An MFA Fantasy Come True: The Fielding of Dreams

“I’m going to write a bestseller about baseball. What’s more timeless and universal, or connects with readers’ psyches like America’s favorite pastime? It worked for Kinsella. The writing will be fabulous, and it will have allusions to Melville to appease the literati. It will also have sex, death, nothing heroic, a setting with no interest, and a none too happy ending. What more could the critics want?

“Then I’m going to have my agent send it to Michael Pietsch, who edited David Foster Wallace and will buy it for more than half a million dollars after a heated auction, and will make it the hot fall book. Michael will give an empassioned talk about it at the booksellers’ convention in May and have galleys to give away. The book will hit the stores in September so the sales momentum builds and keeps the book selling through the holidays. It will have killer quotes from the right people, a big advertising campaign, a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review section, and a story in Vanity Fair by my Harvard roommate Keith Gessen.”

Chad Harbach wasn’t harboring this fantasy while he spent a decade writing The Art of Fielding, but he hit a grand slam in his first at bat. Seduced by all of the promotion for the book, which is on the New York Times list as I write, I took the galley on vacation, eager to read it, but grew increasingly impatient as the story developed. I had to force myself to finish it.

The book symbolizes what’s wrong with contemporary novels: small scale, family strife, the authors’ limited experience, characters and events I don’t care about, and endings that, instead of being the perfect dessert at the end of a great meal, make me angry I read the book.

Like other literary fiction and most movies, The Art of Fielding is a triumph of technique over content. It’s the story of Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop phenom at Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan. Harbach is an excellent writer. He brings the setting to life along with a lively cast of characters who undoubtedly told him what should happen next. Unlike the descriptions of the settings and the games, the lack of description for most of the characters made them more names than people I could see.

But because of my terminally bourgeois sensibility, the plot and the characters kept adding to my growing resistance to turning the 509 (!) pages. The quality of the writing and the futile hope that the story would finally justify my time kept me going, but I wuz robbed.

The book’s impact?

Writing: first rate.

Laughter: none.

Tears: none.

Allusions understood: none.

Erotic excitement: none.

Building tension: none.

Insights: none.

What becomes of the characters?

Henry, error-free until an errant, wind-blown, hard-to-believe throw to first moves the plot by hospitalizing, of all people, Owen Dunne, his gay mulatto roommate who’s reading (foreshadowed, but still a stretch) in the dugout. Henry survives the resulting crisis of confidence, turns down a chance to play in the bigs, and stays on the team.

Pella Affenlight, a lost soul who finds herself, becomes a college fresh person (an appalling term that stopped my suspension of disbelief every time I read it).

Her father, Guert, the college president, escapes his comeuppance for seducing Owen by conveniently dying of a heart attack. Owen conveniently goes elsewhere to study.

Mike Schwartz, Pella’s boyfriend and Henry’s teammate and mentor, becomes the Westish coach.

Is it possible to ruin the impact of fates like that?

Elizabeth and I have known Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch since he joined Little, Brown twenty years ago. He’s also a Harvard grad (Go, Crimson!), and one of the best and most successful editors in publishing history, and a great guy.  Harbach has got the goods and a promising future. But maybe he should take a break from editing his literary magazine, n+1, and consider what Steve Jobs said of Bill Gates: “He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”

Living a middle-class vie boheme while dodging collectors for his college loans, Harbach earned his success the hard way. He was rejected by many agents and publishers until he found the passionate agent every writer dreams of: Chris Parris-Lamb.  I’m sure the book will have a long life on MFA reading lists, but social media have made readers critics. Little, Brown took great pains to avoid making the book look like a baseball novel. But I wonder how women, reading groups, and future readers will respond to what is, after all, a novel about the trials of a college shortstop.

As for you, Chad. You got your MFA. You’ve paid your dues in the Triple A literary league. It’s time to move on from college sports. The world badly needs stories to help us understand and come to terms with a rapidly changing, unpredictable world as full of peril as it is of promise. The article in this month’s Vanity Fair, an outstanding, endearing piece about you, Michael, and publishing, notes that you’re angry about global warming. Step up to the plate with stories that have a scope and relevance worthy of your talent. With Michael’s help, you’ll hit them out of the park. And when I write about your next book, you won’t have to endure any baseball metaphors.

Reading The Art of Fielding wasn’t a total loss, however, because to paraphrase Philip Roth: Nothing bad can happen to a blogger, everything is material. I look forward to hearing from the book’s defenders about how wrong I am.

I write the blog to help us both understand what we need to know about writing, publishing, promotion, and agents. I hope you find it worth reading and sharing. Rants, comments, questions, corrections, and ideas for posts greatly appreciated.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 16-20, 2012 / / [email protected] / / @SFWC / / 415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109 /

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / / [email protected] / @SFWritersU


From Content to Contentpreneuring: 6 Cs for Becoming a Successful Writer in the Digital Age—Part 1

 The blog and my books have discussed why now is the best time ever to be a writer. But writers need a new model for building a career. They have to reinvent themselves, first as content providers, then as contentpreneurs.

I’ve discussed parts of the model in previous posts, but have added to them and created a framework for them with six words starting with the letter c: content, clarity, communication, contentpreneuring, commitment, and celebration. Each of these words will be a separate post, because each includes several elements.  All are essential to your career.

1. Content

As a writer, your worth comes from your words, and words start with passion. Becoming a successful author requires enthusiasm for words, ideas, writing, books, people, publishing, collaboration, communicating about your work, and serving your readers. To transform passion into profit, believe that what you love to do is what you were born to do.

There are a dozen reasons why now is the best time ever to be a writer. But at a time of technology-driven transformation, writers need a new model for build a writing career.

I’ve discussed parts of it in previous posts, but have added to them unified them in six words starting with the letter c: content, clarity, communication, contentpreneuring, commitment, and celebration. Each of these words will be a post, because each has several elements. All of them are essential to your career.

1. Content

As a writer, your worth comes from your words, and words start with passion. Becoming a successful author requires enthusiasm for words, ideas, writing, books, people, publishing, collaboration, communicating about your work, and serving your readers. To transform passion into profit, believe that what you love to do is what you were born to do.

When the brilliant Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch first read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, he said: “I want to publish this book more than I want to breathe.” How much do you want to write and promote your book? Your passion for doing both will help you triumph over obstacles.


After passion comes reading. You can only write as well as you read. Read what you love to read and write what you love to read. An acquaintance once came up to me all excited and said: “I just finished my first novel!”

“That’s great!” I said.

Then he asked, “What should I read next?”

Well, if you’re a novelist, read as many novels as you can. Become an expert on the kind of book you want to write, and analyze what makes them work. What works for you in the books you love will work for your readers. Reading enables you to establish criteria for style, subject, length, content, illustrations, and back matter.


How can you make you and your book stand out in the explosion of books, authors, and media? Creativity: the secret sauce that only you can bring to every aspect of your work. There was a New Yorker cartoon showing a man standing over a cat, next to a litter box, and saying: “Never think outside the box.” To be creative today, you have to think outside the room the box is in.


There was once a cartoon showing one writer saying confidently to another: “I’ve got all the pages numbered. Now all I have to do is fill in the rest.” That’s where craft comes in. Besides reading, writing has five essential elements:

* Coming up with ideas: The French premier Georges Pompidou once said: “Conception is much more fun than delivery.“ Life and the media are inexhaustible sources of ideas.

A New Yorker cartoon shows two women nursing cocktails, and one is saying to the other: “I’m marrying Marvin. I think there’s a book in it.” There’s a book in just about anything and more subjects to write about than ever. If you practice niche craft by creating an idea that lends itself to a series of books you are passionate about writing and promoting, you may be able to build a career with it.

A publisher will buy your idea in one of two forms: For a memoir or a first novel, you usually need a complete manuscript. But most nonfiction is easier to write, sell and promote. And publishers buy most nonfiction from proposals with an introduction about the book and the author, an outline, and usually one sample chapter.

* Research: finding the information you need to write your book. Hemingway believed that you should know ten times as much about your subject as you put into your book. The more you learn, the more you can earn, and technology helps you do research faster and more easily than ever.

* A workstyle: the time, place, and writing tools that work best for you. Kahlil Gibran once wrote: “Your daily life is your temple and your religion.” If you want to be a successful writer, you have to pay your dues to the muse by making writing a daily ritual. Push yourself with an attainable goal for the number of pages you crank out a day and a deadline for finishing your projects. Even a page a day is a book a year.

Ray Bradbury summarized the art of writing succinctly: throw up and clean up.  Decide whether it’s better to outline your book or write your manuscript, then massage it until it’s ready to submit. The Indian statesman Nehru once noted that “All my major works have been written in prison. I would recommend prison not only to aspiring writers but aspiring politicians, too.” There’s only one right way for you to write, and that’s in whatever way enables you to produce your best work.

* Writing: which is a combination of art and craft, poetry and carpentry, vision and revision. Don’t be guilty of premature submission. Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather, said, “The art of writing is rewriting.”

There’s a cartoon showing two mice sitting on a writer’s desk in the middle of the night reading his manuscript, and one is saying: “We’d do him a big favor if we ate chapter four.” No amount of marketing can make a book that doesn’t deliver sell. If you don’t want rodents and readers criticizing your work, be your own editor. Keep revising your work until it’s 100%, as well-conceived and crafted as you can make it.

Craft leaps off the page instantly.  Agents and editors weed through thousands of submissions a year, so they only read far enough to make a decision. Every word you write, starting with the first word of your query letter, must motivate them to read the next word.

There’s a cartoon showing an editor sitting across a desk from a writer and saying: “I’m afraid chapter five moves a bit too slowly, although the pop-up gorilla does help a little.” You can’t rely on a pop-up gorilla to keep agents and editors reading your work. It’s been said that if at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you. But writing is a forgiving craft. Only your last revision counts, that final reckoning when you must resolve the tension between thought and feeling and make every word count.

The quintessential virtue of salable prose is that it keeps readers turning the pages. If you can keep your readers turning the pages, it doesn’t make any difference what you write about. The fate of your book hinges on the response of its first group of readers. Word of mouse that goes viral is the best promotion your book can have. But it starts with your words. So write as if your future depends on it; your future as a writer does.

* Sharing. The great ballet dancer Nijinsky once said: “I merely leap and pause.” After you take your creative leap, it’s time to pause and get feedback on your work. You can’t get your writing right by yourself, but you don’t have to. Build a community of knowledgeable readers to give you feedback. Consider hiring a freelance editor. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just make sure your work is 100% before submitting it.

Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen share every cup of chicken soup with 40 readers who grade the stories on a scale of one to ten. They only use the 9 and a 1/2s and 10s. So join or start a writing group that meets online or off to critique each other’s work.

Next: the second C word–clarity.

I write the blog to help you understand what you need to know about writing, publishing, promotion, and agents. Rants, comments, questions, and corrections welcome. The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 16-20, 2012 / / [email protected] / / @SFWC / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109 / / 415-673-0939 / San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / / [email protected] / @SFWritersU


Welcome to the Age of Living Books

There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows a dejected guy, holding a brief case, who has just come home after work, and he’s saying to his wife: “Bad news. Hon. I got replaced by an app.”

As a writer, you don’t have to worry about being replaced by an app. But one way e-books can replace p-(rinted)books is clear. As screens of all sizes are returning our focus from words to images, e-books are reinventing reading and writing for new generations of book buyers.

Computer technology created the greatest revolution in publishing since the printing press. E-books are creating the next revolution by giving you two ways to write living books:

* E-readers connected to the Web can have links to anything that already exists and you and your publisher produce. This is an amazing opportunity for you to use an exploding multimodal universe to provide new ways to enhance your readers’ experience and entice Web-centric readers. Using links for footnotes and authors discussing their books are obvious uses.

* E-books can link to social media, the ultimate book club: a community of readers who can email you links to what they find or create to which you and other readers can respond. This conversation creates living books, endless works in progress that continue to improve and stay up to date.

Groupsourcing with Your Readers

,, is embedding videos in a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. But video is only one medium, and you’re only limited by your imagination and what you and your readers can find and create. In fiction and narrative nonfiction, you can embed links to music, photographs, or video to create a sense of the period and setting in which the narrative takes place. You can dramatize part of it to draw readers into your story and use the video as a promotional trailer.

Little, Brown will be releasing David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest with links to the book’s cultural allusions. Imagine how links can bring new readers to the classics by with definitions of words and the explanations of the cultures in which they were written.

Links empower your readers to contribute a video of how they used a gardening book, for example, and show the results. In addition to responding to what readers submit, you can decide whether to make use of what readers send in for your e-book or just let it be part of the conversation. Either way, readers will offer testimonials, which on the Web, are golden. You can also make your e-book interactive by including tests and assessments to which you can provide automated responses.

The author Dorothy Parker once said: “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” It’s also the soul of writing on the Web. When you can download anything you want into your book instantly, you will need to build a list of links from something in the text, with one-line descriptions to help readers decide whether to click on them. This will prevent your e-book from becoming too long.

The collaboration between you and your readers can begin while you’re developing your book as a blog and articles, and giving talks. You can test the effectiveness of links as you integrate them into your text and change or add to them as you discover new links. Book buyers will benefit because they will always buy the best version of your e-book, which means that responses to it will continue to be more glowing, which in turn will generate more sales for your book and everything else you create.

Making your readers’ feedback part of a conversation makes them members of your book community. Building communities, online and off, of people you need to help you is essential to everything you do as a writer. And as social networks prove, community is one of the fundamental forces driving the Web.

Your readers will also ask questions and send ideas you can make use of for talks, articles, videos, and books that they will look forward to seeing. They will help you create your career and remain part of it as long as you serve them well. Indeed, everything what you write is your answer to the fundamental question: How can you best serve your writers?

Adding text to your e-book will change the pagination, index, and table of contents, so updates will require planning. But in time, new software will make it easy for you to insert changes whenever you wish.

A New Kind of Book for New Generations of Readers

E-readers and will continue to grow in quality and acceptance. They will become full-fledged computers with voice recognition. Computers will have the same information, whether you’re accessing it at home, in your car, or on your phone. Simultaneous translation of voice and text is coming.

Pricing and technical standards will emerge. But a unique, enhanced e-book that only you can write and that continues to grow in value justifies a higher price than just the text. Prices will also have to reflect the cost of creating and licensing content.

E-books will enable your books to do what only they can: provide the best, newest, in-depth information available in all media. However, don’t despair about p-books. You can list links in the back of the printed book by page number and update them on your Web site, and p-book readers can contribute to the online conversation.
Technology guru Ray Kurzweil predicts devices will be placed in our brains and “the Web will take over everything, including our minds.” But the longevity of technology is unknowable. Books have proven their worth for more than 500 years. As publishing visionary Jason Epstein noted in The New York Review of Books, printed books “will continue to be the irreplaceable repository of our collective wisdom.

But e-books will bring life to your books by bringing your books to life for new generations of readers. They are one of the most promising signs for your future as a writer. So keep writing and think links!