CHARLOTTE—"Don't quit your day job" is sage advice for writers: few authors can make ends meet with what they earn from their writing alone.
Still, a day job is not necessarily ideal for the writer either, as regular employment can really put a crimp in the time one has to write, much less take care of all the promotional activities that go along with publishing a book.
Susan Rivers, who will lead the session "'You Talking to Me?' How Less Really Can Mean More When Writing Dialogue" at the NCWN 2018 Fall Conference, has a solution.
Susan Rivers’ debut novel, The Second Mrs. Hockaday, was a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Award 2017 and was one of four finalists for the SIBA Southern Book Prize 2018 for Southern Fiction. Rivers began her writing career in West Coast theater, where she studied with Sam Shepherd, and where her plays were produced at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, at Seattle Repertory Theatre, and in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum. She is a veteran of the Playwrights Festival at Sundance Institute for the Arts and the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference, where she worked with Sarah Jessica Parker and studied with August Wilson and Lloyd Richards. Rivers was awarded the Julie Harris Playwriting Award for Overnight Lows and a New York Drama League Award for Under Statements. She lives and writes in upstate South Carolina.
The NCWN 2018 Fall Conference runs November 2-4, at the Hilton Charlotte University Place. Registration is open.
This year, NCWN has been celebrating publishers based in North Carolina, so we asked Susan to answer the following prompt:
"Congratulations! You've inherited a large fortune, on the condition that you use it to start your own publishing house. What kind of books are you going to publish?"
Here's what Susan said:
"It's a good thing I've been bequeathed a 'large fortune' for my publishing venture, because I'm going to need it, if all my friends in the industry are to be believed. They tell me that producing books is a labor of love and therefore is almost always a non-lucrative form of labor, albeit profitable on many other levels.
"Before we get to what kinds of books I would specialize in, let's talk about establishing programs aimed at keeping those writers who I publish and who are not blessed with trust funds continuing to write productively.
"For fiction writers, there's an assumption that getting that first novel or collection of stories accepted for publication is the big nut to crack. We all fantasize about it, believing that signing the contract and then screaming our triumph from the rooftops is the end of the story. Fade to black. Scratch that item off the bucket list ('1. Write great American novel and hold first copy in hands. Die of happiness.') What we don't understand until the novel is out and then the paperback has followed, we're done touring and the advance is mostly spent because we are no longer teaching four sections of Freshman Comp every semester but the bills for utilities and car insurance and health care premiums persist, annoyingly, is that we must somehow find paying work while we write Book 2. And this work has to allow for occasional weekend-long book conferences, mid-week library visits, three-day symposiums, and the like, which adjunct teaching assignments do not permit nor do most 9-5 day jobs.
"In NYC, when I finally met the head of my publishing house, Algonquin, Elisabeth said 'I wish I could tell all my writers not to quit their day jobs.' Her point was already taken, as I'd come to realize that a debut novel can be considered reasonably successful if it sells well enough to cover the author's advance and is still in bookstores a year after its launch, without anyone getting rich from it. This is the stage when many writers regret not having trained as bartenders or dog groomers, or wish they lived close enough to an urban center to work as an UBER driver, because such people can take appointments as needed or work shifts between gigs. And doing gigs is how one keeps the first book alive while writing the next one.
"To resolve this problem and put writers minds at ease, as part of my publishing house's commitment to writers we publish, I would establish a Work for Writers bureau, hiring literary-minded job recruiters with the ability to find short-term employment for our writers who need it. This work would allow the writing to go forward and limit the panic attacks and insomnia that might ensue otherwise.
"As for the types of books I would publish…
"Since 2016, we have witnessed the rise of identity politics—the cult of the personality—until it has permeated all aspects of American culture, including the marketing of certain authors. I worry about this, because the emphasis on 'brand' seems to promote superficial concerns where you least want to see them, in the literary marketplace.
"In combating that trend, I would begin by naming my literary fiction publishing house 'Cyclops,' to send the message that our editors employ only one lens when considering material for publication, and that is the value and quality of the writing. At Cyclops we will be blind to gender, race, sexual orientation, age, religion, ethnicity, region of birth (if born in the U.S.), immigration status and origin (if not), photogenic or 'media-genic' attributes, visibility (or lack of) on social media and advanced degrees obtained (or lack of).
"It's inevitable that some of this information will be apparent from the subject matter, the context, and/or the distinctive voice of the writer in the manuscript, however, as the owner of Cyclops Books none of this will subjectively affect my decision to accept an author's work for publication now will it factor into the sales and marketing plan for that work. I want my company's judgments to be based purely on the merits of the writing—the worth of the craft rather than the craftsman—publishing and promoting those works of prose that are transformative, timeless, beautifully written and deeply human."
Fiction can get bogged down in an excess of description and exposition: “telling” rather than “showing.” In filmed and staged texts, no description is possible, and dialogue must do the heavy lifting: providing exposition, character and plot development, and showing conflict. Dialogue can function just as effectively in fiction, while engaging the reader more fully, if it works on multiple levels to define relationships and objectives and is authentic to the character’s time, setting, and situation. In her session at the NCWN 2018 Fall Conference, Susan will share techniques with writers for pinpointing the goals of individual speakers in a scene and maximizing the power of subtext, helping participants to turn up the dramatic power in their dialogues.
Fall Conference attracts hundreds of writers from around the country and provides a weekend full of activities that include lunch and dinner banquets with readings, keynotes, tracks in several genres, open mic sessions, and the opportunity for one-on-one manuscript critiques with editors or agents. Master Classes will be led by Judy Goldman (Creative Nonfiction), Maureen Ryan Griffin (Poetry), Randall Kenan (Fiction), who, as a 2018 inductee into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, also will give the Keynote Address.
The nonprofit North Carolina Writers’ Network is the state’s oldest and largest literary arts services organization devoted to all writers, in all genres, at all stages of development. For additional information, visit www.ncwriters.org.