Fiction v. Academic Writing: Sadism Showdown

Kurt Vonnegut once gave out a list of 8 rules for writing, one of those rules being:

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999)

This is an age-old rule that so many of today’s most beloved authors have clearly taken to heart (channel Stephen King here) and a rule that we find constantly reiterated throughout the Writing Tip world. Take, for example, this story from the Huff Post Books, called “Writing Advice: Tips for New Fiction Authors.” Their third tip, “Create real characters” is a page right out of Vonnegut’s book (although with much greater elaboration), suggesting:

Make your characters human – give them nervous tics, phobias, a funny way of messing up clichés. … Place your character in situations that force him or her to make difficult choices, mistakes, etc.


And, while I most certainly ascribe to this rule as a fiction writer – no one wants to read a story sans conflict, after all – I have been considering lately whether or not academic or nonfiction writers face this same challenge. After all, there’s only so much freedom an academic writer has for creating intrigue and conflict…right?

After plowing through Howling, my first major academic project, I’m no longer so certain. For instance, consider the choices an academic writer must make insofar as which sources to utilize, who to interview, how to both accurately and interestingly convey different results. All of these elements can impact the tone and excitement of a piece, certainly, but do they add anything close to conflict? Do they indicate any level of “sadism” on the author’s part? What about how relentlessly or to what ends the author went during the research process – definitely bits of that gory mess must seep through from time to time, right?

I would argue that it is Voice and a healthy dose of Self-Reflection that may lend an academic author some real toothy wildness, enabling them to truly dig into what that other researcher said, what that political group was protesting, how that development impacted the local ecosystem – by presenting arguments clearly and factually while utilizing a creative narrative voice and letting the reader see a bit of the authorial struggle, perhaps an academic author can manage to squeak a bit of sadism into their work.

What do you think? Do you feel like sadism is an important quality for a fiction writer? Have you ever felt as though a good story became lost or obscured because you just couldn’t commit to killing the goofy, loveable sidekick? And can an academic author join in on this fun or is their writing a different beast entirely?



(Pssst! Of course, on the other hand, there’s always our pal, Carl Sandburg to turn to: “Beware of advice—even this.”)

A Few Thoughts on Book Proposals

A question I get sometimes from friends and coworkers that, I think, warrants a moment of discussion, is: how did you land your book contract? How did you market your book to publishers? What did your proposal look like?

And, sadly, my response always seems to disappoint because it really isn’t a magical one at all, just a simple two steps: know what a publisher is looking for and follow their instructions precisely!

I knew my book was an odd one, strange to market beyond simply “academic” so I began by searching out a publisher who wanted something academic and oddball. And would you believe how McFarland advertises itself?

McFarland is a leading independent publisher of academic and general interest nonfiction books. McFarland is known for covering topics of popular appeal in a serious and scholarly fashion…”

Among many librarians especially, McFarland is viewed as distinguished yet daring.”

McFarland welcomes proposals for nonfiction manuscripts on a wide range of subjects, not limited to the following: popular culture and performing arts (especially film, television, dance, gaming), military history (especially World War II and Civil War), international studies, health topics, sports (especially baseball, boxing, American football), automotive (and planes and trains), literary studies (including both classic and genre fiction, mystery, SF, fantasy, horror), medieval studies, mythology, folklore, and women’s and gender studies.”

As soon as I read these descriptors, I knew my book – a strange scholarly mixture of literary, mythology, folklore, and pop culture studies – had found a fabulous potential home.  I mean, I knew immediately that not only was this publisher in my book’s ideal neighborhood but this publisher came with the pool and hardwood floors to boot!

The first step to a successful book proposal, in other words, is picking the right publisher – just like in every other aspect of life, know your audience!

The second step? Followin’ instructions — everyone’s least favorite part :p

Check out McFarland’s:

  • In a query letter you should describe the manuscript, tell us how far along you are, estimate its final length (in either word count or double-spaced typescript pages), and tell us what is unique about the manuscript (or about you!). We answer most queries within a few days; if we’re interested we’ll invite you to send either the complete manuscript or a full proposal.
  • full book proposal should contain the following elements: an overall description, outline or table of contents, estimates of total word count and completion date, a preface or introduction, comments on how the book differs from any competing works on the same topic, a summary of what you might offer in the way of photographs or other illustrations, and some samples of the manuscript (1-2 chapters or the equivalent, plus representative pages of any special parts).”


That’s the mysterious stew, just two ingredients: know what the publisher wants and follow their directions.

I don’t know if you know this, but I sent out my book proposal without ever formally consulting an agent (although I did consult friends and colleagues once I was offered a contract) and I only ever sent out one – just one proposal to one publisher. I’m not saying that this is a recipe to always getting published or that literary agents are useless – simply that, from my experience working at a literary agency and in working with McFarland on my book project, a lot of grief can be avoided by simply giving your work a good once-over after you’ve finished it (maybe a good twice- and thrice-over), research the publishers you’re writing to, and follow instructions as fully and well as possible. J

Of course, the directions and webs all change from publisher to publisher. What have your experiences been? What advice would you give to an author seeking a publisher? Would you suggest starting with short stories? With academic journals?

Cover Fantasies

So, lots of thoughts today, I’ve learned from my publisher a bit more about cover graphics and options — essentially, that I may suggest something if I wanted to but that they will have final say and likely be the ones designing it as well (which is just fine with me, I like their work and am no artist). But it got me thinking, have you ever fantasized about the cover art of your first or next book? If you have been published, were you happy with their work?

To quote McFarland’s website:

“Your cover will be an essential marketing tool. You may suggest ideas for the cover. We may not always be able to accommodate these suggestions (because of size issues, quality troubles, copyright issues, or other factors), but we will be happy to consider them. McFarland retains the final say on cover designs (check us out—they’re terrific!).”

Here are a few of the covers they have up on their website:


You might have noticed the goofy artwork in the background of my blog here. That’s my own original artwork and I’m afraid of what I would even dream up for a cover — I really do think just a wild photo or image of Allen Ginsberg howling up or reading out his own poetry with a rich, bright background might be both representative as well as eye-catching for my literary criticism work in Howling.

What do you think? What would your dream cover art look like?

Where You Write – Writing On You?

Interesting points were made the other day at the recent “unconference” I attended concerning digital literacy and media in relation to the Teaching of Writing. One that caught my attention in particular was in relation to blogs (although, not exclusively blogs, but all frameworks – virtual and otherwise).

Certainly, blogs and the blog-o-sphere are fabulous for enabling interaction, the growth of communities, and the sharing of thoughts and ideas. However, how do the very frameworks and styles of the blogs themselves shape how we act? How we write? How we respond to the writing of others?

This got me thinking – what rules and limitations exist in WordPress that dictate certain elements of my writing here? How does it force me to organize my thoughts? My writing? How does its determination of the past and present impact how I feel and think about my ideas and writing? How does my writing change when I am writing on a notepad instead? In a Microsoft Word Document?

I know that my writing changes from format to format – often dramatically. For example, when I write on a physical notepad rather than on the computer, it feels rougher, it feels more intimate. And, due to these feelings, I am greatly reluctant to share anything I write on a physical page with others whether they be family, friend, or stranger. When I type things up, however, even if they are the exact thing I had just written in a journal, I find myself feeling as though the words are more professional, cleaner, safer, and, perhaps strangest of all, already public – no matter where I’ve typed them. This usually changes my writing in significant ways, whether my writing is made more formalized, normalized, or delicate – it changes.

Do you feel like your writing changes according to where it is the writing is occurring?

What about your reading? I know when I’m reading online I always feel more suspicious and often a bit more impatient and tired – as if I were doing schoolwork. On the other hand, when I read a physical book – NOT an e-book or any other electronic media – I feel calmer, like I’m on vacation or something (which may have strange implications for my feeling and approaches to technologies generally).

Give a shout out if you also find yourself suddenly fascinated by the ways that technologies, environments, and frameworks are actually acting upon you as much as you are acting upon them!

Collaboration, Reflection, Academic Research, and Writing

I am participating today and tomorrow in what is being called an “unconference” regarding Digital Media Literacy and how to effectively utilize digital media in classrooms to help better teach students about the flexibility and necessity of writing even today in the Twitter and Facebook Age (though these are certainly also important outlets for certain types of writing).

Here are some of the questions that have been brought up so far (the bold ones are those specifically raised by me to our larger group — meaning also that all of these others were raised by my colleagues):

  • How is digital media being used to encourage collaboration in writing?
  • How can I better incorporate writing across media genres into my class (research, documentaries, blogs, etc.)?
  • How can we use digital media to enhance/improve student reflection through writing as well as enhance/improve student collaborative writing?
  • Would the incorporation of multimedia help enhance the applicability/usefulness/necessity of writing for students?
  • How far can we stretch writing when we move into the digital realm? When is it no longer “writing” (if ever)?
  • What would “critical” multimedia “writing” look like?
  • How to effectively analyze lived and archival memories through digital video?
  • How do multimedia projects circulate? What are the constraints of “publishing” that apply (in contests of non-profits, for example)?
  • Is it possible to create IT partnerships along the lines of our librarian partnerships?
  • How to teach students to use technology as well as to think about its use in writing/rhetoric?
  • What is multimedia?
  • How to use film/podcasts/other media to practice writing skills? How to transfer critical thinking issues to these assignments?
  • How can we help students to actually think of writing in multimedia formats as “writing”?
  • How do we help students who are technophobic?
  • How can multimedia writing be used for analytical, exploratory purposes rather than purely for information display?
  • How can visual/audio media be used to express rhetorical objectives?
  • How can we work against issues of elitism and income disparities while encouraging digital exploration in writing?
  • How can we work with digital communications so that it’s less “disposable” and thought about more critically?
  • What resources does GW have/need for students working on digital media projects?
  • What kinds of digital writing assignments would make typical first and second year courses more successful? Which skills (needed for these assignments) should be taught by the UW?
  • Are there ways to get students to read “across” media to realize, for example, that a photograph should be read as critically as a newspaper article – or does each median need to be taught with a unique communicative and critical approach?
  • What do I need to know about intellectual property rights?
  • How could digital media be used to improve the writing of students with little to no experience writing formal English papers?
  • What do digital media enable a teacher to do better rather than just differently?

It struck me that these sorts of questions and critical considerations are deeply important for us authors and readers — especially those of us who also participate in/utilize a variety of digital media already (such as these blogs) — because these questions also have implications for the recent turns in the publishing industry and e-books. What do you think? How does multimedia and these digital changes occurring in much of today’s writing impact how we consider and approach books as writers and as readers? Do our approaches change? What does/would it mean to you as an author to have your book forcibly published as an e-book only or even partially by your publisher versus how you feel about e-books as a reader?

I personally find these changes — though I continue to feel torn — terribly fascinating as well as exciting. After all, does this mean bringing back the serialized novel? Does it mean bringing in a new (golden?) age of collaborative writing?