Writers on Writing: Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer

There are a wealth of books on writing out in the world, from the good to the bad to the absolute nonsense—and a lot of them are by writers of speculative fiction. “Writers on Writing” is a short series of posts devoted to reviewing and discussing books on the craft that were written by science fiction/fantasy (and horror) authors, from Stephen King to John Scalzi. Whether you’re a beginning writer, a seasoned pro or a fan, these nonfiction outings can be good reads. They have something different to offer each level of experience, be it useful advice or just the pleasure of reading.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife is a very different animal from the books that have come before it in this series: it’s not about craft but survival and career for writers in the new-media age. Whereas the past two books have been most beneficial to new writers, Booklife is geared more toward those who are selling their first book already and who are managing a growing career. It is specifically designed to map out the dangerous territories and glorious possibilities of the 21st century for writers, from publicity to the mental fragmentation many or all people suffer thanks to the intense influx of daily information and obligations.

In addition, Booklife has a web-presence as a growing and developing commentary that continues past the published text.

This book is split into three sections: public and private booklife as well as a set of appendices. The public booklife section deals with publicity, “leveraging” your platforms and online presence, networking and public behavior/community. The private section, on the other hand, deals with actual creative output and the creative life, including the management of mental and physical health for writers through a career. The appendices are about things from the setup of the publishing industry to podcasting which didn’t quite fit anywhere else.

I have an odd reader relationship with this book, which has made it hard to review to my satisfaction. I love the information in it—it is, to my knowledge, the only book that deals explicitly with being a writer today with the new media blast. It if chock full of things that a writer who wants to do this job professionally needs to know, especially the folks who are just past amateur stage and are beginning a career or managing new directions in an existing one. Seasoned pros, too, could find a lot of use in the public booklife section when it comes to forms of publicity and leveraging them on the wide world of the internet—when do you try a new angle? What’s a good idea and what’s fake bleeding-edge and will only bog you down?—so, when it comes to the information, I am double thumbs up. It’s excellent.

The way it’s written, though, can be a problem. The irony of this book talking extensively about fragmentation, which is a huge issue in a writer’s life, is found in the fact that it is set up in small, even tiny, chunks of text that do sort-of flow but mostly contribute to the reader constantly feeling as if they’ve finished a section of information and should put it down. It’s difficult to read comfortably and lends itself more to being a book for readng in between other books, in pieces. The language is also very business-self-help at times which I dislike on a personal level; it fills pithy in a bad way.

The plus side of this is that a writer at a farther point in their career can flip to the extensive table of contents, pick the page that deals with what they need to look up, and go straight to it. This is why I feel odd about my own complaint. The book works, and it works well, when it comes to what it’s trying to do. It’s just not as readable as I would like and feels a bit jumpy at times.

The private booklife section begins to drift away from this problem as it goes further into personal issues and balance in one’s booklife. There are anecdotes and guidelines for everyone from beginners to people who might just be considering quitting their dayjobs. The beginner level information centers around things like dealing with rejection (though everyone can use reminders on that score, sometimes), giving up the things that stop you from writing and encouraging your own creativity. As for the things useful to writers at a farther point in their career, sections on fragmentation, envy, and despair are honest and centering. The “permission to fail” section is the best of these, I think—every person, when they become to bound up in desire to achieve and hunger to be good at what they do, starts to get those nerves about their work. Reminding yourself of the joy that can come from trying is a good idea, no matter who you are. Let go of the fear and just go for it. If you fail, it might still be better than what you would have done if you hadn’t even tried.

The best “active” information (in the sense that it can be put straight into practice by a working writer) is in the appendices: reputation management on new media, nurturing creativity via workshops and other ways, and examples of things like press-releases, PR plans and how to do a podcast. This is stuff that a writer today who hopes to have a platform and a presenceneeds to know. It’s not as “exciting” as the feel-good, we-are-in-this-together elements of On Writing but it’s more practically useful.

Despite minor complaints about the sometimes-choppy organization of the book, I think it’s absolutely invaluable. It’s fantastic. It is a guide to the 21st century for a writer, more up to date and accurate than any other book I’ve seen on the market. Who else is dealing with issues like how to do online marketing without being in your readers’ faces, or managing the noise of the internet?

A bit of a testimonial: as a child of the internet generation, I’ve found that I now agree wholeheartedly with the issues of “noise” and managing your internet time. I love the web, but yes, it causes stress. There is a constant pressure to be available, to talk, to be cool, to be there, to be “on” that can break you down no matter how much fun you’re having. The me of two years ago would have been horrified to hear that I would eventually start forcing myself to turn off the wireless and go offline for hours because I need to space to create. I would have said I could do both. Most people probably think they do both just fine, but let me tell you—try the VanderMeer suggestion. Just turn the damn thing off and let it rest for a few hours every day, and you’ll be surprised at how much freer and nicer you feel (once the addiction-pulse of “but what if someone needs me! What about my email and blog and Twitter! What am I missing!” passes, at least).

Pick up Booklife. New writers might not find it as immediately easy to put into practice because much of the public-booklife information is for someone with work already on the market and in the field, but it will come in handy later in their careers, so they won’t make as many mistakes because they’ll know about the pitfalls ahead of time. The private booklife section will be the best for them. Folks on the middle level will benefit from it the most right away when it comes to working with their careers. It’s a good book with an active and also very useful online community.

Enjoy! Next: Beginnings, Middles and End by Nancy Kress


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

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