HAZARDS, PITFALLS AND DANGERS
Be Yourself, Continue Learning and Innovating
Not all agree with my premise that to become a writer all one needs is lots of hard work and determination. Success doesn’t come easy and this we might say is a pitfall. I have my critics. Writer Steve Van Beek believes you need more than determination. You must have a love for words, and the love of word means the sounds of words. Steve is an accomplished writer. He has won several international awards and his scholarly book on The Arts of Thailand is a classic work. Steve came to Asia some forty years ago and lived several years in Nepal. He speaks Nepalese like a Nepalese, and I could say the same for his Thai. I have known him since the early 1970s when he began a supplement for the Bangkok Post called “Outlook.” He bought several of my stories for the magazine. Other than a writer and filmmaker, Steve is a concert pianist. He gave up music to travel and become a writer. He also turned from editor to adventure. He built a kayak and paddled down the length of Chao Phraya River in Thailand, taking fifty-two days. He explored the headwaters of the Mekong River in China and followed it down through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
Steve believes that to write well the sound of words is important. “A writer must have a feeling for the sound of a word,” he said. When Steve writes a few lines, he recites out loud what he has written and only then can he judge his work.
Yachtsman Ed Boden, much like Steve Van Beek, loves words, and he loves to read. He was an aerospace engineer working on the space program at JPL in Pasadena and gave it up to sit aboard a tiny, 25-foot long sail boat and sail around the world. He now had all the time in the world he wanted to read. He also believes success, success in anything we do, writing included, depends a great deal upon luck.
He believes that I make one’s success in writing sound too easy. To do so is a pitfall. He attributes success in part to luck. “In the real world,” Ed states, “only a few people get to see their ‘carefully contrived plan’ carried to fruition, while the vast majority never even see them at all. Successful people are those who have, somehow, been able to call on their talent and then have had Lady Luck smile on their efforts. Then, there are the untold numbers of ones who had the required talents to put together their plans, many that would have been superior to those of the ‘successful’ folks, but inexplicably they were rewarded with Lady Luck’s frown. Talents, too, comes in varying grades of degrees from weak to strong. Interestingly, the ability to call on a talent is really a talent too.”
I agree somewhat with what Ed had to say but with one exception, and that is luck. People tend to say a person accomplishes certain things because he was lucky. Ed points out that I was lucky with Mr. Sullivan, the editor of Life. I could have left his office and never got to meet him, and my life would not be the same. My good luck was that I remained long enough in his office to hear the secretary pass out Mr. Sullivan’s address to another writer. This is where I disagree. Had I not talked to Sullivan, it wouldn’t have mattered. I would have found another means to reach my goal as a writer. I recall an incident that happened when I was present with John Fulton, the American matador, when the press was interviewing him in Seville. A reporter said, “You are very lucky; you have never been gored.” John quickly responded, “I don’t call that luck. I call that being more cautious than other matadors.”
Some people associate luck with statistics. Toss a coin a thousand times into the air, and 500 times it will turn up heads and 500 times tales. Certainly, had John Fulton not retired early, one day, if we believe in statistics, he would have met a fighting bull’s horns. That was a pitfall but can we not turn a pitfall into our advantage? Is not writing the same? How many good works have been abandoned because the author gave up? Unlike bull fighting, a writer can never push his chances too far. If he is good, the world will hear about him. Make a rejection slip from an editor a badge of courage.
But the world will not hear about a writer if he falls prey to false advertising. Here is where the danger lies. What wonderful opportunities these advertisements offer. If I subscribe, the ad tells me, in ten easy steps, I can make it to the bank. The ad makes promises. For a fee, naturally, my book will be submitted to not one but to many book distributors, and these include Amazon.com, Ingram and Baker & Taylor, the three biggest. They state their packages include full-service, and automatic distribution with online retailers.
These book promoters are not lying. They will, certainly, submit books from their clients. But then what? Anybody can submit a book to Ingram, Baker & Taylor and Amazon.com. But what the e promoters don’t tell me is that Ingram Baker & Taylor and Amazon.com do not promote books. They just distribute them.
Writer can promote their own books if they are willing to put forth the effort. I discovered this with my book Who Needs a Road. Al Podell, the co-author, had experience in promotion, having been picture editor of Argosy magazine. He went himself to the offices of Bobbs-Merrill, requested a desk and the publisher’s stationery and sat down to write letters. He then had the publisher post the letters to newspapers, radio and TV stations, men’s club and women’s clubs and, perhaps, even to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as well, telling them all that I was coming to town and available for interviews. It not only worked, the promotion succeeded far more than I could handle. Podell surprised even Bobs-Merrill. They couldn’t print books fast enough.
A writer’s danger is wasting time. Pondering and not acting. It doesn’t cost money to become a writer; it costs time. But time is not to be wasted.
When I was a young man in Paris I liked to visit the cafes on the Left Bank. I had my favorite and in the beginning I found it inspiring to sit among so many gifted writers and artists. But each time I went to these cafes, the same artists and the same writers were there, day in and day out. Shouldn’t they be in their rooms and studios writing and painting? Were they no more than parvenus of the arts, talking, mocking, and bragging about what they were going to do, dreaming, but not producing. I stopped wasting my time listening to them.
Writing a book is only the beginning of problems. Once it’s completed, what do we do? After writing thirty books I still face the same dilemma. The book has to be sold. The danger is the mistake we make thinking that a book will sell itself. It most definitely will not. It needs to be publicized. Months before books are published book critics weigh in on what should be read and what should be avoided. For librarians, bookstore buyers, and online booksellers, these “trade reviews” provide crucial direction amid a flood of more than 150,000 titles a year. At one time these reviews came free. No more.
Kirkus, founded in 1933, is the most expensive or these trade journals (3,000 subscribers pay $450 a year), but its reputation for ferocious independence and brutal reviews makes it a valuable guide in a world of hype. While Publishers Weekly and Library Journal might correctly predict the success of a novel, you can always count on Kirkus to draw blood. Kirkus does allow, however, self-published authors, long ignored by the trade journals, to buy a Kirkus review for $350. This does require some thought. If Kirkus is going to charge people $350, will they then write honest reviews?
I find it dangerous to fully trust publishers. We make the mistake to think they are omniscient, that they know all the answer, what is good and what isn’t. Publishers can very well misjudge a writer’s work. What is alarming is how they can influence writer when, in fact, they have their own interest at heart and not the writer’s. I have known cases where publishers have held up good material simply because they didn’t want other publishers to get hold of it. They do this by asking writers to give them options on their work, sometimes paying a pittance to hold it. Rather than rely on publishers and nonprofessional friends and associates, I create a work that is the product of my own skills and thoughts rather than what someone else thinks my work should be. Proofreading is one thing writers need, but content editing is quite something else. Editors tend to overreach.
Spelling and grammar, naturally, are important but for these I can correct them later. What is important is the thought, the writing itself, the message I have to tell. Spelling and grammar come later. My friend Dave Pryor, a golfer had a problem, not with grammar, with putting. He had a hard time with his putting. What did he do? He learned to putt. He practiced until he got it down. “What’s so difficult about grammar?” he asked when I mentioned how difficult grammar can be at times. “Get a good grammar book and start studying.” He was right, and I did just that. I taught myself grammar. When I look at some of the writing today I wonder if grammar is important at all. But that’s not the point. Grammar is important. It’s like Picasso and Salvador Dali painting abstract art. They had to learn to paint a hand and flowers in a vase first. They didn’t start with abstract art. That came later.
Nevertheless, we must know our grammar and punctuation. It’s easy to master nouns and verbs, but the difficulty begins with the case, subjunctive and pluperfect. Punctuation is even more important than grammar. A misplaced comma can change the very meaning of a sentence, like the professor who went up to the black board and wrote a sentence-“A woman without her man is nothing.” He asked the student to punctuate it correctly. The males in the class wrote: “A woman, without her man, is nothing.” All the females in the class wrote: “A woman, without her, man is nothing.” No one can say punctuation is not important after that.
What is more difficult than mastering spelling and grammar is learning to be logical. Easily said but not so easily done. For instance, to get someone into a room you have to go through a door first, and to do that a writer must be logical. You don’t need a PhD in philosophy to reason that out. You must learn to play with word, logically. The fun part of writing is playing with words.
Both a pitfall and a danger is making enemies. Writers make enemies. You can’t please everyone. “If you put my name in your book I’ll sue you.” I apply caution and use a different name. Now they say: “Why didn’t you use my name?” I can’t win-that’s a pitfall. The danger is they might sue me.
Notice in the introduction of most book there are disclaimers that state “any resemblance to a living character is purely coincidental.” Don’t you believe it. There is no original thought. It’s impossible to imagine a person or a thing that is nonexistent. Writers base their characters on people who are real or who, at least, were real at one time. When Somerset Maugham toured Southeast Asia in the 1920s, he gathered background material for his novels and short stories. When the stories appeared in print, it caused quite a disturbance among the patterns for his supposedly fiction characters. One story in particular was “The Letter.” An attempt was made to bring suit against him but the courts ruled against it. Nevertheless, he left some ill feelings behind.
It was also said that Joseph Conrad disturbed some residents in Singapore when they turned up in his novel Lord Jim. And James Michener found himself in difficult times with the publication of Hawaii. He exposed many families who got their starts by devious means, and it was said he could never return to Hawaii. It seems a bit far-fetched but we do know Michener sold his beautiful cliff home on Oahu and moved his residence to the mainland.
There is one other danger for which writers should beware. That is to believe that he is infallible