cranky pants

Newsflash via the NYT: Things are Tough for New Novelists

If you don’t laugh at this, you’ll really have to cry. If you’re an aspiring novelist, you may find yourself weeping.

The New York Times has an article about the pseudo-anonymous novel The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling. If you’re not aware: Rowling wanted to see how publishing feels for the rest of us, so she used a pseudonym (Robert Galbraith)  to sell a mystery novel, which got only a few mediocre reviews and sold few copies. She planned to reveal herself as the true author but was sad that it got leaked so soon:

“I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name” (quoted in The Author’s Guild article on this same phenomenon).

I don’t know how to feel about this. The Queen dresses as a peasant and goes out to wander the city, and is surprised when her cover is blown. She intended to blow her own cover, but gosh, somebody beat her to it.  What’s that about? The theories in my head are not complementary, so I’ll let this aside for the moment after pointing out that Rowling stood to make no money from the novel, all the proceeds go to charity. The thing you need to know is, she wrote a mystery. It did not sell, and got mediocre reviews. Somebody leaked the fact that she was in fact the author, and sales are now through the roof. And positive reviews are pouring in. A lot of negative ones, too, but quite a few that glow on the page.

In my last post I talked about the fact that a first class novel, one with both critical and commercial success, is  rare. There are some wild cards:; an indifferent novel can dance at the top of the best-seller list  for weeks with the right marketing or name on the cover. And the NYT kindly provides an example of this exact thing happening, but starts by pointing out the painfully obvious::

In any event, a publishing contract is hardly a guarantee of critical or commercial success. Much depends on how a new manuscript is treated by the publisher.

Thanks for clearing that up, NYT.  My own rather jaded version of this can be found here.

The example they provide is for the 2010 novel Matterhorn  by first-time novelist Karl Marlantes. A prominent editor with deep pockets  found one of the 300 printed copies of the book, and set out to make a star of it. This really was excellent news for Marlantes, but the odds of this happening were astronomical.

First time novelists should be realistic about the chances going in, of course. But it’s still frustrating to see concrete examples of how very stacked the deck is.  I believe that there are many hundreds of really excellent novels out there that their authors will have to fight for before they see the light of day. I hope they persevere.

Now I have to say one more thing about JK Rowling. Somebody made up a bio for her alter-ego Galbraith, which appeared on one of the publisher’s websites (this is also from The Authors Guild article):

Born in 1968, Robert Galbraith is married with two sons. After several years with the Royal Military Police, he was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), the  plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world.  Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym.

This sits wrong with me. Authors who claim authority that they don’t really possess are viewed askance by readers and critics both. Or am I’m being too critical?

If i had a hammer: or, that opinionated bitch, my muse


Heather Renee (click to go to her Flickr page) seems to be my muse’s photographer.

If I had a hammer, maybe I’d be a carpenter and maybe I’d work for somebody else, and maybe I’d have a time card. That would be good, because I could make bookshelves and cabinets. But really, it’s the time card part that appeals. Because with a time card, you have to be someplace, you have solid goals and the tools to achieve them. If you’ve got a time card, you don’t need to depend on a muse.

Because muses are not easy. A muse can be generous, yes, and shower you with ideas and images and words. A few authors have muses who won’t shut up. My personal muse is more of a bitch. Now, I often use the word bitch in a positive way, but here I mean it the other way: cranky, fussy, willful, stubborn, self-absorbed, possessive, opinionated. Sometimes I want to throttle her, but then the joke would be on me.

My muse and I have had a tough year. For a while there I thought she was going to walk out on me and never come back, but I had neither time nor energy to deal with her moods. When your kid is in danger or sick or lost, everything else becomes very small, and the Girlchild was in a perilous spot. Even a six foot tall, broad shouldered, chain-smoking transvestite bitch of a Muse has no power over the Mother-you. Writing? What’s that? Oh yeah, that contract thing. Would you move? You’re in my way, and I have a call to make.

As the crisis (or I should say, long string of crises) slowly resolved, other things began to impose on my conscious mind. Hey! Look at the size of that cobweb! Um, what is this … thing in the fridge? Oh, I guess we forgot about the propane bill. And the big one: wow, imagine that. Already six months behind on book six. When am I contractually obligated to deliver it? Really?

Time for my Muse to come back. I knew it would take some wooing, but I forgot how vindictive she can be.

Here is her rule, inviolate: Ignore me, and I will pay you back in kind. If you really piss me off, I will turn my back on you for a very long time. You may beg and grovel, but from me? Crumbs. Dribbles. Until I’m feeling generous again, which if I may be frank, don’t hold your breath.

During this whole period I regularly sat down to write. I suppose I was hoping my Muse would be understanding, as she likes the Girlchild; but no luck there. I did beg and grovel, and all I got were the promised crumbs. I’d look at the manuscript and force myself to write while she cackled in the next room. Book Six crawled along, dribble by dribble.

And not good dribbles, either. Nothing felt right. Then one day I printed out the ms to read it (something I do very rarely) and I realized that all those words I had put down in the hard times, words extracted one by one like slivers, stank. The story lines stank, the rhythm stank, the dialog stank. Muse sat in the next room affing her lass off while the truth dawned on me: For the first time in my writing career, I had to dump thousands of words and start over again.

Muse was satisfied with this sacrifice. She came back to sit across from me and keep me moving along. Of course, the usual nitpicking and snarky comments also came back, but the story was moving and shaping up. Carpenters have to put up with a lot of sawdust. I’ve got the Muse’s moods and her cigar smoke.

I’ve been writing pretty well for the last two months, but it’s all very tenuous. My muse is ultra-sensitive to any kind of external emotional interference. For example: earlier this afternoon I made the mistake of checking my email. She told me not to. Another irritating thing about the bitch, my muse: she’s always right, she always announces she’s right, and not in a whisper, either.

Today we got some not-so-great news that will require some time and energy, and the minute I closed the email the Muse got up and went to the door looking very indignant and put-out.

I said: Wait! I need to get another 1,400 words down today!

She snorted, stormed out and slammed the door shut behind herself. Maybe if I’m lucky and if I can get the other problem resolved, she’ll come back later this evening. I’ll be thrilled. I’ll write through the night, if the bitch will let me.

Wish me luck, on all fronts.

an open letter to Steve Jobs, part deux

Dear Steve,

After so many years together, you still can surprise me. Usually your surprises are good. For example today your email about the new iPhone.

You know that I have been waiting for an edition of the iPhone that felt right to m

e. And

English: Apple director Steve Jobs shows iPhone

Steve Jobs

now there it is,

and at a reasonable price. Just when my current cell phone has been bugging me to the point of distraction, you save the day. I can pay $99 for the 3G iPhone, or $199 for the newer version, with 16 gb of memory. This means only one electronic instrument to drag around and more important still, it means GPS.


I’m always getting lost, as you well know. I hate driving new places, because I need to keep consulting the map and directions, which means pulling over or putting everybody’s wellbeing in peril. My old anxiety disorder, 98% under control these days, comes blazing to the forefront and I arrive whereever I’m going drenched in… well, you get the picture, and it isn’t pretty.

But you have handed me a solution. Or so I thought.

I realize I am not your only long-term relationship. I know you went through a commitment ceremony with AT&T some time ago, and that she takes a lot of your time and attention. That’s fine, really. I’m not the jealous type.  Alpha-male that you are, you need to spread yourself around; biology — nay, the entire universe demands it of you.  But when you let AT&T come between us, something has gone very wrong.

According to her, I have to pay $399 if I want the iPhone you wrote to say I could have for $199.

You said $99 or $199, but it turns out, once I’ve dug my way through the reservation form, that AT&T has put down her foot and won’t let you give me what you’ve promised. Because, you see, I already have an AT&T phone. Not an iPhone, just a crappy old phone that needs replacing. AT&T doesn’t care about that. She’s all about the control and power and money. According to her, I have to pay $399 if I want the iPhone you wrote to say I could have for $199.

Imagine the crushing disappointment. Imagine the sense of betrayal. When I went back to your original email, I saw that you had in fact mentioned this not-so-little fact, but at the very, very bottom in very,very small print of such a light color that it was impossible to read until I copied it to a text document. Only then did the truth come out.

You knew what AT&T was up to, and you allowed it. You enabled it.

I am so very disappointed in you. After so many years, to resort to such chicanery, just to please that demanding bitch, AT&T.

Shame on you.


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my muse in the spring

We have had an unusually long winter, and I am not happy about it. Most years the grass needs mowing in late February, early March but not this year.  The hosta are just now starting to put up their noses. There are lovely fat buds on the Star Magnolia which show no sign of opening.

The best thing about where we live, as far as I’m concerned, is the early spring and so I am a little cranky. Of course, this is nonsense. There are far more important things to be cranky about. The economy, for example. And the fact that the Mathematician has been in England for almost three weeks, party for work and partly to see his parents. He’ll be back on Friday. I like having the house to myself for a while, but now I’m ready for him to come home.  And not just because I miss his mug, or because he takes out the trash or knows how to give the cat her medicine without getting clawed. I miss him because I haven’t been able to write. Maxine rages about this, but still no luck. Once he’s home I should be able to buckle down. Until then I’m busy reading history and searching out primary material, which is not easy from my study in the Pacific Northwest.

Digital technology has made many things possible, but not everything. I need to spend a week in the Manhattan archives and libraries and the historical society. April would be perfect, as the heat hasn’t set in and things are pleasant.  But there Manhattan is all the way on the other side of the continent, and here am I, looking up flights and hotel rates and feeling ever gloomier about the possibility.

I am about to do a phone interview with Fresh Fiction about the trade paper release of Pajama Girls. I’ll let you know when it shows up on their website.

Now I’ll go away and when I come back,  I’ll be cheerful. That’s my intent.