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September 2017

Let’s Talk with Jamie Ford

by Susan Henderson on September 11, 2017

Jamie Ford is the author of three novels: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Songs of Willow Frost, and out tomorrow (I’m so excited!!), Love and Other Consolation Prizes. 

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Here’s a description of it…

1909, Seattle. For twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World’s Fair feels like a gift. But when he’s there amid the exotic exhibits, the half-Chinese orphan discovers that he will actually be a prize, raffled off to ‘a good home’. He is claimed as a servant by the flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel. There he forges new friendships and discovers a sense of family.

Jamie’s debut novel spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and went on to win the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. His work has been translated into 34 languages. But, maybe more importantly, he’s a happily married father of six with a great sense of humor and a regular D&D habit.

Here is the one and only Jamie Ford with some writerly wisdom. Be sure to leave your messages for him in the comments section.

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Dear You,

Let’s talk. Because I’ve been where you are right now. Well, not literally, but figuratively. (Literally would be weird).

I’ve been that hopeful, aspiring writer, trying to figure it all out. And honestly, I’m still aspiring, still hopeful. And still trying to untie the Gordian Knot that is…writing.

You’d think that it would get easier with each book but it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s even harder.

So if that sounds a bit discouraging, perhaps you should consider the tradecraft of plumbing. Seriously, plumbers make great money and on certain frustrating writing days, sludging through other people’s sewage seems like a welcome respite.

Hmmm. You seem unconvinced? But you’re still reading this, so you must be somewhat determined. And if you have determination, then let’s keep going.

In general, I feel reluctant to dispense advice. Because, who knows, maybe I just got lucky? (Ah, can you sense my fading confidence already? That twitch in my swagger? We writers are a hopelessly insecure lot).

I sometimes avoid this type of pontification because I’m only on my third book. So come back in twenty years after I’ve published ten, including my magnum opus—a 1,200-page epic, written in second-person plural, which Publisher’s Weekly will rave about despite my not using commas, periods, paragraph breaks, or the letter Q.

But most of all, I shy away because what works for me may not work for you.

Nevertheless, here are some thoughts.

It’s okay to plink away

As a writer, I still give myself a healthy margin for self-improvement. You wouldn’t sit down at a piano for the first time and try to play Mozart, would you? Of course not. You’d play scales and work your way up. But so many first-time writers sit down and try to write an epic seven-book series, with twenty point-of-view characters, and when it doesn’t turn out well they shrug, “I guess I’m not a writer.”

It doesn’t work that way. Start small. Then kick off the training wheels when you feel the wind in your hair.

Stop scraping burnt toast

There’s a danger in being wedded to one idea, or rehashing the same idea over and over if it’s not working. Sometimes you just have to divorce yourself from a story or at least agree to explore a trial separation.

My path to publishing with Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was remarkably easy. But my time of longsuffering was spent on an un-publishable book that I just couldn’t let go of. I hung on for years.

So step away from that 300,000-word slipstream fantasy you began in the 8th grade. It’ll still be there, I promise. You’ll find more words, an inexhaustible supply.

Don’t wait for the short bus

The market for short fiction is theoretical these days—so don’t waste years of your life trying to pad your literary curriculum vitae with short fiction before jumping into longer forms. If you enjoy writing short fiction (I do), spin that yarn, but don’t hold up your career waiting on rejections from literary journals that pay you in contributor’s copies. Finishing an unpublished novel is a greater achievement than a short story published for free in Hog Caller’s Quarterly Review.

Write for the most important audience of all: yourself

Write stories that fill the void in your imagination first. By that, I mean write stories that answer your own questions. Don’t write for a market or target audience. Octavia Butler, who wrote science fiction, once said, “There are no black people in the future, therefore the future is a dangerous place.” Instead of writing to reflect the genre, she explored her own point of view, shattering the expectations of others.

Being a writer is easy. Writing is hard

As a student, I was once asked, “Which do you like more—writing, or the idea of being a writer?” It was, and is, a very delicate and powerful question. If you enjoy the process of writing, you’ll be fine. But if you romanticize the idea of being a writer, you should keep your day job, buy a Vespa, and hang out at Starbucks and brood a lot. You can enjoy all of the affectations without the struggle.

Avoid the beauty contest

We all have a favorite author that makes us go all drooly when we savor their work. Stop reading them, at least for a while. Doing so is like leafing through fashion magazines while trying to lose weight—they’ll only make you feel fat. Instead, go to a garage sale and spend 25¢ on three, random, out-of-print paperbacks and force yourself to read them. Pick them apart for all their flaws. Then you’ll be more apt to notice those same mistakes in your own writing.

Weaponize your weaknesses

As the great Pat Conroy once said, “the greatest gift a writer can ever receive is an unhappy childhood.” Pat is right. The things that scare us the most—the things that have caused us the most pain are actually our dormant superpowers. Write about them. Spend some of that emotional equity on the page. Give your weaknesses and insecurities to your characters. They’ll come alive. And you’ll sleep better.

And lastly…

If you can write, then write. But if you can’t, then do what I do.

Also, there’s always plumbing.

Jamie’s newest book, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, is available everywhere, but I know you’ll buy it from an indie bookstore. Please leave Jamie a comment here because it’s always nice to respond when someone writes you a letter. You can also visit him at www.jamieford.com

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Question of the Month: Out of Your Hands

by Susan Henderson on September 4, 2017

Talk to me about how you stay calm and emotionally present when important parts of your lives are out of your hands.

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This is the ARC of The Flicker of Old Dreams. ARC stands for either Advanced Reading Copy or Advanced Review Copy. It’s a free book that still has typos in it, and it goes out early to newspaper and magazine editors who might review it, as well as to authors who might offer a blurb for it.

Up until this point, you feel like you still have control over the book. You can still make small edits to the text. You can still dream big about the life it will have. You still have time, perhaps, to lose ten pounds or become an extrovert before you go on book tour.

But then you arrive at this place. And the novel that was such a private affair for all the years you wrote in your garage office or in the back of a café has now become something public. The ARC is sent far beyond your circle of kind friends, who would never say anything to hurt your feelings, and to people who might hate it and say so loudly. Or they might interpret the book or the characters in ways you never imagined or intended.

It’s out of your hands.

Reviewers will have their opinions. The book will have its own life outside of you.

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We learn this again and again. We’re not in control of as much as we like to believe. We can do things to help. We can be proactive. But the art we send into the world becomes one more thing (like illness, rain, and the choices our loved ones make) that may impact us deeply and personally, but is not ours to steer.

So how do you make peace with what you can’t control, and get busy with what you can?

Talk to me in the comments.

I’ll end, as usual, by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post.

Tyehimba Jess, Olio
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Bittersweet
Mona Simpson, Anywhere but Here
Julia Fierro, The Gypsy Moth Summer
Maile Meloy, Do Not Become Alarmed
David Niall Wilson, Gideon’s Curse: A Novel of Old Mill, NC
Robin Black, Life Drawing
Teju Cole, Blind Spot
Wendy Werris, An Alphabetical Life
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

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One last thing. Some sad news. We lost our beloved Steve in August and we miss him every day. I can’t say more here without breaking down, but I’ll be around in the comments.

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