“A Highly Subjective and Sometimes Contradictory Alphabet for the Young and Aspiring Professional Writer” by Marc Spitz

Your agent will sell your book to an editor at a publishing house and take a percentage of the advance. He or she is not your friend. Do not drink with your agent unless it’s a toast at your release party. Do not get to know their kids, their wives, and their ex-wives. In other words, do not mix your business and personal relationship and do not forget they are not doing you a favor by working with you (a state of mutual respect and trust is ideal and almost never happens, but often you can find a working imbalance). Make sure that your agent is well read and truly enjoys and respects your work and will fight for you and not gossip about you or trade his or her loyalty to you for a newer, hotter, younger writer or to get in better with an editor (probably a new, younger, hotter editor). Don’t borrow money from your agent. Don’t loan your agent money. Make sure he or she is well dressed. Morrissey (I will drop some names here,) once told me, in a very expensive hotel suite in Rome, that appearance is everything and while cynical, he is mostly right. Make sure your agent knows who Morrissey is. Make sure your agent knows who Morrissey is especially if you happen to be writing a book on Morrissey. If you happen to be writing a book on the Jack White, make sure your agent does not refer to him as Jack Black. It’s incumbent on your agent to be informed about your subject and not just the points of the deal. It’s not your job to teach them. The contents of a book proposal should be all they need and they should be familiar with the proposal. At heart, they are salespeople. Collaborate with your agent on a book proposal at your own risk. Remember your book should be your own and you will not have them around when you write it. Your agent should always pick up the bar tab or the lunch tab on the rare occasions when you do share a drink or a meal (again keep these rare). They can write that off more easily than you can and have been doing so longer. You do not owe your agent for every stamp he or she licks on your behalf. Stamps should be, like drinks, on them.

Book smarts:
People will tell you have to constantly read and they may be right, but it’s not been my experience that you always have to have another writer’s book on your brain or your coffee table or your desk. They are often just fine on the shelf, impressing guests. Read for edification, read for inspiration, read for research but don’t read just to be a better writer (this is an unpopular opinion by the way). I believe you write to be a better writer and it’s more important to write a lot than to read a lot. Anything else is just peer pressure at the hands of people who enjoy reading more than they enjoy or are able to write. Some people are better at reading than they are at writing and so they will skew you their way. I happen to be better at writing so I am skewing you my way. I am a slow reader. I am now in my 40s and need glasses to read. Why not find again, a working balance, and sneak a pleasure read or a status read (a book everyone is talking about this season) in the middle of a your writing, not because you think that you must. You should not do this because of the risk of someone’s style bleeding into yours while you write but if you need an excuse, you can tell people you are afraid of someone else’s style bleeding into yours while you write. I like to read biographies if I’m working on fiction and fiction if working on a biography.

The late Jim Carroll who I never met but once saw read at NYU’s Skirball Center and at the St. Marks Poetry Project and pretty much idolized all through college thanks to the Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries, and his album Catholic Boy, once wrote, ”All writers of confessions, from Augustine on down, have always remained a little in love with their sins.” – He was actually quoting the French poet Anatole France. I have never read any Anatole France. Confessional writing is more interesting to me than writing that shrouds dirty deeds but there are rules of thumb for and against it. If you ask yourself, “Should I really say this?” Say it. It’s probably strong if it haunts you. It’s probably brave and being brave has rewards. It’s probably the truth if it gives you pause. There are statutes of limitations for various sins that you can easily look them up on the web. Now when I say confessional writing, I don’t mean sharing your diary contents with the reader and I don’t mean kvetching. The reader is not your shrink or your priest and not responsible to heal you. Your narrator must sell these confessions; they must be entertaining and have purpose or keep them to yourself.

Drinking and drugs
We cannot pretend there’s not a long history of writers who don’t turn to alcohol and pills or powder or psychedelics. Artists feel too much. It’s just fact. And they think more than it’s healthy. I had a doctor who told me that I self medicated because I was a raw nerve with no armor who could not see a man with a scar on a subway and not wonder, “How did he get this scar? Did he injure himself in an accident, a fall off a bike, or was it part of a fight?” Drugs and alcohol can shut off that part of your brain temporarily but if you are a writer, you can never shut it off permanently, and know that this is also a gift. Get comfortable with the voice and don’t drown your brain salad in dressing. Alcohol is a depressant. Drugs make you boring. People who do a lot of heroin end up writing a lot about… finding heroin, being high on heroin, finding more heroin, going through heroin withdrawal, a friend dying from heroin, getting off heroin. When I mentioned it in my books, as I have in one novel and one memoir, I tried to get through that bit as quickly as possible because it’s well trod ground. As you get older you will find that drinking can sometimes mean a lost day of writing; a day long hangover the next day and an interruption of the process. If you are on a streak, remember that speech from Bull Durham do not mess with your streak by going to the bar. Stay in and work until you feel the power even out or dwindle. Then have a drink (but not a bag of drugs) and pat yourself on the back. Make these things markers, rewards, and part of the process and try to get back into the rhythm of daily writing within 24 hours of your well-earned break. One day off is fine. Two, you will find it harder to get back into a groove. Personally, I never related to the writers like Gay Talese who woke at dawn, put on a full suit and went to an office in their hope to write until five p.m. as if it was an office job. I wanted to be a writer so I wouldn’t have to get an office job. The only job is finishing your piece, whatever it is. Finishing is the goal, and by that I mean getting to a place where you can begin revision. Revision is the fun part, where the details get more vivid, the jokes get better, you think of a set piece that didn’t occur to you before or a good song to add to a scene. Revision is more fun than drugs are.

A bad or absentee editor can ruin a good book and a really skilled editor can save a bad book. If your heart isn’t in a book an editor can put your heart back in it but it’s not their job to do that so don’t count on it. It’s your job to keep your heart in the project. An editor, not an agent, is the most important person in a writer’s life, more so than a girlfriend or a boyfriend or even a husband or a wife. I don’t have kids but I have had editors who have had kids and I know that their kids are more important to them than I am, but if I had kids, my editor would still be more important to me. If he or she was a good editor, that is. Get a good editor and you have it made. There is no good writing without one. Your editor, unlike your agent, is also the boss. They essentially create the finished product; the thing that is on the shelf and in the hands of the reader. Read the books they’ve worked on. See if they’ve made the Bestseller list. Ask them what their favorite Elvis Costello song is. Get drunk with them at least once. Check them out but once you are committed, do not battle with what they do to your writing unless you are absolutely possessed to. Then pick your battles because most of the time you won’t win, and if it’s a good editor, most of the time you are wrong and they are right. Treat them with respect because they are working hard for you, and often after office hours when they’d rather be watching television or having dinner or sex, and they are instead, making you look better than you actually are. If you happen to suspect that you are stuck with a bad or dysfunctional or drunken or lazy editor at an otherwise good house, with your good book, you probably won’t be able to save it but if you know that you are on your own, sometimes that knowledge is helpful. You will know to go the extra mile and check your own work twice as much and then immediately begin your search for a truly good editor. Foremost, make sure your editor believes in you and enjoys their job as much as you do. Make your deadlines and don’t give them grief.

Food is key too, always eat something before writing. That’s pretty self-explanatory. Even if it’s a Cliff Bar. Sometimes you will wake up with an idea. It’s fine to get that idea down and even write a page or two before morning coffee or tea but don’t attempt anything too long without food. And if you are writing something long, like a book, you ultimately hate life and will eat crap or whatever’s around. You will order in Chinese food every night and you will have to lose all that weight or try to once the book is done and will look like shit in your author photos. Eat some steamed spinach with little pieces of garlic in it. That’s good stuff and more and more groceries sell it in neat microwaveable containers than when Dorothy Parker was in her prime.

Graduate School Etc. Etc.:
I didn’t go. I sometimes wish I had. There are mornings when I wake up and see the Yale School of Drama application open on my laptop. Or an application to Julliard. I worry I might be a better playwright if I’d studied more, but you can also study too much, especially if you are pursuing the creative and not the academic disciplines (not that creative writing can’t be academic and vice versa but when I was in college, these disciplines as far as your thesis went anyway, were more divided). All I am saying is don’t feel like you have to continue and continue and continue your education in a formal way to get good. Move to New York City and get good instead. There’s your continued education and it’s probably a lot cheaper…or at least it used to be. Write and produce a play. There’s your postgraduate work in drama, and you might even make money and get press. Pitch something to a magazine and execute a well reported piece, then another. That’s journalism school. New York City will continue your writer-ly education. LA will not. Seattle will not. Portland will not. Chicago will not. Great cities all but… I’m sorry. It’s New York. Spend some time in London and in Paris but always end up in New York City when you are done. And remember if you learn too much, you’re only gonna have to unlearn it one day. I once had a serious girlfriend and aspiring professional writer who went to an Ivy League school and I had to help her methodically strip all the bad learning from her like the pigment from an impulsive dye job because she could not understand why she could write on campus but was unable to write here. “Because you learned too much,” I told her. “In a classroom.”

Learn just enough, but don’t rely on everything you’ve picked up here.

Be humble. Do not be a dick. Do this for the sake of your soul but also for the sake of your career. Once, during a reading in Philadelphia, I was surly to a Fresh Air booker while drunk and wearing sunglasses indoors. I’ve published five books since then and a few would have been perfect for Fresh Air, the very popular and influential NPR show on WHYY in that city, but I never got invited to do Fresh Air, I probably never will, and I don’t even remember what I said to this woman. I only know she did nothing to provoke it. I used to think in order to be “real” you had to have a bad attitude, and be an enfant terrible. I also used to make a point of telling people, especially my parents and blonde women, that I was a “genius.” Never declare yourself a genius. Even Oscar Wilde looked like an asshole declaring his genius. As far as critics and press and people who may become interested in you (and they will if you are good and work hard) keep your head. And if they snipe, or reject you, never ever keep a shit list. Waste of time. Do not plot revenge. Do not corner a foe and unload. My very first book was rejected by the guy who a decade later, bought my memoir when nobody else would. If you have a stroke of bad luck (this year after what I thought was a good interview that would spark sales of my book Twee, I got bumped from Weekend Edition) take it in stride. I wanted to give the booker a piece of my mind but I remained humble when my publicist said “this happens,” and soon, I got a half dozen different NPR spots. In the immortal words of Chrissie Hynde, “bad boys get spanked.” But I realize you cannot explain this to angry young men. I know doors must be kicked and hair must be pulled out sometimes, just remember, you are only hurting yourself as good as it might feel in the moment and as cool as you might think you look.

The IRS:
Book publishers do not deduct your taxes from your advances and neither do agents, they just hand you big ass checks. The advance, ideally is there for the expense of producing a book. It’s not for you to spend, or even save but you will spend it. At least try to save some of it. You do not want to work for years on something and pour your soul into it to find out at the end of the day that your money is gone and you owe the city, the state where you live, and the US Treasury many thousands of dollars to which they will gleefully begin tacking on absurd interest and penalty rates. A lot of writers die in tax debt. Pay your estimates. Fortunately, advances are a little saner than they used to be but still remember not all that money is yours. Buy some shoes, have a nice dinner, then give Uncle Sam his due and get to work.

Be happy for any good review a peer gets and make a point to congratulate them even if you want to strangle them and stare at their blue body while smoking a cigarette. If they tell you they just bought an apartment with their advance money and you are still renting, tell them you can’t wait for the housewarming. Jealousy will only make you miserable and spiteful and who knows? A trolley might hit them before they can even enjoy their good fortune and then won’t you feel bad.

Try not to romanticize writers who died miserable deaths at young ages after years of suffering. Franz Kafka, for example, was only 40 when he died of laryngeal tuberculosis in a sanitarium outside of Vienna, which essentially meant that he wasted away from starving because his condition made it too painful for him to eat and they had yet to invent intravenous nutrition. I used to think this was cool, party because it was in keeping with the kind of bleakness that many of his characters underwent, in other words, his death fit his words and his myth and then there’s the scene in Annie Hall where Shelley Duvall tells Woody Allen, “Sex with you is a Kafkaesque experience.” I no longer romanticize Kafkaesque experiences, medical, sexual or stylistically. Talented as he was, he most likely an undiagnosed schizophrenic who wanted most if not all of his work burned by his trusted friend Max Brod (who totally ignored his wishes, which Kafka probably suspected this anyway). Pain was not the source of his talent, it was a condition that he had in spite of his talent and it kept him from writing more or at least having a healthy relationship with his work. Simply, you do not have to suffer to be a real writer. Happily this myth has not been embraced by subsequent generations as much as it was by mine, Generation X but we really took it and ran with the idea.

Don’t worry about whether or not your reader likes your narrator. Have the courage to make him or her do despicable things if it is true to the story you want to tell. Not every hero needs to be a virtuous, feisty, sympathetic or even clean. And if your narrator is a version of yourself (and all narrators, all characters are in at least small ways versions of the author) remember it’s only a version, remind your mother and father it’s only a version and if you play this correctly, you can both experience things that you might never in real life, and create an interesting voice. Just for God’s sake, don’t’ waste a minute on worrying about “likeability” or even “anti-heroism.” Imagine a reader putting down a book and saying, “I don’t think I like this person,” then imagine them picking the book up again because they like not liking that person. That’s not the same as hate-reading. Today, it’s very fashionable to have what they call an “unreliable narrator,” but I’ve always been a fan of the opposite. I like a narrator who sees and shares things the way they are; usually my narrator believes he is the only sane person in a room, or a city or a planet full of mutants, in other words, huge assholes, but not without redemptive qualities. If you are worried about sales, remember, Holden Caulfield genuinely didn’t care if you liked him and Salinger sold a lot of copies of that one.

Menial tasks:
Stop and do a menial task after a point in the writing day. Some call it the shower principle, and it works. Do your recycling. Shave. Prep something to cook, chop vegetables for a stir-fry. Don’t watch TV, especially not 24-hour news channels or sports, and do not listen to music. Go to the snail mailbox. Checking your email is okay too, but just check it and delete the crap. Do not correspond. If you have a dog or a cat, spend some time with the dog or a cat. It’s good for a writer to have a dog or a cat, but nothing too exotic because then it becomes all about the dog or the cat.

Note Taking:
It’s anti-social, and literally dangerous if you do it with your iPod while crossing the street, and the auto-correct can be maddening and probably has software built into it to just fuck with you the more it senses you need it (mine once inexplicably changed horseman to Galliano). But always be making lists, and writing notes to you. I write more notes to myself than I speak words to other people, and I write more notes to myself than I think unwritten thoughts to myself. It means things are humming and you are engaged and the piece is coming to life. Form shorthand that works for you, instead of Ralph, just write R. Ask yourself questions about your characters if you are writing fiction, especially if you take handwritten notes, on napkins etc. but don’t feel pressured to answer them immediately. Just a question on a note taking device, a phone or a pad will be valuable. “Why does so and so want this?” “What is the process of cooking this dish?” “What does this neighborhood really look like?” Then fill in the blanks.

I keep a running separate word file, a sort of pool to deposit and later organize these notes. I keep the pool open alongside the main file. Sometimes I wake up in the night to write notes, which is better than waking in the night to smoke a cigarette. Don’t panic this too is a good sign. Your brain is popping. You are engaged. Get it all down, somewhere, and worry about sorting the major revelations from the minor fine tuning, the films you feel like you should see for inspiration or the sections that require full revisions at a later date. Forming a compulsive note taking habit will serve you well later in when your memory goes to hell around 40. Books, large pieces, play, they are really often the sum of two hundred ideas strung together and sometimes thousands of little digital or actual Post Its or cocktail napkins or weird sculptures or art installations. I’ve seen some writers’ walls that look very Silence of the Lambs basement-y. Usually a corkboard works fine, but if you need to build shrines do that it. Do anything that jogs the memory and keeps you from losing the good stuff.

Eavesdrop. Keep your ears open and do not be afraid to violate someone’s privacy by getting out a pen and writing something down immediately if you hear a perfect utterance on the street or in a bar or while on line at the post office. You will find something to do with it eventually and it will be special to you forever because it’s like finding a seashell on the beach or a ten-dollar bill on the street when you’re hungry for a sandwich. The people around you, the strangers, are there for you, and they speak to you whether they know it or not, they help you authenticate your environment. But don’t feel the need to use every quote. Hold onto a great quote you’ve overheard until that perfect moment when you can use it right. You can’t built a piece around a single quote no matter how precious or hilarious. It will cave in. Quotes are delicate. Preserve them like butterflies and handle them carefully.

Never use the word “perhaps.” I mean use it if you want to but I hate that word. Make statements and observations and own them, don’t hedge, unless “perhaps” is part of a bit of dialogue from the mouth of a character that hedges. Know the story, know your characters at least by draft two, and there will be no need to guess. Tell the reader the way it really is, you’re not a fortuneteller searching the air. You’re the boss.

Write quiet. At first. By this I only mean, don’t put on loud music until you feel you’ve worked your way into your piece. I know we all have a ten thousand song in the same place where we write but write something substantial first then reward yourself with some music. And keep writing with the music at about half volume. When not writing, use music to psych yourself up. In this case, I recommend maximum volume. “Jumping Jack Flash,” usually works, or “99 Problems.” Zeppelin. Really loud Be Bop. Maria Callas. I’ve also taken to making playlists for the old and new books I’ve worked on. One is over 11 hours long and the book is not even published. I might start making playlists for individual characters in my fiction and I usually give the actors in my plays mix tapes that means CDRs I made on my laptop. Not a real, hand decorated cassette, unfortunately.

I’m name-dropping again but my friend and old Spin colleague Chuck Klosterman said if you believe the good ones have to believe the bad ones too. I don’t read them. It’s a choice. I realized years ago, when my plays would get reviewed that I would really learn nothing about myself or the way I write from them, all they did was give me a big head or an inferiority complex. If you reach the level where someone is writing a feature about you and your work as a whole, read it to learn about your work, but a review is too limited. The writer usually has a week and 300 words. That’s not to say I don’t read the Book Review Section of the Times where there’s a bit more value and sprawl. And I like to learn as much as possible from reviews of the new books and old books of other writers, just not my own. You have to figure about a way to know yourself and to keep going without them. And if it gets back to you that you’ve received a bad review, do not Google it, in fact, start something new immediately. And never, ever, ever respond to the critic directly, or Twee them. And remember, if you STILL feel shitty, you got a lot more money than they did.

Someone invented it in your lifetime. Also editors hate it when you don’t use it. So do editorial assistants. If you write on a manual or electric typewriter, I don’t even know what to say. Keep a dictionary close at hand. And White Out, which I think gets you high if you sniff enough of it. See D for Drinking and Drugs.

When you finish a piece, it’s good to have at least one person you trust read it next and give you honest notes. This should be a person who you are not professionally or academically affiliated with, in other words, not your professor or your editor, yet. More than one person is fine but not too many. If you have at least one reader who you utterly trust you are ahead of the game. Don’t kill the messenger if they have issues. They are your trust-reader for a reason. Have a conversation; explain yourself if you disagree and seriously consider listening to them because they may know your work better than you are and are certainly closer in make up to the people who will be reading you in the future. This process should be quick so don’t give it to a surgeon or someone you met in a bar or someone about to go on a long trip or someone with seven children; but rather a pal who has already proven themselves to you; ideally a person who is also a writer. But he or she could also simply be a well read friend, an ex girlfriend or boyfriend, your mom so long as she’s not the kind of mom who likes everything you do unconditionally.

As I admitted in B for Book Learning I’m not exactly well read, but I own a copy of Ulysses and I am going to read it one day. I sometimes carry it with me. It reminds me to be ambitious; Joyce was ambitious when he wrote it and my ambition is to some day get through it. Ambition is key to this thing of ours. There’s a lot that will kill your ambition; the loneliness of writing, the repetition of having to do one book after the other because you are used to a lifestyle or the attention, or are in debt (see I for IRS). Ambition is there to remind you that you are not great yet. You are only, at best, very good, most likely pretty good, but you should always strive to be great (and never, ever, ever, tell anyone you’re a genius – even if you believe it). Even Oscar Wilde sounded like an asshole declaring him a genius, clever as the line was.

Being a Vessel:
I don’t know if there is such a thing as muse. I have no imagination as a person and not much of interest to say in a salon or a gathering unless I’m drunk, so I like to think that since my characters often talk and talk and talk, something, a spirit perhaps, is putting the words there through me. When I write, with an eye towards finishing a large piece, I go into a trance and sometimes many hours will pass and it’s almost as if my eyes were closed the whole time then suddenly shoot wide open. This sounds a lot more cosmic and Jim Morrison-ish than it actually is. I know I’m typing. I just don’t know where the dialogue is coming from, or why I am deviating from an outline, even just a mental one (I’m not big on flowchart outlines, like I said, I have my process with notes… and the occasional shrine). When I come to, I realize that I have pages and pages and thousands of words, many of them not bad. See, musicians don’t own this. Neither do actors who play around with methods or techniques and make their discoveries. Or painters who throw paint at a canvas and suddenly it’s a thing like Jackson Pollock or Nick Nolte in that Martin Scorsese short. Writers can “jam” too and lose themselves for hours. So I like to think I am indeed, a vessel because writing is lonely and the idea makes me feel somehow less alone. But I often forsaken. The muse is fickle and just cause it lulled you into a lucky and hyper-creative state one day, it doesn’t mean that another day it won’t leave you with nothing but your fingers.

Don’t put something in your piece just because it’s clever. Have the courage to not use the joke. I believe the best writing, fiction or non-fiction, is funny. Period. You can write about war and have elements of humor in it. You can write about sickness and death and have elements of humor in it. Do not be cheeky if you can’t be genuinely funny. Cheeky people are horrible. Just revisit O for Overhearing and hope you are sitting next to someone genuinely funny.

Is for X factor:
Most people don’t know why a book works or doesn’t work and nobody sets out to write a bad book. Don’t believe people who claim to have the answers. What’s hot is not. There is always an X factor that eludes agents, editors, publicists, marketers and most especially, writers. Fashion chasing will kill your soul. If books about Jane Austen characters fighting zombies or Presidents slaying vampires are selling, do not write one too. Don’t even blurb one if you are asked. Find your own thing and remember the William Goldman quote about Hollywood because it applies to publishing too, “Nobody knows anything.” Just be true to your characters, your sources, your voice and your vision and you will do fine.

Y is for
This shit takes years.

Z is for:
Zooey and Zoe
I was going to make z for Zeitgeist but I’m still not 100 percent confident whenever I use the word. It’s like I’m never fully comfortable calling Lil Wayne “Weezy.” I wanted to use Zooey Glass and the Zoe Kazan’s character in the film Ruby Sparks where an author invents then has an affair with his heroine, as examples to let you know that it’s okay to fall in love with your characters, to write a character that you want a reader to fall in love with. There is no shame in this. You should be in love with your characters, even when you do horrible things to them. If you are writing a non-fiction book, you will probably fall in love with your subject and if it’s good so will your reader. This is a process of seduction and don’t’ think for a minute Salinger didn’t want you to fall in love with Zooey, as batshit as she is. Be a matchmaker between your reader and your characters, be a friend, write for them, not to them, and know that one of the main reasons people read is because it’s a lonely place, here in the world.

Marc Spitz (1969-2017) was the author of the novels How Soon Is Never, and Too Much, Too Late and the biographies We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk (with Brendan Mullen), Nobody Likes You: Inside the Turbulent Life, Times and Music of Green DayBowie: A Biography and Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue. He appeared in the anthologies: The Encyclopedia of Ex-esHowl: A Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit and Rock N’ Roll Cage Match: Music’s Greatest Rivalries Decided.

Spitz presented this piece in 2014 as a talk at The College of Saint Rose as part of the Frequency North reading series, after which he granted permission to publish this piece.

Author photo: Marc Spitz, Los Angeles, circa 1992-93, from personal collection of Rone Shavers

Image: “Oh Hushed October Morning” by Courtney Bernardo

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