Quote of the Day – Robert Penn Warren

It was one of Hunter S Thompson’s favourites so, after buying and carting it from Glasgow, I finally got around to sinking into All The King’s Men. According to the New York Times blurb on the back it is: “The definitive novel about American politics.” Which is on par with saying Macbeth is the definitive play about Scottish politics, and therefore not entirely inaccurate. All The King’s Men has a distinctly Shakespearean sweep and stride, with its fine language and inexorable tragedies. Warren conjures a world always just beyond the control of its occupants:

The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn’t got and which, if he had it, would save him.

EP2 Editing & Publication Brief

This will be brief, too, as the word-count-ometer is already, I fear, in the red. This post is linked by title and tags to three others — each interviews I conducted with writers who are prolific bloggers and published authors. Two of the three are Canadian-born but based in the USA (make of that what you will), the third is straight-up American. This wasn’t a deliberate bias, it simply seems the American publishing market is much quicker on the draw with pursuing talent through new technology and I didn’t have an example of a British published book that originated in blog-land to hand.

I chose to interview Jessica Morgan, co-writer of Go Fug Yourself, and Christian Lander of Stuff White People Like because I have read the blogs on and off for a couple of years. Caitlin Kelly of Broadside posted a comment on my blog, Irresponsibility, and after exchanging emails kindly agreed to be interviewed. Each of the three has a different approach to, interest in, and aspirations regarding blogging and publishing. Taken together, the interviews provide a wide-ranging and, I trust, informative overview of an evolving niche in publishing.

EP2 Caitlin Kelly Interview

Caitlin Kelly is a Canadian-born writer who lives and works in Tarrytown, New York. She is the author of two books Blown Away: American Women and Guns (Pocket Books, 2004) and Malled – My Unintentional Career in Retail (Portfolio/Penguin, 2011). Her journalism appears in publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, and The Smithsonian. As a result of her extensive print portfolio Ms Kelly has written blogs for both social and corporate blogging communities. Her personal blog is Broadside. In our interview she gave her views on the relationship between blogs and print media, the changing face of publishing, and what bloggers should know about writing books.

How has blogging influenced your work as a writer and journalist?

People like me who always made money from print journalism are struggling. I did get paid well for blogging about arthritis for a pharmaceutical company [it paid] more money than I’d made in print in years. But a lot of online writing doesn’t pay well, or at all. [Maintaining a personal blog] is a constant job to keep my name visible and make my work accessible to people around the world.

What is the relationship between blogging and print publishing?

Blogging is terrible money compared to classic journalism. I didn’t want to do it, but I wanted to write another book. Unless you’re John Grisham you have to be visible, you have to be blogging.

Has blogging changed your approach to writing?

Blogging made my writing more conversational, now when I do journalism it’s chattier and more casual. When you’re blogging you can say anything. It taught me to write more quickly and expanded my idea of what makes a story.

Do you know if agents and publishers talent-scout blogs?

They absolutely do. [As a blogger] you’ve proven you can write, you’ve proven you’re consistent, you’ve proven your productive and you’ve proven you’ve got an audience. You can have the sexiest credentials in the world, but if you can’t say ‘I have a huge potential audience’ no agent and especially no publisher is going to touch you. Blogging is an interesting way to prove yourself, it gives you verifiable numbers. There is no question that agents are reading blogs, editors are reading blogs. That’s been going on [in the States] for five or six years.

What challenges face a blogger who wants to get into print?

As an author I can’t tell you the pressure I feel when I sit down to write the first sentence of a book. We’re in a world of short attention spans. The blog feeds our addiction to a shortened attention span. We can sit down for a few minutes and read it. If a blogger can write a good book, and I enjoy it, then I’ll praise it to the skies. But to write a book you need to do research, you need to do interviews, you need to create the interest. It’s not simple and it’s not easy. It’s a huge amount of work, it’s intellectually ambitious. A book is a big canvas. You have to conceptualise things differently. With a book the barrier to entry, intellectually, is that much higher. You, as the writer, must bring a much higher level of skill – you have to up your game. You can’t just be cute, or moving. There are wonderful [blog] writers I read but I wouldn’t necessarily reach for their book. I wouldn’t have the confidence they could sustain me through a narrative.
So you want to write a book? How are you going to write a chapter of 5000 words if you’ve never written 5000 words? It’s not 500 words times 10. It’s a different animal. When I think about writing a chapter it’s like thinking about soup: you need the right ingredients. In just one chapter I have all kinds of sources, document research, and interviews. If you’ve not done that before, you’re not going to be able to do it. Otherwise, all you have is one person’s perspective. That’s so limited. I am just one voice, and I see things in a particular way. Truly great writers of non-fiction say ‘what am I missing in the way that I’m thinking? And how can fill in those gaps?’

Do you think blogging effects the way people read books?

Quite possibly. The blog feeds our addiction to a shortened attention span. We can sit down for a few minutes and read it. I think maybe younger readers bring a different set of eyes to the material. It may be changing. It probably is. Do people look at footnotes anymore? I don’t know if they do.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogs?

Their strengths are authenticity and immediacy. [Weaknesses are that] bloggers don’t have editors! People who think they’re writers because they THINK they are are in for a shock. Wait till they try to get a book published! Intellectually, if all you’re doing is writing quick, easy stuff that’s all you’re prepared to do. How are you going to do anything more complex? You can’t do things just because you feel like it. To be excellent is really not easy.

EP2 Christian Lander Interview

Christian Lander is the founder of the blog Stuff White People Like and author of two spin-off books: Stuff White People Like (Random House, 2008) and Whiter Shades of Pale (Random House, 2010). Born in Canada, Lander grew up in Toronto, studied in Montreal then moved to Los Angeles where he was working as a copywriter when he started Stuff White People Like. Lander is also a speaker and television writer. Our interview, conducted over Gmail chat, was edited for clarity but otherwise is in its original format.

Let’s start at the beginning: what’s your background, and how, specifically, did Stuff White People Like come into being?
Well, I’m white. I grew up in Toronto, Canada. Went to school in Montreal [where I] studied English and history. Went to grad school for four years then moved to LA and started working in advertising. One day was having a conversation over IM with my friend Myles and he told me he didn’t trust any white person who didn’t watch The Wire and we started guessing what white people were doing instead of watching The Wire and then it was blog time. That was it. I just started writing and it caught fire.
Did you have any idea it was going to catch fire?
No idea at all. I wrote to entertain my friends.
Were you already into blogging?
I was doing some goofy stuff on the web, I was working and wanted a comedy project on the side. Writing funny stuff is my favorite thing in the world.
At what point did you think ‘hey, maybe this is more than just entertaining my mates’?
The day it crossed 60,000 hits. The day before it was 30,000 and I thought: “ok, a one day thing, cool,” but it grew the next day. I thought, “whoa, can’t get any bigger than this,” and it did.
How long did that take?
Four weeks.
Damn! That must have come as a surprise.
Very much. Literally all my dreams came true by accident
What changed when suddenly you had this massive readership?
I got offered a book deal. That was really it.
How did that come about?
A number of agents contacted me. I chose one and prepared a book proposal like any other author, and a publisher bought it.
Were the agents who contacted you “regular book” agents or special “blog hunting” agents?
They were regular literary agents.
In the States scouting blogs is pretty standard now?
Yes, it’s definitely standard. Blogs, Twitter, anywhere with a unique voice and a buzz.
Once you got an agent, did your approach to the blog change?
I wrote the same way, I just saved it for the book and updated the blog when I felt like I had a great idea.
It was important to have distinct content for the book?
Yes. We had new things. Some things I needed a designer and an editor to get done.
Were you still doing the day job?
I quit the day job when I got the book deal. The only challenge was dealing with people who hated me. I wasn’t used to being a public figure.
How did you reconcile yourself to that?
Ultimately you have to realize that no one has 100% popularity. As a writer, nothing is worse than apathy, so to have people hate you is a good thing. It means you’re doing something right.
Do you write differently knowing you’ll be face to face with your readers on book tours?
Not at all. I write what I think is funny and relevant. I thinkwhen you try to write to an audience you end up patronizing them. I write what I find funny, and I’m very lucky my sense of humor is shared by others.
Who or what are your literary inspirations?
David Sedaris. [And] the most underrated writers on the planet – the guys at the Onion. Sam Lipsyte. National Lampoon. The Simpsons. The Kids in the Hall. Monty Python.
You’ve done two books now — do you have any more planned?
No. I think it’s a miracle I’ve been able to write two. I have no idea what I’d do for a third. I don’t have the talent to write fiction.
Would you advise a wannabe author to start with a blog?
It depends what kind of author you want to be. If you’re looking to write fiction, not at all. No one will read it. But if you hope to write a cookbook, or a design book, or something where people will follow your blog, sure. But trying to start a blog to turn it into a book is very hard – most of the popular ones are accidents. [Don’t] write a blog to get a book deal. Write a blog to keep you writing. The expectation that it will become a book will just lead to frustration and heartache.
In your experience is there still a clear divide between the trad-publishing world (e.g. fiction) and blog-world?
Not really. In both cases editors and agents are looking for talent and great ideas. Publishing is a business, they need to sell books to an audience that will buy them. If you’re a writer struggling to get published don’t think it’s because of a lack of talent, to be a successful writer you have to be talented , sure, but more importantly you have to write something that people want to read, and knowing what that is can be almost impossible. I mean, who would have thought so many people want to read about vampires?

EP2 Go Fug Yourself Interview

Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks started the blog Go Fug Yourself in 2004, as a side-line to their day jobs as reality TV producers. Inspired by “glaringly ugly” celebrity styling, it grew from an inside joke to word-of-mouth phenomenon thanks to Heather and Jessica’s distinctive, wryly funny writing. Two years later they sold a proposal for the book which became The Fug Awards and quit television to become full time writers. In our interview, Jessica talks about the transition from blogging to books, keeping the audience satisfed, and why they sympathise with celebrities.

Did you start Go Fug Yourself for the hell of it, or did you see a niche in the market and think: “Ah-ha, this is our route to infamy and fortune”?

We started it for the hell of it. Really, it was an inside joke that we brought to life just for kicks, which we never thought anyone outside our immediate circle would read. I don’t even know if we thought we’d do it for very long. But then it turned out to be fun, and readers came, and THEN we realized we’d accidentally filled a niche.

How did you publicise it initially?

We haven’t, and didn’t. We got lucky because we were already part of a blogging community. We and they’d throw links to our site into their recaps, and it blossomed from there.

What were the first steps you took towards commercialising it?

We started selling ads to help fund the rights to photographs, and doing THAT meant we could update more often. And we would try to tweak the layout so that it looked cleaner, and/or offered more fun features.

How long did it take to become the day job?

It was getting that book advance that gave us the psychological cushion to quit our day jobs and do the blog full-time. Once that advance came in, just knowing we had a little nest egg gave us the kick in the pants we needed. So we both ended up quitting our day jobs around July/August 2006.

How has your approach to blogging changed as GFY has grown?

In the beginning we cared a lot less about what we were writing. We wanted it to be funny, but we didn’t stress out about whether we were making racy jokes or whatnot. But then — and this is true — once we did well enough that we were getting invited to do TV appearances, we told our parents about the blog, and I think knowing they were reading made us clean up our acts a bit. We’ve ridden enough highs and lows with enough celebs that we start to root for people to pull it together. We’re a bit more supportive of the celebs than we were at the beginning. It was never a transition we made on purpose; it just came out of us maturing as people and as writers.

Whose idea was the book?

We love to write, obviously, and were always curious about publishing, so it seemed like a great way to get our feet wet and then maybe see what other things we could write. Our agent thought we should strike while the iron was hot with a blog book, and then start pitching fiction, because editors he knew who read GFY were responding to our tone and humor and thought it would mesh well for the YA audience. And indeed, we have our young adult debut coming out in June 2011, and we’re writing the sequel now.

Did you pitch the book or did a publisher approach you?

We came up with the pitch for the book, alongside our agent, and he shopped it to publishers.

What considerations are there in writing a book as opposed to writing a blog?

Blogs don’t have to have the shelf life a book does. In trying to conceive a book proposal, we had to come up with a format that wouldn’t date so much. We came up with a fake-awards format. It felt a little more lasting and we could dip into archival stuff and make it more of an ode to an era.

What is different in terms of getting permissions, photo rights and legal clearance for a book versus a blog?

You have to worry about things like print run and whether it’s international or just domestic. They also charge per photo, whereas our deal for the site itself is a monthly fee for a flat number of downloads. The agency worked to get us a good deal, though, since we were buying so many photos and we’re good customers.

Was the public response to the book what you expected?

We were so proud of the book — it came out beautifully, design-wise and otherwise. We worked hard to make it fresh and fun, so our readers wouldn’t resent supporting us by buying it. We had a feeling that we’d done a good job and every single e-mail we got was positive. Seriously, our haters are not shy about writing us to tell us when they’re mad, and we did not get a single note of disappointment from anyone. Our audience loved it so we felt like we did our job.

Does your publisher or agent work specifically with bloggers?


Are you planning another book?

Not based on the blog. We’re delving into young adult fiction.

Do you feel as if you’re taken more seriously now you’re “proper” authors?

No, because people’s perceptions of writing have changed thanks to blogs. People already saw us as proper writers. I don’t think having a published book changed that. We publish a book’s worth of prose every MONTH on the site.

Creative Writing Courses – What Are They Good For?

Discouraged by an aimless and effortful morning’s writing, I go browsing for inspiration. Perhaps the University of Iowa Writing Center will have some wisdom. Sure enough, the first words I encounter are so to-the-point that I check to make sure the author isn’t peering over my shoulder:

I’ve noticed three frequently recurring traps that beginning writers tend to fall into when developing characters:
[First] The narrator or protagonist of the story will often be a barely veiled version of the writer himself (in this situation, secondary characters will often also bear a close resemblance to real-life people from the writer’s life). The first problem with this is that the story tends to become autobiography dressed up as fiction.

I feel exposed, caught red-handed making up a story about someone who talks, moves, reads, dreams, and fails like I do; someone who has friends, a sister, parents, and a house like mine. Disgruntled, I go to the beach, take refuge in the lee of an abandoned boat and pull my sunhat over my face. Footsteps pad along the wooden promenade; a bike creaks past. The protagonist is a thinly disguised version of the writer. Unbidden, my brain chirps: so what? Like the final click of a combination lock, this thought is succeeded by a heavy door swinging silently open. A stream of ideas tumbles out, insistent. I sit up, fish around for a pen and notebook, and start channelling:

Is that a bad thing? First novels have to begin somewhere – why is the writer’s life a less-legitimate subject?

I’m propped awkwardly on one elbow, holding the sunhat in place with my left hand. F Scott Fitzgerald – This Side of Paradise, Mavis Gallant – When We Were Nearly Young, Martha Gellhorn – The Fall and Rise of Mrs Hapgood, Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited, J.D. Salinger – For Esme – With Love and Squalor. I could go on, and on, and on, listing magnificent fiction starring protagonists who are quite patently “barely veiled version[s] of the writer” and are, unapologetically, “autobiography dressed up as fiction.” Plainly the implicit criticism of autobiographical fiction is nonsense. Why would a writing teacher suggest otherwise?

I continue:

The problem with [creative writing] MFAs is they make you self-conscious before you should be. By telling you the stages of a writer’s development they make you want to skip through [them] but knowing and experiencing something are two different things. The self-consciousness doesn’t automatically make you better it just makes you self-conscious – this is only intermittently useful. Making dire blanket statements is lazy, and promotes the idea there is a formula to good writing – [an] ideology designed to keep people fearfully shelling out for MFAs. If I had it to do again I’d have paid off my credit card instead, or bought a round-the-world ticket and a Kindle and had something to write about.

The more I think about it, the more creative writing MAs seem like an audacious con. Writing is like having love affairs. You go through good, bad, ugly, heart-breaking, stupid, euphoric, and catastrophic iterations. You learn by doing, by making bad choices, by making good choices by accident and only recognising them as such in retrospect. There is a certain, limited amount you can absorb through studying the experience of others but, ultimately, when it’s you and the page, nothing anyone tells you is going to make your writing right. At best, you might start off being a little less wrong, but I imagine a good writer only gains a few metres competitive advantage by taking an MFA, and a bad writer will still be a bad writer – only armed with jargon.

If you wish to have a faculty for reading, read; if for writing, write…
if you wish to acquire a habit for anything, do the thing. – Epictetus

If there is a justification for teaching writing it is that most writers need deprogramming from the rest of their education. After a lifetime of rote learning, exam scores, grades, etc they need to rediscover the ability to not-much-give-a-fuck what anyone else thinks. They need to unlearn the habit of respect for authority. They need to trust their instinct and learn from the language itself. In The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (a work of fiction U Iowa would presumably disparage) Gertrude Stein writes: “The English language was [my] medium and with the English language the task was to be achieved, the problem solved.”

A useful, necessary writing course is one that begins from the premise that great writing cannot be taught. Its function should be to protect writers – especially from excessive self-consciousness and self-criticism; to guide them around obvious pitfalls; and encourage them to write joyously, with increasing control and confidence. Good writers are invariably readers. They will absorb all the linguistic nutrients they need if they just stay rooted long enough. Writing courses should exist to give succor and space to think. Advice and writing exercises are only aids, toys for children to splash around with while they gain the strength to tackle deeper water.

NB: All of this is written with respect and appreciation for the wisdom and support of my creative writing tutors. Among other things they prompted me to read a number of excellent books based entirely on the authors’ lives and experiences.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce
The Things We Used to Say – Natalia Ginzburg
Another Country – James Baldwin
To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – Gertrude Stein


Posted by Cila Warncke

As usual, I’ve been in Ibiza about five minutes and am already bored to the back teeth. Nothing and no-one, has changed. Walk into a bar and the same drunks are propping it up, the same coke-heads are rambling to anyone who will listen, the same high-pitched squeals are coming from nondescript women in too little clothing. When I bitched about this over dinner my friend pointed out that, by and large, the expat set isn’t overburdened with education or ready cash. Hence the tendency to sit in the same places, repeating themselves, like parrots on perches.

It’s a plausible theory, but wrong. Money is no no object when it comes to being interesting. I’ve spent some of my happiest hours drinking gut-rot wine in unheated houses, never caring that my friends and I were flat broke. Being penniless with the right people is a wonderful aid to conversation. Without the distraction of the things you can do with money, you make your own entertainment.

The notion that the well-educated are automatically delivered from dullness is equally nonsensical. Education can’t make anyone a jot more interesting than their nature dictates. Where education is telling is the lengths to which fascinating people will go to pursue it. The difference between stultifying and intriguing boils down to curiosity. People who are restless to learn, see, experience, discover, discuss and explore are never, ever boring.

Poor doesn’t matter, educated doesn’t matter, age doesn’t matter, location doesn’t matter. All a person needs to be endlessly, intoxicatingly interesting is to be full of questions, and always seeking answers.