1/04/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
Booklife: Digital Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer by Jeff VanderMeer. Tachyon Publications. 330 page paperback. Price: $14.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-892391-90-2.
check out websites: www.tachyonpublications.com and www.booklifenow.com
Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning American writer of speculative fiction. ‘Booklife’ is a non-fiction book which provides writers with advice on how to survive and flourish in the brave new world of twenty-first century publishing, whilst finding a balance between on-line public persona and private creativity.
It’s important to say up-front that ‘Booklife’ is not a writing manual. Although it does include some material on creativity and inspiration, the lion’s share of the book deals instead with the down-to-earth issues of promotion and marketing that all writers need to get to grips with in the Internet age.
The book is split into two parts, dealing respectively with what VanderMeer terms the ‘Public Booklife’ and the ‘Private Booklife’. The former concerns the activities that are associated with writing as a career. The latter relates to the creative activities that define you as being a writer rather than, say, a plumber.
In Part One, VanderMeer deals with three issues: building, communicating and maintaining your booklife. He starts by talking about the importance of setting yourself short, medium and long-term writing goals. He then moves on to a discussion of where and how to market yourself as a writer on the Internet. He illustrates this by discussing the particular mechanism of writing a blog, using his own as an illustration of the issues.
Turning to how to communicate your booklife, VanderMeer discusses networking, how to work with editors and publicists and how to do PR.
Finally for Part One, VanderMeer covers the longer-term direction of your public career as a writer. He discussed such tricky questions as how transparent you should be on-line, what brand you want to build and project, how to manage your public persona and to contribute positively to the online community that you are a part of.
Between Parts One and Two there is a ‘gut-check’. This is a short but very thoughtful chapter about the need to maintain a balance between your public and private book lives.
In Part Two, VanderMeer looks at two main issues: how to live your booklife and how to protect it. By ‘living’ your booklife, VanderMeer is talking about how to develop and explore your own creativity. He covers finding inspiration, avoiding distractions, revising your work and finding the time to be creative.
Turning to the issue of protecting your booklife, VanderMeer looks at challenges to your creativity and how to overcome them. He talks about addictions, rejection, envy and despair. This main part of the book ends on a more positive note with a discussion about how to take the long view and how to deal with success.
The main text is followed by six appendices. These expand on various issues raised in the book and are a mix of detailed material culled from VanderMeer’s own career and contributions provided by a number of other writers. The highlight of the appendices for me was the fifth one, entitled ‘How To Write A Novel In Two Months’. This provides a fascinating insight into a recent project where, due to unforeseen circumstances, VanderMeer was suddenly faced with a two month deadline to write an original tie-in novel set in the universe of the ‘Predator’ films. His description of the techniques he used to get the job done to deadline is extremely interesting. The fact that the novel has been well reviewed subsequently suggests that he managed to avoid sacrificing quality for speed, too.
Even the appendices aren’t the end of the story neither. As with several of VanderMeer’s other projects, he has set up a dedicated website associated with the book at www.booklifenow.com . This is updated every couple of days with interesting articles on the writing life and is well worth a look.
‘Booklife’ is, without doubt, one of the best non-fiction books about writing that I have ever read. What I was repeatedly struck by, as I read it, was VanderMeer’s impressive levels of knowledge and organisation, his level-headedness and, above all, his honesty.
VanderMeer writes sophisticated fantasy novels whose subject matter might lead some of his readers to believe that he is some kind of eccentric bohemian. Early on in ‘Booklife’, however, he repeats the aphorism, variously attributed to Gustave Flaubert and Renaissance artist Gregorio Comanini, that as a writer you should ‘be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’ This aphorism is everywhere present in the content of ‘Booklife’. It is a book that could not have been written by a disorganised writer. VanderMeer’s knowledge of the industry he has dedicated his life to is legion and the level of organisation he brings to that life, as indicated by the repeated discussion of goals and plans throughout the book is truly impressive. If a man this well-organised can write fiction as weird as his is, then being organised clearly can’t be the bar to creativity that some would have you believe.
Far too many books about writing appear to have been written to feed our need for a ‘fool-proof’ method or a ‘guaranteed’ fast-track to success. VanderMeer offers no such certainties. He even goes so far as to stress the importance of readers ‘re-imagining’ this book, taking what it says and questioning it, applying it to their own individual situation and rejecting those parts which don’t work for them. Further, he repeatedly stresses that anything worth doing will take time and effort. In our current era of celebrity culture and instant fame, VanderMeer’s level-headedness is a welcome counterweight.
VanderMeer’s honesty shines out from almost every page of this book. He is happy to admit to a number of mistakes he has made in both his public and his private book lives, before explaining what he learned from each. He includes numerous quotes from other writers who have a different view on certain issues from him. He also discusses openly a number of tricky issues, such as how to cope with rejection and the need for work-life balance with disarming honesty about his own attempts to address these issues over the years. By the end of the book, I was left with a very firm view that while VanderMeer may not have all the answers, he would never duck the question or just tell you what you wanted to hear. To my mind, there’s not much more you could ask of anyone.
As an aside, just in case the above has made ‘Booklife’ sound too worthy, I should probably add that the text is peppered with humour and witty asides. It is certainly a useful book to read but it’s also highly enjoyable.
In conclusion, ‘Booklife’ is a fascinating practical guide to the world of the modern writer. Published writers who want to understand how to build their readership will find it invaluable. Unpublished writers will learn much that should help them on the route to publication. All writers, no matter what their level of experience or achievement, should find VanderMeer’s views on how to balance writing with the rest of your life insightful. This is a book I expect to return to frequently. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
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