“Murder Your Darlings”

terry-mcdonell

Murder your darlings. Famous words in writing, where the judge (that’s writers like me) tends to grant words clemency a bit more often than advisable.

In reading famous editor Terry McDonell’s The Accidental Life, I came across a small section that serves as wisdom not only for prose writers but for the non-prose sorts in his audience as well, the poets and the dreamers.

Let’s listen in:

“Avoid clichés like the plague, and no matter how amazing or incredible or unbelievable anything is, know how challenging it can be to raise the bar–even when you are writing about icons living in La La Land or Tinseltown or on the Left Coast.

“Likewise it is prudent to take Kurt Vonnegut’s advice: ‘Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.’

“Think like Mark Twain: ‘When you catch an adjective, kill it.’

“‘Kill your darlings’ means cut anything precious, overly clever, or self-indulgent. It is a stark, brilliant prohibition attributed most often to William Faulkner but also to Allen Ginsberg, Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G. K. Chesterton, Anton Chekhov and Stephen King, who used the phrase in his effusive On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’

“When the 2013 biopic of Allen Ginsberg, Kill Your Darlings, came out, Forrest Wickman on Slate tracked what is probably the best attribution to Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1914 Cambridge lecture ‘On Style.’ The prolific poet, novelist and critic railed against ‘extraneous Ornament’ and emphasized, ‘If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

“Wickman’s research also brought him to an even more important rule for journalists: ‘Check your sources.'”

— p. 70 “Editcraft”

“You’re Very Lucky If Two People Are Reading Your Stuff.”

meena-alexanderIn the latest issue of Rattle, Timothy Green interviews Meena Alexander, an Indian-born poet whose latest book, Atmospheric Poetry, is forthcoming in 2017.

Intrigued by an essay and lecture Alexander wrote for the Yale Political Union, Green started his interview with the same topic she tackled in New Haven: What is the use of poetry?

Meena’s answer? “We have poetry so we do not die of history.” In a subsequent poem on the question, she followed that line with, “And I have no idea what that meant.” But it sounded good, and if you think about it long enough, it might even pass muster as an answer. The answer, even.

Me, I’m just happy the answer to “What is the use of poetry?” isn’t “There is none.” In America, some may wonder. Although there is a rich poetic tradition here, it seems to have grown without the sunshine and water of a vast number of readers. Unless, of course, you’re talking Henry, Wadsworth, and Longfellow, three poetic rock stars of their day. But Whitman and such? The leaves and the grass loved him, but not many of his contemporary readers.

Meena Alexander goes on to tackle the question seriously and does yeoman duty, drawing links with music and sound and motion. Still, it got me thinking about Ireland and Russia and other countries where readers have a more eclectic diet in books. They read fiction and nonfiction with the same gusto as Americans. But unlike Americans, they have a healthier appetite for poetry.

Here in the States we dispense with questions like Meena’s and focus on ones like “Is Poetry Dead?” Or we move on to the follow-up question, “Does Anybody Really Care?” We even have authors who pass on writing poetry and instead make (more) money by writing poetry’s obituary. Ka-ching!

So, yes. It was nice to see some humor and courage in Meena Alexander’s attempts to explain what we thought we would never have to–the “why” of poetry. And any poet could identify with her honesty as she spoke. Beating the bushes for poetry readers is hard even for established, name-brand poets:

“The thing about being a poet is that you’re very lucky if two people are reading your stuff.” I think she means “in the world at any one time,” too. “You’re reading my stuff now,” she tells her interviewer, “and I’m deeply grateful, but it’s so touch and go, even for the one who makes it. A very iffy art. On the other hand it has this extraordinary life, in the sense that a poem can reach you from thousands of miles away, and from centuries ago. We read Sappho in translation, or Homer, or Kalidasa.”

By the end of the interview, I found myself very interested in reading her work, both previously published and forthcoming. She speaks my language (even though we hail from different cultures) and clearly understands what poets are up against. Without readers, a poet is that tree falling in the wilderness. It makes its noise for itself.

Sophomore Slumps ~ Real or Old Husband’s Tales?

typewriterGetting a book of poetry accepted by a publisher can be a heady experience akin to euphoria (or maybe “me-phoria” is a better word). Is it any wonder that there might be a hangover, then?

I’m speaking of the sophomore slump, the term used for athletes, students, and artists who worry they will never match initial heights as they tackle new challenges and attempt to not only match but better their first success. Is this “slump” real, or is it just another old husband’s tale?

Oddly, when you get a book published and finish the hard work or working with an editor to get it ready for publication, you reward yourself with a writing vacation. Bad, bad, bad! This is not what writers do. They don’t wake up every day and say, “I don’t have to write today (or this month) because, look at that! I’ve got a shiny new book for the world to see!”

As the seasoned veterans will tell you, “Big deal. Writers write. So don’t make like Orpheus and look back now, start playing again.”

OK. Got it. But now you’re holding yourself to higher standards. Are these new poems better than the ones between the first book’s covers? And shouldn’t they be?

You see the problem. Suddenly the inner critic, already notoriously negative, becomes tougher still. And, as rejections from journals flow in from editors completely unimpressed with your cover letter citing a debut poetry collection, doubt begins to creep in and take hold.

“Was that it?” you wonder. “Am I one and done?”

Hardly. Take a look at the publishing histories of many poets and you’ll find that the arc from early poetry to more sophisticated later poetry is long and gradual. With the machete of words, you must hack your way through an Amazon forest of poems before discernible changes begin to appear.

Meaning? The sophomore slump is actually similar in nature to the work you produced as a freshman phenom. That you might produce worse is just another nagging falsehood you have to deal with as a writer. Rejection is part of the game and will remain so–even if you have four or five books of poetry to your credit.

Sure, once you make it to the Promised Land, where you have name recognition from summiting the toughest markets like Poetry and those august university magazines that are way past June and July and have been publishing verse since Frost was a school teacher, you can count on getting accepted more often even when you put out slightly sub-par stuff, but those days are so far away that you don’t even want to think about seeing them with the naked eye.

Instead, trust in yourself (who else will?), write and, most of all, revise, revise. In the almost words of the book/movie Field of Dreams, “If you write it, they will come–and they don’t care whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior.”

Amen to that.

The Tricky Ethics of Goodreads Giveaway Program

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Everybody loves freebies and, if you’re a bibliophile like me, you especially love it when that freebie is a book. Welcome to the Goodreads Giveaway, a program where GR’s reading millions can get in on some free action by simply registering for the many, many books that site offers for free consumption.

Of course, giveaways are not a new concept. In the publishing industry, ARCs (advanced reading copies) have been provided to readers since the beginning of book-publishing time. The purpose? To generate buzz and provide fodder for reviews leading to sales.

Amazon, the new owners of Goodreads, has its own giveaway program called Amazon Vine. In the beginning, Vine members only had to write reviews for some of the free books they received. After a year or two, however, Amazon changed the rules. All free books had to be reviewed or else you were cut off. That’s right. Your vine would wither and fall off the Giving Tree just like that.

Some Vinesters were not wild about this change, but I saw some justice in it. Why? Because, in this day and age, some people run mini-businesses out of their homes. E-bay is only the best known of the many ways to do this. You get something for free (or at a reduced price) and then resell it on-line for personal profit. It’s the American way, no?

But wait a minute. At least most Vine books are imprinted with “Not for Resale” or “Advanced Reading Copy–Not for Resale” on them. This is often NOT the case with the Goodreads Giveaway program. Meaning? The books obtained for free look like any book you might buy at a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Thus, reselling is easy-peasey.

But is it ethical?

It depends on how you look at it. Some publishers and authors see the purpose of a giveaway as buzz, pure and simple. It gives the book attention. After all, hundreds (and sometimes over a thousand!) readers sign up for the free book. Can this be a bad thing?

Yes and no. If the buzz translates to sales, readers, and reviews, then no, it can’t be a bad thing. But in the case of Goodreads Giveaways, books people sign up for (by default, they  get put onto “to read” lists) are as likely not to be read as read. Even after they WIN the book against hefty odds and it shows up gratis in their mailbox, participants are under no obligation to read or review the book. Life is busy, after all, and as St. Frank of Zappa once said: “So many books, so little time.”

According to GR, excited publishers and authors have good reason to use the Giveaway program. Up to 60% of winners review the books they receive, Goodreads tells us, but this seems optimistic. A look at the stats of some Giveaway participants reveals why. Many posters sign up for free books in serial fashion. Each day dozens upon dozens of additional books accumulate on their “to-read” shelves until you see poster stats like “To-Read: 23,749” next to “Read: 0” or “Read: 7.”

Ouch. Will they ever return to the hopeful author’s “to-read” book in three months or even three years? With 23, 749 books on deck, probably not. Heck, even with 749 or 49 on deck, probably not. There are even Goodreads Giveaway groups, where posters can brag about the spoils of war and the blessings of Lady Luck. If it sounds like fun, it apparently is.

What can we conclude? That, at least in some of the cases, people use the program either for the thrill of the win (an innocent form of on-line gambling) or for the chance to sell books for personal profit. In the case of those who do choose to sell the book, the publisher loses on printing costs and the author loses on royalties.

You might call this a form of piracy, but it’s not. It is legal, after all, and publishers and authors put their books up knowingly, eyes wide open and hoping for the best. Which is really what the Goodreads Giveaway program amounts to from the writer-publisher point of view: Hoping for the best (and what is the publishing industry if not a metaphor for hope?).

Bottom line: If I win a giveaway (and I haven’t among the few I’ve signed up for), I will read it and offer my honest opinion because, to me, that’s not only the purpose but the right thing to do. Could that be bad for the publisher or author? Sure. I could 2-star the book. Is that any worse than not reviewing the book at all and reselling it for personal profit? It’s an interesting question I’ll leave to the philosophers. At least until Goodreads Giveaways follows Amazon Vine’s lead.