TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR WRITERS
in sync with his fiction debut
a collection of stories called
It IS summer after all so -- whether you're naked or not -- this collection is for you.
Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.
My story collection, Naked Summer, grew out of my MFA thesis. I finished the program at New Mexico State in 2002. Nine years later, it’s in bookstores.
I queried a few agents here and there, entered contests, and tried whatever I could to publish that first book. I tried writing a novel. I wrote a few graphic novel proposals and partial scripts in collaboration with artists. I adapted one of my short stories into a screenplay. I revised the stories again and again, queried agents more seriously, and came to believe that this book was good enough to publish.
Agents wanted a novel, of course, but I just wasn’t ready. A few university and independent presses didn’t think readers would care about stories set in Indiana. So I tried the press at Indiana University. Surely, they would think Indiana stories mattered. The editor, Linda Oblack, loved the book, but two of the three reviewers did not, dismissing the stories as “K-Mart fiction,” a classist term I despise, one I thought had been buried with Raymond Carver. One reviewer said the stories didn’t do enough to feature Indiana.
Too much Indiana. Not enough Indiana. Too fat. Too thin.
Another university press sent me a long letter about why my book deserved to be published, though they still decided to pass. More close-but-no-cigar moments. Agents said that they loved the stories and my writing, but it would not be in their best interest to work with a writer of short stories. Around this time, in 2008, I submitted the manuscript to a small press in North Carolina called Press 53. They rejected it.
So I put the book aside, tried writing another project, and basically kept spinning my wheels. Then last fall, on a whim, I submitted it again to Press 53, mostly because I felt like I had to do something to get my work out there. They now use Submishmash, so I didn’t have to print the manuscript and go to the post office -- I just uploaded the PDF online. Total impulse move. I’d changed the title of the manuscript, but it was structurally much the same as my 2008 submission.
Six weeks later, Press 53 and I ironed out the details of my contract. Kevin Watson, the publisher, wanted the book to have its original title. I didn’t remember that Press 53 had already rejected the book, and I’m pretty sure Kevin didn’t know. I usually keep pretty accurate records, but I missed that one. In fact, I only rediscovered that fact a few weeks later, after I’d signed the contract, because I searched my e-mail account for a different message from Kevin. If I had known, I never would have submitted it a second time.
And to any agents who might be reading this: Let me assure you that I have learned my lesson. I will never write another story collection that can’t at least be disguised as a novel, and I’m working on a few novels, too.
Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.
My wife and I renovated our house. We flipped it, basically, but only for us. It’s the first place my wife has lived that wasn’t a rental, and we could only afford it because the cost of living in Indianapolis is so low, and because, in 2006, the banks were giving out loans to anyone with a pulse. Our neighborhood, Irvington -- named for Washington Irving, the first American writer whose words earned serious coin -- is a historic district less than five miles from downtown, but it’s had to bounce back from some rough years.
You don’t have to go far to find a driveway dumpster. The DIY mentality is contagious. Once you’ve renovated a house, it’s hard not to see the potential in just about everything, which isn’t a bad way for writers to view the world. Businesses have moved back into the area, including a few restaurants and, later this year, a brewery. We’ve talked about which houses we would fix up, and my wife has dreamed up a handful of restaurants she’d love to start. She knows which buildings would house them. She has some firm ideas about menus, décor, and the like. But instead of bringing one of those ideas to life, she decided to start Engine Books, a boutique fiction press. (Baggott, interrupts to say, Check out ENGINE BOOKS.)
I want to open a pie shop.
I don’t know anything about pie-making, really. I would have to use my wife’s crust recipe, for starters. There’s a space available, a front corner of a building near the strip with interior brick walls, that I might be able to rent for two hundred bucks a month. But it doesn’t have room for even one oven, let alone the expensive vent hoods. It might be able to seat 10 diners at once, if I got creative with the table layout. Can I get a caterer’s license, make pies at home, and sell them in this tiny corner store? If so, can I afford to hire someone to watch the store while I’m an hour away, teaching university classes? Or, alternately, will I just not be open on certain days? Can I manage to read or write during slow hours? A lot of writers who don’t make a living from their writing, and especially those without tenure-line teaching jobs, fantasize about other careers. The most boring option is always law school. Dreaming up a pie shop takes creative energy I should probably pour back into my fiction, but the pie shop is the persistent idea that dominates my thoughts. When another business with its act together steps in and rents that place, I will resent it like mad.
What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)
If you’re a writer, you want a lifelong partner who understands, at some basic level, why you must write, someone who can embrace all of the particular quirks you bring to this endeavor.
If your partner happens to work in an office, say, and doesn’t understand why you spend a few hours every night working on a draft instead of watching this week’s episode of CSI: Miami, you might imagine it would be easier if your partner were also a writer. But two writers in a relationship have their own set of negotiations and challenges. There are more writer couples now than ever before, it seems, because of the rise of creative writing programs. If you were (or are) an MFA student, you might even have writing mentors who are married to each other. Maybe it seems like a good idea. Often, it is. But relationships, marriages -- these are hard work, no matter who your partner is.
My advice, if you’re going to partner with another writer, is to find someone whose work you admire, someone who’s a better writer than you. It helps, then, if this writer feels the same way about you and your writing. Your ego needs to be balanced -- massive enough to allow you to write in the first place, but mellow enough to allow you to be the second-best writer in your household. Along this path, you can avoid most problems, but you’d damn well better pick up your socks and put the empty cereal bowl directly in the dishwasher.
What's your worst writerly habit?
My worst writerly habit isn’t recycling certain words or images, or writing the same kinds of stories over and over again, or being distracted by Facebook, but rather caring what other writers think, or what they’re doing, or what success they might be enjoying. None of that really matters, and I’m getting better at tuning it out. My writing life improved considerably when I stopped reading Poets & Writers, which seems specifically designed to make struggling writers feel like shit. While a few of my closest friends will likely always be writers, I need to also find some new friends, maybe bakers and butchers and bartenders, or anyone who works with food or drink.
This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of publishing?
Several excellent indie publishers will continue to grow, and big New York publishing houses will continue to scale back, in part because their parent companies’ profit demands are unsustainable. The book industry has made so many mistakes over the years. Ours is the only industry that allows retailers to return products that don’t sell. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that change in the next decade.
The big chain bookstore, as we know it, is forever damaged. Borders has closed stores all over the country. Barnes and Noble has fared better because they invested in their e-reader technology. I do think the e-book market will continue to grow. And, yes, more writers will self-publish, though I will always prefer to work with an editor. I think writers of literary fiction will continue to incorporate genre into their stories and novels.
As a writer, I can’t worry too much about any of this. And so many predictions about the future of publishing end up wrong. But as an editor of an online journal, and as the husband of a writer who has started her own publishing company, it’s something to talk about over breakfast.
Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.
Here are my Ten Commandments for Writers.
1. I am Literature, your God, and you shall have no other gods before me, but, in the end, it’s just words on paper, so don’t go crazy in your effort to be as good as Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, or any other writer who committed suicide. Many things are more important than Me. And you.
2. Thou shalt not make for yourself an idol, especially your editor or thesis director, who is just another person struggling to put words and ideas together in a way readers might care about.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain, if only because you’re a writer who can find a better word. Salinger’s estate has copyrighted “Goddamn,” anyway, you phoney.
4. Remember the Sabbath, especially Black Sabbath, or whatever kick-ass music will keep you from living in your precious little head for a few hours.
5. Honor thy father and mother, but don’t ask them (or expect them) to read your work. And if they’re assholes, don’t bother honoring them.
6. Thou shalt not kill, not even your darlings. Remove them if necessary, but keep them in a folder. You may need them someday.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery, but don’t be afraid to dabble in another genre or art form. Spread it around, babies. Do something else now and then.
8. Thou shalt not steal, unless it’s from Shakespeare, which is officially sanctioned.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness, but please recognize that work can also be play, and some of
the most engaging narrators in the history of literature are unreliable.
10. Thou shalt not covet, but if you do, kudos to you, because all fiction is really about desire, and aren’t you lucky to understand how that works?
Andrew Scott was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana. He holds writing degrees from Purdue University and New Mexico State University, where he was twice awarded a Frank Waters Fiction Fellowship. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Esquire, Ninth Letter, The Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, Glimmer Train Stories, The Writer’s Chronicle, and other publications. With his wife, writer Victoria Barrett, he co-edits Freight Stories. He teaches at Ball State University and lives in Indianapolis.