The Dangers of an MFA: The Most Important Question to Ask Yourself before Applying

“Those who know they’re valued irrespective of their accomplishments often end up accomplishing quite a lot.” —Alfie Kohn

In Feel-Bad Education (And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling) Alfie Kohn talks about the dangers of traditional education. One of his essays, titled “Unconditional Teaching,” made me stop and think about the potential pitfalls of an MFA:

All of us want our students to be successful learners, but there is a thin line that separates valuing excellence (a good thing) from leading students to believe that they matter only to the extent they meet our standards (not a good thing). Some people elevate abstractions like Achievement or Excellence above the needs of flesh-and-blood children. Thus, by steering extra resources to, or heaping public recognition on, students who succeed, we’re not only ignoring the counterproductive effects of extrinsic motivators, but possibly sending a message to all students—those who have been recognized and those who, conspicuously, have not—that only those who do well count.

Nel Noddings made a similar point in discussing the kind of teacher who pushes students relentlessly but also praises those who manage to live up to his high expectations (“You are the best!”). Such instructors are often admired for being both demanding and encouraging. However, if “You are the best!” just means “You can do A.P. calculus [or literary writing],” then this suggests that only those who master differential equations [or “serious” writing] are “the best.” Surely, says Noddings, “a student should not have to succeed at A.P. calculus [or literary writing] to gain a math teacher’s [or writing teacher’s] respect.”

Or consider those educators, particularly in the arts, whose professional pride is invested in the occasional graduate who goes on to distinguish herself as a well-known novelist or violinist. There is a big difference between trying to help as many students as possible cultivate a love of, and some competence at, one’s field and trying to sift through many hundreds of students in search of the very few who will later become famous. The latter suggests a profoundly antidemocratic sensibility, one that sees education as being about winnowing and selecting rather than providing something of value for everyone. And, again, all students realize that they matter to such a teacher only if they measure up.

My point is not that we shouldn’t value, or even celebrate, accomplishment. But paradoxically, unconditional teaching is more likely to create the conditions for children to excel. Those who know they’re valued irrespective of their accomplishments often end up accomplishing quite a lot. It’s the experience of being accepted without conditions that helps people develop a healthy confidence in themselves, a belief that it’s safe to take risks and try new things.

I am clearly skeptical of traditional schooling—I tend to value experience over certificates—but Kohn brings up an important question every writer, no matter her stance on schooling, should ask before applying to an MFA program, and that is:

Why do I want to apply to an MFA program?

The question is obvious, but it’s difficult to answer honestly. Look at “The X Factor” and “The Voice,” for example. How many people audition in the hopes of “breaking out” and becoming the next “big thing”? I’d venture to say every single one of them. And that isn’t bad; it’s human.

The problem is, they’re so focused on becoming the next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood or Jennifer Hudson that they forget why they started singing in the first place—which was hopefully because they loved it, it made them feel whole, and they wanted guidance on how to make singing even more a part of their lives.

And the problem is compounded by the coaches. They are not, as Kohn says, trying to help as many singers as possible “cultivate a love of, and some competence at, [singing].” Instead, they are literally ditching singers every week, sifting through hundreds of them in search of The One.

I realize these shows are contests and meant to be entertainment, but that’s exactly why they’re such excellent examples of the hypocrisy in many arts programs.

So, returning to the above question: Why do I want to apply to an MFA program?

Is it because you love writing and it makes you feel whole and you want guidance on how to make it even more a part of your life? Or is it because you secretly hope you’ll be discovered and become the next George Saunders, Jay McInerney, or Mary Karr?

Once you answer that question, don’t stop there. It’s just as important to flip the question on its head and ask:

Why do the MFA programs want me to apply?

Are they truly looking to help the writing masses cultivate a love of their craft, or are they only looking for their next starlets—the handful of applicants who might make it big?

While no answer here is inherently bad (depending on your point of view), it’s still important to be honest with yourself so that you don’t end up doing something that is hurting you far more than its helping, having forgotten why you started writing in the first place.

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4 Mistakes That Cost Books the Best Sellers List

“If you understand how the category system works, you can give your book instant visibility on Amazon.” —David Gaughran

In my previous post I talked about virtual co-op and how most online bookstores sell their prime real estate to the highest bidder (i.e., large publishing houses). The exception is Amazon, whose co-op is mostly based on merit. In other words, Amazon gives away most of its prime spots to those books best suited to a particular reader’s tastes. Now the question is: how can a book show Amazon that it’s the best choice to recommend?

The 4 Big Mistakes

Many authors, and even publishing houses, don’t understand Amazon’s genre categories. This naïveté is extremely detrimental for sales because Amazon uses genre categories to fill its Best Sellers lists. In short, if you don’t understand how to categorize your book, you’re almost guaranteed poor sales. 

In this post I’ll again be drawing from David Gaughran’s book Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books.

Mistake #1: Your Categories Are Too Broad

For each book, a self-publisher can pick two of Amazon’s genre categories (traditional publishers, on the other hand, can choose up to five, depending on their deal with Amazon). A common mistake is to choose a genre that is too broad and too competitive. 

The Fiction category, for example, has over 750,000 books. Appearing in its Top 100 would be, as Gaughran puts it, “beyond most mere mortals.”

Note: Gaughran includes in his book a Rank to Sales Estimator so you can estimate how you would fare in a respective category. 

Not only are broad categories usually too competitive for most authors, they’re also a waste. Amazon filters its categories into each other, like rivers breaking off into streams. Gaughran explains:

Even if you drill down several levels to choose something like Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Fiction > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers > Political, your book will still show in all of the top-level categories above the one you have chosen (i.e. Fiction; Mystery, Thriller & Suspense; Thrillers). In other words, when you pick something more specific like that, you are multiplying your potential visibility opportunities rather than restricting them. If your book is doing particularly well, you will appear on a number of Top 100 lists, all of which will drive further sales.

Mistake #2: You Don’t Diversify

With only two genre spots, it’s important to maximize visibility by opting for two distinct categories. Many authors unknowingly corner themselves by nesting their two choices within the same category. Here’s an example from Gaughran:

If you have written a gritty crime novel set on an army base in Iraq, the obvious category choices might be Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Crime, and Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Police Procedurals. However, there are two weaknesses to this approach. First of all, they are both very competitive categories, requiring around 100 sales a day to hit even the front page of the Best Seller lists.

Second, they are both roots of the same top-level category: Mystery & Thrillers. . . . You could keep Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers & Suspense > Crime, and choose something a little less competitive for the second.

Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Action & Adventure requires around 200 sales a day to hit the front page of the Best Seller list but others are less demanding such as War (50 sales a day), and Men’s Adventure (40 sales a day).

WARNING

Don’t over-correct by choosing a category so small that it barely has any reader traffic.

Mistake #3: You Don’t Change Up Your Categories

Back when only brick-and-mortar bookstores were around, a book was typically placed on one bookshelf, and that was its permanent home. Nowadays with online bookstores, shelving is much more fluid, and a book that doesn’t explore new shelves risks stagnation.

According to Gaughran, there are a number of reasons why an author might virtually “re-shelve” her book by changing its genre category:

  1. If a book’s sales have slowed and could use more visibility by switching to a less competitive category
  2. If a book has strong sales and could do well in a more competitive category (which is, by default, seen by more readers)
  3. If a book has had a long run in a certain category and could use a fresh readership

WARNING

Switching a book’s categories requires the author to be honest about her story and aware of the expectations of each genre. “It’s a bad idea to choose any category that isn’t a good fit for your work,” Gaughran says. “The few readers who do download your book will probably be outside your target audience, and they will likely respond with poor reviews. Tread carefully. Nobody likes being hoodwinked.

Mistake #4: You Don’t Choose a Kindle Category

This mistake might sound a bit counter-intuitive. Not all available categories are actually categories within the Kindle Store. “Like virtually all e-book retailers,” Gaughran explains, “Amazon gives you numerous category choices when uploading your book or making changes. These are based on BISAC subject headings, which are industry standard. . . . While the system attempts to map your BISAC choice to a Kindle Store category, it doesn’t always work.”

This conundrum can result in one of three outcomes:

  1. Your e-book is in a book-only category (i.e., it’s categorized with print books).
  2. Your book is in an international-only category (for example, Medical Thriller, which is included in the UK Kindle Store but was only recently added to the US Kindle Store).
  3. Or you pick an ill-fitting category because you don’t realize that there are other Kindle Store categories that are not selectable when uploading.

If you do choose a category that isn’t offered in your country’s Kindle Store, you are essentially wasting one of your two categories. However, with this potential trip wire, there is also an opportunity. Gaughran explains:

Those Kindle Store-only categories are sparsely populated as few authors or publishers have chosen them. As there are fewer books to compete with, you don’t need to sell very many books to appear in the charts; this gives crucial visibility opportunities to books that aren’t selling particularly well, or those that have just been released and haven’t built up a head of steam yet.

Keep these four pitfalls in mind when you’re ready to publish and you will give your book a much better chance at bestseller-dom.

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Missed the first two posts in the series? Check them out here and here.

What Self-Publishers Need to Know about Virtual Co-op (Genre Categories, Pt II)

Co-op Money: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

In my previous post I talked about the marketing struggles of The Physics of Star Trek. In short, Barnes & Noble had decided to shelve it in the science section instead of the Star Trek section, which meant a potential huge loss in sales for B&N, the publisher, and the author.

Luckily, the book was able to recover through co-op money. As Susan Rabiner explains in Thinking Like Your Editor, co-op money is given to bookstores from publishers to help sell their book. It can be spent several ways: “for example, to pay for print advertising . . . or to obtain better placement of the book within the bookstore” (such as piled high on the “New Arrivals” table or face out on the “Recommended Reading” shelf).

But not all books have such a happy ending. If the preorders for The Physics of Star Trek had not hinted at best-seller status, its publisher most likely would not have shelled out more co-op money. And even if the publisher had opted for more money without the surety of a best seller, B&N could have disagreed:

Even if lots of co-op money were set aside, such money would still not guarantee front-of-the bookstore display . . . . That space is valuable and limited: Booksellers will not devote any part of it to a title that cannot pay its keep there, no matter how much money a publisher offers.

The Virtual Co-op v. Self-Publishers

At first glance, it might seem like this co-op has little to do with self-publishing—after all, self-published books rarely appear in brick-and-mortar bookstores (and if one does, it’s probably selling very well, so bookstores are happy to give it prime real estate). Co-op, however, has everything to do with self-publishing because it’s also used by online bookstores and can be enormously detrimental to indie authors if not understood and handled well.

David Gaughran discusses co-op at length in his book Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books. (At the time of this writing, he’s offering his equally excellent first book for free: Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish and Why You Should.)

Gaughran talks about how online retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo sell the most visible spots on their sites to the highest bidder—i.e., to large publishing houses. Thus, self-publishers have a very difficult time building momentum for their books. These retailers also close off other avenues for indies to find a following. Gaughran explains:

There are no Top Rated lists on Barnes & Noble or Kobo, so you won’t be able to put your book front and center on the strength of reader reviews alone. The big site promos for those two retailers tend to only include books from major publishers. Search functionality is poor on both sites too . . . Categories are a mess. All of this . . . serves to focus sales on the Best Seller lists and the books sold by large publishers, which are either handpicked for promotions or sold into co-op spots. 

Well, that’s all pretty depressing. What marketing is left for the cash-strapped self-publisher?

The Egalitarian Amazon

While Amazon isn’t completely co-op free, it has a far more meritocratic method for marketing books than the backroom deals of the other online booksellers.

Amazon gives self-publishers a much more level playing field; those all-important opportunities for visibility—those digital front tables—are open to anyone.

“The system is largely agnostic,” Gaughran says. “Amazon doesn’t care if the featured title is published by you, me, them or Penguin, and it also doesn’t care if the book is 99c or $14.99.” Simply put, Amazon will show the title most likely to be purchased by each individual reader.

But of course there’s a catch: Too many publishers, both traditional and indie, don’t understand Amazon’s genre categories, and therefore, fail to capitalize on its valuable free co-op.

In my third and final post in this series we’ll discuss how to optimize Amazon’s genre category system so that your book lands prime marketing real estate for free.

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Missed the first post in this series? Check it out here.

Genre Categories Can Make or Break Your Book (Pt I)

I recently finished reading Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. Even though this book is over a decade old, the advice in it is still spot-on.

In the book’s prologue Rabiner explains the importance of genre classification, and she shares the hard lesson she learned.

Double Shelving

When Rabiner was editorial director of Basic Books, she oversaw the publication of The Physics of Star Trek, a book combining entertainment with high-level physics.

Even before the book was released, it looked liked it was well on its way to best-sellerdom. For one, Barnes & Noble had placed the largest first order for it than any other title in the history of Basic Books.

But then Rabiner hit a big bump in the road:

B&N had decided to shelve The Physics of Star Trek in the science section, on its face a perfectly reasonable place for a title loaded with hard physics. Except that I believed a stronger market would develop among trekkers interested in hard science than among science readers interested in Star Trek.

Rabiner set up a meeting to persuade B&N to move at least half of the copies in the science section to the Star Trek section. She assumed the meeting would be short and sweet—after all, her suggestion would mean more money for B&N—but she discovered that things weren’t as simple as she had assumed.

Over coffee, I raised my complaint. Failure to stock The Physics of Star Trek in the Star Trek section as well as the science section would cost thousands of sales for both of us. Couldn’t they at least shelve the book in both places? To my amazement, the answer was no, they couldn’t. One of the buyers explained the problem.

As each publisher presents its new list to B&N, the titles are divided among the buyers, each buyer responsible for titles that will end up in one particular section of each of the chain’s outlets; for example, the history buyer is responsible for buying, stocking, shelving, and selling all history titles, and the popular culture buyer has similar responsibility for all popular culture titles. . . . But some books don’t slot conveniently into B&N’s system or that of any other bookstore. For example, memoir is a well-established genre among publishers, but no memoir section exists in most bookstores. So depending upon how it is written, one memoir can land in biography, another in popular culture, a third in psychology, a fourth in parenting or even history. [Note: I checked barnesandnoble.com and there is still no memoir section.] Cross-disciplinary titles present another problem. A book entitled The Zen of Computers could find its way into the computer section, squeezed in among thousand-page manuals about using Java Script in designing home pages. Then again, it might end up in New Age or science and technology.

An idea lies behind the system—clear accountability. Each buyer is judged by the performance of titles within his or her own section. Thus, when more than one buyer wants to claim a new release for his or her own, the problem is resolved, I learned that day, by a sort of “arbitration” (their word, not mine). Publishers are allowed no say in the process. Even more important, once that decision is made, the book will be shelved only in the winning buyer’s section . . .

In our case, despite good commercial arguments for double shelving, the book remained in science only. On this point, there was no moving anyone. . . .

I left that lunch more cynical but wiser . . . I understood for the first time why another book I had published just around that time, a controversial memoir written by a strong African-American woman, but critical of her ex-husband, an African-American icon, was doomed to weak sales once the decision was made to shelve it in African-American studies. It belonged in women’s studies.

Rabiner goes on to say that booksellers have since loosened up about double shelving, but the problem hasn’t been completely fixed.

What This Means for You

If you want to traditionally publish, you need to view your book’s genre through the eyes of your potential publisher and your potential sales venues.

It’s not enough to put in your query letter that your book could fit into multiple genres. In fact, saying that could potentially harm your chances if you don’t back it with an explanation as to how the mix would be beneficial. As Rabiner says:

Did a proposed book’s potential shelving ambiguity ever come up at subsequent editorial meetings? Yes. . . . I [asked] more questions of these books than I did of others—in particular, was there a way to focus the title and marketing strategies so as to avoid an expected shelving problem?

What If You Want to Self-Publish?

It may be tempting to think that this problem doesn’t apply to self-publishers, especially since nearly all indie sales come from online rather than brick-and-mortar bookstores, but genre categorization is even more life-and-death for the indie book.

With over half a million books self-published every year, most of them don’t even leave a ripple. The ones that manage to stay afloat capitalize on genre classification. I’ll dig into the nitty-gritty specifics for self-publishers in my next post.

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The Dos and Don’ts of Imitating Famous Writers: My Interview with MuggleNet Academia

This week you’ll find me at MuggleNet Academia—one of the most popular educational podcasts on iTunes and nominated for four People’s Choice awards. I had a blast chatting it up with host Keith Hawk, Hogwarts Professor John Granger, and my writing buddy Christine Frazier of Better Novel Project.

In our podcast we talk about the Harry Potter series as a literary artifact and how we can use it to help aspiring writers become better at their craft.

SOME OF THE QUESTIONS WE TACKLE

  • What are Rowling’s three big story signatures? Should other writers try to imitate them?
  • Which best-selling authors have clearly borrowed from Rowling’s writing toolbox?
  • How much of Rowling’s success is due to her use of alchemical imagery and Christian symbolism? Do aspiring writers have to use them if they want to be successful?
  • Can pantsers write as well as outliners?
  • What specific story structure did Rowling use for scaffolding her story? How does understanding it improve an author’s chances of publishing success?

If you’re wondering what I sound like, here’s your chance to hear me talk! You can listen to the podcast at MuggleNet Academiacheck it out on iTunes, or download the mp3.

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Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (Yes, Really)

My mentor (and all-around awesome human), Stuart Horwitz, has finished his third and final (he swears!) writing book: Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love It.

I am so excited about this one—the title nails it. In the intro Stuart says:

Have you ever asked yourself while writing, ‘How many drafts is this going to take?’ That may seem like a question that can’t have an answer, but I would like to propose that it does. And that answer is three. Three drafts, provided that each draft is approached in the right spirit and we take the time we need between drafts.

(And because Stuart is awesome, he’s put together nine online supplementary videos and PDFs to go with the book. Look for me in PDFs three and four!)

So what exactly do these three drafts look like?

Draft #1: The Messy Draft

“Keep writing the first draft, and keep being okay when it feels like a mess.” —Stuart Horwitz [Tweet This]

This first draft is the most difficult for outliners. They tend to plan, plan, plan but never actually write. Outliners also tend to be perfectionists; they over-plan because they don’t want to face that inevitable “shitty first draft.”

I once read an interview where an author said she was terrified of dying in the middle of her first draft because everyone would see how bad of a writer she was. The solution, Stuart says, is to reframe what “perfect” means when we’re in the first draft:

A perfect first draft covers the ground. A perfect first draft tries material out. A perfect first draft makes a start in a lot of places. A perfect first draft familiarizes you with your material.

Stuart also offers six great tips on how to generate enough pages in your messy draft to move on to the second draft, which he calls “The Method Draft.”

Draft #2: The Method Draft

“Intelligent planning is not the enemy of creative genius.” —Stuart Horwitz [Tweet This]

Once you’ve completed your first draft, it’s easy to get intimidated by your mountainous, semi-coherent, half-formed story. Where to start? It’s tempting to pull out the red pen and go page by page, correcting here and there, but Stuart says, “What you are trying to do is tackle your book, not tinker with it.”

The method draft is where you step back and shape your story’s big picture. This draft. then, can be difficult for pantsers. “If the messy draft was about getting it down,” Stuart says, “the method draft is about making sense.”

In this draft you:

  1. cut up your scenes (not figuratively—literally),
  2. create a series grid,
  3. and draw a target theme (“because your book can only be about one thing”).

And here’s the awesome part: now that you’ve finished the second draft, you only have ONE MORE DRAFT TO GO. Stuart calls the third and final draft “The Polished Draft.”

Draft #3: The Polished Draft

“Finishing requires tenacity.” —Stuart Horwitz [Tweet This]

I love Stuart’s chapters on the polished draft because he talks about a crucial topic that has gotten zero in-depth attention in all of the writing books I’ve read, and that is THE ROLE OF THE BETA READER.

Beta reading can push a good book over the edge to greatness, but too many writers, either out of ignorance or pride, don’t properly use it. Getting feedback can be scary, but Stuart lays out exactly what you need to do in order to have a positive, successful experience. He answers such important questions as:

  • How many beta readers should you have?
  • Where do you find your beta readers?
  • What questions do you ask your beta readers?
  • What do you do once you have their responses? (Answer: Put together a punch list!)

Okay, you’ve finished all three drafts, you’ve recruited beta readers, and you’ve finished your punch list, now what?

Know When to Let Go

“The point is not to go through life writing the same book the whole time.” —Stuart Horwitz [Tweet This]

I feel as if Stuart wrote his last chapter, “The Crack in Everything,” specifically for me (and maybe he did). I’ve realized over the years that, while it’s difficult to start writing something, often times it’s more difficult to stop writing it. 

“You don’t want to get to where you’re holding on to your manuscript too long,” Stuart says. “One of my mentors in Prague, Jim Freeman, used to praise: That fresh feeling, of not having been too well-worked.”

Are you working on a book right now? Have you been working on it for so long that you can’t remember when you started it and can’t see how you’ll finish it? If so, do yourself a favor and read Finish Your Book in Three Drafts.

PS: And don’t forget to check out the other two books in Stuart’s trilogy, Book Architecture (I’m in this one!) and Blueprint Your Bestseller.

Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a FormulaBlueprint Your Bestseller by Stuart Horwitz

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4 Powerful Mantras to Beat Writer’s Block

Four Mantras That Will Get You Back to Writing

1. “It’s never too late.”

From Elizabeth Gilbert:

Writing is not like dancing or modeling; it’s not something where—if you missed it by age 19—you’re finished. It’s never too late. Your writing will only get better as you get older and wiser. If you write something beautiful and important, and the right person somehow discovers it, they will clear room for you on the bookshelves of the world—at any age. At least try.

2. “I only promised that I would write.”

From Elizabeth Gilbert:

One day, when I was agonizing over how utterly bad my writing felt, I realized: “That’s actually not my problem.” The point I realized was this—I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write.

3. “It’s normal to take a while.”

From Ira Glass:

Nobody tells people who are beginners—and I really wish somebody had told this to me—that all of us who do creative work get into it because we have good taste. But . . . there’s a gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good. It has ambition to be good. But it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.

A lot of people never get past that phase; a lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. . . .

For you to go through it—if you’re going through it right now [or] if you’re just getting out of that phase—you’ve got to know that it’s totally normal, and the most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. In my case, I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met. It takes a while. It’s going to take you a while. It’s normal to take a while, and you just have to fight your way through that.

4. “It’s not work.”

From Ray Bradbury:

Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say, “Oh, my God, what word?” . . . To hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.

[Say] in the middle of writing something, you go blank . . . you’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying, “I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for.” . . . To hell with that! I don’t write things to benefit the world. If it happens that they do, swell. I didn’t set out to do that. I set out to have a hell of a lot of fun.

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