Quotes & Commentary #10: John Milton

Quotes & Commentary #10: John Milton

Who overcomes / By force, hath overcome but half his foe.

—John Milton

Like nearly all good quotes from Paradise Lost, these words are spoken by Satan. He is both commenting on his own expulsion from heaven a well as his plans to disrupt God’s plans through guile and craft rather than force. (He tried using force first, but his army lost.)

This maxim strikes me as true with regard to both physical and intellectual force. If one person is stronger than another, one army better trained and equipped than another, one nation richer and bigger than another, they might be able to have their way through force alone. And doubtless, many have used force successfully. The problem with this strategy, however, is that it is seldom possible to completely defeat an enemy’s strength. Battles are costly, and destruction takes valuable resources. Usually the fallen enemy limps away to fight another day. What’s more, when you use force, you make more enemies than you defeat. There are innumerable examples of this. Through belligerent foreign policy, the United States has often undermined its own security this way, by inspiring hatred in the hearts of many while defeating the arms of a few.

This lesson is equally true in intellectual battles. Let’s say that you and I are having a disagreement. Let’s also say that I am almost certainly wrong, and you almost certainly right. Nevertheless, if you convince me by force, against my will, if you are condescending and contradicting, even if you’re right, you will only inspire resentment and bitterness in me. I will dig in my heels; I will struggle and strain; I will look for every possible argument, however farfetched, to combat you, just because my pride will be on the line. Every intellectual fight is inevitably a fight about something besides the ostensible subject. Every argument becomes a fight of egos, not of minds, and thus a battle in the purest sense. We are never less well disposed to empathize with another person’s point of view if we feel that they are trying to do us harm.

With varying levels of success, I try to apply this lesson whenever I have a disagreement. The trick, I’ve found, is to always try to find some truth in what your partner is saying. (Call them a partner, not an opponent.) Tell them all the ways they’re right before you say any of your own ideas. Then, even if you disagree, don’t frame your comments as contradictions to what they said. Instead, treat your ideas as additions to their ideas, as different bricks in the same structure. This way, you will have an ally instead of an enemy, and they will be much more well disposed towards agreeing with you.

Review: Publishing 101

Review: Publishing 101

Publishing 101Publishing 101 by Jane Friedman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I teach the rules, even though there aren’t any.

Several years ago I embarked upon a novel (my second; although my first attempt was so slapdash and haphazard that it hardly deserves the name). As it gradually took form, and draft after draft accumulated, the idea that I might actually do something with it appeared less and less absurd. But few things are more mysterious to me than the world of publishing. Every time I tried to investigate, a hornet’s nest of unfamiliar entities—agents, editors, query letters, submissions guidelines, genre, category, digital platform—swarmed and buzzed so menacingly until I gave up, overwhelmed. I needed someone to hold my hand, a Virgil to guide me through the several circles of pre-publication hell. That’s where Friedman came in.

Friedman has been in the publishing industry a long time, notably working as the publisher and editorial director of Writer’s Digest. Now she is perhaps best-known for her blog on writing advice. This book was made from that blog, stitching together the most popular posts since 2008 into a basic guide. In theory, you could get everything in this book for free by rummaging around her site. But the book is cheap on Kindle, so what the heck.

Friedman is a sober and pragmatic guide. This is what I like about her. She is not promising miracles, she knows that no approach will work for everyone (or even most people), she has no illusions about the failure rate. There is no magical thinking in this book, only cold and calculated strategies to incrementally increase your likelihood of success. Absent from this book are those “self-help miracle stories” that one so often finds in the writings of professional advice givers.

She is also a fountain of information. Here you will find advice on traditional publication, self-publishing, as well as ample instruction on digital marketing, online platform, and all the other things that keep me up at night. Indeed, Friedman is most enthusiastic and convincing when it comes to online self-promotion. This is unsurprising, since this was her main avenue of success. Still, I think many would-be writers will be surprised by how much of this book is given over to marketing rather than researching and contacting publishers. I know I was.

There is an awful lot of sales talk in this book. Trying to publish a book is, after all, just marketing a product (although I find it bemusing to consider my poor manuscript a commodity). And I must admit that all this talk of hard-selling, soft-selling, building a network, connecting with fans, and suchlike salesy things sometimes gives me a queasy feeling in my stomach. Many writers, I suspect, write to get away from all that, not to make it a permanent fixture in their lives. Writers are not known for being particularly social, suave, or business-savvy creatures.

Nevertheless I think Friedman’s advice is sane and sensible. Her main nugget of wisdom is that your online presence should not be forced or mercenary. Write a blog about something you care about; connect with people just for fun; do things that interest you and that are connected with your creative work. It takes patience and persistence to establish any kind of reputation, following, or clout, so you’ve got to see your digital activity as something rewarding rather than a chore. Easier said than done, I’m sure.

Like anything under the sun, this book is not without its flaws. The main flaw, as Friedman herself acknowledges, is that it was originally written as a series of blog posts. (At one point she says: “If I read a book and think ‘I could’ve gotten this from a series of blog posts,’ then I consider it a failure.” Luckily for her, I’m more lenient in this regard.) The writing is filled with lists, bullet-points, and a relentless stream of short paragraphs. Such writing works extremely well on a blog, of course, where most people are simply scanning for information; but in a book, it grows tiresome.

Another thing I missed was concrete examples. Friedman’s advice, though sensible, was often abstract; often I wished she would give me the story of an author she helped, or just a short vignette about someone who successfully implemented her strategies. I’m sure she has many such stories, and I wished she had used some of them, since they would have brought warmth and blood to potentially anemic advice.

There were also many times I was inclined to doubt her recommendations. For example, Friedman is very keen on authors having their own websites. Now maybe I am exceptional, but I have never, not once, visited an author’s website. Have you? Also, she suggests that you gather emails and send out blasts (not indiscriminately) when you have a big update. But again, I habitually delete all emails that aren’t work related or personal. Doesn’t everyone?

All these quibbles and queries aside, however, I think that this is an excellent book. Friedman is realistic, thorough, and businesslike, without sacrificing the raison d’être of writing: to create and to enjoy the process of creation. Unfortunately for me, I am now fairly convinced that my own poor manuscript hasn’t much commercial potential (but now that I see how brutal the publishing industry is, I’m not sure I mind). In any case, for those lost souls wandering around inferno, looking for the path to paradise, Friedman will be your guide. But be warned: a long climb up Mt. Purgatory awaits!

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