Sunday, January 24, 2010

How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead by Ariel Gore

How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead: Your Words in Print and Your Name in Lights
by Ariel Gore

To prepare for my very first performance at a literary reading, I decided to trot out this book again. I bought it a couple of years ago, based on the title alone. We’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but you’re damn right I’ll be swayed by a catchy title. Ariel Gore offers some helpful tips on writing, starting with the first flickers of inspiration all the way through to publishing and name recognition.

“If I’ve got a huge mess on my desk and I’m convinced it’s time to give up, this must be page 100. Page 100 is not a good day.”

No, page 100 — and its project-specific equivalent — is never a good day. Page 100 is the day you’d set someone on fire if they even glanced at the junk coming out of your fingers. If there’s one thing writers are really good at, it’s believing everything we’ve just written is crap. Pulitzer winners probably still have this problem, and maybe it is crap and maybe it isn’t, but the secret is just carrying on anyway. Either make it better or let it ride.

It’s nice to come back to this book and see that I’ve been doing a lot of things right. I still make zero money from all this rambling that I do, but I’m hopeful that will change. In the time since I purchased this book, I finished writing a book, wrote first drafts of two others, started an online arts and entertainment magazine with my husband, taken on various writing-related challenges (like Cannonball here), and have had a few bizarre moments where people I don’t know recognize me. Not too shabby, considering I don’t leave the house much and brush my hair roughly three times a week.

“Written stories are no different from visual art. When you make a poem and give it to another person, you are providing him with something that has the power to sustain him. You could just as easily be making him a sandwich. It’s a creation of your generous heart, but it is also a product. This frame of mind needn’t change the way you create your written work, but it should be put to use when you bring that work into the marketplace.”

What I like about this book is that while it has certain indie-hippie undertones, it doesn’t make any judgements one way or another about what the ‘best’ way to publish is. Self-publish, find an agent, make your own zines, start a blog, go for the big publishing house deal — do whatever works for you. “Be as crazy as you are,” she says.

Gore stresses meeting your deadlines, even if they are self-imposed. You could be writing the most brilliant prose in the world, but that doesn’t matter so much if your editor needed it yesterday. Somewhat substandard and on time is better than nothing. As a former copy editor who has stared at many an empty-handed writer, I can wholeheartedly agree. No one’s going to want to work with you if they have to hold your hand through the whole process.

Once you’ve written something and found a way to put it out there, the book offers advice on how to master your own publicity, including how to get over the fear of getting up on stage. Not all of us are born performers or teachers, and we don’t necessarily know what to do with ourselves when we can’t write it out first. And even if we’re reading something we’ve already gone over a zillion times, it’s still a little strange to do it out loud. I wouldn’t say I’m introverted, but I definitely come off more collected in print.

“You’re a lit star, dammit. And this is how you will rise. Open your mouth and force the words out. Again and again. Practice. And then practice some more. You don’t have to be Anaïs Nin or Maya Angelou, but you’ve got to be able to get through a reading.”

You know, I did ok. I read four and a half pages from my book, something that I felt like gave a good sense of what the book is about without jumping in at an odd place, and something that I’d revised about a zillion times by now. Though I don’t know how well it held up as a ‘performance piece,’ I do think that with it being my first time out, I needed to err on the side of comfort. People paid attention, I didn’t stumble over my words and next time will be better.

Apart from all the helpful and often funny advice from Ariel Gore herself, she also interviews several other writers, including Dave Barry, Dave Eggers, Michelle Tea and Erika Lopez. Each have their own way of doing things, and each have their own ideas as to how you might try making your way through the literary world.

Though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to people just beginning the writing process — better to get books that concentrate more on craft for that — but for anyone who has waded in a little or anyone who feels they might be stuck in a success-rut, it can’t hurt to give some of this advice a try.

Book # 12/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review also appeared on the RiVerSpeAK blog on January 26th, 2010.

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