A Shameless Guide to the Joys of Not Writing

Weeding is the flossing of gardening. It’s essential, but it only encourages them. Elizabeth and I visited our friends, Denny and Diana, in Vacaville for the Easter weekend. We dyed five dozen Easter eggs and spent time with them and their kids and grand kids. 

We also ate too much. We went to Murillo’s, an excellent Mexican restaurant, off Highway 80 across from the outlet mall. Diana makes a killer chocolate cheesecake with a recipe created by Elizabeth’s mother Rita. Denny and I crushed the Oreo Cookies, with filling, for the crust. (Baking tip: the 100-calorie package of Oreos doesn’t have the filling.)

I pruned calla lilies and pulled weeds in Denny and Diana’s beautiful garden, immersive jobs that, like writing, are flow experiences that make me forget about anything else by forcing me to concentrate on doing the best job I can. Like editing, weeding is also purgative: taking away what doesn’t add to the effect you wish to create.

Just as silence helps gives music its value, having time away from the laptop makes me appreciate that not writing is as important as writing. Time away gives you the chance to

  • Come up with ideas for your work
  • Let your subconscious help you solve writing problems
  • Give yourself time away from your work so you can return to it with fresh eyes
  • Let yourself be stimulated by new surroundings, people, and ideas
  • Try new things
  • Meet challenges presented by what you’re doing

Even if you don’t have the luxury of leaving town, visiting other parts of where you live will give you time away from work, especially if you have the strength not to peek at your smart phone. San Francisco is a city of inviting neighborhoods, each with its own character. Since the city’s independent bookstores have miraculously survived the chains, many neighborhoods have an indies worth visiting.

Progress didn’t stop in my absence. There was a story in the Vacaville Reporter about Google’s chic glasses that will be a tablet you wear. I returned to find a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about a flying car that can land at 5,000 airports, and the online prediction that in five years, Barnes & Noble, like Radio Shack and Best Buy, will be gone.  

Just another weekend on the accelerating path to an unknowable but limitless future that gives you ever more to write about. Meanwhile, doing anything you love will help your writing. Variety will spice up your work. Taking time to develop all of your potential as a human being will make you a better writer.


The goal of the blog is to help you and me understand writing and publishing. Rants, comments, questions, and answers most appreciated.

The 10th San Francisco Writers Conference/A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 14-17, 2013/www.sfwriters.org / sfwriterscon@aol.com / http://sfwriters.org/blog /@SFWC/ www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean/free classes/www.sfwritersu.com/sfwritersu@gmail.com/@SFWritersU

415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109



The Royal Flush of Content: Aceing Big Brother—Part 2

In The Royal Flush of Information: Content is Queen, Community is King, Marketing is the Jack, and Passion is the Ten. Control of Content is the Ace.

Perhaps a decade ago, a book described how industries tend to wind up with three dominant players: Ford, Chrysler, GM; Wendy’s, Burger King, MacDonald’s. Blogger, industry maven, and co-director of PublishersLaunch, Mike Shatzkin thinks that the Web will wind up with three major aggregators of content. The candidates: Apple, Google, and Amazon, the potential
Big Brothers.

President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Reich believes that the largest banks are so big, corrupt, and irresponsible (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/6) that they should be broken up. In a hyper-connected world, information is the coin of the realm. Tech companies don’t care about writers, books, or publishing. Whatever their executives may personally believe, their job is to follow the money wherever it leads, putting profit before any other purpose.

Printed books have been around for 500 years; none of these companies or technologies will be around in 50 years. Giving Big Brothers the right to control access to culture will be a disaster. Now’s the time to end the bromance and split Apple, Google, and Amazon into companies with less power for controlling culture and less potential for becoming more corrupted by that power. Divide the Brothers before they conquer.

BTW: The Joker is the Future, which no one knows, and no one can predict or control. But as techno-visionary Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
This is where you come in. Give your readers stories to rave about. Enlarge the possibilities for using technology to tell stories in new ways. Dazzle us with your creativity. We will love you for it, and the joke will be on everyone who rejects your work.

[Formatting anomalies not in draft. Suggestions welcome.]

I write the blog to help us both understand what we need to know about writing, publishing, promotion, and agents. I hope you find it worth reading and sharing. Rants, comments, questions, corrections, and ideas for posts greatly appreciated.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community /February 16-20, 2012 / www.sfwriters.org / sfwriterscon@aol.com / http://sfwriters.org/blog / @SFWC / www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference / 415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / www.sfwritersu.com / sfwritersu@gmail.com / @SFWritersU


The Last Chance to Prevent Googleopoly?

 Google will do what is in (its) best interest at all times.

–Dave Rosenberg, open-source software executive

I have yet to see anyone discuss what is most dangerous about Google’s attempt to commandeer our literary heritage: Power corrupts. There is far too much power in the hands of fewer people and corporations than ever.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich reminded us is his March 27th column in the San Francisco Chronicle that: “…corporations exist for one purpose and one purpose only – to make as much money as possible….”  The actions of Amazon, the leading online bookseller, with customers and publishers have shown how the pursuit of profit can affect decisions.

Google’s noble goal is to make the knowledge in the world’s 130 million books available to anyone connected to the Web. Thanks to the exploding smartphone market, by the end of the decade, this will include most of the people on the planet. But Google’s equally noble commitment not to do evil hasn’t prevented it from happening. Digitizing books in copyright without permission created a firestorm of protest from the writing and publishing community.

Unless stopped, technology companies, prodded by political, financial, and competitive pressures, will control the culture for which they are the gatekeepers. Our literary heritage should be in a library available to all, not a profit center subject to corporate needs. Access to books is far more important than quarterly dividends. Allowing books to become victims of the corporate imperative will lead to evil being done to readers, writers, students, and publishers.

Consider this solution:

1. Google should seize the opportunity created by U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin’s ruling against its plan, because of concerns about copyright, privacy, and monopoly. Empower the publishing community to make decisions about how Google provides access to books. One of the wisest investment Google can make is to finance a nonprofit governing board with the ability to decide how best to balance access and profit in the public interest.

The board would include a representative from Google, the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Library of Congress, the Author’s Guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, the American Board of Higher Education, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and perhaps other organizations.

2. Have these organizations elect a member to serve a single two-year term for the part-time position in return for the income the member presently earns plus expenses. The ideal candidates will have integrity, creativity, and a passionate dedication to the public’s right to access books.

3. Make the board’s monthly meetings transparent: televise them, including who votes for what, and post the text of its meetings on the Web.

If Google separates control and profits, the courts and the international book community will look more kindly on its efforts.

Lurking behind this issue are two questions as important as any we face:

1. How do we grant individuals and organizations enough power to be effective but not enough to be corrupted?

2. At a time of accelerating change, how do we enable government to solve huge, growing, complex, related problems?

History has proven Napoleon right: “Humanity is only limited by its imagination.” All that separates conception and achievement are time and resources.  Creativity and collaboration across media, disciplines, and borders will continue to unleash a growing torrent of wonders.

What we desperately need is a new group of founding fathers and mothers to reimagine the American dream and how to achieve it.. Whatever the dream is, books — in whatever form they take — will continue to be an essential part of it.

Books on Hot Subjects: Trial or Triumph?

Almost anything that happens is bad for somebody and good for somebody.


Few things are more exciting for agents than finding a story in the news and putting together a book about it fast. For writers, it represents an immediate opportunity to write about a subject they may already be covering.

The Symbionese Liberation Army enabled me to agent my first book. When the SLA kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974, I knew there was a book in it. So I called Alan Barnard at Bantam, where I had worked, and which was well-known for doing instant books, to see if they wanted a book on the SLA. No luck.

Then I called Bill Grose at Dell Books to see if he wanted one. He also said no, but after he hung up, Helen Meyer, who owned Dell, came into his office and asked him about doing a book on the subject. So he called me back and said yes.

Then I called Tim Findley who, with Paul Avery, was writing the banner headline stories on the abduction in the San Francisco Chronicle. He said no, although he did later coauthor a book. So I called Paul who said yes. Voila!, a sale in four phone calls. An exciting experience that took place within a day’s time.

Paul enlisted Vin McLellan, a reporter for the Boston Phoenix, to collaborate with him. They wrote a proposal. I sold it, and they were off to the races. Unfortunately, Ms. Hearst didn’t get captured for nineteen months, so the story was never finished. When she was apprehended, Paul, Vin, and a typist spent two weeks working around the clock in our apartment to finish the book.

But by that time, half a dozen books on the subject had come and gone and the public had been subjected to a huge amount of media coverage, so Dell was no longer interested in an instant book on the SLA. We resold the book to John Dodds at Putnam, which brought out The Voices of Guns: The Definitive and Dramatic Story of the Twenty-Two Month Career of the Symbionese Liberation Army —a first-rate 477-page book at $14.95—in 1977, three years after the event. It was too much, too late.

We had the same experience with Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by San Francisco Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs. Tim, who was wounded in Guyana in 1978, wrote a book that was hailed as “seminal, definitive, extraordinary.” But Dutton published it four years later, and weighing in at more than 500 pages, it too was more than the media-weary public wanted to know. However, the book had a second life when the Tarcher imprint at Penguin brought out an updated trade paperback edition for the thirtieth anniversary of Jonestown. It did well enough to go back to press.

Making the World Better

It’s been said that when there’s a bunch of books on a subject only the first one and the best one do well. But the right books by the right authors published quickly enough can work. At one point, there were seven books about 9/11 on the Times bestseller list.

The New York Times (7/21) reported that at least six books on the Gulf disaster would starting flowing from publishers in September. Publishers are hoping that authors with platforms and different angles will enable these books to attract readers. An event of this magnitude and importance—Times columnist Thomas Friedman called it Obama’s 9/11—merits the in-depth analysis that only books can provide.

The question is whether these books can find readers, despite being about a depressing subject that the media has covered heavily and about which readers can do little or nothing. The better we understand what happened in the Gulf, the better able we will be to prevent it from happening again. Let’s hope they’re all bestsellers. They will be serving the highest mission books have: making the world a better place. If you’re thinking about writing a book on a hot topic, gauge carefully how salable it will when your book comes out.