Writing Without Rules

JC/Hoboken author’s new book gives publication tips

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There are some who treat writing like an exclusive fraternity or sorority that not just anyone should be allowed to join – and perhaps it’s because they work so hard at it. What some people see as a hobby can take years of revisions, rejection, and reluctantly putting aside a passion project to start from scratch. But that doesn’t mean that anyone can’t be a writer; the first key is to just write. Unfortunately, those working on poetry, fiction, memoir, blog entries, or even diary entries are often given sketchy advice from “experts” on what to do.
Recently, there was a backlash on Twitter about the common advice to “write every day” – with some saying it’s advice for the privileged, since adults have so many responsibilities that they can’t always steal a block of time each day to create. Instead, they write when and where they can.
Jeff Somers, a novelist who grew up in Jersey City and now lives in Hoboken, recently published a book that contains a different message for budding writers. Mainly: Stop listening to bad advice for writers!
Somers, who spoke in August at the Writer’s Digest conference in New York, has published nine novels, including the noir-science fiction Avery Cates Series (from Orbit Books), and crime and mystery novels. He’s also published 46 short stories, one of which was included in Best American Mystery Stories 2006. Long before that, he published a novel about friends who worked in publishing, called Lifers, and a funny zine called “The Inner Swine” full of essays, satire, and rants.
Somers’ new book, published by Writer’s Digest Books – Writing Without Rules: How to Write & Sell a Novel without Guidelines, Experts, or (Occasionally) Pants – displays his trademark sense of humor and is packed with valuable advice on everything from crafting dialogue to surviving financially as a writer. He also tells of his own experiences, including mentioning that he has a file of more than 1,400 rejection slips.
“The whole point is, I’m not the brightest guy,” he said in an interview recently at a coffee shop in Hoboken. “I made terrible mistakes and stumbled my way through. A lot of people have set rules. I wandered in like a bull in a China shop.”
Somers, 47, lives in Hoboken with his wife and five cats. He began writing at age 9, while growing up in Jersey City Heights. “I got a lot of inspiration from the Jersey City Public Schools and my parents,” he said. “When both kids [brothers] turned into introspective bookworms, they didn’t try to dissuade us.”
He said his childhood was somewhat normal and “free range,” the way childhoods were in the 1980s – although one time, two boys punched him and stole his new, long-coveted Huffy dirt bike with training wheels. Still, he prevailed. He was inspired as a teenager after reading books like Lord of the Rings. He attended P.S. 27 and 28 in Jersey City, St. Peter’s Prep for high school, and then majored in English at Rutgers.
Along the way, he wrote dozens of short stories and a few books. The initial publication offers came from small presses, one of which shut down without publishing the book.
“I used to joke that I’d kill publishing companies,” Somers said.
Coincidentally, a few weeks after our interview, the coffee shop in Hoboken suffered a fire and closed.

Write, write, write

A major piece of advice in the book is to write often and read often, which may be standard, but there’s something else – finish what you write.
Somers’ own writing career got a boost when he finally was able to make a go of it full-time in 2012, but it wasn’t easy. “Do not, under any circumstances, become a writer in order to make money,” he advises in the book, while still giving tips for earning money by writing. He also recommends getting a full-time job that allows one to still write.
Somers had several of those jobs after college graduation, but was laid off from a publishing company six years ago. He gave himself six months to try to make it as a freelance writer. But he didn’t work only on his novels – he sought all sorts of freelance opportunities, including writing lifestyle articles.
He said living in Hoboken is helpful. “What I like about Hoboken is that it’s self-contained,” he said. “Everything I need to do during the day, I can walk out of my house and do.” He cited the city’s two bookstores, Little City Books and Symposia.
He was also inspired by his time in Jersey City, and mentions in the book that he often bases his characters’ apartments on a Jersey City unit where he lived after college, from 1996 to 2001.

Somers has a file of more than 1,400 rejections.


User-friendly advice

Somers’ book is lively and user-friendly, with gray boxes containing “Unconventional Tips” like: “A lot of writers come up to me at conferences or after readings and ask…Do I outline? Have I ever used software like Scrivener? Process is whatever works for you. There is no right way to write a book. While another writer’s approach might offer some useful ideas, if your process generates finished work, then your process is fine.”
The book also talks about getting an agent, and even how he pitched and sold the project itself.
“I think the book is entertaining even if you’re not a writer,” Somers said.

What’s next

Somers said that he’s now working on “An off-kilter thriller set in high school that’s been described as a teenage Fight Club.”
He also frequently posts videos about his process, cats, and others aspects of the writing life. (http://www.jeffreysomers.com/blather/videos)
Somers’ book can be found at bookstores, Amazon, and Barnesandnoble.com.

SIDEBAR: More writing and publishing tips

Jeff Somers’ book isn’t the only compendium of writing advice out from Writer’s Digest Books this year. New York City-area journalism professor Susan Shapiro, who has helped countless writers break into essay and memoir writing, published a collection of advice and examples in her Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks, released in August.
Shapiro is giving a reading in Hudson County in early November: at Little City Books in Hoboken on Friday, Nov. 2. Several other Jersey authors who had their writing excerpted in her book will also read and share their paths to publication, including Hoboken-based novelist and essayist Caren Lissner (whose humor piece from McSweeney’s appears in the book). The bookstore is a six-block walk from the Hoboken train terminal.
For event details, check LittleCityBooks.com, susanshapiro.net, or carenlissner.com.