Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, ed., Books and Culture. / New at patreon.

Friday, November 13, 2009

New books by friends, part 1: BOOKLIFE & me

Since flying from Siem Reap to Bangkok to Tokyo to D. C. to Albany, I have been roiled and clubbed and generally dragged in and out of sleep by raging jet lag. Twelve time zones appears to be too much for this body. Meanwhile the floor guys came and tore up multiple rotting floors in my 1808 house--antique larch and old-fashioned linseed-oil style linoleum going in--and computer and printer and camera and so on are lost in tottering towers in the dining room. Therefore I am putting off any notes on my adventures in Thailand and Cambodia, and I am doing something I have meant to do for months and months: put out the news about friends with new books. This and upcoming notes on books should not be regarded as reviews but as friendly introductions. Books by Howard Bahr, Philip Lee Williams, Corey Mesler, and a good many more are heaped on the corner of my desk, waiting for further attention.

Book no. 1 will be Booklife (Tachyon, 2009), for the happy reason that my still jet-lagged body must move a mere three feet to claim it. Jeff Vandermeer actually has two new books out, Finch and Booklife. I haven't ordered Finch as yet.

The world is awash in books about how to be a writer, but Booklife is a how-to of considerable interest. It pays a good deal of attention to how to live a healthy and healthy-minded life despite being a writer (there's a trick for many!), how to plan strategically as a writer, how to deal with gifts and not-gifts, how to make a living network of connections that are genuine rather than mere frantic attempts to scratch your own back with somebody else's fingernails, and how to navigate those pleasant little sloughs, rejection and envy and despair. Oh, there's lots more, right down to the nuts and bolts of the internet--twitterage, facebook-playing, blogging, and so on.

Though my next book will be my 8th, I still found much to contemplate in Booklife. I suppose the thing that prodded me the most is Jeff's emphasis on planning the future because I, like many creative souls, tend to be a tumbleweed catching the breeze and rolling until I meet a friendly or (alas!) not-so-friendly fence post. The Vandermeer mode--and it has certainly worked for Jeff as he climbed up from obscurity to the small presses to the mainstream--is to establish long-term goals. He has five-year plans, one-year plans, monthly tasks, and weekly tasks. He even has a mission statement that he revises from time to time. This is a pitch of organization that's way beyond the me of my first eight books. Yet I see much to admire in writing down what one wants to accomplish over a long period and in having a systematic way of examining accomplishments and adjusting goals. The Vandermeer method asks the writer to glance at long-term and short-term goal documents on a daily basis and also revises them quarterly. Such efforts have all the romance of a bank balance sheet, but they appear to be a way of pushing oneself forward--as in the practical, ordinary way that a dieter writes down each meal's calories in order to become aware of whether she is moving toward the desired goal and to increase motivation.

I'm going to try a little planning in the Vandermeer mode right now. I'll try and lay out some one-year goals . . .
  • PR Consider what to do in order to get ready for The Throne of Psyche when it comes out in hardcover and softcover in 2011. My last book of poetry (Claire, LSU) did not sell all that well. In this it was no different from almost all poetry books, and at that time I was constrained by a more-than-usual need to be home for my three children. I have greater freedom now. What can I plan to do and set in motion so that The Throne of Psyche can be more successful? Samuel Johnson sold by subscription; what can I do in 2010-11 to bring my book to a contemporary audience?
  • POETRY I already have an unsolicited request for a next book of poetry. That's pretty darn good, given the state of poetry publishing. Whether my third book of poems goes to that editor or not, I need to have a well-structured book of poems by next April. The poems are finished, but I need order. And the book must go out in May because I will be very busy in June and July.
  • POETRY Who knows how many new poems will come? That depends on the fount and the muse. Send them to poetry magazines that I like--particularly Mezzo Cammin and The Flea--and more general outlets. Think about the recent request for poems about the Asia trip.
  • SHORT FICTION Something to mull: I have enough short fiction to fill several wheelbarrows. What to do with these stories already published in magazines and anthologies? Given the state of the story market, what can be done? Collect or ignore?
  • SHORT FICTION Fill all reasonable anthology requests and follow the urgings of desire!
  • NOVELS I have manuscripts out at several good presses, all from surprise requests. I must say that I love being asked even more than I love being published by a prestigious mainstream publisher. This may be a less-than-stellar attitude, but it feels good to me. I need to place at least one novel in the coming year. And I ought to reread all novel manuscripts on hand.
  • NOVELS Do not write a new novel this year!
  • CHILDREN'S NOVEL I finished the draft of the novel written for my youngest child before I left for Thailand. Before Christmas I need a fairly high polish on the manuscript so that I can pass it on to my daughter for illustration--this is counter to the way things are usually done, but I'm committed to submitting this manuscript with illustrations. The novel contains a teenage girl who keeps a drawing journal, so the illustrations will be tightly bound to the text. The book needs to be submitted in 2010. It should go to FSG, where the majority of my books have been published, and to other editors who have asked to see my children's books.
  • MAJOR EVENTS Right now I'm up for three long events in the coming year--one as-yet-in-the-planning-stages week-long workshop for my own community, one visiting writer gig at the Hollins M. A. program in children's literature, and one stint at "Shared Worlds" at Wofford. Ponder what more is right for 2010, given family commitments and upcoming graduations?
  • REVIEWS Am I too busy to do reviews? Re-consider? I probably am, but perhaps it is worthwhile anyway . . .

That wasn't too painful; I'll have to look at it from time to time and see if I can make use of it. (Feel free to add some advice or corrective!) You may find some other aspect of Booklife to be fruitful; I recommend it as a handbook with more heart and wisdom than most.

Cautionary admission: Jeff quotes from me here and there, and there's a tiny essay on luck by me somewhere in the region of the appendix.