It Has To Be Good; Really, Really, Really Good: An Important Point to Make About Your “Babies”

Ithaca is gorge-ous.

By: Michael James Greenwald

Last Sunday I talked about Richard Nash and highlighted a segment he did on the Bob Edward’s Show, where he talked about the future of publishing and the limitless potential of books.

This week’s confession will not be so cheery and rosy.

This week’s confession will ignore the pure marketing part of publishing completely.

This week’s confession focuses on the product.

This week’s confession points the finger squarely at you.

Cue lightening and thunder...

Who me?

Yes.  You.

Your manuscript must be good; really, really, really good.

It’s an important point to remember.  We spend our days alone, in our worlds, playing Lord and Master over our characters, and they love us, adore us, fill our heads with the wittiest dialogue ever dictated, the most conflictory scenes ever contrived, gorgeous settings, riveting and unique character details, tantalizing plot twists, orgasmic climaxes and humanity-changing themes.

We love our stories.  We love our characters.  We love our little worlds.

We’re like children playing make-believe alone in our rooms with our dolls.  But, think back to your childhood, when you opened your bedroom door and took your dolls out to the kitchen where your mother or father was cooking dinner, grading papers, arguing with the bank on the phone, and shared the scene you’d just created alone in your room, what did she do, what did she say?

If she was arguing with the bank man on the phone or if her spaghetti was boiling to an un-al-dente like consistency, she’d smile at me and say, “Michael, that’s wonderful,” and return her attention to the task at hand.

My mother loved me and believed everything I did was magical (she still does).  You’re future readers, until proven otherwise, do not.

"It cast a spell on me." Julia, I can tell.

The actress Julia Roberts talked about her experience of reading Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir.  She said after thirty pages she put the book down.

“It cast a spell on me,” Roberts explained.  “I immediately got on and ordered a copy for my best friend in Chicago.  I sent it to her with a note saying, ‘I want to be reading this while someone I love is reading it at the same time.'”

Marketing and publicity and PR and price point and B&N, I think, are looked upon as having mythical authority to drive people to purchase products.  Julia Roberts visceral reaction to Eat, Pray, Love has nothing to do with the publishing house’s marketing campaign and everything to do with the sheer quality of the manuscript.

The moment when Tommy-Boy realizes how good his manuscript must be.

Tommy Boy might have said it simpler, “I can take a dump in a box and mark it GUARANTEED–I have the time–and still all you’d have is a box of shit.”

I often forget how good my manuscript has to be.  I’m sorry; how really, really, really, good it must be.  And especially in the modern marketplace where people are drawn to forces of film and TV and magazine and countless other stimuli, to get someone to invest upwards of thirty hours of their lives in your book, it has nothing to do with the marketing; your manuscript must be even better than you thought it ever could be.

I have a writing teacher, Jill Pollack, who says, “If you’re not asking big questions, you’re not going to write big issues.”

Not to say that you need to morph your coming-of-age tale of a Jewish girl on the South Side of Chicago discovering she has a unicorn in her closet to Jodi Picoult, Law-and-Order-ripped-from-the-news, generic topical relevance (Cancer, Divorce, Stem-Cell Technology, Gay Marriage! AIDS! TERRORISM!).

That’s not what Jill’s saying.

You need to strip away the surface plot-line and find the connective tissue all great stories have with exploring humanity.  Take generic characters and strip away their epidermis and discover the swirling pool of passion found in the human soul.  Inject your setting with so many fascinating details, readers will send you emails inquiring about how they can book a flight to your fictional city or town or planet.  Push further than you ever thought possible in terms of tension and conflict, violence and sex, love and marriage, friendship.  Allow your fears, your secrets, your desire to bleed into your work.  Tear back your layers of cartilage and reveal your soul.

Maybe you’re not comfortable doing so.  Maybe you don’t really want to do this thing called writing.

It took ten years, but Andrew got it done.

In all of this, take your time.  It’s great (and necessary) to set goals, but there’s no rush.  Your manuscript might take a year.  It might take ten years.  Don’t allow other people or your own delusional ego to push you into submitting your manuscript until you’ve squeezed every little drop out of your work.

Have big dreams.  One of my dreams is to be featured as an author on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR.  If you don’t dream big, you won’t achieve your dreams.

Writers, the bar is set higher than you might even imagine.

You must make “your baby” good; really, really, really good.


Born a Jew, though through his fellow confession-ees, now firmly committed to this Christian concept of confessional (at least in the agnostic literary sense), Michael James Greenwald is a student at Story Studio Chicago, applying for a Ragdale Residency in the fall, and waffling daily (sometimes hourly) on To-MFA or To-Not-To-MFA, that is the question.

For now, he works in his family business of owning and operating bowling alleys in the South Suburbs of Chicago, and is excited about the potential in the near future of starting a family (“A big one, like six, eleven kids…right baby?”)

His debut novel The Rainbow Child and short story collection Celebratory Gunfire are due to be published in the next several years.

His personal blog site is sleepsunshine. Feel free to venture to his Facebook page or feel free to email him with any comments or suggestions for further topics, or if you had any interest in being a guest blogger on either one of his sites.

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