In my recent conversations with other writers, the topic of self marketing and promotion frequently came up. I’m no expert in this area, but I’ve been published long enough to know how important it is for writers to be actively involved in marketing and selling their books even if they are signed by a Big 5 publisher.
There has been gazillions of articles about how writers and artists can embrace social media and establish an effective commutation channel with their followers or potential audience. I’ve read some and found them helpful. On the other hand, I think it’s a mistake for writers to put all their energy into marketing themselves. Your time and energy is limited, and your creativity needs to be nurtured. You’re respected because of your work, not because how well you can promote yourself.
It’s about balance. Also about who you are.
Here is something I wrote for Ploughshares years ago entitled “The Hen and Her Eggs.” Though the digital space is increasingly crowded in the past several years, this piece is still very much relevant.
The Hen and Her Eggs
An acquaintance recently e-mailed me to announce her upcoming book launch party, to be held in an expensive restaurant, with free food and drinks and a near-celebrity’s attendance. Each guest will pay a small entrance fee and receive a signed copy of the book. Other than the e-mail announcement, this acquaintance has promoted her book diligently through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, has blogged about the book, and distributed newsletters. For a while, her e-mails flooded my inbox. As far as I know, she’s contacted many media for possible interviews, features, or reviews.
Several writers I know have invested much time and effort in marketing their books. Other than social media presences, traditional bookstores and library readings, they arranged book signings in the homes of friends and relatives, mailed postcards and bookmarks featuring their books, and offered their books as prizes at parties.
When my first book came out, a colleague at the company I worked for, a former Hollywood PR consultant, said I should wear a funky hat or sunglasses at signings to give people a strong first impression. “It’s not about the book, but about getting the buzz going for you,” she said. (Luckily or unluckily, I didn’t follow her advice.) Her words reminded me of the late Chinese poet, Gu Cheng, who often wore a leg cut from a pair of jeans as a hat. I don’t think Gu wore the hat to get attention; it was probably just because he was eccentric (he later killed himself and his wife in New Zealand). I also thought of Dali’s flamboyant moustache and Truman Capote’s seductive photo on the dustjacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948).
Writers today are expected to promote their own books whether working with a big or small publisher, but how much self-promotion is enough? After all, you’re a writer, not a salesperson. Of course, you’d be foolish to think you can sell your book without publicity. Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998), a recluse and a favorite writer of mine, once said that it is unnecessary for one to meet the hen if one loves the eggs she lays. It’s only half true: The hen must first tell people that the eggs are available.
Little- or lesser-known writers need publicity. So do well-known writers. It matters if your book sells or not and it’s certainly important for you to talk about it and to hear feedback–not to mention the satisfaction of contributing to world literature and inspiring others. In his 1992 interview with The Washington Post, novelist Don Delillo said, “I’ve been called ‘reclusive’ a hundred times and I’m not even remotely in that category. But people want to believe this because it satisfies some romantic conception of what a dedicated writer is and how he ought to live. ‘I know you never do interviews.’ They say that to me all the time. ‘But here I am’ is my stock reply.”
Ideally, your publisher or publicist will arrange all the nice events for you. Ideally, Michiko Kakutani will eagerly write you a stellar review. And Ideally, Oprah’s Book Club will welcome you as their latest favorite. But in reality, you probably have to do a lot yourself to market your book. So is there a limit to self-promotion? I guess not. Do what you feel comfortable with. If you are like Capote, enjoy parties and talk shows (but don’t forget that he maintained a rigid writing schedule most of his life); if you are like William Trevor, you probably prefer gardening and afternoon tea to a reading at Shakespeare and Company. It’s your judgment. If your book sells because of your hard work in self-promotion, give yourself a big congratulation.
(Featured image: a noodle restaurant in a Beijing 胡同hutong.)
A friend shared with me a review on FEBRUARY FLOWERS by an Amazon reader named “Pacific Wave.” I was impressed by it as it describes exactly what was going through my mind when I was writing the book.
Here is Pacific Wave’s review. I hope he or she doesn’t mind my including it here.
‘Set in a quiet university in the early 90s when China was in the midst of transitioning from communism to “capitalism” and reopening itself to the world, “February Flowers” is a poem about our youth, our innocence, our wonder to the world, our budding yearning to romance. Somewhere sometime in our lives, we all might have been drawn to something beautiful, pure, intense, romantic, just like the February flowers, nothing really to do with anything physical, beyond intimacy, gender, convention, social boundaries; and only have lost it in the reality forced on us, maybe alone in a raining February night, suddenly the memories rushing back, nostalgia, melancholy.’
Yes, my memories did rush back, with nostalgia, with melancholy, one evening after I’d had a long work day at Yahoo!. It was 2002, the year when I began to write.
FEBRUARY FLOWERS is my first attempt at fiction of any kind. It was supposedly to be a short story, a start for me to learn how to write fiction, and how to write creatively in English. I had no idea when I started that it would expand into a novel, and eventually found its way to publication.
Pure and intense, that’s what FEBRUARY FLOWERS is.
(Featured image: these brilliant flowers caught my attention when I was passing by an antique store on my way to beach in Santa Cruz.)
Heard about Slow Television in Norway? Basically it features hours and hours of train rides, knitting, fishing, etc. The first broadcast debuted in 2009 and was a 7.5-hour train ride from Bergen to Oslo. The train just went on and on. In the knitting show, a group of people discussed knitting for hours then knitted for 7.5 hours. These slow shows are wildly popular in their home country, and some of them became available on Netflix last year.
I haven’t watched any of these shows yet, but I totally understand why people like them. In today’s fast-paced digital era, aren’t we all overwhelmed with information and our digital lives and we long for “slowing down” and returning to “real life”?
Though I like the concept of slow TV shows, I have to admit that I have no desire to watch one. But I would certainly want to read more books. Before I became a mother, I used to read 2-3 books a week, but now it’s more like 2-3 a month.
Time is a key factor here, of course, but age may have played a role too. I find myself getting pickier and more impatient nowadays when I choose what to read. In the past several months, I abandoned several books, all with rave reviews, before I was even one third through them, deciding that I had given them a fair chance and enough time had been wasted.
Another change in my reading behavior is that if I love a book, I would reread it, at lease a good potion of it, over and again. Sometimes, I would reread a book two or three times within the same month, savoring my favorite pages as if an addict on drugs. ( It’s like I’m watching a variation of “slow TV.” )
Such books are rare. But in the past several months, I did score twice. John Williams “Stoner” and Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I’ve read Stoners three times, and am about to reread Remarque’s masterpiece as I cannot seem to let it go off my mind.
Here are two brief passages from the above mentioned books. The first one one of the most insightful interpretations of love I have read. The second one…it simply makes you want to cry. Sad yet grateful tears.
“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”
– “Stoner” by John Williams
“We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.
We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. We sit on the edge of it crouching in danger, the grease drips from our hands, in our hearts we are close to one another, and the hour is like the room: flecked over with the lights and shadows of our feelings cast by a quiet fire. What does he know of me or I of him? Formerly we should not have had a single thought in common — now we sit with a goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak.”
– “All Quiet on The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque
If you don’t find the excerpts impressive, then you’ll have to get these two books and read them from cover to cover. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.
(Featured image: morning exercise in a park in my hometown, Nanchang. The second woman from left on the first row is my mother, who’s a better writer than I am, but has decided not to write.)
I’ve been working on a nonfiction book (not a memoir) for a while. When it comes to submission, nonfiction works differently from fiction. For fiction, agents and publishers typically want to see the full manuscript before they make a decision about it. But for nonfiction, a proposal with a summary, chapter outlines and a sample chapter sometimes can land you a deal.
Usually I read more fiction than nonfiction, but because of this nonfiction project I’m working on, I read more nonfiction these days, if only to be inspired in my new endeavor. After reading several bestsellers, I’ve found a pattern, which is that they’re very repetitive in making a point. They say something on, say, page 11, then on page 13, they remind you of what they’ve said on page 11, and on page 15, the end of the chapter, they say something to the effect of “I hope you remember that on page 11 and page 13 I’ve said something similar.”
To some readers, maybe it’s nice to be reminded again and again, but to me, I just want to skip pages and even put down the book.
After talking to a writer friend I realized that this repetitive style has its roots in rhetoric and is considered the Holy Grail of presentation training and persuasive selling.
When it comes to winning an audience, supposedly, Aristotle, or Dale Carnegie, or Winston Churchill has said, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”
Considering that our attention span, thanks to all the portable devices, is now less than that of a goldfish, considering that the average person spends five hours/day surfing the web and using apps, I guess what I deem as unnecessary repetition is not all that annoying to some people after all.
I have to admit that I even welcomed such “memory reinforcement” from time to time. Life is busy, work, kids, house chores, friends, endless errands…..and all the worries and anxieties caused by President Trump. The last time I had the luxury of finishing a book at one setting (or maybe two settings) was probably before I had become a mother.
So, dear authors, please do remind me in Chapter 2 what you’ve said in Chapter 1.
(Featured image: I took the photo several years ago when I visited the Beijing 798 Art Zone, a landmark of urban art and culture in Beijing. It reminds me of when I was little, slurping the soup noodles my grandma made for me.)
Here is another blog post I wrote for Ploughshares years ago, which is still a hot topic that writers debate about. I’m currently working on a new novel set in the present-day San Francisco Bay Area, about three women at crossroads in life. There’s a lot I don’t know about these women, yet I feel I’m growing with them and learning about them every day. One of them just made a decision that surprised me. This morning I found myself awake around 5am thinking about it.
I once overheard a discussion between two MFA students. I was at a café in Palo Alto–near Stanford–and they were sitting at a nearby table.
One said the best writing advice he’d gotten was to “write what you know.” He said that having lived through the events and known the people and locations would allow one to write with authority and credibility. He used the examples of writing by Hemingway and V.S. Naipaul to back his claim.
The other disagreed, embracing “write what you don’t know” as the ultimate writing rule, because, he said, “That’s how you can let your imagination fly, let your subconscious and unconscious take charge.” The examples he gave were the more imaginative works of Haruki Murakami and Cormac McCarthy.
I don’t have an MFA, but I assume this kind of debate happens frequently in those classrooms.
I don’t see these two rules as contradictory. The difference between ‘what you know’ or ‘what you don’t know’ shouldn’t be about specific plot, setting or characters; it should be about understanding life and the human condition. In that sense, if you write ‘what you don’t know,’ your writing will likely be false and evasive.
The power of The Things We Carried has a lot to do with the author’s first-hand experience and knowledge of the Vietnam War, but has even more to do with his profound grasp of the human heart and emotions: love, longing, fear, grief, terror, sympathy, compassion, etc.
Dangerous Laughter is allegorical, surreal, and labyrinthine–like a strange dream where you cannot see anyone’s face clearly. But the book’s fantastic element is firmly rooted in reality, in Millhauser’s acute observation of history and human civilization.
When Raymond Carver talked about his own writing with the French journalist Claude Grimal, he said, “Yes, there’s a little autobiography and, I hope, a lot of imagination.” I believe his ‘imagination’ doesn’t equate to ‘what you don’t know,’ but to mean to transcend the constraints of the writer’s own life, helped by deep comprehension of human emotions and behaviors.
(Feature image: I saw this flower outside Prison Street Pizza, Lahaina, HI.)
I met a good friend from my Yahoo! days for lunch yesterday. As always, we ate at a ramen restaurant on Castro Street in Mountain View. She’s made big plans for 2017: quitting her job, moving back to Asia with family, buying a house…when asked what my New Year’s big plan was, I said, half-jokingly, that I would like to go to bed before 11:30pm.
I had said the same thing last year, and probably the year before that. But so far this simple resolution is still a mirage. Motherhood is certainly demanding, but I have myself to blame too. After putting my two kids to bed every night, I do have some time for myself. But there’s always a lot to take care of, if not doing housework, paying bills, replying to emails, then it’s something else. Sometimes I like to watch a bit TV while cycling on my stationary bike, usually documentaries, some of my favorites shows including Anthony Boundain’s series and other travel/cooking programs (Last night I watched an episode of CNN’s “The Eighties.”)
Before I know it, it’s midnight. Then 1 am after I get myself ready for bed and read a book for ten or fifteen minutes.
I cannot seem to break this pattern. It would be fine if I could sleep in a bit in the morning, but, of course, I need to rise early to get my kids ready for school (I’ve yet mastered the skills to make them listen). Sometimes my writing suffers due to my sleep deprivation.
Although my 2017 New Year’s resolution is about getting more sleep, it’s ultimately about establishing a writing routine and sticking to it.
I wrote a piece for Ploughshares, a literary magazine, several years ago about such a topic and I’d like to share it here as it’s still very much relevant. My current writing projects include a new novel, a nonfiction book and several short stories, so discipline is definitely vital for me.
I was awakened at 3:36 a.m. by my daughter’s crying. I went to her room and lay down beside her, as I always do when she wakes up in the middle of the night. Half an hour later she fell sleep, while I was wide awake. I thought about Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which I just finished reading and liked, and about the book that had been percolating in my mind for months yet hadn’t been started because I hadn’t figured out a satisfactory opening. I also thought about my agent’s email concerning the difficulty of translation, my best friend’s upcoming wedding and my aunt’s declining health. When I finally drifted off, dawn was breaking. At 7 a.m. my daughter got up. So did I, from a fragmented and nonsense dream, feeling as though I had a terrible hangover. The whole next day, I felt miserable because I hadn’t written a word.
Such a day has been typical since I became a parent. Some nights, after I put my daughter back to sleep, I went to my study to write, but most of the time I was too tired–or should I say too lazy?–to get up. My story probably sounds familiar to writers with small children. More than once, I heard sighs and complaints from writer friends who, like me, are new parents.
But I mustn’t blabber about interrupted sleep and reduced productivity. This post is about the importance of establishing a writing routine. We always have millions of excuses for not having the time or energy to write–writing undeniably requires physical and mental strength–but, in truth, as soon as we sit at our desk at a familiar time we always feel better. A writing routine is comforting. It makes us more efficient and helps us stick to our task.
I used to have a routine. Wake at 6 a.m., have a cup of green tea, write until 8:30 a.m., shower, dress, have a quick breakfast, then leave for work (the job that paid my bills) at 9 a.m. In the evening, if I didn’t have to work late, I wrote for an hour or two then read before going to bed. I didn’t realize how crucial such a routine was for my writing until my daughter arrived. Suddenly, my well-planned schedule was messed up. I lost my discipline. After all, lying in bed and letting the mind wander take less effort than getting up to write.
Many writers have routines. Hemingway got up at dawn and worked until he had exhausted all he had to say for that day. Toni Morrison is also an early riser, a habit first formed when she had small children, and writes best in early mornings. An insurance agent during the day, Kafka wrote from 11 p.m. until the small hours. When Steinbeck was writing his “To a God Unknown,” he habitually wrote 3,000 words each morning.
Consider Haruki Murakami’s typical working day: “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1,500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation.”
When it comes to discipline, I must mention my friend John Joss. For many years, as a devoted father of three children, he wrote daily from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., before heading to his day job. I asked him if it was hard to do and he replied, “If you take writing seriously, you must do it.” He also admitted that once the routine was formed, he looked forward to rising early to write. The routine helped him avoid writer’s block, of which he said, “Start writing on your project now. Put down the first thought or idea that comes to mind, however seemingly simplistic or inappropriate. Nothing is crueler to a writer than the tyranny of the blank page or screen. Once you have set something down, anything, you have broken the block and can proceed.”
Building a writing routine is easier said than done. If you have a regular job and small children, the challenge is even more daunting. What if you have nothing to say when facing your computer or a blank page at 4 a.m.? Should you go back to sleep or wait for the Muse? You have probably heard Jack London’s advice: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” As encouraged as you may be by those famous writers’ dedication, it makes no sense to impose their schedules on yourself. The best way is to find a routine that suits you best. Try different hours of the day until you find a feasible, though not necessarily most convenient, time. Of course, if you can write any time you have available, you’re fortunate.
P.S. The featured photo is that of my two cats, Leo and Kasper, twin brothers, who love to snuggle and purr, and who are serious about their sleeping.
Harold Medill Sarkisian was a 28 years old native of Colorado who could not get rid of the Oriental bugs in his system. In 1937 he decided to leave for total immersion in a ryokan in Kyoto and subsequently in a hutong in Peking. The scholar in progress was keen on acquiring both languages. Boots-on-the-ground. The American lad was concurrently shopping for exquisite silks, rugs and antiques. His letters to his family (and his sweetheart) were informative and entertaining. Good narrative with great style.
Yet this was a most brutal period of history in Japan and China–at the time of the rape of Nanjing. He was exploring the exotic continent for the first time when World War II was brewing. Harold Medill’s typewritten missives had to detour by way of Siberia instead of across the Pacific to avoid censorship and speed up delivery.
Sinologist Jules Nadeau extracted and edited some passages displaying personal views, wit and descriptions. A time capsule based on a true story when the Republic of China was in a dire situation during the Japanese occupation. No matter what, the Colorado traveler admired China and was proud to be photographed in the costume of a Chinese philosopher.
By train from Tianjin to Peking
“My dearest family. So this is China!” wrote Harold Medill Sarkisian at the end of 1937 after a rough and unpleasant voyage aboard a small ship called Choju Maru. Mal de mer, hunger and cold made him feel elated to see glimpses of the Shandong peninsula from a distance. Then custom inspection made him feel even more chilly and tired. “It was so cold that the stint in the air made one forget his sea-sickness. Next a boat-load of coolies, swooping down almost like vultures, seized all bagages visible. It was dark in Tanggu [harbor] where Chinese strived to get us to get at their hotel. I selected at random the Court Hotel [on Elgin avenue, one of the best in the British concession].”
In the rail station of Tianjin, Harold Medill “found rich and poor–the smell of a thousand coolies, the garlic of a thousand meals, no heat, no seats, nothing but to pace endlessly up and down trying to keep warm–then came the train.” He bought a first class ticket (because the third class was filled to the roof) to insure comfort but in vain in compartments filled with a type of nauseating tobacco smoke.
“This is Peking! later continued Harold Medill, I am only sorry you all can not be here to feel what I am feeling. Not far from where I live are four colourful pai lou [the Dongxi gates] through which must pass all traffic. Yesterday the air was filled with the sounds of horns, the commands of the Japanese soldiery, ever eager to show the populace that they are in charge, shouting for room to pass, and what was holding them up? Four lovely, stately camels. The soldiers fumed and cursed. A cow in the same situation gives the impression of stupidity; not the camels. I am certain I saw them all wink to me and wink at each other. They were unmoved by the sight of Japanese bayonets” chuckled Harold Medill who liked to call himself Sarky. Yet the ubiquity of Japanese uniforms was not funny for the local populace.
Budget of $100 a month
“Peking seems like it could never grow old because it seems never to have had a beginning. One walks or rides rickshahs thru winding, serpentine streets–long narrow, grey walled affairs reminescent of what I would expect to see were I carried to ancient Babylon—beggars, dirty children worn and haggard women—not even women just females, scattered about beneath the walls selling whatever they have. In some places children pour over the ash heaps sifting what little coal there is and mixing this in water they make coal balls and sell these.”
Initially the American visitor settled down for more than a month in the “nest” of Southern Baptist missionaries. “I am living on my intended $100 a month [the equivalent of US$1,640 now]. This enables me to pay tuition, board, room and incidentals. I do not think it will cost me much more after I move.”
The life he always wanted to live
The second domicile was a fabulous house of no less than fifteen rooms. One of the best houses in Peking. Not able any more to occupy the fushang, the owner wanted to rent it at all costs in order to prevent some sort of military confiscation. “A beautiful mansion all furnished with the obligation to pay only taxes, water and light.” Most of the palace remained shut off because it required too much coal to heat up. Too much red tape also to rent to a local family. “I am living the life I always wanted to live–Chinese style. I have a lovely Victrola and dozens of records–when lonely I sit down and listen to music, Kreisler, Liszt et cetera, but for how long?”
The proprietor was a brilliant teacher and a past advisor to Chiang Kai-shek who had left for the south after becoming impoverished. “His collection of art was worth a fortune and it has gone up in flames. Today his son just presented me with a painting and a few other pieces of art. Moving that to Shanghai would have cost him a lot in taxes. What about me when I leave China?”
“I gave a party the other night and had as guests the head of Standard Oil here, a doctor from the Peking Union Medical College (Rockefeller Hospital), the Reischauer’s, the paymaster of the Marines. To pay back dinners given to which I was invited [specifically at the Peking hotel, still the Grande Dame of the capital]. Now I hope I will be paid back. It cost me a lot of money”, added the Colorado young man.
The College of Chinese Studies
Moral code and good conduct? “Papa [a practicing doctor] has one great fear–he has not to worry about venereal disease now–I am absolutely living a life of complete continence. That might sound funny, but I have no reason to lie to you.” On an other level: “Let me assure you that to date I have learned more than I could possibly have learned in ten years of University.” However he kept asking his family to get him recommendation letters so he could return to Columbia University or better enter Harvard (which he did later where he built a decisive Asian network).
Sarky was eager to cram hundreds of Chinese characters and he enrolled in the one and only College of Chinese Studies (where scores of Western sinophiles transited). One of his professors continually told him how much more he could learn by rather being with a tutor. He formed his own opinion: “Both are fine grafts. The College tries to go as slow as possible so as to keep you longer, the tutor tries to hold on to you as his own particular feed ticket, and so I have to be careful.” This was the beginning of a life-long devotion with the difficult language. Over the years he accumulated a collection of more than 50 Chinese dictionaries dictionaries, plus textbooks and his own flash cards.
“I enclose several photos. Some are of the starving refugees in the Peking region. Others are of the starving Colorado boy in the same sector. See if you can tell them apart. The people with me are the Lin’s when we were in the Imperial palace (“declared to be forbidden to the photographer”).” To Margie, his girl friend back in the States, he pointed out : “My dear. The lady next to me is Mrs. Lin. I have not yet taken with a woman.” But the most interesting pix is the one showing him in the long mandarin gown. With oversize sleeves. In the style of Confucian literati. What the Jesuit fathers used to wear in their genuine effort to adapt to local tradition.
“You are the finest family in the world. Goodbye love! Send mail via Siberia, care of American Express, Peking.” Signed: Sarky.
The long-time barefoot Sinophile Jules Nadeau is a freelance writer living in Montreal who spent 10 years in Greater China. He is the author of 20 Million Chinese Made in Taiwan and also 1997: In the Mouth of the Red Dragon. In 1979, Jules Nadeau was a full-time journalist at La Presse, a French language daily in the province of Québec.
I wrote a blog for Ploughshares, a literary magazine, years ago. The other day, someone contacted me about one of the posts I did ( thanks to the omnipotent Internet), which concerns the post-publication process.
Many things have changed since I wrote that post five years ago: DIY (self-publishing) has gained huge popularity, e-books are more prominent, the roles of the author, agent, and editor are changing, social media are now becoming an essential communication channel…
Nowadays, the vanity publishing no longer carries the stigma it did before. No doubt, the Big Six are still what most writers crave, but many talented writers have decided to take the matter to their own hands and have had success.
DIY is not for every writer, but at the same time, it’s not wise to rely on your publisher, if you have one, to do everything for you. You need to be more engaged than ever in promoting and marketing your book.
Below is an excerpt from my Ploughshare post, which sheds a light on the post-publication process for traditionally published writers who are no Amy Tan or Stephen King.
Nowadays, it’s absolutely vital for writers, self-published and also traditionally-published, to engage readers. So while you work hard on your writing, don’t forget to build a platform to open conversations with readers.
Fan Wu (for Ploughshares)
We’re all familiar with Anna Karenina’s famous opening: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
It applies to authorship, too. All unpublished writers are alike–wanting to be published; each published writer is unhappy in his or her own way.
Before I was published I envied published writers as if “being published” were a decorative medal indicating elite status (in some way it’s true, I guess). I had many questions for them, though I had no chance to ask: Which literary magazines do you submit to? How long does it take to hear back? What are the odds of acceptance? How did you find your agent and how do you work with him or her? How do you like your editor? What advance did you get for your first book?
Since I met few real writers then, I turned to Writers’ Market. The book helped but not until I had accumulated a list of publications myself did I begin to understand why each published writer is uniquely unhappy.
Writers have many concerns. If you want to be self-published, you have many ways to do it. But if you want to be “traditionally published,” you need an agent, in an era in which few publishers accept direct submissions. Finding an honest, understanding, capable, experienced, devoted, and supportive agent is as hard as finding a “perfect” spouse.
Assuming that you now have a wonderful agent who has sold your first book to a major publisher for a good price (lucky you, but “a good price” rarely means that you can live on it for two years), the next step is to work with your editor to polish the manuscript. The editor has strong opinions about the book but your opinions are stronger–after all, you’ve spent probably thousands of hours on the book and it’s like your own baby. So after months (hopefully not years) of debate, discussion, negociation and sleepless nights, the book is finalized, proofed by a copy editor and ready to print.
As a writer, you’ve done your job, but in reality the job is far from done. How about the book covers and blurbs? Also, your editor will likely send you a standard long questionnaire, which includes questions such as “Are there groups to which your book would have particular appeal?” and “Which organizations or institutions might be interested in either selling or publicising your book?” To non-fiction writers, these questions may be easy to answer; to fiction writers, especially literary fiction writers, they’re beyond puzzling–meanwhile it seems arrogant, or even wrong, to say simply that your potential readership is “everyone who loves a good book.”
Finally, the book hits the bookstores. You pray for good reviews, but you should feel happy if your book is reviewed at all. Print media have been cutting down on book reviews, some cancelling them entirely. Readings and events? Your beloved independent bookstores are shutting down one by one due to competition from the chain book stories and on-line rivals. What about the promised advertisements and 10-city tour from your publisher when you signed the contract? Sorry, they’re no longer applicable. And you can hardly count on your publicist, who is busy with more stellar clients and who lives in New York City, far from Billings, Montana, where you live, whose 100k population isn’t too small a group in your definition.
So despite all your efforts to promote the book yourself (most likely marketing is not your strength), your book doesn’t sell. When you deliver your second book, years later if you are determined and passionate enough, your publisher rejects it. They tell your agent, “It’s not what we expected.” What did they expect? They don’t say. But you know that their rejection has much to do with your first book’s lackluster sales numbers.
Nov. 12, 2016 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan 孙中山), the founding father of the Republic of China, one of the most important leaders of modern China. To celebrate, China issued commemorative coins and held events across the country. President Xi Jinping paid tribute to Dr. Sun Yat-sen in a speech.
Growing up in China, I, of course, have read a lot about Dr. Sun Yat-sen. I even attended the university he founded in 1924, which has a beautiful campus and stunning architecture. The university’s motto contains five elements: study broadly, enquire accurately, reflect carefully, analyze wisely, and pursue earnestly.
When my Canadian friend Jules Nadeau sent me his recent piece about Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s brief stay in Denver, I read it with great interest. To be honest, I didn’t know that Dr. Sun Yat-sen spent time in Denver in 1911 when the Xinhai Revolution, the revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty, took place.
Thank you, Jules, for writing this interesting article. Thank you, Nelson Ho, for translating it from English to Chinese, and thank you to Annick Nadeau for the photos.
Room 321 at the Brown Palace
I (ALMOST) SLEPT IN THE SAME ROOM AS SUN YAT-SEN
“Do you know that Dr. Sun Yat-sen was here in Denver when the Revolution of 1911 broke out in China?” The first Chinese friends I questioned with this shred of history were taken aback. “Really?” Others Denverites replied they had vaguely heard about that. But nothing else!
Initially, my first surprise, I heard about Sun Yat-sen visiting Colorado from Diana Lary, a professor of Chinese history at the University of British Columbia. After reading a book of this old friend, I received this confirmation: “In 1911 Sun Yat-sen was not expecting revolution to break out in China. He was in Denver raising money from the local Chinese community.” But nothing else!
Soon afterward, at West Side bookstore, my favorite hangout on 32nd avenue (Highland), proprietor Lois Harvey kindly offered me the large character book The Man who Changed China. I was excited to read the short sentence Pearl Buck wrote in 1953: “He planned to stay for a few days… in Denver”.
No more possible doubt in my mind: The revolutionary hero really transited through the Mile-High City, but what else? My first intention was to locate a local history buff for more details: Perhaps in early 20th century newspapers?
Persisting in my inquiry, I repeated the same question to Mrs. Sherry Chao, the teacher of one of my grand-daughters at Denver Language School. Listening to her instant reply, it was my turn to be taken aback. “Of course, I know. He was here in 1911 and spent the night at the Brown Palace. You know that old place downtown?” (Was that the “cheap hotel room” Pearl Buck referred to?)
Brown Palace Hotel
Subsequently, the person in the know I found–not Asian at all–was Debra Faulkner, the “hotel historian” at the Brown Palace. The author of The Ladies of the Brown quickly acknowledged everything about the well-respected Father of the Chinese Republic. “When you come at the hotel, I will show you the original register with his signature on the October 10th page”, said the PR lady on the phone.
During my first stop at the Brown, I was given an introduction tour of the venerable edifice built in 1892. I went from one significant spot to another with a small group of new employees. “Let me show you the suite of President Theodor Roosevelt”, mentioned the petite Debra Faulkner in a black costume. Twelve American presidents stayed at this hotel and the triangular-shaped building is full of memorabilia. The Beatles, Joan Baez, Helen Keller, Sarah Bernhardt, John Wayne and Boris Yeltsin all left their indelible mark at the celebrated landmark of Henry C. Brown.
That winter day I came back home in Highland with more books. In The Brown Palace, Denver’s Grande Dame, Sun Yat-sen figured well among the long list of celebrities. Author Corinne Hunt specified: “A small, dark, bespectacled man stood on the stage of the old Chinese Theatre on Market Street and made an impassioned plea for funds to help free his countrymen”, wrote the earlier historian (during two long decades) of the hotel.
The bleak room 321
My next visit to the four star hotel was the strategic one. I was accompanied by Vincent, a Chinese friend who knows a lot about Double Tenth (i.e. October 10th). As promised, Debra Faulkner carried the pièce de résistance under her arm and guided us directly to room 321. I had the feeling of entering a sacred temple. Vincent courteously elbowed me in. Some natural light filled the place that had no bed. Absolutely nothing fancy compared to any of the presidential suites. In it’s present condition, only a desolate “meeting room” with plenty of discarded tables and chairs. Nothing to honour the one and only statesman who is venerated both in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and in the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan.
“You can see the souvenir frame on the wall”, indicated Debra Faulkner while showing the only item of explanation. A small cameo photo of Sun Yat-sen. Four characters (wei gong tian xia) meaning “Brotherhood of all Nations”. A hundred words about the presence of the “founding father of the Republic of China”. Plus the signature of two men. Then Debra Faulkner opened her old black ledger and exhibited the original handwriting. “Y S Sun: 321”, and on the following line, “W S Wong: 323” (i. e. Wong Wun Soo). Residence for both of them: “San Francisco”. The last two guests to check in on the red-letter day.
I did not find it useful to photograph the 321 because there was nothing there about history. The word overlooked came to my mind. The room was as anonymous as Sun Yat-sen himself wanted to remain on that day in Denver. As a “revolutionist leader”, he was afraid to be assassinated and chose to circulate incognito in the United States.
Overnighting in the 321?
We were happy about this successful peek, yet I wanted to do better about the locushistoricus. So I worked out the idea of spending one night alone in the three-digit room. “How about this, I told Debra Faulkner on the phone, you set up a sofa or a simple mattress or I can even bring my own sleeping bag. I wanna stay there one night. Then I can write my narrative on the spot. I will not mention one single word about the special accommodation. My word of honor.” I repeated the same request on a third visit to the Brown. Mrs Faulkner smiled and qualified the whole idea as “unusual”. Nevertheless she promised to transmit my demand to the responsiblecomrade–as they say in the PRC.
Days of waiting started and I was getting increasingly impatient because I was soon going to leave the Rockies. Anyway, I remained optimistic. The historian-PR lady certainly processed my request. Besides, she went ahead and made a reservation for a party of five for the very popular Sunday afternoon tea in the lobby. “I hope that’s OK”, she added. Needless to say, in my mind, the tea ritual and the 321 night both had to be narrated from a concrete “I was there” journalistic perspective.
Terse negative reply
Meanwhile, I was informed that both media requests had to be approved by the Director of Sales Mark Shine. “I will raise [it] with him and with our Rooms Director Ryan Pratt, being sure to mention your impressive media credentials. So stay tuned!” wrote Debra Faulkner (while admitting that the former guy tended to “ignore” her).
Finally, the terse answer went solely to her. “We will not be able to accommodate this request. Thanks”, wrote Mark Shine. Subsequently, Debra Faulkner added to my attention: “I am so sorry, but that appears to be the end of it… I emphasized repeatedly that you had no expectations of a typical overnight “luxury” experience in Room 321. I apologize sincerely for my ineffective advocacy.” No effort was made to offer any kind of alternative to my plan.
The journalist I am was disappointed. As a person very close to Chinese communities I still don’t understand how a director at the Brown can have so little consideration for a historical event that could bring a lot of attention to the hotel. I am sure Chinese visitors to the Mile High City would be ready to pay handsome amounts of money to book in at the 321. It’s not too late for a change of mind but…
Denver contributed $500
The inexplicable indifference of the Brown made me read more about Sun Yat-sen and the first Double-Ten. Vincent helped me with some old newspaper clippings. In a round up, the Daily News (Denver) had a front-page photo of the future president showing his “black mustache, his closely clipped hair and a derby hat”. His stay was “brief though momentous”. The “liberator of his people” and Wong Wun Soo lectured in the old Chinese theater at 2021 Market Street (near Twentieth) where they were hailed by the Chee Kung Tong secret society (later the Chinese Freemasons).
“Compatriots, the time has now come for the people of China to rise against the imperial government. It is ordained that the emperor be driven from his throne and killed”, proclaimed the “Americanized Chinaman of the most advanced type”, according to the Rocky Mountain News. “Loyal followers closely guarded” [the rebel physician] who had a price of $100,00 on his head.” A reward promised to the Chinaman who would “decapitate him and send his head to Peking as proof of his death”, added the article.
Actually two teams of anti-Manchu detractors traveled across America to speak and raise funds. Sun Yat-sen and his companion took the northern route while another team traversed the south. The 44 years old man collected more than $500 in Denver–a small part of the handsome sum of more than $140,000 totally amassed (which is equivalent to $3,540,600 today) by the year’s end, according to San Francisco historian Him Mark Lai.
However the success of the Wuchang uprising was much more crucial than the garnered funds. The collapse of the imperial regime on October 10th led to the establishment of the Republic of China. After his arrival in Colorado, Sun Yat-sen learned of the big news from press reports. Professor Diana Lary e-mailed me: “A group of young officers, imbued with anti-Manchu ideology, accidentally caused a small explosion [in Wuchang], and everything unraveled from there. Sun Yat-sen was probably as surprised as anyone else, including the Manchus. When I used to teach this I stressed how accidental the process of revolutionary change could be.”
In his memoirs, Sun estimated that the “diplomatic front” was for him of utmost significance and instead of returning home, he hastened to leave alone for the East coast and sailed from New York to the European continent. After some time spent in London and Paris (where he met ex-President Georges Clemenceau), plus other meetings with financiers in Singapore and Hong Kong, he arrived in Shanghai in time for Christmas. On January 1st, 1912, the traveling insurgent was inaugurated as the Provisional President of the newly established Republic of China.
The long-time barefoot Sinophile Jules Nadeau is a freelance writer living in Montreal who spent 10 years in Greater China. He is the author of 20 Million Chinese Made in Taiwan and also 1997: In the Mouth of the Red Dragon. In 1979, Jules Nadeau was a full-time journalist at La Presse, a French language daily in the province of Québec.
As someone who’s been writing for 14 years, I know very well that rejections are part of the life of a writer. It doesn’t mean that I take them lightly but I’ve come to realize that they’re the much-dreaded yet much-needed ingredients for me to become a better writer.
When I completed my first novel in 2005, it took me nine months, after 30 plus rejections from agents, to find someone to represent me. I was luckier with my first short story, which Granta accepted on first submission. Two years later, I “almost” had a story published by The New Yorker. I had dreamed big so I was quite disappointed when my agent told me that it was a “no” at the end. However, I received an encouraging email from Deborah Treisman herself, which I still have in my yahoo mailbox.
I’ve since had more success with my short stories, but I have received even more rejections. Once I sent a story to The Paris Review, only to receive, 14 months later, a hand-written note, “We liked it but please send a shorter one.” I sent a shorter story but got no reply this time. Did the story end up in a slush pile? To this day, I still wonder.
Last week, I received a rejection letter from One Story. It says, “Thank you so much for sending us ‘The Night is Younger Than We Are.’ There was a lot to admire in this piece. The characters, especially the narrator and Ling, were rich and fully formed, and your decision to switch between the past and the present lent a tension to the story that kept us turning the pages. This particular piece isn’t quite right for One Story, but we sincerely hope that you will send us more of your writing in the future.”
Given that reputable journals like One Story receive hundreds of submissions a day and have extremely low acceptance rate, I’m deeply grateful for such a thoughtful and encouraging personal note.
What to do after being rejected? There’s only one answer if writing is who you are. Continue to write, to edit, and continue to submit.
Leonard Cohen, one of my favorite songwriters who just passed away, once described his writing process as something “like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful and yet there’s something inevitable about it.”
Yes, there’s something inevitable about it. You must have faith.
And remember what Churchill once said, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”