The Scariest Part: Jeff Strand Talks About THE WRITING LIFE

This week on The Scariest Part, I’m delighted to host my good friend Jeff Strand. I’ve known Jeff for many years now, and together we co-host the infamous annual Necon Roast at the Northeastern Writers Conference, or Necon for short. His latest book, The Writing Life, is a special one, not just because it’s his fiftieth book, but also because it’s his first work of non-fiction. Here is the official description:

Jeff Strand, whose work Publishers Weekly has called “wickedly funny” and Kirkus has called “ridiculously stupid,” has had one of the least meteoric rises to success in the publishing industry. But he eventually got there, even if he should probably put “success” in quotes.

He’s been at it a long time, and has learned a lot of lessons along the way. And he shares them with brutal honesty in this very book, along with plenty of hilarious (and sometimes painful) anecdotes about his career.

This is not a book that will tell you how to format a manuscript or write a compelling query letter. It’s a book about how to cope with rejection and bad reviews. Book signings where nobody shows up. Helplessly watching your peers go on to greater success than you. He’s been through all of that and so much more, and in these pages you’ll have a bunch of laughs as you commiserate and figure out how to get through it all.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Jeff Strand:

The idea of writing my first non-fiction book wasn’t scary. It would be about my own experience, not a meticulously researched book about 14th century gardening techniques and how they related to the class struggle. Excluding the infant and toddler years, I’ve been doing this my entire life, and with my fiftieth birthday looming, I knew I had plenty to say.

I also wasn’t scared to be sharing a lot of embarrassing, sometimes painful anecdotes. This book is not a celebration of my career. When choosing which tales of my writing life to share, I went with the ones that were useful and funny. Nobody needs my advice on how to cope with good reviews. An anecdote about having a well-attended, successful book signing is not nearly as funny as the one where I got kicked out of the store.

The premise of The Writing Life is not “Learn from my success!” but rather “Oh, yeah, I’ve been there, and here’s how I kept going.” I’m not the hero in all of the anecdotes, and that’s the whole point.

But my other books were all completely made up. People might’ve been offended by the gore or the potty-mouth, but I wasn’t going to hurt anybody’s feelings. The Writing Life is not a blistering takedown of the publishing industry by any stretch of the imagination, and nobody gets hit harder than me within its pages, yet there’s still some collateral damage. My fear would be somebody saying, “Hey, it’s really not cool that you shared that.”

The obvious solution was to get permission. Author Stacie Ramey got kicked out of the bookstore along with me, and it was mostly her fault, so I sent her the appropriate section for her blessing. Jim Moore, my co-author on The Haunted Forest Tour, signed off on my delightfully amusing tale of what it’s like to write a book with Jim. My best friend as a kid said it was okay to write about this one time that we did something really, really stupid.

In other cases, I knew I would never get their blessing and didn’t care. I went with the “Don’t name names, and stick to the truth” approach. If an unnamed editor shakes his fist in rage because I wrote about him being a total douchebag…well, I can live with that. The target of one scathing anecdote about unprofessional behavior at a book signing probably isn’t going to read it, and if he does and says “Hey! That’s me!” maybe he’ll recognize that you need to behave better at these kinds of events if you don’t want to make an anonymous appearance in a non-fiction book.

Then there was the middle ground. I wasn’t going to try to track down every single person who is referenced in this book, and in most cases their actual identity is irrelevant to the story. I ultimately wasn’t happy with my last agent, but in the extremely unlikely event that she reads this book when she couldn’t be bothered to read the last novel manuscript I sent her, I think she’d agree that it’s a fair account. I write about my frustration with some editing experiences, but it’s also balanced out by sharing examples where editors saved my ass.

That said, the whole concept of sticking with “funny and useful” anecdotes means that I’m not focusing on the positive. I was one of the pioneers in the field of e-books, long before the Kindle came around, and it sucked. I worked with a lot of great people and have a lot of fond memories, but I do not write about the early years of being an e-book author with much in the way of nostalgia.

My hope is that if my fellow authors from that era read the book, they’ll laugh and nod and say “Oh my God! He totally nailed it!” My fear would be that they read it and think, “WTF? We had fun and we were way ahead of the curve! What’s with all the trash talking? Screw you, Strand!”

Yesterday, after Nick invited me to write this guest blog but before I’d decided what I specifically wanted to write about, I got a Facebook message from Susan Bodendorfer. She published my very first novel in May 2000. She wished me a happy birthday, said how proud she was of my accomplishments, and said that she couldn’t wait to read The Writing Life.

And I broke into a cold sweat.

I could say many, many great things about my experience with Wordbeams. But in The Writing Life, my point is that people in the year 2000 frickin’ despised e-books. I didn’t write about working with a wonderful editor; I wrote about beginning my career with everybody saying “That’s not a real book!” and how I coped with it.

Also, there’s a part where I talk about Enclave, a round-robin novel that Wordbeams published. It’s a very funny story about being the final author in line and having to wrap up a narrative that had become a complete disastrous mess. After getting Susan’s message, I quickly re-read that part. Maybe it wasn’t so bad…ummm, nope, I sure wasn’t very kind to the Enclave experience, was I? Damn.

It’s been twenty years. Will she laugh? Will she wipe a tear of heartbreak from her eye? Will she vow blood vengeance against me?

I don’t know. And that, kids, is the scariest part!

UPDATE: Her reaction was 1) Ha ha, oh yeah, it totally sucked to be part of the e-book world back then, and 2) Yes, Enclave was total garbage.

The Writing Life: Amazon / Powell’s / Bookshop

Jeff Strand: Website / Twitter

Jeff Strand is the author of 50+ books, including Pressure, Dweller, My Pretties, A Bad Day For Voodoo, Wolf Hunt 1-3, Clowns Vs. Spiders, and a bunch of others. His greatest glory is co-emceeing the Necon Roast with Mr. Nicholas Kaufmann.

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