers’ mutual critique groups are all different, but the ones that work well have some things in common: (1) They meet regularly, usually once or twice a month. (2) They have procedures to allot reading, critiquing, and discussion time fairly among members. (3) They operate in a collegial fashion, with members offering sharp, yet supportive, critiques. The guiding hand of a seasoned, congenial chairperson/convener can foster these goals.
When you find such a group, treasure it and respect its ethic. You may need to lurk for months on its fringes to gain familiarity and to inherit a slot in the rotation of works to be critiqued.
Whether you are new or well-established in the group: Speak respectfully. Don’t hog the conversation. Diligently read the other members’ work and contribute your two cents’ worth, orally or in writing, or both. As you learn to give criticism constructively, learn also to receive it the same way. There’s nothing wrong with defending your own methods. But don’t do so out of a knee-jerk reflex that blinds you to the benefit of others’ ideas.
If you can get into one such group, that’s great. If you can be in two, that’s even better.
Beta readers. When you have revised your first draft, based on feedback from your first reader and your writers’ group colleagues, you may feel the resulting second draft is in pretty good shape.
Disabusing you of that foolish notion is the task of a small corps of beta readers.
Beta readers agree to read your entire manuscript and give you feedback. Choose them for specific strengths they bring. One beta reader may be expert in a field related to your book’s content. Another may be a writer of strong, graceful prose. Another may have a special connection with your story’s main character. Yet another may know the publishing industry, or may simply be a person of rare perception and judgment.
“Sensitivity readers” are beta readers who can alert an author to passages that may offend readers based on racial or other group identities. People with such insights can be of value—their services may even be mandated by an agent or publisher—to avoid alienating large groups of readers.
The best beta readers are intelligent, unsparing, distinguised, and willing to work for free. Some beta readers, however, charge for their services. And their advice may be worth paying for. That’s a decision you will have to make.
When you get feedback on your work, what do you do with it?
Evaluate each comment. What’s it worth? Should you make a change, or stand pat?
Remember: You are the author. It’s your work.
Some notes you get will be well-meant but ill-founded. Thank the originator graciously and move on.
Some comments will strike right to the bone and force a deep reconsideration of your approach. Major revisions are a lot of work. But it’s better you received this feedback now, not later. The earlier you discover a problem, the better.
Most comments will fall between the two extremes just cited. You should consider them, but how seriously should you take them?
If you get the same comment from two or three sources, you must address the issue. It’s not one person’s isolated impression.
But there is a danger that revision may lead you away from your first intention. The larger the revision, the greater the danger of undermining your own creative impulse.
Here’s a conservative approach: Correct your draft in the least obtrusive way possible. That is, address the issue, but undercorrect slightly. You may enrich your narrative and short-circuit the snag, yet without changing the rhythm or purpose of your prose.
Eventually, your outside critics will change from “readers” to “editors.” This change is inevitable if your work is to be published.
If you achieve “traditional” publication, by a royalty-paying book publisher or an established periodical publication, your work will be assigned to an editor who works for the publisher. If your book will be self-published, then you will hire an editor to prepare the manuscript for publication. (You could skip this step, but we’re assuming you don’t want to publish a pile of crap. And no, we don’t believe that you—besides being the writer and the publisher—have the skills and objectivity to do a good job editing your own work.)
If your work is intended for traditional publication rather than self-publication, you may think you’ve escaped the need to pay for editing, since the publisher will do that. Well . . . maybe.
But if you send your work to agents and publishers, and you find that even those few who actually read the work are not impressed, then maybe you would benefit from hiring an editor for your own enlightenment.
There are, in general, two kinds of editors: developmental editors and line editors. A developmental editor will help you identify structural weaknesses—major problems of plot and characterization, if you’re a novelist, or of general organization, if you write nonfiction. You may resist, resent, or reject the feedback of a good developmental editor. His advice may send you back to the early stages of story development. You may need to rip out and and rewrite large sections. But if you receive his feedback with an open mind, you may find the extra work is warranted.
A line editor, also called a copy editor, will help you correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and conform the copy to all the requirements of the Chicago Manual of Style or other governing style guide. This is detail-oriented work, with which many writers have little patience. But if you submit a manuscript that falls short of the exacting standards of the publishing industry, its other merits may not be enough to save it.
In a Nutshell
Whether you get their services for free or need to pay, outside critics—be they first readers, writers’ group colleagues, beta readers, or professional editors—are an essential step on your path to publication.
We live in an abundance of riches. The literary world is flooded with so many good manuscripts that your work must be first-rate to attract any attention at all. There is no shame in admitting that you need feedback from others to make it so.
Today we continue our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be.
If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
Step One was “Skip Straight to Literary Lion.”
This week we feel compelled to point out that writing is also an essential prerequisite.
Step Two: Write
At some point, every writer asks, “Am I really a writer?” Or, “How do I know if I’m a writer?”
The simplest answer is best. If you write, you’re a writer.
This answer does not rest on anybody’s laurels. You need not be a member of the Authors’ Guild to be a writer—though, if you are a writer, it’s not a bad guild to be a member of.
You need not have won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, or a Newbery Medal.
You need not even have published a book, an article, or a poem to be a writer.
If someone asks what you do, just say, “I’m a writer.” This will get you past impostor syndrome. Unless you don’t actually write.
As to where you write, when you write, how often you write, how much you write, whether or not anybody reads what you write, whether or not anybody likes what you write—these are details.
Just get something down on paper.
(When we say “on paper,” we mean to include virtual representations of paper, as in a computer file.)
Maybe you already have something down on paper. Maybe you need to add something to it, so what you have on paper becomes a more complete something. It could be a story, a screenplay, a poem, a novel, a novella, an essay, or a memoir.
Your first object is to write—and to keep writing. We’re talking about discipline, which belongs to what is called “the craft” of writing.
Writers all have different methods, or different approaches to the actual task of putting something down on paper.
Some write before breakfast; others write after lunch.
Some write on a laptop; others use goose quill pens on antique parchment paper.
Some write from a beach house overlooking a blue lagoon; others write in rented office space to get away from family and friends; others write on the kitchen table while feeding six hungry children.
Some write in absolute silence; others type to the tune of a Death Metal soundtrack.
It’s all okay. Your way is your way. But the more rarefied your minimal writing conditions become, the more obstacles you place in the way of getting anything down on paper.
By all means, find the time and place that works best for you—but if things are less than perfect, write anyway. Do not let the perfect defeat the good.
How much, and with what regularity, should you write? How much, and how regularly, can you write? There are no wrong answers to this question. But the more you can write, the more you will write.
Some well-known authors apply the seat of their pants to their writing chair and do not rise until they have produced a thousand new words. Or they write flat-out for four hours each day and stop in mid-sentence when their buzzer goes off.
If you need to quantify your efforts in that way, go for it. But one size does not fit all. Some of us just write whenever we can squeeze it in. If a lot of things bubble up inside you that you need to write down, that’s as good a way as any.
So relax. Your Muse will not fail you. Just write.
We hate to even mention “writer’s block,” but we suppose we must, even though it’s akin to whispering “homesick” at a summer camp full of junior Brownies.
Some writers insist writer’s block is a myth, that there is no such thing.
We prefer to say that if writer’s block exists, it applies to non-writers, not to writers. And the beauty part of that is, you get to decide each day whether you are the one or the other.
We noted above that you may already have something down on paper. We gently suggested that you keep on writing. When you reach the place where it makes sense to type “The End,” go ahead and do so.
Then do a little victory dance, eat a Twinkie, and congratulate yourself. You have achieved that which many people never achieve. You have completed the first draft of a literary work. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.
But know that the achievement you just celebrated is the start of a long process. First drafts are inherently defective.
Some writers have even said, “All first drafts are shit.” We prefer more moderate expressions.
But the fact remains that all first drafts need to be improved. No author ever rolled a first draft out of his old Underwood typewriter, sent it off to Random House, and received a million-dollar advance in the next mail.
(Harold Robbins claimed that was his process, but he was a notorious liar.)
Suffice it to say, before you can begin to improve your first draft, you must have a first draft to improve. Thus our constant admonition: “Keep writing.”
When you go back and read your first draft, you will want to change something, and that’s revision.
For many of us, revision is the fun part of writing. We are editors at heart and love to chop away at dull prose, spruce it up, and bring it to life. And that is a good and holy thing.
But if you are one of us—one of those who would rather edit than write—try to resist the urge.
You may be the greatest reviser on God’s green earth. But if you start with a poorly conceived first draft, no clever amendments to the copy will revise it into greatness.
That is why they pay James Patterson a lot of money.
We fear, Dear Reader, that you must acquire the knack of putting a good story into your first draft right from the start.
Unless you are a “natural storyteller,” to build a compelling story, one worth writing down with the best words and phrases you can bring to it, is an art that takes many years, and lots of practice, to acquire.
So you’d better start now.
There you are: Just you and your keyboard. What are you going to do?
You start with an idea. We can’t help you there; it has to be your own idea. The good news is, there are a lot of ideas you could have that will deliver the goods, depending what you choose to do with them.
Let your idea become a person. A specific person, a character with a need and a desire. The story you are going to write will be her story. She is the “progagonist.” Her chief attribute, above all others, is action.
A protagonist takes action prompted by his or her needs, to meet his or her desires, and despite serious obstacles.
Here is where it gets tricky, Dear Reader. It may be hard to put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. Unless you are a swashbuckler in real life, a protagonist is different from you and me.
When faced with the demands of life, we hem and we haw. We shilly-shally and we dilly-dally, in a wishy-washy way.
Not our protagonist. The protagonist plunges right in and commits herself to a course of action, whether impulsively or with a carefully calculated plan.
She acts. Right now.
Before you, the author, can catch your breath, the protagonist has dragged you into a conflict, a problem, a nearly-insoluble dilemma.
The protagonist will have to use her wits and battle her way out. So the one thing the protagonist cannot be is passive.
Writers sometimes say: “The protagonist must protag.”
That may be the main principle to observe in writing your first draft.
In your new identity as a literary lion (see Step One), you are no doubt reading books and articles about story structure—books that break or analyze your story’s plot into definable acts, or beats, or “stages of the Hero’s Journey.” All of these concepts are fine and dandy. They will help you out of tight spots. We encourage you to learn and use them.
But none of them will work out well unless your protagonist is active. And if your protagonist is active, he or she will organically create the story structure, just by protagging all over the story’s landscape.
Keep your protagonist protagging until you come to some satisfying end.
Then you can start revising.
You cannot revise out of thin air, Dear Reader. For successful revision, you must expose your first draft to intelligent readers and get well-considered feedback. Which will be the subject of our next article.
Today, as a public service (Ta-DA!), we begin a series of articles meant to help You, The Aspiring Author, conquer the himalayas of literary greatness.
We propose that you achieve this impressive goal in SIX SIMPLE STEPS.
“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be.
If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” / Let us go and make our visit.
(Literary Allusion Alert: File under “T.S. Eliot.”)
Step One: Skip Straight to “Literary Lion”
Cut the line.
Do not wait for greatness to be thrust upon you. Thrust it upon yourself.
Since becoming a literary lion is your goal, go ahead and be one. Believe me, if you can’t do this one simple thing, you’re not going to find the other five steps any easier.
(Caveat: What We Are Not Saying. We are not saying “Fake it till you make it.” You can’t fake literary accomplishment. You have to get it the old-fashioned way, like the guy in that old commercial says. You have to earn it.)
If you haven’t begun to do so yet, then begin now.
You must do all kinds of inherently literary things. Such as, for example, “Write.” But that’s Step Two.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of other literary things you must do in addition to writing.
When you do them, as you must, you will be living the literary life—like it or not.
Are you prepared for this?
You must read. We don’t mean just “read.” Everybody reads for fun, don’t they?
(No, not actually. Lots of people never read anything more interesting than a cloned Facebook meme. But if you’re still with us, then you are probably one of those who do read, at least for fun.)
At the risk of repeating ourselves, we don’t mean just “read”—we mean READ.
Read everything you can that’s a classic of your genre. And for balance, read things that are poorly-executed examples of your genre. Read things outside your genre entirely.
Read books and articles on the art and craft of writing. Read pieces about the business of writing, and how to sell your work.
Read books, stories, articles, and blog posts by friends (more on this in “Step 3: Get Feedback” and “Step 4: Associate”). Read your own work, with a view to improving it. Read miscellaneous books that come to your attention, just because somebody said they were good.
Read good literature. It may help you figure out how to write good literature.
“I was seventy years old before I got serious about writing. I thought I was quite a reader, but since becoming a literary lion, I’ve averaged fifty to seventy-five books a year—not to mention stories, articles, and poems.”
When you read this much, two things will happen: (1) Your library card will get threadbare from use. (2) Partly-finished, recently finished, and not-yet-started books will occupy every horizontal surface in your vicinity. Welcome to literary lionhood.
(Lionhood is the state of being a lion—a literary one, in our case. Lionization—Haha!—maybe in the Afterlife.)
You must gather your tools about you. There are certain things you will need. Some of them cost money, and you must be prepared to invest in them.
You need a good, standard dictionary such as Webster’s New World College Dictionary or even the Oxford English Dictionary if you can afford it. Either hardcopy or electronic version will cost money. (The many freebie dictionaries found online are about worth what you pay for them.)
You will need the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s the starting point on important matters of style for nearly all publishers. But you also need a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which in some particulars contradicts the Chicago manual; it’s still worth owning for its brief but powerful advice on how to write the English language. And you will want at least a couple of writers’ magazines; we recommend The Writer and Writer’s Digest for starters.
In order to get your work widely read, you will need to sell it. Therefore you will want some useful compendia of marketing information, such as Writer’s Market or Writer’s Handbook; Jeff Herman’s Guide To Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents; and a $25 monthly subscription to the enormously useful PublishersMarketplace website.
Basic tools of craft are needed just for getting your words down on paper (or its electronic equivalent). Some particular brand of laptop computer, let’s say; or a ruled notebook and pens or pencils of a certain kind; or an antique Underwood typewriter; or goose quills. Every writer has his or her own preferred substrate. But whatever it is, you need to have it, so you can, you know, write (see “Step Two: Write”).
We seriously recommend a good computer and a copy of Microsoft Word. If you originate your manuscripts in any other medium or format, you will still need to copy it over to a computer file before a publisher can use it to bring you lots of fame and fortune. But suit yourself.
You must make your presence known. This falls, really, into “Step 6: Platform.” But the problem is, you can’t wait till the end of the process to build your platform. You’ve got to start now.
A writer’s “platform” is simply the sum total of credible ways by which that writer makes his or her work known to the world. If you’re a major motion picture star, all you have to do is write a book and let the publicist mention it to the world. You have millions of adoring fans already; some of them will buy your book.
For those of us who are not celebrities, it’s harder. You have to acquire fans one at a time and keep them interested in you and your writing until you can publish a book and press it into their hot little hands. It takes time for an unknown author to build a following of people who can be relied on to buy a book. Start now.
You make your presence known by authoring a blog; by frequenting one or more social media engines such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.; by showing up at writerly events in your vicinity, such as book signings and readings, literary chats, etc.; or by attending writers’ courses and conferences.
As you do these things, more and more people will begin to recognize you as a fixture of that part of the world they think of as “literary.” That’s good. That’s what you want.
You must write. This is self-evident, but we include it here because it is an essential part of becoming a literary lion. “Essential” in this case means, “You cannot omit it.”
But never fear. The writing part is so important we devote an entire step to it. In fact, the very next one in this series, “Step Two: Write.”
So here and now it suffices to say that writing is the quintessential literary activity. The more time you spend writing, the more time you spend in the world of the literary lion.
THEREFORE, Dear Reader: When you faithfully practice these key disciplines of literary lionhood—reading, gaining possession and use of essential literary tools, making your presence known in literary venues, and actually spending regular amounts of time writing your work—you will not have to pinch yourself, or poke yourself in the eye (which we would not recommend in any case) to know that you are living the literary life.
You will have stepped into the Twilight Zone which is the literary world, on your way to the base camp for scaling the literary himalayas.
WARNING: Your New Favorite Author is a 75-year-old, white, male Christian. I have been blessed many times over; from non-white, non-male, non-Christian perspectives, I am no doubt a person of privilege.
What a difference one year makes.
The Good Pilgrims
When I was growing up, America was a good place. It had started being good in December 1620, when the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts.
They brought with them a simple, heartfelt form of the Christian religion, a genuine desire to prosper, and a sincere intention to deal justly with the native inhabitants.
They were also rumored to have brought freedom, democracy, constitutional government, separation of church and state, the right to bear arms, and sundry other blessings.
Some of those attributions are far-fetched or at least asterisk-worthy, but the point is: Long before the official start of America in 1776, the Mayflower crowd of 1620 had already laid the keel of a “good America”—good in the sense of prosperous, and good in the sense of virtuous.
The Bad Slavers
Last August, the folks at the New York Times gave us a series of articles known collectively as “The 1619 Project,” challenging this venerable narrative; 1619 being the year when twenty or thirty African slaves were brought to the English colony in Virginia.
The point of the Times’ project is to show that America is not so good after all, with a legacy of slavery that began even before the Mayflower set sail.
Thus you might say that when the Pilgrims arrived, their adventure to America was already pre-stained, and no agent since—not the blood of 700,000 Union and Confederate soldiers nor the sweat and tears of thousands of Civil Rights Movement marchers and sitters-in—has been enough to scrub out the stain.
America: Good or Bad?
Dear Reader, in case you are only just now arrived from a distant planet: There is a fierce battle raging at this moment between partisans of the Good America of 1620 and the Bad America of 1619.
Far be it from me to wade into that donnybrook. I do not fight battles. I let others fight while I stand off to the side and observe. It’s what I do.
In this role, I shall merely note:
1. It’s not remarkable that 246 years of slavery makes a blot on the scutcheon of us Mayflower folk. If the Pilgrims brought real freedom and democracy, why were those blessings not shared promptly with our darker-skinned brothers and sisters?
2. The noble intentions of white Colonials—sentiments enshrined in the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution (1789)—ring a bit hollow because of the big asterisk of slavery, which was not abolished until 1865, and the other big asterisk of post-Reconstructionism, which withdrew most of the promise of Emancipation after 1876.
3. We will never get to enjoy our Good America of 1620 unless we face, and face down, the Bad America of 1619.
Point 3 reveals my agenda.
What is the Point?
I would dearly love to get beyond all this palaver. Get beyond all the guilt, the mutual recriminations, our slow national marination in the brine of our past sins.
So, how can we do that?
If we wait for all racial incidents to cease before we begin to do the difficult work of repairing the relations between white and black Americans, we will never start.
If, having started to repair our racial divide, we allow ourselves to be diverted from this work by new racist outrages, the nation’s healing will never gain momentum.
If we fail to recognize and condemn racial violence, that failure will undermine any attempts to build a successful multi-racial society.
How can we build that society in the face of continuing racially inspired violence? How can we do that when people of color have good reason to fear any dealings with those we pay to keep order in our society?
I do not have a clue.
I am pretty sure we won’t solve the problem by calling names; by issuing petitions and manifestoes of solidarity; or by shelling out money to make whole the scars of past generations’ brutal experience .
I think we will all have to get used to recognizing and confronting racial animus locally and in particular, wherever we encounter it.
I have no better answer. People tell me the problem is systemic; but how can you address it, except one person and one situation at a time?
I expect to live another 75 years. By that time I will be 150. If race relations are still abysmal in the United States, I will die deeply disappointed.
These days, I try to stretch my legs. Long walks are good exercise. You don’t even need a face mask, if you stay six feet from everyone you meet.
My walk took me so far yesterday that I stumbled into Milo Bung’s neighborhood. Milo was out in the corner of his yard, working on something. I stood and ogled the object of his labors. It was a large, shapeless mass. A canvas sheet, I guessed, draped over . . . aha!
Milo had thrown a grayish tarpaulin over his Holy Mother grotto.
The item in question is an imitation rock face, five feet high, with a niche scooped out of its front. In the cave-like niche stands a plaster Virgin Mary in blue and white robes, arms outspread to the faithful. It’s a familiar lawn manifesto in our part of the country, where dwell many devout Roman Catholics.
Milo is not one of those.
I do not know what religion he professes, if any. But the house’s previous owner had installed the little shrine. Milo, being Milo, had left it alone. Now it was covered with a tarp—a house-painter’s dropcloth, yet without spot or stain.
“What are you doing?” I cried.
“Does that look like a rock to you?”
“It looks like a dropcloth hung over your Virgin Mary.”
“I mean, if you didn’t know she was under there—would you think it was a boulder? A natural rock outcropping?”
“No. I’d think it was a tarp covering something.”
Milo frowned. He switched on a noisy air compressor at his feet, picked up a hose nozzle, and sprayed the canvas with something wet and gray and pulpy.
After a few minutes he shut off the racket, set down the hose, and inspected his work. “That’s more like it. Should set up pretty quick.”
“Milo,” I asked, “why do you want to make your Holy Mother shrine into a featureless rock?”
“I heard they’re tearing down statues these days, and I didn’t want mine to be one of them. The rock is temporary camouflage. You know, till the fad passes.”
I sighed. Conversations with Milo always include a sigh.
“Nobody,” I pointed out, “is going to come around and tear down your statue of Jesus’s mother.”
Milo waggled the inactive hose nozzle at me. “But then, I wouldn’t have thought they’d mess with General Grant, either. Or Francis Scott Key. I’m taking no chances. I kinda like the old gal, smiling there on my lawn. She makes me feel peaceful.”
The notion of Milo Bung, pacified, brings to mind a hibernating armadillo. He is not exactly a cauldron of pent-up mayhem in his normal state.
He resumed spraying.
I had to concede, as he worked at it, that the agglomerated mess looked less and less like a piece of canvas. It began to assume the gnarled gravitas of the Areopagus in Athens.
“You think making your shrine into a big rock is the answer?” I asked. “How do you know the Visigoths won’t came along one day and demolish your boulder?”
“Nah.” Milo gave the nearly-finished promontory an extra squirt of sauce. “I’ve been studying these folks. They only tear down representational art.
“They are iconoclasts.”
This conversational pièce de résistance left me staring at Milo, all flumberbusted.