The SCOTT TOPICS™ Mail Bag: Writing Advice, VIBE, & What I’m reading these days…

{I get a lot of email from readers—of VIBE, of HUNG, of the blog—and many of the questions I get in them overlap. I do try to get back to everyone who writes, but sometimes things, as you kn0w, get crazy—doesn’t help that I’m a full-time grad student now! So I decided to just answer a bunch of the questions I’ve gotten right here at SCOTT TOPICS™, that way I answer my mail, but also provide answers to questions others might have but haven’t gotten around to writing. Hope these answer some of your questions…!}

“Can you recommend a really good book on learning to write?” ~ T.K., Seattle

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve ever read any “how-to write” books! I used to love to read Writer’s Digest magazine, but that was mainly to read the interviews with writers and the invaluable business-y stuff that they publish. Oh, I did really like Stephen King’s On Writing, but that might be because I was his biggest fan from around 1979 til about 1993. He makes some good points about style and the writer’s life, but I don’t know what “lessons” I got from it per se.

That said, if I was forced to name the books that “taught” me how to write, I’d probably say these:

Anything by Joan Didion or James Baldwin or Truman Capote (for both journalistic and creative style and clarity)

Anything by Judy Blume or John Irving (for emotional truth)

Anything by Jackie Collins or Stephen King or Ross McDonald (for ace plotting and storytelling acumen)

Anything by Toni Morrison or Charles Chesnutt (for ambition)

In other words, I guess what I’m saying is, to be a good writer, I had to be a good reader. I had to pay close attention to the things that made me want to re-read them, to the books and writers who made me want to put them down and go straight to the pen or typewriter or computer. I also learned to listen to the written voice of writers,  to the rhythm of their prose, and how that rhythm informed the language to create something wonderful on the page.

I liked the short story you posted on the blog, and I’m looking forward to reading your novel after reading your non-fiction and journalism all these years. Is it hard to move between the two forms? Will you go back to journalism after this novel?” ~ G.G., New York

First, thanks for reading the short story, and I hope you enjoy The VIPs when it comes out next summer. It actually isn’t “hard” to move between the two, mainly because fiction was my first love as a writer. I sorta became a journalist by accident! Once I started, I loved it, and when I realized, thanks to writers like Didion and Baldwin and Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer that “journalism” didn’t have to mean dry, ‘just-the-facts-ma’am’ reportage, it became the perfect space to tackle some of the themes I wanted to investigate as a writer.

Writing the novel last year was sort of a respite from journalism. I was not happy any more as a journalist, I didn’t have a new non-fiction idea to follow-up HUNG, and I had this fiction idea needling in the back of my brain. Once I set it to paper, it went like the wind, and took me back to all that fiction I’d written in college. Creating characters was a wonderful change from profiling real-life people; giving my characters flaws to work out was more fun than critiquing and analyzing the flaws of the real-life subjects I interviewed for a living!

As for journalism? I think, for the most part, those days are behind me. I might do a story here and there (and I will be making an announcement about a new journalistic affiliation I’ve made very soon) because it is still fun, but I won’t be doing any music criticism or hiphop profiles. I leave that to the young’uns who are doing it much better than I could these days!  And between school stuff—and the scholarly pursuits I have there—I’m writing a new non-fiction book about male vanity and the sexual exploits of the generation post-Generation X. I’ll have more info about that VERY soon.

“You’ve mentioned your agent a few times in various blog posts. Sounds like you get along well. How did you find your agent?” ~ W.H., Chicago

Yes, I mention Tanya, my agent, quite frequently, for various reasons: first of all, she’s great and has negotiated very well for me with those big bad beasts called publishers that writers have to deal with. But she’s most important to me for another reason: she keeps me sane. She doesn’t let me do some of the dumb things or say some of the dumb things I’ve wanted to do and say over the years. And even more importantly she’s a phenomenal editor. I’m not sure many agents read and vet manuscripts like she does, but it’s absolutely invaluable; she’ll read stuff closely and let me know what works and what doesn’t work. It’s her intelligence, then, that I really value. Having that second eye before we send stuff out (or don’t) is wonderful.

As for how I found an agent. Full confession: my first agent (who was great too, though we eventually came to a mutual decision that as great as she was, she just wasn’t the right agent for me) found me, based on writing I’d done for SPIN and VIBE magazines. She knew my lawyer, gave me call, and that was that. My current agent I found the way many writers find agents: I asked around. I asked everyone, from editors I knew in publishing, to other writers and friends of writers. It came down to a couple of recommendations, a few lunches, and a decision was made: I went with Tanya, who had come HIGHLY recommended by every editor I asked. Which said to me that she was someone they liked, and more importantly, liked doing business with.

I know writers who have gone online, found lists of agents, sent them writing samples, and found someone that way. I know others who looked up the agents of writers they liked (or who’d written similar stuff) and submitted material. I’d say that finding an agent is sorta like starting a relationship. Go on a date, if they’re interested in you. Suss out if this is someone you can see yourself spending time with, or even better: is this someone you can see repping you when you’re not in the room?

Sadly there is no magic pill for finding an agent but there is this: Put your best foot forward. Don’t send stuff to an agent who doesn’t read unsolicited stuff. Follow their rules and directions to the utmost. Don’t bug them for a response; you’ll hear back when they’re ready. Re-write and re-write and re-write until you burnish that submission into the best possible shape it can be. Expect rejection, but know that if you’ve written something that someone wants to read, something different that stands out with not just good writing but special characters and situations (if it’s fiction) or an exciting way of looking at some subject matter (if it’s non-fiction), you will find an agent.

“Will you ever write for VIBE again?” ~ F.J., Orlando

To quote my favorite rapper, LL Cool J? “I don’t think so.” The VIBE I wrote for was in a different time, meant something different to a VERY different generation of readers, and I was in a different space. I wish them well, and I was so very glad to see them up and running again after that bump in the road last summer, but I think my time with VIBE is over.

“What are you reading now?” ~ P.L., Houston

Other than a bunch of highly theoretical scholarly texts to prep for my prelim exams next year? Hahaha…only kidding. I’m actually liking a lot of those high-theory, historical, close-readings. I loved Daphne Brooks’ Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910, and I’m currently reading Monica L. Miller’s Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, which I’m really enjoying. I’m very much looking forward to Darieck Scott’s Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination, which comes out later this month. Not only am I getting the best of many exciting young African American scholars, but I’m also getting some sense of the kind of book I’d like to write someday—that day when I have to produce something scholarly. Pray for me.

Before the Scott book arrives however, I’ll be finishing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and the new paperbacks by two of the finest, smartest thriller writers doing their things today: Lee Child and Daniel Silva. Popular fiction is never far from me when I have the time for it these days!

{For earlier entries in the mailbag/advice (for instance, my sorta-controversial—which I still don’t get—take on Toni Morrison’s novels) click here…}


1 Comment

Filed under advice, books, culture, writing

One response to “The SCOTT TOPICS™ Mail Bag: Writing Advice, VIBE, & What I’m reading these days…

  1. seanermc

    glad i checked this post out, scott. keep it up! ill let u know when i get to the short story.

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