Pen On Fire blog

Phil Doran, The Reluctant Tuscan

Phil Doran is the author of The Reluctant Tuscan (Gotham)

. He’s a former TV writer and producer (The Wonder Years, All in the Family, Sanford and Son) whom I met him when he first took my workshop a couple of years ago. His book was published in April. Last week I sent him some questions and here is what he said:

Moi: I know that The Reluctant Tuscan isn’t the first book you completed. What happened to the others?

Phil: RT is actually the third. The first was one that everybody liked and nobody wanted to publish, the second was one that nobody liked, and the third was rather well accepted. I think it took some time for me to figure out the market place and to determine that yes, after years of doing TV, I did want to write what I wanted to say, but a bigger yes was, I did want to get published. It doesn’t take a genius to determine that they publish a lot more non-fiction than fiction, so then, in the non-fiction genre, what was going on in my life that I could write about? Well, I happened to be fortunate enough to have worked in show business and I was now living part-time in Tuscany. So I felt that if I could combine those two facets and do it with humor I would have something that publishers would be interested in.

Moi: Will you bring those other books back, now that you have one out?

Phil: Yes, I am in the process of dusting them off, re-reading them, and wondering what I was thinking to have written down what I did. On the plus side, I think those books were written when I still had my TV writing habits and if I may say so myself, my prose style is much more polished now than it was when I started.

Moi: Talk about the challenges in writing this book.

Phil: There are a lot of books about Tuscany–a lot of very good books–written by people who really know things. Since I don’t, I needed to be funny. Also, I needed to find a way not to have the reader think, “Wait a minute–you’re living in Tuscany and complaining? I live next to methane processing plant in Bayonne, New Jersey, and you don’t hear me complaining!”

So I had to find a way to keep the reader’s sympathy and I did that by going deep into the characters and revealing their needs and inner struggles. Also, I needed to make the drama more universal so that anybody who has faced a painful life change can relate to it and not just baby-boomers facing retirement.

Moi: How does writing dialogue for TV differ from writing dialogue for a narrative?

Phil: The visual element changes everything. The way an actor gestures or uses an expression both enhances and limits how the line is communicated. In a book, the reader is free to cast each character exactly as they imagine it and hear them say their dialogue in any voice imaginable. In either event, unless someone has stopped to make a speech, and that should be very well motivated, dialogue should be short, crisp, and entertaining. Ask yourself: Is there sufficient reason to do this in dialogue, or could it be better imparted by describing the action?

As for the differences between a book and a TV show, there are practical considerations galore. Say you have a scene where a group of people are having dinner … on TV (or in a movie) the audience can see all the characters who are present, but on the page if someone doesn’t speak for a while, the reader can forget that they are there.
Moi: Advice for writers?

Phil: There are many fine books on the mechanics of writing (Pen on Fire being one of the best). My advice is more about the psychological armor one must don to pursue this profession. This is a very difficult way to make a living. If you are interested in making a lot of money, I would suggest you go into banking or real estate.

Writing is lonely, frustrating, and it will often seem like you are the only one in the world who believes in what you are doing. To this end, I will impart the greatest piece of wisdom I ever heard about either Hollywood or the publishing world. It was said by William Goldman in his book, Adventure in the Screen Trade, and he was talking about how your work is judged by those in control of your destiny, that is to say, agents, producers, and publishers.

Goldman said that he is governed by one unshakable law: WHEN IT COMES TO WHAT WILL WORK, NOBODY KNOWS SHIT.

The marketplace is a dynamic, quirky, mysterious place and as far as what will sell, one person’s guess is as good as another. If all the formulas and theories worked, every book would be a best seller and no TV show would ever get cancelled. We’re all guessing here, so why isn’t your guess as good and anybody else’s?

What is truth, anyhoo?

In the last comment of my last post on rejection, Valerie said, “We don’t need truth, we need hope,” and that got me to thinking, What is the truth, anyway, and what is hope, and what about when the two intersect?

Of course we do want the truth when we read reportage; at least I do. It is more and more difficult to believe what is written because more and more it comes out that a reporter embellished the truth or just made it up.

But here’s where it gets foggy, as regards truth vs. hope. When we hear how very difficult it is to publish your work in a respected journal or get picked up by a major publisher, we believe it and we take it to heart and we let it destroy our hope. Yes, it’s true; it’s difficult to get published. Did anyone say it’s impossible? No. No one’s said that.

Many things worth doing are competitive and achieving that which we desire can be difficult. But do we stop, do we roll up and die because it’s not easy? No, we don’t. At least we shouldn’t.

I was never a cheerleader in high school and still don’t quite get it, why women would want to do that gig, but I am a cheerleader when it comes to creative ventures because I believe that everyone has a creative streak; everyone just employs it differently. I think women–and some men–are so into shopping because, for them, it’s a way of being creative. We all have a drive to create; it’s one of the human conditions.

I know a few artists who have no need to make their art public or make a living from it. These are people, though, who have quite enough money to live on and just do their art because they love it.

But for most of us, we want to make it because we have to make money one way or another and why not make it by doing that which we love?

So, difficult, yes. Impossible, no.

And you have to hold onto the hope that it can and will happen, because if you don’t have hope, you’ve got little. Hope got me through a ton of obstacles.

So the truth is that hope brings with it energy–energy to continue to strive and achieve your starry eyed dreams. Does anyone out there know the book, Max Makes a Million

? I love this book. It’s a kid’s book by Maira Kalman, who does quite a bit of New Yorker covers, but I bought this book before I ever had kids, when I was working at what was then Rizzoli’s bookstore at South Coast Plaza, back in ’86 or so. Max is a dog who wants to be a poet and his dream is to go to Paris and write poetry there. Here’s an excerpt:

But do you think it is easy for a dog to pack a small brown suitcase, put on a beret, and hop on a plane? Ha! Plane tickets cost money. Mazuma, shekels, semolians. I have none. Because no one wants to buy my book. I’m flat broke. But someday fat families and skinny families around the world will be reading my poems. And laughing, and crying. I feel it in my bones. I want to say, before anything, that dreams are very important.

I won’t tell you what happens; read the book; it’s one of my favorites.

But I will say this, before I go, that dreams are very important. Dreams fuel hope and hope makes it happen.

Rejection is a drag

I thought I already wrote about this and even if I did, you can never say too much about rejection, because rejection is a way of life for a writer. It’s something to be gotten used to because if you don’t, you become paralyzed, never sending your work out, never entering contests that intrigue you or never going for writing jobs you desire.

I hate rejection. Everyone hates rejection.

Many of you know that Pen on Fire went through a couple of agents and a couple dozen rejections before I revised, revised, revised and found my current agent who then proceeded to sell my book. The magazine, Personal Writing, published by publisher that puts out Writer’s Digest, just published my essay called “Lessons Learned,” which recounts my book’s path to publication.

I almost tossed my manuscript and gave up forever when I thought I’d give it one more try. That one more try was the clincher.

I’ve collected hundreds of rejection letters from magazines, literary journals, agents and publishers. I’ve tossed most of them out except for a few very detailed letters from the New Yorker in which they actually told me why they were rejecting my stories and to submit again.

Having a book published doesn’t make you immune to the terror of rejection. I almost didn’t submit my book for consideration in the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual contest, but I was able to talk myself into it. What if I lose? I thought. This time I got lucky and won. Doesn’t mean I’ll be so lucky next time. See? The fear of rejection doesn’t go away and it doesn’t grow smaller.

You just keep on keeping on, because what else is there to do? Fold in upon yourself and dissolve? No can do.

I have a chapter in Pen on Fire about rejection, and I’m doing a talk at the Willamette Writers Conference this August on dealing with rejection. Our fear of it stretches back to childhood, to when we were rejected for something else, something unrelated to writing.

You can deal with rejection a lot of different ways. Burn those rejection letters. Or wad them up and throw them away. Or write a charming note to the editor or agent who rejected you (so says Carolyn See).

But I think the best way of dealing with rejection is to write your way through it. In my book, actually in the chapter on fear, I excerpted a few sentences from Dune, by Frank Herbert:

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Those few lines have gotten me through, many a time.

Take heart and don’t let rejection stop you. Learn from it. Learn to decipher what the rejection letters are really saying. And move on, allow yourself to progress and eventually you will be victorious.

Draining your energy?

Jordan posted a comment: Is there a danger that the immediate gratification will dilute the energy and drive to get on with the book?

He was talking about giving your energy over to writing shorter pieces when in fact your interest is with a longer work.

I’m sure there is that danger, Jordan. I have so many things going on in my life (continuing promotion of Pen on Fire; editing The ASJA Monthly; teaching two private workshops and an online class with Gotham, beginning tomorrow; my radio show; working on a new proposal; writing a novel; my family; article deadlines. I know there’s more but I fear my brain is frying and I can’t remember what it is.

I just don’t know what to cut out–my ongoing lament. I enjoy everything I do. In an ideal world, what would I keep and what would I cut out? Would I quit my editing job, quit teaching? It’s an ongoing puzzle; I don’t know.

I think that’s a continuing challenge among all writers. How to prioritize? What to move to the top of your list, what to kick off?

When you’ve written a book, it’s to your advantage to continue to do promotion. One way is to do articles that keep your name before readers. It is more immediate gratification, and yes, it can be draining. But what is the alternative?

You can go on, write the next book and say screw it, let the publisher keep my book alive. But it just doesn’t work that way. Those days are over. Writers have to help keep their books alive and if it means not only working on books but working on articles, too, so be it.

Thoughts on books vs. magazines

Home, now, from New York and Pennsylvania. I was away for a week, and at the beginning of that time and even in the middle of it, it seemed like I wouldn’t be seeing my boy for such a long time. And then I was back home and it seemed as if I had never left.

The ASJA conference was great–such good panels with wonderful speakers. I met Andrea, the editor of Pen on Fire and she was just wonderful. Others, too, that I’ve only had contact with online or on the phone or via email–great to put a face to those people.

I want to respond to a comment Jordan made on a previous blog. He said, “I admit to being a snob, but having done so, where is your ‘writer’s mind’ now that your book is in the stores. A book, it seems to me, is permanent. Magazine and newspaper articles are transient things. Do you have any thoughts on this?”

I do have thoughts on this, Jordan.

Some people are book people, others seem to be more into magazines. While I subscribe to, and read, magazines, I’m definitely a book person. And every day I’m grateful that I have added my own book to the book population of the world.

That said, books can take a very long time to write. Writing a magazine article–or an essay or a story or a poem–and getting it published is much more of a short-term venture. I like seeing my work in print and when you do shorter works, you get that more immediate gratification of sending your work out and seeing it in print and knowing others will see it in print, too. And it’s always fun to deposit checks in your credit union account, too.

For an author, there’s one more benefit to publishing magazine articles: You can usually mention your book in your bio at the end of the article, which will hopefully garner more book sales for you–always a good thing. Promoting your book is ongoing, much as I’m sure you hate hearing the “P” work, Jordan.

New York: ASJA Writers Conference

Here I am, in my room on the 24th floor of the Grand Hyatt, taking a break before I go back downstairs to meet an editor from Woman’s Day. On Members Day, there are Personal Pitch sessions where you get to meet for seven minutes, maybe eight, with editors and agents. Woman’s Day readers have said their favorite hobby is writing and I’m trying to figure out some way to do an article or something for them. I just met one editor at lunch, and will soon meet another.

The big wonderful news is I won the ASJA book award for PEN ON FIRE in the Service category. I’m so jazzed about this. So, so jazzed. So I gave a very short speech that was quick and probably not very good.

More about the conference is at www.asja.org.

I love this room. The Hyatt has renovated…modernized.

More later….