Guest Post, Fred Leebron: Considering the Old and the New: Two Thoughts on Craft and Industry

Fred LeebronOn Craft: Escaping the Paradigm

Lately I’ve noticed in some of the work of colleagues and students and especially in my own work the tendency to stay within the safety of self-created paradigms.  By this, I mean that as individual narratives progress, writers who have had success with prior narratives often find themselves employing similar strategies to resolve the challenges and exploit the possibilities offered in their current work.

A writer who tends to ‘muscle up’ in an ending will repeat that tendency in his next ending, having experienced success with it.  Or, a writer who tends to “disappear” one of her characters in one novel will have another character vanish in another novel.  I’m always impressed by those writers who are capable of doing almost everything seemingly new from book to book, and yet that seems like an almost impossible task.

Still, sometimes it’s worthwhile to set out for oneself what has been accomplished in a prior work, literally listing its elements and grinding them into one’s consciousness, before proceeding with the next work.  Point of view, setting, pivotal plot points, the treatment of time can all be boiled down to just a few words, and suddenly there on the page is your novel in a nutshell, and you can see exactly what it is the past work wasn’t doing that you might pursue in the next work.

Also, it can’t hurt to note featured characteristics of the protagonists and supporting cast.  Does every family have an abandoned father?  Is every family missing a sibling?  Is every son restless and unemployed?  Is the boss at work always kind and understanding?  Is there someone always ripping someone else off?  Is someone’s heart always getting broken?  Is the kitchen always the dominant room in the house?  Is it the mailman who always delivers the bad news, or email, or the phone line?

What I’m looking for in this kind of exercise is a way of challenging myself to try as much new technique and content as possible in the next work.

This isn’t to say that writers shouldn’t mine deeply what Richard Burgin terms their own “emotional real estate,” but that an awareness of all the strategies and characteristics being employed can be helpful in making the new work as fresh and surprising as possible, not only for the reader, but for the writer as well.  There is, for an obvious example, a lot of different technique and content accomplished from DUBLINERS through PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN to ULYSSES, even while we can clearly see some of the sameness involved.

A few months ago, I sat down with a list of all my stories and manuscripts and was able to capture pretty clearly all the work in close to two paradigms, with all the tried and true crutches that I had been leaning on.  Then I wrote the opposite of each of the elements, just to see what that would look like.  It was pretty invigorating to recognize that as a writer there were still a lot of techniques and types of content I haven’t even tried, here at the age of 52, having been taught in a hundred workshops and having led a few thousand more, with a handful of novels and a bucketful of stories published, and four times that dropped into trash cans and recycling bins over the past thirty-some years.

What we sometimes learn from studying and deconstructing the straitjacket of Freytag’s Triangle is that all the stories imaginable have already been written, but what we might learn from a cold-hearted study of our own work is that there is likely a lot we haven’t tried.

On Industry: Free Content—the other side of the coin

Recently a writer told me that the next new thing is free content.  Okay, maybe not so recently, but at least within the last year.  Free content is it, she said.  Everyone needs to blog and everyone needs to offer some good free writing in order to further their careers. And the argument was clear: eventually free content will get you paid.

I don’t believe in free content.  At all.  Although of course I am a reader of free content all the time, especially on news websites and facebook links and espn.com and philly.com (my hometown).  I love free content.  And it is despicable, too, when it is both delivered free and obtained from the writer for free.

Writers should be paid, like dentists should be paid and gardeners should be paid and cooks should be paid. While it’s certainly true that on some of these websites the writers are getting paid, increasingly literary writers are willing to donate their words in the hope that down the line eventually they’ll get paid.  It makes me nervous and it makes me sad.

We cling to the success stories of self-publication and gratis publication, in the hope that there will be a spread of success, but these realized dreams are the exception rather than the rule.  Yet as writers we are trained to write for a larger audience, because otherwise the writing is private and therefore not real, and this leads us again to the desire to share the work any way we can, and more often than not (considering that over one million people in the U.S. say they write), that sharing has been free of charge for the reader and free of income for the writer.

You might think that by arguing against free content, I am, as a new contributor to Superstition Review, biting the hand that feeds me.  But SR isn’t feeding me anything, and there’s a good argument that it is actually taking food from my mouth.  How did this happen?  I stumbled across the website a few months ago, thought it very spiffy and professional and compelling, and sent in a story, assuming (and we all know about assuming) that payment would be involved if the piece were taken.  But any moron who takes a closer look can see that that is not the case.  My error.

Every publishing endeavor and every educational endeavor I have designed (this includes MFA programs in Europe and Latin America and Charlotte, a summer program in Roanoke, a small press out of North Carolina, and a literary magazine very new to the world) will always pay writers something for almost everything they do, the exception being the reading and selection of work.  At Unboxed Books, none of us got paid, when we ran a contest for a 5000 prize in fiction, though the final judge got paid and of course the winner got 5000.  At Qu, the new literary magazine out of the MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte, we pay for every accepted piece (all right, very modestly, but still we pay), while the readers don’t get paid at all.  Now I’m wondering if that is a double standard.  I guess not, because for graduate students and interns involved in reading and selecting work, the work experience constitutes a kind of payment.  In that sense, I can see now, it is not much different from publication without income.  And yet I do feel differently about the two.  I could probably make a lame and garbled argument about free work’s benefit being limited to the individual and free writing’s benefit being consumed by the masses, and I’m sure you could go ahead and skewer that.

So what’s your take? How important is payment for your writing, compared to the publication credit?  Can I go tell my boss in Charlotte that instead of increasing payment to Qu contributors what we really want to do is eliminate it entirely?  Or should we reconsider the nonpayment of contest and slush pile readers and rehash the now old argument about the ethics of unpaid internships?  Would you rather see our scant funds devoted to enhanced website design or the small honoraria we pay for accepted work?  All things being equal, is it more important to you to have your work appear somewhere aesthetically pleasing or somewhere that pays you?

Or, as my father once asked me in a surprisingly meaningful ‘career’ quiz: which do you value the most?  Money, Power, or Achievement?

Choose one.

And, yeah, I wrote this piece for free.

 

Fred Leebron

Fred Leebron, a graduate of Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, and The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, has published stories in magazines and anthologies such as Tin House, DoubleTake, Grand Street, Ploughshares, North American Review, Triquarterly, and Flash Fiction. He is author of the novels Out West, Six Figures, and In the Middle of All This; co-editor of Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology; and co-author of Creating Fiction: A Writer's Companion. The Canadian production of Six Figures premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2005, and the film rights for his short story "Life in Wartime" has been optioned several times. Awards for his writing include an O. Henry Award, a Puschart Prize, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a James Michener Award, a Fulbright Scholarship, a Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown Fellowship, and two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He has taught at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Iowa, and Stanford University, and currently he also serves as Program Director of the Low Residency M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina, and as Director for the Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop at Hollins University. His personal essays appear frequently in publications such as More Magazine,Parenting Magazine, and Redbook and have been anthologized in trade market anthologies such as The Eleventh Draft (HarperCollins), Money Changes Everything (Doubleday), and The Bastard on the Couch(HarperCollins).

4 thoughts on “Guest Post, Fred Leebron: Considering the Old and the New: Two Thoughts on Craft and Industry

  • December 20, 2013 at 10:08 am
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    Great piece, Fred. My question is why do we have to choose? Payment or prestige? Why can’t we have both? This has always been my question. People in other professions are paid for their time and work. For me, writing is a profession as well as a passion. I hear other people say that they love their jobs and feel fortunate to have them. So why is it so inconceivable that I should get paid for my work doing a job I love?

    I call myself a recovering journalist because I’ve twice left the business because it pays no more than a day laborer at a manufacturing facility, perhaps less. I have credentials, experience and education, and yet I can’t make a living at a job I love and that I excel at. Writing fiction has always been my passion, and I’ve done it behind closed doors in hopes of one day getting published in the fiction arena. But even with trying to gain recognition for my work through contests and such, I am required to pay a fee just to get my work considered for publication.These fees range in price and can add up rather quickly. So not only am I not getting paid to write, I’m paying someone to review the merit of my work with no guarantee of publication.

    There’s something inherently wrong with this “system,” but there seems to be no way to change it. Writers should rule the world; writing is the strongest communication tool there is. And yet, we are left to beg for modest stipends and possibly a pat on the back. I’m with you, Fred. I’m opposed to writing for free, but being the writer, I choose to exercise my prerogative, as you and others have done, on when and how I will write for free. Making choices seems to be the only control we have with the situation.

    Bonny Millard
    Queens University MFA

    Reply
  • December 20, 2013 at 12:02 pm
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    One important aspect of publication is the company one’s story manages to keep in terms of the editors who back the story and the works of fellow authors along which one’s work is published. Having a story appear in a journal such as Glimmer Train that has an excellent track record of spotting top new talent as well as attracting established talent might be validation enough to warrant foregoing financial payment.

    However, a publication should also offer payment proportionate to its revenue. If, for instance, a journal has strong sales or rich benefactors or university support or all three, or if various pages of a popular website are loaded with revenue-generating ads, or if the publication model is based on or partially supported by recurring contests, contributors should reasonably expect payments equal to one another and according to the publication’s income. Sticking with the example of Glimmer Train, which achieves decent sales and operates a contest-based publishing model, the standardized professional-level payments reflect a sense of equity and proportion, and many other journals could simply identify where they fall on the prestige vs. income continuum’s and pay accordingly.

    Regarding journal or website appearance, graphic layout and design should follow a general theme or logic, but I’m unsure if an Abercrombie & Fitch strategy is what writers need or want.

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    • December 21, 2013 at 1:27 am
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      Thanks for the comment, Don.

      It is definitely an interesting topic. I was always kind of taught to give up on the idea of getting money from literary journals. In workshops, we were taught that publication credit trumps financial compensation. My peers and I don’t even bother checking to see if a journal pays when we submit. It simply isn’t relevant.

      What I want from a literary journal isn’t a little check that will put me ahead for next month’s rent (though I definitely wouldn’t turn that down). Instead, what I want and expect and deserve is that the journal which accepted my piece does everything it can to get it into the hands and minds of as many people as possible.

      So it can spark discussions, much like this one, which can turn something as simple as a blog post, into something beyond purchased (or, in this case, donated) goods.

      Reply
  • March 24, 2014 at 9:29 am
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    This is an interesting post in the way that prestige v. money is written out. I think that people can have both. If it is someone’s true passion, then I don’t think money would be an issue. It wouldn’t even cross their minds. Often times people start ideas, concepts, or blogs, with intentions of keeping it ad-free. Then after a while they change their mind and put ads on there. Sometimes readers are angry for the author “selling out”, but quite simply they are just getting paid for their hours of work.

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