Act Like You Deserve a MacArthur

One of my boyfriends used to joke that he wouldn’t feel like a success until he got a call from the MacArthur Foundation announcing that he’d received a “genuis grant,” currently $625,000 awarded each year by the foundation to creative people in many fields.

This year, for the first time, the foundation is revealing data on the origin and mobility of its genuises, who must be U.S. citizens or live in the United States to be eligible. It turns out that they are more mobile than other Americans. They like to cluster.

You don’t need to be a hermit to be creative. Many breakthroughs come through collaborations–often in duos–or arise in innovative groups like the Impressionists. Creative people typically say they need lots of time to work and stimulating environments. They need cool friends and parties.

In the 18th century, notable people born all over Europe tended to congregate in Rome, Paris, or Dresden. Today, the “genuises” are most likely to move to live in New York or California, where they can mingle with other scientists or artists. But sometimes a lower cost of living combined with an attractive community can bring them to settle in less populated areas–notably, enclaves in New Mexico, Alaska, and Vermont.

Nearly a quarter of MacArthur recipients were born outside the United States. You may not need to move–but travel and stay a while. Social psychologists Adam Galinsky and William Maddux have found that time spent living abroad increases creativity.

When he was struggling to come up with the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk retreated to a monastery in Umbria, Italy and he often said afterwards that the change helped him make his grand discovery. There is some evidence that you needn’t get thee to a monastery; changing environments in itself can help people build new habits and get rid of old ones.

What makes you do your most creative work?

Why Should I Pay?

We live in a world where we hear that the best things in life are free–and yet we pay money for more and more goods. Once upon a time, you’d never have paid for water, right? Now, we believe that the only good water comes in a bottle and costs at least a $1.00.

I live in New York City, which has an excellent water supply and I love that. It’s a luxury. I don’t need to pay for water.

So why should you pay for responses to your writing?

Because, alas, good critiques don’t flow from any city taps that I know of. You can find great writing groups and friends and family who will give you precious help. But you won’t get serious copy-editing or line-editing from friends. It’s a skill. I charge from 4 cents to 10 cents a word, depending on what you want and need and can afford and I spend my work hours working for you, not a half hour before I run to the gym.

As for critiques, you don’t want too much advice and you don’t want bad advice. Sometimes we just need a magical word or two from a friend, or a kind stranger on the train. And sometimes we need concentrated professional help–whether to massage your stiff neck, redirect your career, perfect your tennis game, or preserve your marriage. The choice here is not all that different. Do you want “tips” or hours of expertise?

I read a funny comment on a writers’ list-serve this morning: Marry an editor! It’s true: Writers need people in their lives who will give them huge amounts of time and attention.

Paying doesn’t guarantee excellence. But paying should mean that you will both be focused on the job. You may find that you up your game when your cash is on the line. Ask yourself: Will I do my best to deliver a publishable manuscript? Will I make good use of the response I get? It’s an investment.

On the other end, a professional editor wants your good word-of-mouth to grow her business and should see her work for you as part of her mission in life. A good editor knows she’s damn good and will prove it to you. She has a bigger stake than a volunteer.

So I’d recommend that you get all the free help you can, and then hire an editor if you can afford one. I also take my own advice. For my own novel, I paid. Every writer needs an editor. Better writers need better ones.

Read Your Book Aloud

Read your words aloud. Read to yourself, but preferably to anyone who will listen. Read to a lonely neighbor. Read to your dog.

If possible, read for about 30 minutes at a time, but any amount of time will help.

As you read, notice the sections that cause you to hesitate or stumble–those spots need editing. Notice the sections where you need to speak more loudly or dramatically alter your inflection to make your point—and remember that your reader will not have your voice to help. Those spots may need editing.

Pay close attention and you will also catch typos and gaps in logic and the story.

After you revise, read the new section aloud again.

Read your entire book aloud.

This is the kind of time it takes to write a truly good book.

A professional editor can help you. Most of us can make a bad book mediocre, or a mediocre book more readable. Some of us can make a good book sparkle. Great editors have made flawed books into great literature.

But before you pay for professional editing, read your words aloud.

How To Stand Out When You Self-Publish

It happened to me. My agent loved my book and was confident she could sell it–but six months later no publisher had signed on.

In the past, the story ended there. You might look for another agent to represent that particular book. You might self-publish, as I did, on Lulu. I was delighted to see my book in paperback and hardcover and e-reader form, and pleased by many positive responses from readers. But my name did not become famous nor my pockets fill.

Today, there’s another option. An agent who is excited about your book can enlist a service from Amazon called White Glove. The agent is stil betting her time on her belief that your book could attract sales. She earns the standard 15% of your earnings.

The advantage for you is that you don’t need to become an expert in self-publishing. Amazon does the work, with your agent leading the way. You have a buddy to share the ups and downs. And your agent’s faith is a big endorsement that will help your book attract publicity.

This is just one of many options in the brand new world of self-publishing. Trust that one of them can work for you.

How Much Should I Pay An Editor?

I’m glad so many people write for the love of storytelling and language. Editors are essential to make a book publishable and worth reading, but they can’t guarantee you sales or a profit.

The truth –and I’m not sure it’s a “sad truth”–is that most writers will not ultimately make money on their books.

So when you pay an editor, you are investing in yourself and the glorious enterprise of literature. You can think of your books as an entrepreneurial venture, with high odds to overcome, and see editing as part of the cost.

But it may not make sense to weigh the cost against a possible sale or profit some day. You will learn a great deal simply by seeing how another trained intelligent reader responds to your words.

I’d compare the cost to the price of paying for a therapist, a decorator, a tutor, a personal trainer, or anyone else who makes your life better.

Think about what you want. Do you want a directional edit–someone to look over the whole book at a high level and work with you on structure, pacing, plot, character (or authority and thoroughness for a non-fiction work)? Do you want a line-edit: an editor who will help you sentence by sentence, looking for readability, awkward phrasing, and consistency? A copy-editor to polish your manuscript before sending it to agents or self-publishing? Each of these types of edits will have a very different price attached.

The standard page is 250 words. Depending on what you’re looking for and how much work you need done, an editor could charge anywhere from $2 to $10 a page.

Remember that your friends and family can give you their reactions, which may be invaluable, but they already know you and will read the sound of your spoken voice and personality into the words on the page. Sometimes they’ll be too “nice” and hold back on negative feedback, or they’ll have their own ideas about what you should do and be too pushy. A professional editor is more objective. She will tell you frankly and clearly what she thinks but won’t overwhelm you. If she’s editing your sentences, she understands that you may accept some changes and not others. The process will bring you the sense that you’ve given your work your best shot, and have been heard and respected.

Also remember that everyone, including brilliant scholars, top journalists, literature professors and novelists with many books behind them, need an editor. If you’re a good writer, you need a better editor. The best writers need the best editors. I will do my best to live up to your work!

Choose An Indie Press

We tend to focus on the big-name publishers like Random House or Knopf. But there are thousands of other well-respected presses with long histories that I would be proud to see publish my own writing. The difference between a “small” or “indie” press and a “vanity” press is whether you must pay the publisher. You might choose a “vanity press,” for convenience and service, over self-publishing.

An indie press should have good relationships with distributors that will get your book into stores. An indie press can also release your book in an electronic form and help you with marketing it online.

You can’t just mail your manuscript to the big New York houses; you’ll need to get an agent first. But indie presses will accept unsolicited manuscripts and are more likely to take on a book that a mainstream house will consider too risky. They may be looking for experimental or shocking work, but not necessarily. The widely-popular novel The Time Traveler’s Wife was first published by MacAdam/Cage Publishing. Water for Elephants was first published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

For a comprehensive database of small and independent publishers, go to Before you send out a manuscript, look at the publisher’s list and see if you sense a similarity in taste. In your cover letter, you’ll want to say, sincerely, that you chose this publisher because you admire the books it brings to the public. Make sure that your manuscript is truly ready for serious readers. You’ll need to copy-edit it carefully or hire a copy-editor and you may first want a critique from a writers’ group or a professional editor.

Your imagination, story, and writing skills will sell your novel or memoir, and your knowledge and insight will sell your non-fiction. But taking care of the details and getting high-quality help will ensure that you’ve given your work its best chance. All writers–at all levels–need editors.

Only people with little knowledge of writing or the publishing world think that they can pour out their hearts, mail Random House a fat mound of paper with typos and weird margins that no one else has seen, be received with open arms and go on to make millions. It’s a lovely fantasy. Write a short story about that writer! With the fantasy off your chest, you can take your next steps.

Your Readers Are Out There

We’ve all heard big talkers include every detail and ramble, making their listeners work too hard. And we’ve all heard good storytellers, who make you eager to hear the next word.

Writers feel the presence of their readers.

If you’re already an easy talker, you may find that it’s not as easy to write–but you’re still half-way there. You may need to talk into a tape recorder and pull out the best parts when you listen to your recording.

If you’re shy in person, you may find that speaking to invisible readers frees you up. It sometimes helps to imagine one particular reader–an author you admire, a high-school English teacher, a loved one who has passed away, or your own grandchild grown up.

When I kept a diary as a child, I was conscious that I was writing for my future self. I even wrote, “Someday you will be grownup reading this and know what you like when you were child.”

Today, I don’t think of my future self when I write. I think of various readers in my life, and I remember the voices of other writers.

Your readers are out there, if you can feel them. Feeling your readers doesn’t mean you expect your book to be a best-seller. It means you are paying close attention to the power of words.

Why Write a Memoir?

Why do people write memoirs?

For the same reasons we gossip, go to movies, read fiction and biographies and memoirs, attend the theater, follow the lives of celebrities or get wrapped up in soap operas. Because we’re sociable! And when it comes to our own lives, we feel clearer-headed and happier when events that affected us deeply are refined into a story that we can share.

You may think your life isn’t worthy of a memoir unless you did something that has already put your name in the newspapers.

But there are all kinds of memoirs, and you can choose your kind. Write about your childhood, like Frank McCourt did so movingly in Angela’s Ashes. Write about your travels, as Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love. Write about a connection with a strong personality, as Lorna Kelly did in The Camel Knows the Way, which tells the story of her time with Mother Teresa. Mary-Ann Tirone Smith traced a murder in Girls of Tender Age.

Many memoirs are about illness, or coping with the illness of others in your life. You can write about the importance of friendships or siblings or a marriage.

In fact, if you write about seemingly unremarkable events in your voice–distilling your honesty, humor, insight or compassion-your book can be as inspiring or touching as a story about high drama. You can bond with readers, who like you, have not lived through extraordinary events, but the ordinary events that make life extraordinary.

Writing a memoir is an act of believing in yourself and the value of your life for others.

Perhaps you are haunted by a mistake–writing a memoir may be a confession, and a way to give readers the benefit of your regret.

Perhaps you are happy about your role in events you couldn’t reveal until now.

Perhaps you are perplexed about the role someone else played in your life and need to tell the stories so you can see past blame or shame.

The challenge is coaxing the story out. As you write, you will hear yourself think. Eventually you will decide what is most important, to you. One person’s version of events can be completely different in meaning and tone than another’s. Your story is yours.

A clear story has a theme, though it may be subtle. You will choose to include some details and leave others out. Much of your story’s impact will come from your choice of words, pacing, and statements about the world, as well as the twists and turns of circumstance.

People are most often drawn to memoir and autobiography in older age, when we have time for reflection and may want to leave a story for our children and grandchildren to read. If you write down your stories, they are not lost. They are not lost in your memory–you can reread them as long as you are alive. And it is very likely that someone in your family will read your book and keep it close at hand when you are gone.

In my own family, my grandmother’s memoir became very important to us after she died, and helped us sort out mysteries about her past. My mother died before my nephew Ben met his fiance–so she never met his beloved New York grandmum. His fiance has read her autobiographical play as a way of getting to know her.

A good therapist can help you work on a memoir, if you are facing pain or confusion. A writing group or class can be inspiring and provide structure to keep you on a work schedule. A sympathetic, talented professional editor can copy-edit, line-edit, or critique, applying writing skills that bring out your meaning and perfect your language, so you can communicate powerfully and clearly even if writing is relatively new for you. Writing about yourself can bring up all kinds of self-doubts. After all, you probably haven’t spent your life writing–you’ve been living the stories you will tell!

Do you want to be a published author? You can self-publish, find an agent or publisher–or simply, gladly, write for yourself.

Being Yourself–On Purpose

It’s a funny phrase, “Be yourself.” How can you not be yourself?

I like the phrase “being yourself on purpose.” I’m going to be myself, the good and the bad, but if I intend to be myself, I can highlight the good.

One way to be yourself on purpose is to find the routine that is you and stick to it. Routine is the secret to better writing. Find a time that you can write every day. I wrote my first novel on a half hour bus commute. I wrote my second novel by waking up an hour earlier each morning. I write my journalism assignments by setting my own deadlines, well ahead of the deadline assigned by the editor, whenever possible.

Play around with it, and stick with the routine that works best. Many writers think they have a complicated psychological reason for “writer’s block” when the problem is simple: they’ve changed their routine or haven’t found the right one. If you haven’t found your routine, ask yourself, When do you think about your writing project? Just before you go to bed? In the morning when you wake up? Or after your shower and breakfast? Be attentive to the details and create forty minutes close to that time.

Write Like a Poet

Whether you are writing a novel, memoir, or a nonfiction book, being alert to the sound of words is essential.

There is poetry in all effective language, even if it is not organized on the page to look like a poem.

Words are not just their meanings; they are sounds. As such, they can have the emotional power of  music. I believe that brain chemistry will one day explain what poets know, that words arranged with full use of their musical qualities allow us to think and feel simultaneously in a unique way.

Music with good lyrics isn’t the same, though related. And no one can argue with the power of “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”!

So why is it that most people today feel cut off from poetry? That’s a big topic. For now, as writers let’s recall that nearly everyone knows the lyrics to a favorite song and language is king among rappers and at poetry slams.

Even old-fashioned poems can still hit a popular nerve:  W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” captured a wide audience when it was recited in the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Another popular poem is Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” Events like 9/11–or the death of Princess Diana over a decade ago–produced outpourings of poems scrawled on walls or safety-pinned onto teddy bears and bouquets.

Many people who do not ordinarily read poetry turn to it when mourning a death or lost love. A friend I’ll call Lily discovered the Robert Frost poem “Reluctance” during a painful break-up in her twenties. When another affair ended decades later, she sent the poem to her ex and found herself repeating its conclusion like a mantra: “Ah, when to the heart of man/Was it ever less than a treason/To go with the drift of things,/To yield with a grace to reason/And bow and accept the end/Of a love or a season?’”

Treason. Reason. Season. Rhyme links disparate themes. It’s a mental jump from treason to reason, helping us step (not jump) ahead emotionally in the process of getting over anger.

A metaphor describes one thing by calling it another, again linking our minds and emotions. Here, love is a season. The comforting message is that love will come again, as spring follows winter. The message is more comforting because it is unstated.

Use metaphor well and move your reader. Cliched and mixed metaphors have the opposite effect. Our emotions shut down.

We’ve all been taught to avoid repetition. It’s a good rule, unless you use repetition well.

Repetition can be soothing, like the rocking of a chair or a child’s lullaby. “That’s why we say ‘there,there,’ instead of just ‘there,'” says the poet Kate Light.

Another kind of repetition can be energizing. Think of the repetition in sermons in black churches or Churchill inspiring the British to resist the Nazis: “We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air.” We shall fight, we shall fight – perhaps along with the rocking cradle, we feel the love that gives adults courage.

The key here is that the language builds to a crescendo, as in martial music.

As your editor or copy-editor, I will alert you to ways you can finetune the music under your words.