Communion Of Dreams


All my adult life I’ve suffered from chronic blepharitis — usually mild, with occasional annoying flare-ups.

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“A lot of would-be professional writers dream of someday getting a book contract that includes an advance: enough money, paid up front, to let them quit their day job and write full time. Of course those advances do come with an expectation that an author will actually write the book. The Penguin Publishing Group recently filed suit against a dozen authors who failed to produce manuscripts after getting advances.”

That’s the intro to an NPR story which ran this morning. It’s worth listening to if you haven’t heard it, for the statements of clueless entitlement from some of the authors involved if nothing else.

I heard about this story when it first made the rounds a couple of weeks ago. I considered writing about it then, but I had just launched my Kickstarter, and I didn’t want to come across as having sour grapes or whining about the large advances  celebrity authors can command from the conventional publishing houses.

But seriously, this stuff is nuts. Who in their right mind would think that you could sign a contract for $325,000 with a $81,250 advance, and then not provide a manuscript for six years? I mean, I know that publishing is ‘broken’ , but that’s ridiculous — from both sides of the equation.

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And speaking of Jane Austin (see link just above), another interesting story this morning on NPR is worth consideration:

A Lively Mind: Your Brain On Jane Austen

At a recent academic conference, Michigan State University professor Natalie Phillips stole a glance around the room. A speaker was talking but the audience was fidgety. Some people were conferring among themselves, or reading notes. One person had dozed off.

Phillips, who studies 18th- and 19th-century literature, says the distracted audience made something pop in her head. Distractability is a theme that runs through many novels of Jane Austen, whom Phillips admires. It occurred to Phillips that there was a paradox in her own life when it came to distractability.

“I love reading, and I am someone who can actually become so absorbed in a novel that I really think the house could possibly burn down around me and I wouldn’t notice,” she said. “And I’m simultaneously someone who loses their keys at least three times a day, and I often can’t remember where in the world I parked my car.”

Phillips decided to investigate this, setting up an experiment where she had people read passages from Austin while in a functional MRI scanner. She set it up so that the readers were supposed to either just be ‘browsing’ the text, or to be fully devoting their attention to it.

What did she find?

Well, first, this was just a limited study, and the results are preliminary. And there are problems with trying to use fMRI to pin-point what portions of the brain are involved in cognition.

But what is interesting is that when the readers were fully engaged — devoting their entire attention to the passages in deep reading — their entire brain seemed to be activated.

I think anyone who has ever completely lost themselves in a book will find this hardly surprising. And, as an author who attempts to completely paint a realistic ‘world’ for people to enjoy in my novels, it’s heartening to know that science seems to back up personal experience.

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All my adult life I’ve suffered from chronic blepharitis — usually mild, with occasional annoying flare-ups.

This next bit is a little gross. My apologies.

Typically, when I have a flare-up of my blepharitis, a few days of warm compresses and some antibiotic ointment take care of it. But this latest round has proven to be a bit more of a hassle.

A couple of weeks ago I felt like I got a bit of something stuck in the orbit of my left eye. Probably a small eyelash or flake of skin — this has happened before. It’ll work its way out eventually. And I think this morning it did, because there was a small gloopy bit of pus which I fished out from under my lower lid.

Like I said, a bit gross. Sorry.

But it’s a natural reaction of the body, and I suspect that now the blepharitis will clear up with the usual treatment.

And as I was taking care of this this morning, I was thinking about the next book. I’m doing this a lot, lately. As it notes on the brief blurb about St. Cybi’s Well, the main character is dealing with an eye disease which threatens his career when the book starts. I don’t want to get into too much detail, but I have very specific reasons for why this is, and what it means for the overall story line (including what plays out in Communion of Dreams). There is a long tradition in literature and mythology about the symbolism of a character who has eye problems, and a lot of that comes into play.

But I couldn’t help but note my own connection in this way, and how sometimes it might be a bit overdoing-it to so completely manifest what is happening in my own mind’s eye.

Jim Downey

T-minus seven days.


Looking back: Rejecting Jane Austin.

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on July 20, 2007.


How would you like to have been the guy at a publishing house who sent back J. K. Rowling’s query for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (as the book was first titled in Britain)? Purportedly, over a dozen people have this bit of professional shame lurking in their past. There are plenty of other such stories out there of writers who had trouble selling their first book, who then went on to hugely successful writing careers. But given Rowling’s phenomenal success (which I think is fully deserved), this is the tale I find most amusing as I struggle in obscurity with my own writing.

Getting published these days is largely a matter of luck. Oh, if you are already a celebrity, then getting a book published is a simple matter. But as we live in an age of celebrity, I don’t find that in the least bit surprising. But for a first-time novelist, breaking through is really a matter of luck as much as anything.

Don’t believe me? Figure that quality will eventually attract a publisher, the way that J.K. Rowling did after a dozen rejections?

Tell that to David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. Lassman, a frustrated novelist himself, decided to see what would happen if he sent around sample chapters and plot outlines for some of Jane Austen‘s work to British publishers. From The Guardian:

After making only minor changes, he sent off opening chapters and plot synopses to 18 of the UK’s biggest publishers and agents. He was amazed when they all sent the manuscripts back with polite but firm “no-thank-you’s” and almost all failed to spot that he was ripping off one of the world’s most famous literary figures.

Mr Lassman said: “I was staggered. Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the English canon and yet only one recipient recognised them as Austen’s work.”

Lassman barely tweaked some of the names and titles, but left the text largely alone. And so, one of the most celebrated authors in the English language couldn’t get past the first-line readers employed by most publishers and agents to filter out unsolicited submissions.

As I try and psyche myself up for making another round of passes at agents, trying to convince them that having over 3500 people download my novel based almost entirely on word of mouth is an indication that there is indeed some demand there, I will remember this. I do not delude myself into thinking that I am a writer on the same level as Austen or Rowling. Hardly. But not all published work is in anything like that league. Further, the decision as to what gets published, what gets past the poorly paid staff stuck with opening envelops, is largely a matter of just dumb luck rather than the reflection of any sort of quality judgment at all.

Jim Downey