Publishing as a Career for Writers

Send to Kindle

In a recent blog post, Donna Shear, director of University of Nebraska Press, advised aspiring writers not to work in publishing, but rather to seek their day jobs in other fields. She offered a list of reasons to back up her argument, all perfectly sensible.  Recently, though, I mentored a young writer in an MFA program who asked my advice on seeking a career in publishing, and my answer was the polar opposite.

“It’s a great way to go,” I told him. “Not right away: you have to live life before you can write about it. Have some adventures first. Find something that scares you and do it. Live someplace where you don’t speak the language; travel.

“But after that,” I said, “when the time comes to choose a career, publishing makes a lot of sense.”

It’s counterintuitive, I know. Publishing is an industry in flux, almost in crisis; and even in its heyday it never paid well. Still, for seriously aspiring writers, it’s a brilliant choice. Here are ten reasons why.

1. New York. Yeah, okay, there’s publishing in other places, too, but still: New York.

New York

2. Since aspiring writers usually start out as avid readers, publishing as a career has obvious appeal. Even among successful, well-published writers, only a tiny minority can live on what they make from writing, so the day job had better be satisfying in itself.

3. You will learn to speak Publishing, which has its own distinct lingo.

4. You’ll have the satisfaction of helping other writers along the path to publication. Publishing folk take great pride in the successes of “their” books. It’s good karma, too; what goes around comes around.

5. You’ll meet all sorts of people who can help you professionally: agents, editors, publicists and marketing mavens. None of them will take on a bad book as a favor; publishing is a bottom-line business, and professional courtesy only goes so far. But if you’ve got the chops as a writer, having friends in the industry can give you a big leg up.

The_philosopher6. Working in publishing will make you a better writer. Other people’s mistakes are always easier to see than one’s own. Editing sharpens the critical eye you need to apply to your own work.

7. It will make you a smarter writer, too. You’ll witness writers making every possible career mistake. When your turn comes, you’ll be savvier. There’s an old Jewish saying: It’s better to learn to shave on someone else’s beard.

8. punchIt will take you out of yourself. Many writers are natural observers, fly-on-the-wall types. The isolation inherent in writing can exacerbate this tendency. Working in publishing will teach you to speak up, lean in, even land a punch now and then (metaphorically speaking, for the most part.)

9. The people you’ll meet, the places you’ll go! I worked in publishing on two continents before starting my own literary agency. Apart from nearly starving the first year or two, I had an amazing career until I gave it up to write full time. I traveled widely, sold hundreds of books, and met writers, publishers and agents from all over the world, including people I’d admired all my life.

The pay’s a joke, especially in junior positions, but this profession has never attracted people whose primary motivation is money. The publishing people I know are smart, passionate, intellectually curious people who at some point in their lives were gobsmacked by a book and never got over it. You can’t find much better company than that.

10. Did I mention New York?


If you’re curious about my publishing career,  this post may be of interest.


Posted in Mainstream publishing, the writing life, Writers | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Speak Up, I’m Eavesdropping!

Send to Kindle

I put it off as long as I could. Covered up, as people do; smiled and nodded. Finally I gave in and went to an audiologist.

She sat me in a booth and covered my head with large earphones. I could see her through the window, taking notes. If there was a period of silence, I watched her face for clues. It was a test, after all; I wanted to do well.

Afterward, we went over the results. “Mild hearing loss,” she said cheerfully. “Comes with age. You probably don’t even notice it except when you’re trying to have a conversation somewhere noisy.”

I didn’t mind so much about conversations. One can always shout. But noisy public places are prime eavesdropping territory, and for a writer, that matters terribly.

spyingWriters are nosy. I say this without apology, as nosiness is a requirement of the trade. For writers, as for actors, observation fuels invention. Our natural aspect is that of a fly on the wall, our patron saint Harriet the Spy.

As both human nature and language are the proper study of writers, eavesdropping is not a trivial pursuit. It’s a means of staying in touch with the ever-evolving vernacular and transcending our narrow personal circles. Hearing in general is so vital to writers that deaf writers are as rare on the ground as deaf musicians; yet some degree of hearing loss is almost inevitable with age. The first time I heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, I thought someone had finally come up with a practical solution, cheaper than hearing aids, though limited in efficacy; there’s only so much you can lean in without landing in someone’s soup.

Eavesdropping has always been a rich and essential resource for me. I once spent 36 hours in a Brooklyn ER with my younger son, waiting for a bed to open up. Despite my anxiety, I spent that time doing what writers do: observing and listening. And before my son was even released, I knew that I’d found the perfect setting for a book I’d long wanted to write.

Café_de_FloreIt’s not just me. There’s a reason, apart from coffee, why so many writers work in cafés: they’re great places to eavesdrop. Buses, trains, waiting rooms and bleachers are all excellent resources, but my personal favorite was always the diner. The booths provide enough illusory privacy to encourage revealing conversation, enough real privacy to allow me to take notes. I’ve overheard break-ups and make-ups, quarrels and seductions, women dissecting men, men puzzling over women, doctors dishing about patients, cult recruiters exchanging tips. My favorite bit of found art was a conversation between a father and his young son.

“You know, Dad,” the child said thoughtfully, “some of the best things in life are things you can’t buy with money.”

“Yes, my son?”

“Like friends,” the boy said. “And a family that loves you. And picking your nose.”

So I didn’t take the audiologist’s diagnosis well. Any degree of hearing loss threatened me where I lived; think of a painter with cataracts. Everything else aside, hearing loss is associated with encroaching old age, which has its own particular terrors for writers.

Coming_out_of_the_closetIt’s not discussed in polite circles, age being the last remaining closet. But the truth is  that there are commercial penalties for WWO — Writing While Old. One is no longer in the running for “hot new writer.” There is, sadly but inevitably, a tipping point at which the books become sexier than the author. Older writers in search of a new agent or publishing house are at a disadvantage compared to young writers with decades of work ahead of them.

Nor is hearing the only sense affected by age. Others may decline as well; yet fiction is grounded in sensory detail. A permanent dimming of sensation can force the older writer to resort to life’s pale cousin, memory.

Physically, writing a novel is far more labor-intensive than most people think. To produce a manuscript of 100,000 words, the writer might easily type five times that many in drafts. Travel, too, becomes more onerous as writers age and commercial planes devolve into sardine cans–yet nothing is more nourishing for writers than travel.

For some aging writers, there is also anxiety. Writing doesn’t come with a pension. This startling realization dawns on most writers around the time their non-writer friends begin retiring with comfortable nest eggs. No doubt it should have occurred to them sooner, but they were too busy reveling in the perks of their profession: setting their own hours, working at home, and making a living doing what they loved.

Robert_Frost_NYWTS_5Fortunately, these drawbacks are offset by advantages that allow writers, unlike dancers or athletes, to continue playing at a high level even in old age. Experience is a great asset. One doesn’t need 20/20 vision to see into the human heart, the wellspring of all fiction. Older writers have lived, learned, read, suffered and survived more. “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected,” said Robert Frost, who kept writing well into his 80s.

Older writers have skills, because the good ones never stop growing. They tend to value simplicity and clarity over ostentation. They put the story first. They’ve found their voice.

The extreme turbulence of youth is behind them. When productivity is the goal, it’s better to have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than to be currently under fire.

Technology gives us tools as well. Google Earth is no substitute for travel, but it sure is a great backup. And writers afflicted with arthritis can now resort to first-rate dictation software.

Bottom line, it’s not as if we have a choice. Writers write, whatever the circumstances. As for me, I’m making my adjustments. I thought of handing out cards — “Speak up, I’m eavesdropping”—but  decided that might have an inhibiting effect. Instead, I practice leaning in, though I find it’s not much needed. Recently in an airport departure lounge, I heard a young woman on a cell phone describe in excruciating detail the party she’d gone to the night before. She’d gotten wasted, she said, passed out, and woke the next morning in bed with a stranger. As the young woman strolled off, still spewing into her phone, a flash symposium broke out among the dozen or so stunned passengers within earshot.

I hate it that I don’t hear as well as I used to. These days, though, people talk more loudly and openly than ever before. It’s wonderful how things work out.


For more on the writing life, check out Writers, Lies and Filthy LucreOn Writing and Gardening; and The Orneriness of the Long-Distance Writer.

Posted in ABOUT ME, the writing life | Tagged , | 10 Comments

Revising Fiction

Send to Kindle

Ladies and Gentlemen, an announcement: The next online “Revising Fiction” workshop has been scheduled to begin on August 13 and is now open for registration. This workshop is for writers with a complete draft of a novel or a body of short stories, who want to work on bringing their fiction to the next level.

writing class

I’ll tell you more about the workshop in a minute, but first, a digression. At a party not long ago, I overheard two aspiring writers talking about difficulty of selling their work. “It’s all about who you know,” one said. “You can’t even get an agent unless you have got an in.”

“Totally,” replied the other. “They don’t even read the stuff that comes in over the transom. It’s a fixed game.”

I envisioned that scene in a Harry Potter movie in which Harry and Ron are whispering during Professor Snape’s class: not a smart move, when that character is portrayed by the inimitable Alan Rickman. He positions himself behind them, rolls up his sleeves, and in one swift motion bangs their heads together.

I myself refrained, with some difficulty. I’ve heard this claim so often, and it is so untrue and counterproductive. New writers get published all the time. Over the years, I’ve seen many of my writing students sell books that they labored over, sometimes for years; none of them had contacts in the industry. I’ve been in the writing/publishing business for over 40 years now, including 12 years as a literary agent. A lot has changed, but one thing hasn’t. While many factors are involved in an agent or publisher’s decision to take a chance on a writer, great writing trumps them all.

slam dunkIt’s hard; why wouldn’t it be? Getting published by one of the big five houses is to writers what playing professionally is to athletes. In addition to talent, you have to be at the top of your game to have a chance. Athletes train for years to reach that level. Some writers expect to achieve it with the first story they write. A very few actually do; they have that level of talent and ability. But most published writers have had to go back of the same book time and time again, or write another with the lessons learned from writing the first, before they break into publication.

Consider another comparison. Getting published commercially is to writers what a gallery show is to painters. Aspiring painters study their art. Writers? Not so much.

When I was an agent, the hardest submissions to deal with were the ones that came within a draft or two of being publishable: the almost-but-not-quite books. Editors don’t want to invest the time, or don’t have it to invest. Agents who give notes and ask for revisions have filled in the gap to some extent, but writers are still expected to learn the craft on their own dime. Editing is an essential part of the writing process, and the one most often neglected. First drafts are where writers capture the story, pin it to paper so it can’t escape. Subsequent drafts are where they turn that raw material into art.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’d like to believe that all writers understand the importance of editing. As William Zinsser said, “Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.” But it’s easier said than done.  Part of the difficulty for writers lies in getting the necessary feedback in order to raise their level of play. Another part lies in the fact that writers are often too close to their work to see it objectively.

That’s why “Revising Fiction” was the first workshop I created, with the intention of addressing both those problems. To succeed in this market—no, more than that, to succeed in their art—writers need to edit their work. This does not take the place of having one’s work edited by a professional editor, whether supplied by a publisher who buys the book or hired by a writer prior to self-publishing. That’s essential, because we only see what we see; it takes an outsider to point out what we don’t see. But revision, or self-editing, comes before that; it’s the final step in the actual writing of the book.

You can read more about “Revising Fiction” here, along with some testimonials from writers who’ve taken the workshop. Participants emerge with a much improved draft, along with tools they can apply to everything they write in the future. This is the most advanced workshop I offer, and it’s open to published as well as aspiring writers. Please note that the workshop requires a significant investment of time, typically 12 to 18 hours a week over 14 weeks—but that includes time spent editing your own work. If this sounds useful, and you have a finished draft, I’d be happy to hear from you. Applicants should include the first 5 pages of their mss. The workshop is limited to eight writers, because I spend a ton of time working with each; and I try to put together groups that are compatible but varied. It’s not always possible for me to offer every applicant a spot; but one way or another, you’ll definitely hear back from me.

Posted in Barbara's workshops, Craft, Editing, Next Level Workshop, Revising fiction, Writing | Tagged , , | 5 Comments


Send to Kindle

Huddle up, writers. This post’s for you.

As social media has eroded the once formidable barrier between writers and readers, it is now commonplace, even expected, for readers to contact writers directly via the writer’s website, Facebook, Twitter or other online venue. For the most part this is a good thing for writers. Hearing from readers is encouraging and a balm to the essential loneliness of the job.

lurkerBut with greater contact comes greater friction. Writers are now exposed to unvarnished reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and other book venues, and therein lies the problem. Stories abound (and rebound) about writers retaliating for bad reviews by outing anonymous bloggers and harassing, stalking, threatening, doxxing, even physically attacking reviewers.

Writers, of course, have a long and storied history of bad behavior, but this particular form of misbehavior is seen primarily (though by no means exclusively) among self-published writers. This makes sense, because at its core, the behavior arises from a boundary problem. Overly reactive writers are like helicopter parents, fiercely protective and unable to distinguish themselves from their offspring. Writers who publish traditionally give their work over to specialists who expertly edit, package, produce and market the book. It takes close to a year. By the time the book is released, the writer has already let go and most likely is working on her next. Self-published writers go through a much shorter process, in which they control every phase. The cord is never severed, so when the book comes out, it is still flesh of their flesh, undifferentiated.

This is not a good thing. There’s a reason we speak of “releasing” books. They are finished works that we send out into the world. However they’re published, once released, they must be allowed to stand on their own. Readers have every right to their own opinions and interpretations, which at that point are just as valid as the author’s.

Much is changing in the publishing world, but some values remain constant. I have therefore taken upon myself the role of Miss Publishing Manners and jotted down a few simple guidelines:

Rogan’s Rules of Writerly Decorum

1. What do we writers owe readers? In return for their investment of time and sometimes money, we owe readers an entertaining and/or edifying experience, preferably both.

What we don’t owe are explanations or justifications. These are not good uses of our time and attention. The book stands on its own and speaks for itself.

2. What do readers owe writers? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Their side of the contract is fulfilled by reading. Specifically, they don’t owe us reviews, recommendations, accolades, attendance at events, or financial support in the form of book purchases. We are, to be sure, grateful for any of these, but we are not entitled to them.

But writers are not saints, you may protest. We can’t be expected to turn the other cheek when our work is maligned. I agree, being neither constitutionally nor culturally equipped to turn the other cheek.  There are times when strong language is indicated, and writers have great stores of the stuff on hand. We should feel free to vent in private to friends and family about the astonishing blindness and stupidity of certain critics.

But in public? Shtum.

dianagabaldonI have a friend and colleague, Diana Gabaldon, author of the wildly popular Outlander series. Her reply to a post from a critical reader struck me as the epitome of class, economy, and good sense.

“Not all books are for all people.  I hope you enjoy whatever you read next.”


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, subscribe to In Cold Ink  via links above and to the right.

Posted in Reviews, the writing life, Writers, Writing tips | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments


Send to Kindle

Attention Writers!

I promised you a major announcement, and here it is.

Before I gave it up to write, I was an editor and a literary agent for many years, and I still mentor many writers. Consequently I’ve read a ton of first novels. Most have issues—hence the difficulty, of which you’re surely aware, in selling these novels. In many cases the story itself is intriguing and original; the problem is that the writer’s skills are not yet where they need to be for the book to attract a publishing offer. I always feel it’s an awful shame that these writers had undertaken to write a novel before learning to write a scene.

writing classSo I created a course for aspiring fiction writers who want to master the skills of the craft. It’s called “One Good Scene,” because scenes are the basic building blocks of fiction. The skills that go into the crafting of a single good scene are precisely those needed for the crafting of a novel, and any writer who can master the former can succeed in the latter.

It’s an intensive 7-week online workshop with weekly lectures, assignments, writing and reading assignments, peer critiques, and personal feedback from me on every assignment. For more info, including tuition and topics to be covered, please see the course description on my website. You can also read feedback from writers who’ve taken the course. Personally, I think the workshop is so useful that I’d make it mandatory for every fiction writer…but then, I may be somewhat prejudiced. I will say that I offer a money-back warranty for people who start the course and find it’s not what they expected, but I’ve never been taken up on the offer.

“One Good Scene” will begin on April 2, and is now open for registration. Class size is strictly limited, and more than half the class is filled already with people who were on a waiting list, but I have several spots left. If you are interested or have questions, please respond here in the comment section or email me at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com. If you have writer friends who might be interested, feel free to  share this post. I’m always interested in students who are serious about learning the craft.

Posted in Barbara's workshops, Craft, Fiction, Next Level Workshop, Writing tips | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments


Send to Kindle


Lately writers have been talking about a piece by Ann Bauer in Salon. Entitled “Sponsored by My Husband,” the essay reveals that Bauer’s writing career is subsidized by her husband’s comfortable salary. “All that disclosure is crass,” she writes. “I’m sorry. Because in this world, where women will sit around discussing the various topiary shapes of their bikini waxes, the conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have.”

breaking_upWe don’t? Over the course of my career in writing and publishing, and as a frequent presenter at writers’ conferences, I’ve met countless published writers; and I’ve yet to take part in a conversation that didn’t devolve within seconds to talk of money. It’s an obsession, probably because there’s so little of it to be had in the profession. If you see a few professional writers at a table with their heads together, I guarantee you they’re not talking about the use of metaphor in modern fiction or the latest linguistics theory. They’re dishing about advances, royalty rates, and the monetization of backlists.

Of course, that’s talking writer to writer. When it comes to public speaking, writers have a different agenda. They talk about art and transformation, hard work allied with inspiration.  Bauer attributes this to their desire to present an Olympian image: the Celebrated Author descending from on high to disperse wit and wisdom to the adoring throngs (or semi-throngs; the usual book event draws an average of 8 to 12 attendees, half of them related to the author.)

slushThere are more generous explanations; but even if Bauer’s is right, should we begrudge writers their little affectations? I don’t think so. In real life, most writers are working stiffs with mortgages, kids, and too little money. Once in a while, though, we get to dress up and play rock stars; and what’s the harm in that? Consider the writer’s life. For years at a time, she leads a cloistered existence, laboring in isolation without feedback, encouragement, or paycheck. Then her book is published, and there is a great flurry of activity. The writer takes off her sweats, dons her official writer clothes,  and emerges blinking from her cave to toasts and accolades. It would take a hard heart to deny her a bit of basking and a glass or two of champagne before shutting her up again.

But writers should tell the truth, insists Bauer, though I’m not sure why; no one else does.  “We do an enormous ‘let them eat cake’ disservice to our community,” she writes, “when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed.”

Depends, say I. Sometimes a little obfuscation can be a good thing. As a fiction writer, I have, admittedly, an ambiguous relationship to the truth; that is, I think it takes many forms beyond the literal. But in this case, my objection to excessive truth-telling is practical. If authors were to use public appearances to complain about how poorly they are paid (which is absolutely true), how would audiences react? They’d still see the author as privileged, only now they see him as privileged and whiny. Every profession has its drawbacks. Very few writers would swap theirs for, say, coal mining or sausage making. Personally, I’d rather use those rare public outings to shine a light on my work than on the conditions under which it’s produced.

I’m all for honesty and openness, in their place. This blog’s mission is to provide just that sort of honest, down-to-earth guidance to other writers, both published and aspiring. I believe writers need to share information and experience in order to plot our path through the rapidly changing publishing ecosphere.

But don’t cork up that champagne just yet! If we can’t have riches, we can at least have fun. One of the characters in my last book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, makes an appearance at her book launch dressed as Cleopatra, borne on a litter by four strapping young men in togas. Ms. Bauer might think this over the top. To me, it seems about right.

woman in litter


Major announcement coming soon, of particular interest to writers. If you haven’t already, you might want to subscribe to this blog through the links on top or to the right.


Posted in Promotion, the writing life, Writers | Tagged , | 7 Comments

The Dreaded Silence: How I Nearly Gave Up Writing

Send to Kindle

I’m delighted to welcome Jenny Elliott to In Cold Ink. Jenny is the author of SAVE ME, a delightful blend of paranormal and romance. She’s also a lovely person and, I’m proud to say, a former student of mine. Jenny’s first book sold to Macmillan and came out last month to terrific reviews: a very happy ending to a long journey that almost didn’t happen. But I’ll let Jenny tell the story, and I’m guessing quite a few readers of this blog will relate.

Jenny ElliotOn January 6th, 2015, Macmillan published my debut paranormal romance novel, SAVE ME, under its Swoon Reads imprint. Swoon Reads is a crowd-sourced publishing model, so I landed that contract without an agent. And Macmillan also has an option on my next novel. Needless to say, I’m glad I picked up writing fiction again, after a nearly fifteen-year hiatus.

I’m not proud of myself for giving up my fiction-writing passion for so long, especially one that ultimately rewarded me with a Big 5 publishing deal. But I hope that my story will prevent others from quitting like I did. I’m confident that it can, because I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s sensitive about her writing. It’s a scary thing to send our creative “babies” into the world, even if only to trusted readers, for feedback.

From the beginning, fear of feedback wasn’t my biggest concern, though. I welcomed constructive criticism. What I got instead, unfortunately, was what I deemed, “the dreaded silence.”

At age eighteen, I’d written 200 rough pages of a novel. I shared an excerpt with family and friends, then waited for feedback. No one said a word. I heard a message all the same, though: “Your writing is so bad that we don’t want to hurt you by saying so.” Sadly, I felt plenty hurt by their lack of response.

I didn’t write another word of fiction again until I was twenty-three, when I decided to edit the novel I’d begun when I was eighteen. Again, I gave an excerpt to a few trusted friends. Again, I suffered the dreaded silence. This time, I turned to studying non-fiction, which I also appreciate, but don’t enjoy as much as fiction.

One marriage, two property purchases, three children, and a full kitchen and flooring remodel later, I was losing my mind. I credit my impending insanity at the time for my escape into fictional worlds. I became an avid fiction reader, and one particular story idea brimmed in my mind and coalesced into a full outline that demanded to be put to the page in novel format.

I was incredibly pleased to have completed my first rough draft of a full novel. Now that I was in my thirties, I figured my age, at least, would garner respect, and therefore feedback, from readers. I sent my entire manuscript to a handful of family members and friends. To my dismay, the dreaded silence once again loomed.

In defense of my solicited readers, 250 pp. is a huge reading commitment. I should have shared an excerpt. All the same, I sank into the biggest funk yet over my writing. I desperately wanted honest, and preferably helpful, feedback.

I turned to Google and found Barbara, who would become my mentor. At the time, she was offering a special for a critique of a writer’s first 10 to 20 pages of a work of fiction. Finally, I received thorough, thoughtful, honest, and professional feedback. I had a lot to learn, but Barbara saw potential in my writing. I was elated.

writing classThe first of Barbara’s Next Level  courses I took was One Good Scene, in which I began to learn to hone my craft. Next, Barbara invited me to her Revising Fiction course, where I worked to shape and sharpen my novel. Then I queried agents.

Actually, like many beginning writers, I started querying way too early, with what was essentially a spruced up first draft. Not surprisingly, there were no takers. After Barbara’s Revising Fiction course, however, I received four full requests. Each agent took months to review my story and ultimately passed. Nearly a year had gone by.

In addition to the critique partners I became involved with in Barbara’s courses, I also joined One of my critique partners from that site encouraged me to submit my novel to Needless to say, I’m glad I did so. Readers and writers, as well as several editors on the Swoon Reads staff, including the sales director, were impressed with my novel. Ultimately, I landed a Big 5 publishing contract through Macmillan, who also has an option on my second novel. Because of that, I’m looking for an agent to work with me on future projects. At the end of the day, I can’t do much else but be grateful for such blessings. My story is a happy one to share.

Save MeOf course, my story could have been a lot less happy on the writing front if I hadn’t come back to the fiction-writing craft. And if I hadn’t found a mentor like Barbara. Or if I hadn’t developed critiquing relationships with other writers. Those things have hugely contributed to my success. I hope my example will also contribute to yours.


Thanks, Jenny, and congratulations!

To my writer friends: I’m going to be offering classes again very soon, starting with ONE GOOD SCENE, and as always the first notice will go out to folks on my emailing list. I keep these classes very small in order to provide lots of personal feedback, and I don’t offer many of them; so they tend to fill up fast. If you’re interested, drop me a line at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll put you on the list to be notified when the course opens for registration.


Posted in Barbara's workshops, Craft, Interviews, Submitting, the writing life, Writing tips | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments


Send to Kindle


WinterIt’s been a cold, snowy winter in New York, good writing weather, but I’m ready for spring. Right now the view from my office window is nearly black and white: snow, bare branches against white sky, and the crenellated tips of fences. Soon the snow will melt, though, and in a month or so I’ll see the first pop of color in my rock garden, the irises and crocuses.

There’s a backstory to this garden. About 12 years ago, I got sick and had to undergo an unpleasant course of treatment. My husband and sons sought a way to show their support in a material way. What they came up with was a large rock garden, which they installed just outside my home office window, so I could enjoy it not only when I went outside but every time I sat down to work.

I’d never been a gardener. Gardening entails dirt, sweat, bugs and blisters, none of which I’m fond of. Often there are worms. Faith is required, gratification always delayed. And did I mention worms?

Nevertheless, I loved my rock garden, and after I recovered, I began to work on it. (I named it, too: the Barbara Rogan Memorial Garden, which no one but me thought was funny.) Little by little, I discovered that gardening metaphors were creeping into the way I thought and talked about fiction writing, and with good reason: they are similar endeavors in so many ways.

THE BIG PICTURE: In the beginning, I would go to my local nursery, buy whatever perennials caught my eye, and plant them anywhere I had room. The result was a disappointing hodgepodge. The flowers themselves were pretty, but the composition had no rhyme or reason. In a good garden, as in a good novel, all the parts exist to serve the whole. If they don’t, then no matter how pretty they are, they have to go.10486199_10152369477687865_5901926996832331028_n

WEEDING: However natural they may look, gardens are man-made compositions in which every element exists for a reason. The most beautiful specimen plant will go unseen if it’s surrounded by weeds.

Occasionally, in my students’ work, I come across a particularly well-crafted phrase or image or encapsulated thought, one that conveys with beautiful economy everything the scene is trying to achieve. These are the lines that “say it all,” if they’re allowed to do so without being smothered by surrounding verbiage. Editing showcases what is beautiful in our work by removing those elements that don’t contribute.

LABOR: Gardens repay sweat equity. So does writing; and writing novels in particular is more labor-intensive than most people would imagine. Before a book makes it to market, the writer may have produced a dozen drafts, each one better than the last.

Writing “effortless prose” takes huge effort. In fact, most things that seem effortless aren’t.

PATIENCE: Gardens aren’t built in a single season. Perennials often need a year or two of settling in before they bloom profusely. Much of the work goes on underground, out of sight.

Ideas also take time to germinate, and writers’ skills grow over time. Barbara Kingsolver said it took her 30 years to feel ready to tackle her masterpiece, The Poisonwood Bible. Novels take a long time to research, develop, write and edit. Like gardens, they can’t be rushed.

10274166_10152154759247865_6382013076439694242_nTIME: A garden is not a static installation; it changes as the growing season progresses. Things that were hidden spring to life: a patch of grassy stems transforms overnight into a carpet of red lilies. My rock garden looks entirely different in April than it does in August. In novels, too, time is a necessary dimension. A poem may immortalize a moment; but fiction is a vehicle for change, and change takes place over time.

THE SENSES: It took me a ridiculously long time to understand that gardens are not all visual. We’ve always had Russian Sage in the rock garden, and early on I took to crushing a leaf or two between my fingers to release its scent. Then one year we planted some Asiatic lilies. The following summer I walked outside one evening and was struck by the most alluring, intoxicating scent I’d ever encountered. For weeks those lilies perfumed the whole yard.

Fiction, too, infiltrates through the senses. Words are not things in themselves but symbols of things. Much of fiction’s work lies in making the abstract seem real, through the use of vivid, specific, selective description. Until a setting feels absolutely real, nothing that happens there will matter.

FAITH: at some point in every novel, the writer hits a snag. It might be a character who refuses to come into focus or a plot complication that’s gumming up the works; whatever it is, it feels dire. One of the advantages of having written a bunch of novels is that when I inevitably hit those snags, I know a solution will emerge in the course of writing. I have faith in the process.

Gardening, too, requires faith. We dig a hole, plant a bulb or seed, give it some water and trust it will grow. When snow blankets the garden and eradicates all signs of life, we trust that life and color will return.


And so they will. Spring is just around the corner.


But just in case you need a good mystery to while away the time until it arrives, I hope you’ll consider A DANGEROUS FICTION, now available in Penguin paperback.

Posted in ABOUT ME, Fiction, the writing life, Writing | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments


Send to Kindle

This weekend I returned to my alma mater, St. John’s College, to participate in a fundraiser for its Caritas Society, which provides St. John’s students with supplemental financial aid when needed. St. John’s College, for those not familiar with it, is the third oldest college in the U.S. , so old that four of its founders signed the Declaration of Independence.  There are almost no electives in the college; all students follow “the Program,” a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum based on the most important books and ideas of Western civilization.

It was a wonderful visit that reminded me of four very fruitful years spent in an intellectual incubator.  I was one of three writers in a very well-attended “Meet the Author” panel;  and as the only fiction writer of the three, I felt I had to Represent.  The speech was a bit cheeky—dissing Plato at a school where he’s as revered as he is in St. John’s is a bit like volunteering for the dunking booth in a carnival. But it went over well, and you’ll be happy to know I emerged unscathed. As the speech has a good deal to say about the nature of fiction, deception, and self-deception, I thought I’d share it here.




It’s a great honor and pleasure to be back at St. John’s, my alma mater. No writer could have wished for a better education than I received here. I draw on what I learned from the Great Books every day of my working life. As for the other parts of the program, the math tutorials on Einstein have also stayed with me, enriching my nightmares for decades. I was not the greatest student ever seen in these halls;  I was always more comfortable writing than speaking. But I am proud to say that I was Miss Sophrosyne of 1973. (The picture below shows me getting ready for my inaugural parade through Santa Fe.)  Sophrosyne is a Greek word meaning, roughly, “moderation in all things.” And of course moderation is still my middle name.

On my horse in Santa Fe

For someone who came to the College already determined to become a writer, the prospect of spending four years reading the best books ever written sounded like Nirvana. It was a great shock, therefore, to discover in my freshman year that according to Plato, poets and playwrights would be banished from the ideal Republic.

Historians and mathematicians? Come on in! Philosophers? Pull up a chair! Storytellers…not so much.

It was like being back in high school, except in high school, I was one of the cool kids.

PlatoI tried not to take the exclusion personally. Nevertheless, I was mortified and mystified. I couldn’t conceive of a society without storytellers, and with good reason, since no such society has ever existed. Storytelling is a universal and timeless human mechanism that enables us to make sense of the world and orient ourselves within it. Think of the superstitions and religions that have arisen in every culture, and of the cave drawings that predated those cultures. What were they if not story illustrations? Besides, it would never work. If you were to banish all the bakers from the Republic, other people would learn to bake. If you eliminated carpenters, others would take up the trade. And if you banish storytellers, whose work is no less essential, new ones would undoubtedly arise in their stead. So why would Plato propose such a thing?

I pored over the text of the Republic in search of his reasoning. Poetry, he wrote, “incites the passions instead of the faculties of reason.” Through the skillful use of rhetoric, the poet or storyteller assumes an authority he does not rightfully possess. For these reasons, Plato argued, fiction is both powerful and dangerous.

Now this was not so bad. I could live with being powerful and dangerous; it certainly beats weak and innocuous. But I still wondered why storytelling should be singled out as pernicious. Because it was never fully resolved, that coupling of fiction and danger stayed with me; and many years later I explored it in a book aptly entitled A DANGEROUS FICTION.

Not that I planned any such exploration going in, nor the title, for that matter. My original intentions for this book were twofold. First, I wanted to write a mystery set in the upper echelons of New York publishing, populated by characters as clever and witty as their real-life counterparts. As a former literary agent, I’d known that world very well and looked forward to revisiting it. My second intention was to experiment with a certain narrative device that required a first-person narrator, something I’d never done before. I can’t say much more about that without spoiling some surprises.

But you never know for sure where a novel is going to lead you; at least, I don’t. I share Joan Didion’s affliction. “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind,” she wrote, “there would have been no reason to write.” This particular book led me back to that old conjunction of fiction and danger.

A DANGEROUS FICTION is a mystery told from the perspective of literary agent Jo Donovan, a young, self-made woman from Appalachia who has risen into the highest circles of the New York literary world. As the novel begins, Jo is being stalked and harassed by a disgruntled writer whose novel she rejected. At the same time, she’s trying to fend off a biographer who’s writing a book about her late husband, the famous novelist, Hugo Donovan. Things get worse, as they tend to do in novels. Stalking escalates to murder, and the biographer’s digging threatens Jo’s carefully constructed life. Gradually it becomes clear that the solution lies buried in the outtakes of Jo’s redacted memories. The most dangerous fictions, Jo learns, are the ones we tell ourselves.

And here I think I stumbled, as fiction writers do, onto a small kernel of truth.

Stories are not quiescent things. They have real-world consequences. They affect our actions. A powerful story is like the dybbuk of Jewish folklore, capable of possessing its host.Dybbuk

The act of writing a novel tends to focus writers’ attention on whatever issues they’re wrestling with in the book. During the two years it took to write A DANGEROUS FICTION, I kept noticing incidents that seemed inexplicable on the surface but made sense — at least, a perverted sort of sense — when you factored in the dybbuk.

I’ll share one such incident, culled from the news. You may have read about it. A young woman was in a car crash. She got out of the car, bloody and disoriented, and wandered a few blocks from the scene. It was 4:30 in the morning when she knocked on the door of a suburban house, apparently to ask for help. The homeowner—a 50-something maintenance man with no criminal record– grabbed his shotgun, opened the door, and wordlessly shot her in the face.

When I first read that story, I couldn’t understand it. Why would anyone do that? We are socialized, even hardwired, to help other people in trouble. I read additional reports, trying to make sense of the story. The setting was a suburban, working-class community close to Detroit. The homeowner was white, the young woman black. The man’s car had been vandalized and a neighbor’s house robbed in the weeks before the shooting. As these details came into focus, I began to imagine a man hunkered down in a changing neighborhood, a changing world; a man who sees himself as the lone, endangered holdout against an encroaching hostile tide of Others. It’s an archetypal hero theme, endlessly reiterated in stories and films from Shane to classic war films to the recent spate of zombie stories.

When a story reflects a person’s perceived circumstances, it can slip inside him and become his story. Once it takes hold, other stories adhere to it like barnacles to a rock. Confirmation bias ensures that of the innumerable stories we read and hear each day, the ones that stick are the ones that confirm our predetermined take on the world. For the Detroit man, I imagined those included news reports and fictionalized scenes of home invasions, push-in robberies, and the use of female decoys. So when that knock came on his door, it came as something expected and prepared for. It came with a sense of inevitability. He knew what he had to do because he’d read this story before. It didn’t matter that the invader was an injured girl. He had no doubt that the moment he let her in, her confederates would jump out of the bushes and overpower him. His only hope, he thought, was a preemptive attack.

The most dangerous fictions are the ones we tell ourselves.

Was Plato right to banish storytellers? Of course not.  It’s true that where there is power, there must be responsibility. I believe that writers need to think carefully about the stories they tell and readers about the stories they absorb. Teaching this critical mindset, by the way, is one of the things St. John’s does so well. As Jo learns in A DANGEROUS FICTION, it’s important to keep a solid yellow line between fiction and reality, fairy tales and life.

Oliver TwistBut live without stories altogether? Impossible. I do realize, by the way, that taking on Plato at St. John’s of all places is rather like volunteering for the dunking booth in a carnival; so let me quickly volunteer someone else instead: Dylan Thomas. “A good poem,” he wrote, “helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” The same can be said of good fiction. Stories, artfully told, are stealth weapons; they have the unique ability to slip inside readers and change them from within. In places where freedom of expression is repressed, fiction has been the vehicle for inspiration and liberation. UNCLE TOM’S CABIN contributed materially to the end of slavery, and OLIVER TWIST to the end of workhouses, to name just two examples. Fiction is also, by its nature, a vehicle for exploration and the creation of empathy. Although it takes a different path, good fiction aspires to truth no less than philosophy; and that, I suspect, was Plato’s greatest objection to it. Even peddlers of the truth fear competition.

Speaking of competition, I would like to take this opportunity to propose my own ideal Republic, the Republic of Writers. I’m not quite sure yet where this Republic will be located. A corner of Belize would be ideal, that country permitting, but other venues are under consideration. As for the laws and customs that will govern such a Republic, I will have to group-source that project; the task is too large for one writer’s brain. But I do have a few ideas. The national currency will be chocolate. One of society’s time-honored traditions will be that upon finishing final edits, writers will send every writer they know a box of said currency. The borders of the Republic will be patrolled by literary agents; and the firing squads, should they be required, will be composed of critics. All weapons must be imaginary, but there are no limits on those. The national drink will be champagne, and the national dish, naturally, will be a chicken in every plot.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

We’re Having a Twitter Party!

Send to Kindle

Great news! Penguin (@ReadPenguin) has chosen my latest mystery, A DANGEROUS FICTION, to be its book of the month, which entails two book chats on Twitter. It’s just come out in paperback, which also brings the ebook price down, so it’s an auspicious time for the book to be featured.

Here’s the announement from Penguin:

“Every month we’ll be inviting our @PenguinUSA Twitter followers to join us in reading and discussing a book selected by the staff here at Penguin. We’ll be checking in on Twitter periodically throughout the month, letting followers know where we are in the book, and opening the forum for discussion (but please, no spoilers!). We invite users to ask questions about the book as they read, and to look out for tweets about when we’ll be dedicating time for “mini book club meetings” during the course of the month.

Be sure you use #readpenguin when you tweet.”

Naturally this good news fills me with anxiety. What if they throw this party and nobody comes? If you Tweet, I hope you’ll jump in. First chat’s on Sept. 9 from 3-4PM ET. Please mark your calendars! The book’s a murder mystery set in publishing world, so highly cathartic for the peons in that cosmos (that would be us writers.) Here’s an excerpt. Hope to see you there!


Posted in A DANGEROUS FICTION, Barbara's books | Tagged , , | Leave a comment