From time to time, so-called coffee shop loitering pops up as a sore point in the business world. In short, it’s a culture clash between shop owners who want fast turnover and consumers, typically writers, freelancers, and homebased workers, who want a little change of pace during their work day.
The problem? Everybody is trying to work. The store wants us to buy things and leave, and we just want to be left alone to get something done in a stimulating environment. Also, we want caffeine. We’re not going anywhere. The shops need to work this one out, but that’s a topic for another Friday.
While the debate is far from resolved, there are a few things we guests can do to encourage our local cafes to embrace and encourage our presence, instead of viewing us as pests to be evicted as quickly as possible.
Plan ahead. If I’m wanting to use the WiFi for an important item, say, uploading photos, I try to have my things as organized as possible before I get there. Have the start of a blog post in a file, a few images edited, a video ready to go. If I end up leaving earlier than planned, then hopefully I’ve accomplished something in the interim.
Don’t abuse the privilege. So there’s a line out the door, the staff are running their tails off, and you’re just sitting there? You haven’t ordered anything for three hours. And you do this every day? Not cool. Take a social cue: If you can see that it’s unusually busy, think twice about staying so long.
I don’t hit the same place every single day, and I don’t stay late every time. Only one shop in your area? The rule especially applies. Limit your laptop outings. Because I can go as long as two weeks between work sessions, frequently bring guests for meals, and make a point of ordering food or drinks to go at other times, nobody begrudges my presence on the days when I do come in with a computer in tow.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours. When I bring my laptop along, I bring it charged. I don’t plug it in to someone else’s wall and run up their power bill. If the battery runs out, tough. Time’s up. Go home.
Engage the staff. A variation of Wheaton’s Law (otherwise known as “Don’t be a dick”), this one involves taking a moment each visit to get to know the people serving you day in and day out. Small talk doesn’t come naturally to us introverts, so think of it as an experiment in human behavior or an opportunity for information gathering. Ask a question about local news or events. Make a point of smiling and reassuring a staffer who is clearly having a rough day. Drop a friendly hint to tourists. Compliment someone’s cooking skills. Take a sample if it’s offered and give feedback. Whatever you do, do not hide in a corner and grunt.
Tip. This one is non-negotiable. If you’re going to take advantage of people’s hospitality, then let me kindly refer you back to Wheaton’s Law. I tip the baristas and servers every visit. And I live in a state where restaurant workers are required to be paid the standard minimum wage, not the much-lower federal restaurant minimum. There is no excuse for not tipping. Zero, zilch, nada. Put it in your budget.
Mix it up.
trong> The baristas at my regular spot remember what I usually drink, but they also know I will occasionally throw a curveball at them. Some days I buy coffee and leave. Some mornings I stay and grab a pastry; other times I’ll order a full breakfast or take lunch to go. Keep it interesting and keep them guessing.
If all you ever do is sit there four hours a day hogging a table and an outlet after buying a drip coffee–or nabbing a complimentary one–while refusing to acknowledge anyone, you’re gonna have a bad time. A little coffee shop etiquette goes a long way, freelancers.
Your story is coming along swimmingly, until suddenly it isn’t. You’ve just realized that thriller you’ve been working on is morphing into a cozy. Or perhaps your fantasy novel is skewing toward sci-fi. Is your dramatic tale of forbidden love devolving into light chick lit?
Don’t panic. WRITE.
Go back to your hook.
Summarize your story in one sentence. A string of popular genres doesn’t count. “It’s an epic mysterious science fiction fantasy about baby dragons.” If what you’ve written looks anything like that, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. While your story can successfully draw elements from multiple genres, or simply not fit well into a known sales market, you should be able to identify the core premise of your work.
For example, the hook for Westworld might read as follows: “An android living in a theme park struggles with her newfound ability to remember abuses by humans.” The story incorporates setting details from classic Westerns, but it originates from a science fiction writer.
Identify the problem.
Does what you’ve written match your hook? Reread your story in order to pinpoint where things started going off track. Was it the introduction of a new character? A character’s decision or action? A change of language or slip in point of view?
Once you’ve confirmed what caused the story to shift, you can examine it further. Why did you write that section to begin with? What were you trying to accomplish? How was this character or that event supposed to advance the storyline?
Try another perspective.
Perhaps you didn’t set out to write this kind of story. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a mistake. Play around with characters and scenes. Could the story be better this way?
Make a command decision.
I ran into this earlier in the week, when I realized the story I’d been drafting was turning into a much lighter read and properly belonged in a different genre than originally anticipated. The problem turned out to be my protagonist. The character doesn’t work for the role I need to fill. So, I can either keep my protagonist as is and push forward with the lighter tone and a new genre, or I can make fundamental changes to the character. It’s my call, of course, but it’s one that I do have to make in order to progress.
For over a year after Love Me Back came out I woke up every day with this loop in my head: I should write. But I need money. If I write something I can sell it and I’ll have money. But I need money now. If I had money now, I could calm down and write something. I don’t have money now, so I’m probably not going to be able to calm down and write something. To have money now, I need a job. I should get a job.
She resorted to carrying mail, a role she found helpfully financially but not energetically. After a full day on the job, she was usually too drained to sit down and write something new. Could she call herself a writer when she wasn’t making money in a full-time career?
No matter how you do it, no one is paying you to write. They may pay you for something you wrote, or promise to pay you for something you have promised to write. They may pay your room and board for a month or two at a residency. They may pay you to teach, or to edit something someone else has written. They may pay you to come to a university and talk to people about writing. None of this is the same as being paid to write.
I would like to be paid to write.
Most of us would.
Instead, many of us are doing the “boring” writing that pays the bills. We’re writing proposals. We’re writing advertising copy. We’re pitching blogs and magazines in hopes of a quick cash turnaround. We’re writing form letters and blurbs for brochures. It’s typically not “fun” or “creative.” It’s a job, one that often distracts us from the fun writing we’d rather be doing.
We write, and write often, for function and necessity rather than art. We write to support our families, to keep the hounds at bay. We write because we’ve prioritized pragmatism over idealism. For many of us, that’s all we will ever do. That is our career destiny. Some among us may even prefer it that way. We have acquired a marketable skill, and we’re taking it where the market demands.
We’re not sellouts. We’re survivalists.
I would like to be paid to write, too. Nothing sounds more enchanting, most days, than living out the fantasy of an author’s world filled with launch parties and book groups and invitations to film premieres based on adaptations of my work. Even if I never produce a fiction piece good enough to launch my author career into the stratosphere, however, I am still a writer.
Twitter blew up with satirical literary references Thursday in the wake of the final American presidential debate. During an exchange between users Daniel Morrison, who said presidential candidate Donald Trump’s speeches reminded him of a student giving a report on a book he had not read, and Andrew Bad Hombre, who suggested a sample book, this happened:
@danielmorrison I’m looking into The Grapes of Wrath. It’s a great book. These grape experts keep telling me no one else is as wrathful.
Writing for the NYU student newspaper Washington Square News, Jack Campbell argues that too many students resorting to summary tools such as CliffsNotes in their literature studies is harming their ability to interpret the written word on their own.
“We do not learn from literature in the same way we learn from a textbook,” Campbell writes. “If our educational ethos continues to perpetuate the idea that we can, we risk unjustly condemning new literary analyses and making reading for pleasure a relic of a bygone era.”
“In both The Last Weynfeldt and The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, forgery—an act done in recognition of a painting’s monetary value—evokes its opposite: the intimate, almost magical role that works of art play in people’s emotional and erotic lives,” Cao writes. “Novels about psychically and sexually burdened paintings have a rich literary pedigree; The Picture of Dorian Gray, with its portrait come to life, is only the most familiar. The emphasis on forgery pushes these two recent novels away from Wilde’s occultism to the more contemporary realm of global capitalism, allowing their authors to indulge in suspenseful play between psychosexual drama and market materialism.”
National Novel Writing Month will kick off in less than two weeks, sending 400,000 aspiring authors, if last year is any gauge, into a month-long wordsmithing frenzy. The annual race purports to be a novice writer’s dream, dangling the promise of publication and literary bragging rights above our procrastination-loving selves. You, too, can have a finished novel at the end of just 30 days’ hard work! All you have to do is write at least 1,667 words per day, every day.
For a writer fast approaching the end of a year-long quest to draft a debut novel, with a very low word count to show for it still, NaNoWriMo should be a match made in heaven. We could all stand a little writing discipline, and NaNo, as it’s affectionately termed, is all about learning to make time to write regularly. At least, that’s what we’re told. Yet the more I think about signing up again this year, the more I realize that while NaNoWriMo might be a wonderful exercise for the right person, I should be sitting this one out.
NaNoWriMo is held at the wrong time of year. What cruel mental torturer decided it would be a fabulous idea to sit a bunch of hapless writers down and pester them to type like their little lives depended on it at the start of the holidays each year? November is smack dab in the middle of the Halloween-to-New Year’s rush. That’s when we’re all supposed to be baking up a storm and ordering Christmas gifts and decorating cheeseballs shaped like feathered farm animals, not plinking out 2,000 words daily. Besides, we don’t need any more excuses to give up all pretense of dietary control and dive into the leftover fun-sized candy in between coffee fill-ups.
Everybody is already doing it. How awesome to compete with one’s friends! Let’s all spark literary feuds on Twitter as we boast about our daily word counts! How droll. While the prospect of having others in the trenches with us–misery loves company, I hear–does carry a certain appeal, bear in mind that the fact that everyone else is writing hot now also means you will all quite possibly be overwhelming agents with your pitches around the same time later.
NaNoWriMo’s target isn’t novel length. The NaNoWriMo organization openly admits this in the FAQ section of its website. The official target is 50,000 words. The leadership doesn’t call it a novella, which is lovely, but in today’s publishing world, that’s what it is. Of course one could write more, but if you’re shooting for the minimum word count, it’s good to keep in mind that although you might close the month with 50,000 new words on your screen, you still won’t have a novel-sized product.
In short, you can “win” NaNoWriMo without actually writing an entire novel in a month. That’s what most people will do, if they even make it that far. If you follow the contest guidelines, you’ll have a head start on what could become a novel-length manuscript, but you’ll still have a long swamp to slog through.
Most of the writing will be crap. Certainly, we expect–or should expect–to edit our rough drafts and tweak our storylines. As I mentioned last week, however, many fiction writers are character-driven. They don’t do much to plan out their stories in advance, and NaNoWriMo itself doesn’t offer all that much in the way of structure. Plop folks down in front of a computer for a month-long drafting race, and their stories are likely to go off the rails at some point. A situation like that takes a lot more than a couple months’ worth of cursory editing and rewriting to fix.
An interesting study is NaNoWriMo’s own data on how many of its fiction writers get published. The contest began in 1999 and officially became a nonprofit in 2005. That means there are 10 years’ worth of publication figures under the organization’s current structure available. In 2015 alone, NaNoWriMo recruited 431,626 writers. So how many of these people got a book deal?
NaNo’s list of traditionally published books, going back 10 years, has 398 entries. Another 212 were self-published. Even if we assumed that some participants who eventually got book deals simply never credited NaNoWriMo with boosting part of their writing process, those numbers are depressingly low, averaging 61 NaNoWriMo participants who published any of their books per year of NaNoWriMo competition. Translation? Based on the 10-year publication average, last year’s participants’ success rate was one in 7,076.
Some agents hate it.Laura Miller’s takedown in Salon a few years ago is probably the most famous reference to agents’ rumored loathing of NaNo books, but she’s far from the only source on this subject. While I’m not opposed to NaNoWriMo in general (Miller’s take sounds positively disdainful at the thought of new novelists emerging from the woodwork), the warning signs are there for those of us willing to heed them.
Literary agent Amanda Luedeke objects to the structure of the challenge. Calling it a “crash diet for
those looking to get into some kind of healthy writing lifestyle,” she says NaNoWriMo sets writers up for failure. The project, she argues, has a way of discouraging writers who follow a slower process or simply have busier lives, while simultaneously encouraging would-be authors to engage in word dumps that are far from being in any sort of publishable state by the end of the month.
It suggests writers will enjoy success as long as they stick to the formula. If you buy this protein powder for three easy payments of $19.99, you can get a rocking bod, too. (Also, you will have to go to the gym and lift heavy things regularly, and skip the junk food, and drink this mysterious clear liquid called “water” a whole lot.)
At first glance, NaNoWriMo is forthcoming: Writers have to put in the work. We’re all on the honor system, but you don’t win by writing part of your story in advance, and you don’t win without hitting your word count goal. January and February, meanwhile, are billed as the “Now What?” months, in which writers are supposed to focus on editing their projects. So far, so good.
In practice, though, most people focus on NaNoWriMo’s big selling point: the prospect of a quick turnaround. The organization itself, meanwhile, does plenty to encourage this. “Write a novel in a month!” the organization’s home page touts. “We don’t use the word ‘novella’ because it doesn’t seem to impress people the way ‘novel’ does,” the NaNoWriMo website notes. Right, because calling it a finished “novel” is an easier sell, if a rather deceptive one.
It interferes with my writing process. I’m no gym rat, and quality writing is not a track race. It’s a strategy game. One does not simply sit at a computer and type whatever comes to mind until time is called. Writing well requires deep thought. It demands we take breaks, brainstorm, research, travel, experience. It calls for regular pauses to brew a cup of hot tea and take notes, a walk through the woods, a trip to the shooting range. If we cannot pause and think, we cannot truly push ourselves.
NaNoWriMo has its place. As exercise, as challenge, as goal-metric, it is admirable. The contest attracts hundreds of thousands each year: people who read, people who write, people who want to write more. The publicity it brings to the craft of writing and the efforts it encourages to get young people involved are highly praiseworthy.
It’s not for me, though. Not this year.
What do you think? Will you be taking the NaNoWriMo challenge?