Every so often, a book comes along that feels like an act of charity directed straight at the heart. As a debut author awaiting the publication of my first book, Anything But Monogamy (Harmony), for me, there were two recent books about the craft of writing that felt that way, and both were published by Catapult: Courtney Maum’s funny and honest guide Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book (January 2020) and Matthew Salesses’s forthcoming Craft in The Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshops (January 2021).
Maum’s guide offers debut and aspiring authors the kind of blunt truths that even an agent or editor might be hesitant to disclose. To achieve this level of candor, Maum interviewed many insiders anonymously while employing a funny and practical tone. Salesses’s book, like Maum’s, should be considered required reading for any writer or editor. Its first part is an extremely helpful dissection of implicit biases in traditional Western “rules” of craft and structure; its second half is an essential guide for any class or writing workshop wanting to establish more inclusive and creative spaces.
I spoke with the two authors about how first-time authors can maintain their creativity, morality, sanity, and much more throughout the publishing process.
Rachel Krantz: Courtney, do you have any condensed advice for debut authors who want to actually enjoy the process of being published for the first time, rather than being wracked with anxiety throughout it? Besides reading your book and/or take the online course designed around it, that is.
Courtney Maum: I don't know if it's possible to not be wracked with anxiety through this process. But first of all, get off of social media or truly limit your time on it. The amount of time spent on social media is in direct proportion to how much your good mood and joy is going to plunge. Number two, be involved in some kind of second project. It's lovely advice, right? “Write your second book while your first one's coming out.” Most people can't do that, and most people certainly can't do it during an attempted coup d'état and a pandemic. But the second “project” can also be a person, a dog, a volunteer position, or something else entirely to eat up your time and attention.
Number three, use your out-of-office autoreply on your email and block out time to write something new. I'm self-employed, so I'm lucky I can do this, but I block off Mondays and Tuesdays. Whatever emails there are, they can wait. The world is a dumpster fire, and it's not going to be less of a dumpster fire if I let myself write those days. I tap back into the joy and magic of writing. You're there for yourself, and it feels so good. And once you have that flow, you don't want to poison that beautiful feeling. Whereas otherwise, you get up, you write for 20 minutes, you check something on Twitter, and you go down the rabbit hole.
Krantz: Matthew, your book is also filled with practical tips about craft. Many of them are about not reinforcing white supremacy culture and other implicit biases when writing. One such point I loved is that, if you're naming the race of different characters, don't just do that for people of color, thereby implying that anyone whose race you don’t specify is white, and therefore that whiteness is the “status quo” by default. What’s another “little” thing that has a big impact people might not be conscious of?
Matthew Salesses: Often, people write in a way in which all of the things and characters surrounding the protagonist are tools for the main character's development. Which in a way is really elegant and nice, but in another way, it kind of forgets that the main character lives in the context of whatever world you're creating. And I think we have to be careful thinking about using characters only as tools—as well as settings as only tools—and be aware that each of those has its own cultural context. Make sure that supporting characters have their own stories going on, their own world around them—that they are not just accessories.
Krantz: I want to try writing fiction for the first time. But I'm finding that, after spending so much time writing my memoir, I have this inner self-censor saying, “What could I possibly know about this imaginary person’s life experience? What do I know about being a man, or a 60-year-old woman, or whatever else?” Should I just write another Jewish woman in her thirties at first then—someone I share more life experience with?
Salesses: First books of fiction are often more closely mapped onto a writer's experience. When you're accessing any kind of emotions, you're still going to go back to your own experiences to try to imagine yourself into a situation and compare the characters’ feelings to your feelings. The craft doesn’t live in a vacuum. It lives in the real world. And I think it’s hard to write about people if you don’t know them. Like, somebody’s experience of oppression or somebody’s experience of class is difficult to write unless you actually know somebody pretty well who’s lived through that, or you yourself have lived through that. I think that’s where people can go wrong—thinking that it's all an intellectual exercise.
Maum: I also think that your concern is because you're already going to the place where this new writing is being published, and in that future place, you're being trolled. So you have to take some steps back and just allow yourself to write some shitty first drafts. Maybe nothing’s going to happen with this in-between writing that you’re doing. But the writing is the happening. You writing and exploring and working on your craft and trying out different voices is the work itself. So I’d talk back to the voice asking, “What am I doing right now? Is this a waste of time?” and answer, “I'm just imagining a life as a 60-year-old woman on a date for the first time in a while."
Krantz: Bring a lightness to starting something new, in other words.
Maum: Yes, you have to have a sense of humor about your own writing. You’re going through a privileged but traumatic experience, being a debut author. So you need to do whatever it takes to get into writing for fun again. I do book coaching now, and I tell people, “Put on something you normally wouldn’t wear when it’s time to edit. High-heeled shoes. A certain lipstick. Whatever.” Then you’re in the costume of the “Rachel who doesn't give a fuck” or “Rachel who's 18.” Stop thinking, “This has to be published. Is this publishable? Where could I place this?” You can start worrying further down the road about whether or not you have something that could become another book.
Krantz: Matthew, as I embark on my next project, I’m also thinking about the importance of structure. You write so well about breaking out of traditional linear Western storytelling. The book has many prompts, but what do you suggest for writers looking to decondition themselves from the assumption that their book needs to follow traditional dominant cultural models of writing? You know, the rather masculine, sexual model of “build tension, climax to one clear point, and then descend to a ‘refractory’ period/definitive ending.”
Salesses: One thing that was really helpful for me was just finding folks to read in a different tradition—reading books from East Asia that I would have never read in school, not even in MFA programs. Not only did they show me different models, but a whole kind of trajectory of models: something that runs parallel to the kind of Western European tradition, but has its own set of expectations. So find something outside of what you’ve been exposed to before that you want to deep-dive into. Right now, I’m reading a bunch of Japanese women authors, and I feel like they’re kind of talking to each other, in a way.
Then, if you decide to follow the traditional Hero's Journey anyway, that’s totally fine. You know it’s very compelling, but it’s also important to know it’s compelling because you’ve been taught it is. And then you can figure out how to better subvert it, if that’s what you want to do.