Read Her Like an Open Book returns from the Year of Living Stressfully

 

Hello book-loving friends. I’m glad you’re still here.

You may have noticed that Read Her Like an Open Book was much less active for the past year or so, with only intermittent posts. My blog was quiet because my life was not. I changed careers and was busy getting my freelance writing-and-editing business, Argus Editorial Services, on its feet. I was also developing a photography sideline, Inner Light Photography. Both my mother and my mother-in-law experienced health issues due to advancing age. (My 87-year-old mother passed away in January.)

And, frankly, I was suffering from a condition that began in 2016 and developed into a disorder in 2017. You may know it as Post-Trump Stress Disorder. As a news junkie, former high school Journalism teacher, and even more former attorney, I simply could not ignore what was taking place. But my preoccupation with keeping up with the daily drama (and trauma) took a toll on this blog, which I regret.

I decided last month that, with its five-year anniversary approaching in June, I would revive this blog, which means so much to me and has more supporters than I thought. I’m happy to report that when I approached several dozen writers about contributing to my weekly guest author feature, they responded with enthusiasm and many encouraging words. So far, I have received firm or tentative commitments to participate from over 40 authors.

In the coming months, you’ll read essays, interviews, and reviews by the following  writers: Robin Black (whose previous essay is the most-read post in the history of this blog), Chantel Acevedo, Karen Bender, Jessica Anya Blau (who will be interviewing Jane Delury), Michelle Brafman (interviewing Mary Morris), Gayle Brandeis, Siobhan Fallon, Wendy J. Fox, Stephanie Gangi, Lauren Grodstein, Yi Shun Lai, Krys Lee, Karin Lin-Greenberg, Margaret Malone, Marian PalaiaJodi Paloni, Keija ParssinenElizabeth Poliner, Anne Raeff, Elizabeth RosnerGina Sorell, Rene Steinke, Amanda SternThrity Umrigar, Ellen Urbani, and Mary Kay Zuravleff.

We’ll start tomorrow with a wonderful essay by Bernadette Murphy about reclaiming your life by overcoming your fears. Watch for a new guest author post every Tuesday.

You can also follow the social media accounts connected to this blog: there’s a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which is personal but mostly limited to book-related tweets. And I would certainly appreciate your sharing the word about this blog if you are so inclined.

This blog has always been an expression of my literary activism and feminism. My goal, as always, is to bring more attention to all the great literary fiction and memoirs by women writers. (And to encourage more men to read fiction, especially literary fiction, and even more especially by women authors.)

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We Need to Talk About Money: Practicality’s Place in a Writing Education

Yi Shun Lai


By Yi Shun Lai

The other day my husband fixed our bathroom sink with a video on YouTube, and I read a tutorial on how to build a wall planter.

So I was kind of surprised when I saw someone in an online writer’s community I’m in ask whether or not we thought her MFA program should be teaching her about the business of publishing. I mean, if I can learn rudimentary Spanish from an app, surely this person, who’s paying thousands of dollars to learn how to have a career in the written arts, should expect to learn how to…well, have a career.

I guess a little background is due: I’m a writing coach and editor. I’m also a novelist, and I edit nonfiction at a literary magazine. I cut my teeth in the consumer magazine world, and write marketing copy and teach workshops. In short, I make my living with words. I have an MFA myself, from an institution I chose specifically because its faculty comprised working writers, and a certificate in publishing from what is now the Columbia Publishing Course (when I graduated, it was still the Radcliffe Publishing Course). I got much of my writing-business acumen on the job, and when the time came to write and query my novel, I learned almost everything from friends who were literary agents, and, eventually, more timely information from my MFA program.

I’ve noticed a few things that crop up again and again when folks talk about writing and what place business has in it, and where and how you should learn these things. I’ll address them from my point of view below. And I invite you to partake in conversation about them in the comments. Here we go:

1. Talking about money feels icky.

No argument there. I grew up in a family and a culture where, if you had to talk about it, it meant you didn’t have enough of it. So there’s a deep personal shame to be contended with. But then, I wonder, how does one make a career of this thing we all love so much? If we don’t talk about the money, and the making of it, then how do we know what to expect, and what defines success?

I’m not saying we should all be willy-nilly exposing our finances to anyone who asks. Money is a very personal thing to some folks, myself included (I used to get hives whenever someone mentioned the word “budget”), but people who are just starting out in the creative industries deserve to know how much they can expect to make. No better, more neutral place to talk about potentially personal things than in an academic setting.

This kind of shared information is critical. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a really good spreadsheet of how much freelance editors can expect to charge and make; I don’t see that as being very different from writers knowing how much they can expect to make, and how. (Most literary magazines and consumer magazines that do pay will publish their rates, so do your homework. Ask around.)

2. During the pursuit of your MFA, you should be learning about craft, not business.

This one is a real stickler for me. Folks who go to get their MFAs presumably want to make a career out of this whole writing thing. In order to make a career out of something, you have to know what comprises this career; what better place to know that then at the institution that’s purportedly meant to provide you with the tools for a career in writing?

The whole thing’s kind of circular, isn’t it? I mean, where else will you learn to write a query letter, do your research on agents, learn about standard publishing contracts and other avenues for promoting your work?

I guess the thing is, we all want our work to be seen. No one pumps thousands of dollars into an advanced degree just because they want to write for themselves. Writing is a business like any other: Writing gets seen because it gets promoted, and although the avenues might be different in each genre and field, the end result is the same.

2a: (A sidebar.) I checked with some friends who have their masters degrees in journalism, and while none of them said they had classes directly addressing pitching and publishing, they did relay to me that they learned such things in their internships, which are a required part of the curricula. Plus, you were expected to pitch to your professors and understand the ins and outs of the process of publishing before you went anywhere. I don’t have an MA in Journalism, and I can’t remember exactly where I learned to pitch, but I do know that by the time I was out of my BA for less than a year, I was successfully pitching freelance articles. (I’m pretty sure I asked a lot of people. The Internet was not as, uh, reliable in 1996-1997.) Not having this knowledge when you start on your freelance career makes your life so much more difficult–and it’s inexcusable, both from an instructor’s POV and a working writer’s POV. If you don’t already know, please ask someone who’s been in the business. Heck, ask me.

3. Writing is a talent-driven meritocracy; your work should speak for itself.

Readers of this blog will have already heard from Wendy J. Fox, who wrote about the difficulty she had in selling books. And so you will know that, even if you’ve been shortlisted for prizes and have a publisher with a publicity department behind you, you are up against a lot of pre-existing noise, conditions that conspire to make your book fall away into the big black hole of remainders.

You need to know about this thing called book marketing, at least enough to ask the right questions of your publicist, or, if you’re like me and doing much of your own publicity, you need to know–well, how to do that.

And writers have to be willing to talk about their own work.

bookseller I met at a writing conference last year put it the best I’ve ever heard it: “It’s not about the author as marketeer; it’s about doing honor to your work.” I love this so, so much. You worked your ass off to get where you are. Doesn’t your work deserve the best chance you can give it, and aren’t you the best salesperson of your work? I think so.

4. Writing is a talent-driven meritocracy, Part 2.

This is not a level playing field. There’s already been a lot of discussion around the lack of diversity in publishing. But historically (and presently!), that lack of diversity isn’t just about ethnicity and race; it’s also about economics.

Some students in underserved areas may never get to hear about publishing as a career field. If they’re lucky enough to hear about it in college and go to a fully funded MFA program. and then graduate with no real clue about what the business of publishing looks like, then that’s just as bad as never having had the opportunity at all.

MFA programs and instructors that don’t spend some time talking about the business of publishing do play a part in keeping publishing the purview of the privileged.

There are still, from what I gather, quite a few MFA programs that don’t make it a point to teach the business of writing and publishing. I can’t possibly know all the pressures MFA programs are under, but I think it’s important to give MFA students this leg up in making a life of writing.

Of course it’s important to have space and time to practice your craft. I’d venture a guess and say most people pursue an MFA because they want to improve their art. But you should also be asking some questions, and getting some answers, about the pointy end of the stick, so you can, you know. Eat. Pay rent. That kind of thing.

In the meantime, those of us who already have the experience should be passing on what we know about the business of publishing.* We all want a rich literary ecosystem. The steady spreading of this information is a good way to ensure that.

*Some resources:

JaneFriedman.com

QueryShark.blogpost.com

QueryTracker.com


Yi Shun Lai’s debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, is published by Shade Mountain Press and in its fourth printing since its release in May. She is the nonfiction editor for the Tahoma Literary Review, and a writing coach and editor. You can find her at thegooddirt.org.

Author Photo: Michael Negrete

NOT A SELF-HELP BOOK: THE MISADVENTURES OF MARTY WU explores the bi-cultural life of a young woman torn between Taiwan and America

Not a Self-Help Book  Yi Shun Lai

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu

By Yi Shun Lai

Shade Mountain Press: May 6, 2016

$18.95, 204 pages


Yi Shun Lai’s debut novel is an auspicious beginning to her writing career. What at first appears to be a lighthearted modern comedy of manners set in New York City turns out to be something much more interesting and rewarding.

Marty Wu is a character worth getting to know. She is a bright but socially awkward young advertising rep with Retirees’ Review (think AARP Magazine), and a compulsive reader of self-help manuals like The Language of Paying Attention to YOU. She’s coming off a relationship with her supercilious British boss, Stafford (he of the “plummy vowels…all Eton and right side of the tracks”), has developed a nervous interest in a thoroughly decent co-worker named Chris, and can’t seem to do anything right. She is a Taiwanese-American Bridget Jones, complex, sympathetic, and charming in spite of her many flaws and failings.

Marty is beset by a dragon lady of a mother, for whom nothing Marty does is good enough. She views Marty’s life through remarkably self-absorbed eyes. While the character of Mama treads awfully close to stereotype in the early going, like the novel itself, there is much more to her than meets the eye.

In the first section of the book, we follow Marty through several scenes featuring her struggles in the face of omnipresent stress, much of it caused by her own neuroses. A disastrous faux pas with a major advertising client leads to her immediate termination, which serves as the catalyst for much-needed changes in her life. Desperate and unmoored from her Manhattan lifestyle, she decides to join her mother on a trip “home” to Taiwan, a place as foreign to Marty as it would be to most young Americans.

The core of the book is set in her family’s ancestral town, where everyone is connected by family, friendship, or simple proximity, and there are few secrets. Her aunts, uncles, and cousins welcome her warmly, and she is revived by spending time with her older brother, Ken, who was raised by her aunt for reasons that remain mysterious.

Taiwan offers Marty a second chance at her life, a blank slate on which to sketch out possible paths to a better (or at least different) future. To buy time to sort out her emotional life and career options, she takes on a job as an ESL teacher at the local high school, where she connects with her enthusiastic, America-obsessed young charges. Not surprisingly, she learns as much from them about Taiwanese culture and tradition as she teaches them about English and western culture. She finds herself returning to her dream of being a costume designer with a little shop in Brooklyn. Could making this dream come true be more feasible in Taiwan?

But just as the sun appears to be coming out, thunderstorms move in suddenly. Her brother, a talented artist, finds himself in an unexpectedly fraught situation. Her mother’s behavior becomes increasingly unpredictable and erratic, with the only constant her insulting comments, mean-spirited criticism, and frequent bad-mouthing of Marty to family and friends (even in Marty’s presence). What is behind her mother’s perplexing personality and behavior? Why did she give up Ken and leave him behind when she emigrated to the U.S.? What should Marty do with herself? Should she try to rebuild her life in Taiwan or return to her beloved Manhattan, supposed land of opportunity and home to her best friend Jody and potential boyfriend Chris?

Lai puts us deep in Marty’s head and heart as she feels herself being pushed and pulled in several directions. Straddling two cultures offers Marty several benefits, but they come with knotted strings attached. As Marty discovers the truth of her mother’s early life and the cause of the current complications, Not a Self-Help Book becomes a surprisingly dark, even harrowing, journey to the heart of a broken family beset by secrets. Marty slowly transcends her neurotic self-absorption and reliance on glib pseudo-psychology books to realize that her past, present, and future are closely connected to the life of her mother and some of her family members.

The title Not a Self-Help Book suggests a lighthearted or romantic “chick lit” novel. While the book is often very funny (especially early on, when Lai displays both verbal wit and a gift for writing physical comedy bits), I can’t help but think that the subtitle, The Misadventures of Marty Wu, better reflects the novel’s contents.

The only other quibble I have with what is a promising debut is that the story is told in diary entries, some of which are written in terse sentence fragments, almost like a bullet list of events and emotions, while other entries are full-fledged narratives. I realize that diarists vary their writing depending on their mood and the content of their reflection, but I found it occasionally distracting here.

If you’re looking for a summer read that is breezy but also has something serious on its mind, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu might belong in your beach bag or travel tote.