Friday, February 29, 2008

Writers Helping Writers: On the Value of Literary Friendships by Magdalena Ball


Please join Murder by 4 by welcoming Maggie Ball, Editor-in-Chief for The Compulsive Reader, where you'll find reviews of books by some of the hottest writers working today, exclusive author interviews, literary news, book giveaways, a free newsletter, and criticism.

Magdalena Ball's short stories, editorials, poetry, reviews and articles have appeared in a wide number of printed anthologies and journals, and have won local and international awards for poetry and fiction. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from CCNY (New York), an MBA from Charles Sturt University (Wagga), and has studied literature on a postgraduate level at Oxford University (UK). She also works as a manuscript assessor for Manuscripts Online, is a member of the BookConnector Advisory Board, an Evaluative Reader for Catchfire Press, and Information Manager for Orica. She is the author of a novel Sleep Before Evening, a non-fiction book, The Art of Assessment, and a poetry chapbook Quark Soup. Magdalena lives in on a rural property in New South Wales with her husband and three beautiful children.

Writers Helping Writers: On the Value of Literary Friendships

As the Editor-in-Chief for the website The Compulsive Reader, I get about a hundred review requests a week. Of these, maybe one will be accepted. Not because ninety nine of those aren’t good books, but because we simply don’t have the people power to read and review everything out there. And there is so much out there. How do we filter? For me, I try to filter on quality. If a book strikes me as being, in some way, extraordinary, I’ll try to take it on, even if I’m already overloaded (and I am; I am). All writers are my ‘fellow writers’. We are all plying our trade, and most of us doing it in conjunction with a day job, families, and a ton of other commitments. I want to help everyone. But I can’t. Every now and then, someone I “bump into” online will strike a personal chord with me. We’ll ‘bond’ in a virtual sense, and keep up the conversation, continuing to support each other’s work, and communicate our triumphs and losses. I think you could call it friendship, though perhaps not quite in the conventional sense. When the time comes when one of my friends needs a review, back cover quote, some advice, or help with promotion, I’ll be there. Why? Isn’t this a kind of literary favouritism? Does it really help? I believe it does. Here’s why.

A healthy concern for those who have similar talents, ethics or who are members of our family/social circle is part of what it means to be a human. We can’t help everyone. But we can, and should, help those that we care about. It’s the bedrock of our social existence. Some might call it nepotism, especially if family is involved (and I have a rather artistic family – we all support one another), but I agree with author Adam Bellow (In Praise of Nepotism, Doubleday, 2003) that nepotism, when combined with meritocratic principles, can be a positive force.
According to UNESCO, there were just under half a million books published in English in 2005. Of these books, a large number of titles won’t sell more than 100 copies. There are many more books on the market than book buyers. Most book buyers will purchase books based on familiar names. Emerging authors need all the help they can get to simply get their titles noticed amongst the hype and names that dwarf them, but few of us can afford the publicity powerhouse that big names get as part of their publishing packages. Supporting one another is one way to help redress the already negatively skewed balance.

As professional writers, we treat what we review professionally, regardless of whether it was written by someone we know or a stranger. So when I review a book by a friend, I review it in the same objective (as objective as any book review can be – we always bring in our tastes, biases, and perspectives) way that I would review any book. I don’t always give my friends glowing reviews. It isn’t easy, but I have occasionally had to refuse a review, or have had to publish a review which is negative. That happens. Friendship doesn’t mean I compromise my integrity, otherwise my review or support would have no value. What it does mean is that I’m willing to give your book some priority in my crowded stack.

Writing can be a solitary occupation, but promoting a book isn’t. Being in a position to help someone whose work is superb is inherently gratifying. We are all disciples at the altar of the well written word, and promoting excellence wherever you find it is a privilege. That said, the production of my first novel, Sleep Before Evening, found me in a position where lots of people were needed to help me get the word out. I got a tremendous amount of support, and in this dog-eat-dog world where money and celebrity often rules over quality, that support helped me as much emotionally as it did in terms of my book’s success.

Writing novels is a mug’s game, at least in the beginning. It can be immensely gratifying, but it is also painful, hard work. Helping one another is also part of the game. Without the support and community of like-minded authors, there’s simply no way to get one’s foot in that tiny crack of the promotional door. The more we help others, the more we help ourselves. Social networking is the hottest buzz around for writers, and the kinds of networks we develop, with people whose work we admire, helps define who we are. So why not offer your writerly support to someone today. Offer to do a review, host their guest blog, go out and buy the book of someone whose writing you admire, or just mention their work in your blog. It’s the kind of good deed that will come back to you.

10 comments:

Marta Stephens said...

Maggie, welcome to MURDER BY 4 and thank you for sharing this wonderful article with our readers.

This statement rings particularly true for me: “I got a tremendous amount of support, and in this dog-eat-dog world where money and celebrity often rules over quality, that support helped me as much emotionally as it did in terms of my book’s success.” and your philosophy “… support and community of like-minded authors, there’s simply no way to get one’s foot in that tiny crack of the promotional door…” is the corner stone on which MURDER BY 4 stands on.

Where would any one of us be today had it not been for the support and encouragement of our fellow authors?

P said...

Great idea! Writers helping writers. If we don't help each other, who will?

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Maggie, thanks for your insightful piece. So true! I've been on both ends of the spectrum, and appreciated the help I received from friends like Mary Emmons (mysteryfiction.net), who encouraged me to sub to her publisher. Four books later, and more coming, Twilight Times and I are in sync and moving rapidly ahead.

I love helping fledgling writers - it's such a great feeling. Especially when one affects me deeply with her/his writing. Of course I have to be SO picky about doing this - but I get almost as passionate about their work as my own, and it's a great feeling to help lift them up and help them soar.

Thanks for your article, and come back often!

Kim Smith said...

Oh Maggie! I just love this. You have put it so well, much better than I.

Thank you for your contribution to the writing world!
kim

pat said...

I have the distinct pleasure of being one of Aaron's fledglings! I have just spent a day today filled with promise...and I owe it to you, Aaron. You have touted my writing to your friends, offered edit support, and more than any of that, you have given me faith and confidence in myself...as a writer. Do I dare give myself that credit? Yes, a writer. I know that this will be a challenge, hard, hard work. I know that there is every chance that I will fail. But the flash of fire has been lit. And there's no dousing it! I am crazy for the process, love the way I feel when I know it is right. And especially when a reader...like Marta, and oh so especially like you, Aaron...when a reader feels what I intended him/her to feel. Sees the picture I have tried to paint. It's magic. And I am in love with it all!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Aww, Pat. Thanks. I'm so glad the bug has bit, and we will be able to benefit from the wonderful words that flow from your virtual pen. ;o)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Aww, Pat. Thanks. I'm so glad the bug has bit, and we will be able to benefit from the wonderful words that flow from your virtual pen. ;o)

maggieball said...

What great comments -- thanks everyone for the terrific support. As I mentioned in my Amazon connect post, PW has recently published an article (which I, alas, cannot find to cite -- but if anyone does find it please point me to it and I'll include a link to it) which deplores the way academics and writers review each other's work, suggesting that it devalues the review process. I totally disagree. Any reviewer worth his or her salt will review honestly and substantiate that review with citations. That doesn't mean that writers can't help one another out. Aaron is a master at at doing this, and that's partly what inspired the post. Maggie

BeWrite Books said...

Good article, Maggie. And nice to see the interesting articles posted by everyone on MB4.

As a publisher if an author comes to me with a list of friends/colleagues/fellow writers who are willing to give honest reviews I couldn't be happier. All I hope is that they don’t give the plot away in a review!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks for stopping in to comment, Maggie and BeWrite Books! Maggie, I loved your book, Sleep Before Evening, so there was no problem plugging it and writing a very positive review. And I love quite a few BeWrite authors - including Maggie and Marta, as well as Lad Moore, one of my personal favorites. :o)