Episode 27—Paul Lisicky on Writing in Unlikely Places, Simultaneous Projects, and Preserving Play

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Photo by Star Black
Photo by Star Black

“If you put too much focus on one thing you can kill it.”Paul Lisicky.

“What would it be like to be an amateur again?” —Paul Lisicky

When I get away from doing the podcast I forget how fun and uplifting the experience can be. Here, for Episode 27 (!), we have Paul Lisicky (@Paul_Lisicky), author of The Narrow Door (Graywolf Press, 2016).

Paul talked a lot about his own process and how that has changed over the years. He also talked about some of the best advice he can give an aspiring writer: cultivating fandom.

Why don’t you just listen to him?

Go ahead and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. If you think you know someone who would benefit from this interview, share it with them. Also, subscribe to my monthly newsletter. You can preview it here to see what it’s about. Dig it? Then put in your info along the right sidebar.


People Mentioned

Greg Hanlon
Bronwen Dickey
Maggie Messitt
Thomas Pynchon
Jane Bowles
John Hawkes
Flannery O’Connor
Joy Williams
Elizabeth Bishop

Other Books by Paul Lisicky

Unbuilt Projects
The Burning House
Famous Builder


We Musn’t Complain

My no complaining selfie.
My no complaining selfie.

Written by @BrendanOMeara

My last post was about a soul-crushing, football-in-groin rejection. It can probably be construed as a complaint about publishing and the sorry state of things. It wasn’t meant to be. I feel sharing rejections helps other writers feel less lonely.

Yes, it’s hard to get true stories, told well, about regular people. It’s hard to publish if you don’t have the requisite platform of a former TV reality star or a Kardashian. It means I have to be better, work harder.

All we can do is keep grinding remembering all the while that ‘no’ is one step closer to ‘yes.’


When Is It Time to Scrap It?

Written by @BrendanO’Meara

There are rejections and then there are rejections. The latter are ones where you had a distinct leg up. In my latest, most crushing rejection, I had an hour-long conversation with this agent at AWP in March. She loved sports writing and we had a wonderful conversation about sports, writing, and The Last Championship. You can imagine my dismay upon reading this:

I read your proposal right away when I received it.  And I enjoyed it immensely.  But ultimately, I didn’t feel strongly enough about the story to think that I would be successful selling it for you.

It felt like this:

This marks rejection No. 19, might even be 20. That’s a lot, even by my standards. Many of those weren’t adequately placed so that may not actually be as poor an indicator for the book’s sorry performance in the hands of gate keepers. I’m at the point where the reality is to scrap the book altogether.

1. The writing is poor, a possibility. I’m not, how you say, a master wordsmith. Or, let’s say, I’m not good enough to elevate what is a mediocre story to a readable, purchasable story.

2. Well, actually, that’s all I’ve got.

What I didn’t have through the first 20 rejections was a full manuscript. I also shopped it to the wrong agents most of the time. Child’s play, really.

Tell you what. Five more. Five more agents who represent baseball books. If it doesn’t get picked up from any of those five, this story goes in the trashcan.

What is your time table to scrap a project?

What the NFL Draft Can Teach Writers


Written by Brendan O’Meara


The rejection feeling.
The rejection feeling.

Yes, the NFL Draft, the annual meat market where football coaches and general managers look to project a human being’s value, has come and gone. The lessons of the Draft are so valuable to the writer. Take Geno Smith.

Smith was the quarterback for the West Virginia Mountaineers. He was projected to be a slam-dunk first-round pick. But his name was never called. He dropped and dropped. At last he went early in the second round. At least he wasn’t Tom Brady who didn’t get drafted until the sixth round as the 199th overall selection.

Think about that for a moment. Tom Brady, Super Bowl hero, super model marrying, Ugg-endorsing playboy was deemed the 199th best player in the 2000 draft. In writing terms, he was rejected 198 times. He then saw owner Bob Kraft and told him he was the best decision he ever made.

As the rejections mount for your book, or your essay, or your love life, just think every no is one step closer to a yes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve let the ‘no’ devalue my worth. One ‘no’ ended my baseball career. I can’t begin to tell you how many rejections I’ve received for the three books I’ve written. My first, unpublished, has probably 20 rejections. My second book, Six Weeks in Saratoga, was rejected 15 times or so, and The Last Championship is, let’s say, getting up there, a career-high even.

One agent went so far as to bash the writing. Let’s excerpt that for comedic effect:

Thank you for the chance to read your proposal for The Last Championship: A Memoir of My Father and Baseball, and please accept my apologies for the time it has taken me to get back to you. The father-son relationship at the heart of this story is appealing, but, ultimately, I didn’t find the characters or the scenes as engaging as I’d hoped. Without the necessary enthusiasm for the writing, I’m just not confident that I’d be able to sell the book effectively. I’m sorry that this wasn’t a match, but I’m grateful to you for the opportunity to consider your work and wish you luck in finding representation.

Trust me, I was licking my wounds after this one. I came close to hitting the EJECT button on the cockpit of my career using a promising love of donuts as my parachute. Usually agents don’t go so far as to say they don’t like your writing. I appreciate the time he took to write this and to address that it was a total bomb.

What did Tom Brady do when 198 players went before him? He out-worked everyone, took advantage of Drew Bledsoe getting injured, and took his team on a 13-year run the NFL has never seen.

The diamonds are the ones who slip through the cracks. Your job, my job, is to make all those people who said no wish they hadn’t.

That then begs the questions: When might it be time to give up/retire? But that’s for another blog post altogether.


Best in Tweet 2/27/13


Written by Brendan O’Meara

Hot dog, we’ve got some good ones this week. Buckle up. It’s this week’s Best in Tweet.






Best in Tweet, 2/19/13


Written by Brendan O’Meara

My aim is to give some people props on Twitter. People have some great things to share and that sharing should be rewarded, even at this little place I call a blog. Without further ado, here’s 10 tweets from cool stuff I found. (Some go back quite a ways. It don’t mattah!)






There you have it, lots of stuff for you to enjoy.


Self-publishing vs. Traditional: A 90-minute Crash Course for Your Book


Written by Brendan O’Meara

385 Words, Read time: 90 seconds

Only one will live?
Only one will live? $3.99 on Amazon

If an agent immediately recognizes the value and salabiility of your book, you might hand representation quickly. On the other hand, the process can also go on for months or even years without results, which can be excruciatingly frustrating and discouraging.

—Agent and Author Rachelle Gardner

Any writer who takes themselves seriously recognizes the above statement from How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing not for having read it anywhere, but because they have felt it.

Perhaps part of that deals with a misunderstanding of publishing. You wouldn’t teach if you didn’t know how to develop a lesson plan. You wouldn’t open a restaurant without knowing that it’s about more than food. So why would you attempt to write a book without knowing the fundamentals of publishing? Yet thousands and thousands of writers and would-be writers approach the craft whimsically.

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s e-book—a book that takes no more than 90 minutes to read (I’m a slow reader, you may read it faster)—irons out the nuts and bolts of publishing and lays out itemized lists to guide you down the path to either traditional or self-publishing.

Self-pubbing may be worth it if, “The frustration of agent querying and rejection is probably the number-one reason many authors choose to self-publish,” Ms. Gardner writes.

“A defining factor of self-publishing,” Ms. Gardner writers, “is freedom: there is no external barrier. Essentially it’s all up to you.”

As an agent with a large catalog of authors and a social network extending into the 40,000s, Ms. Gardner is just the type of writer who can benefit from self-publishing. She has a ready-made audience. That very same ready-made audience is what would make her attractive to traditional publishers as well.

You might also think as a gatekeeper, Ms. Gardner would staunchly advocate for traditional publication (and one Amazon reviewer picked her language apart for this very reason), but she plays both sides.

I, too, like to pick through language, and I was ready to read a book with a slant toward the traditional, but having been a long-time follower of Ms. Gardner’s blog, I know she’s more in favor—and a fan of—great writing and story telling, no matter the form.

What thought have you given toward self vs. traditional publishing?


Professional Symbols


Written by Brendan O’Meara

I was reminded of a scene from the movie Patch Adams. The dialogue escapes me, but it goes a little something like this: Patch didn’t care for the symbols of being a doctor. He didn’t care for the white jacket or to practice medicine in the traditional sense. His love interest, played by Monica Potter, followed him down his path, but she said something to the effect of, “I want that jacket.”

I’ve been watching the DVD extras, as I love doing, for The Hunger Games and listening to the director, Gary Ross. I saw shots of him sitting in his director’s chair—the movie makers symbol.

I think it’s these symbols that draw people to professions, the white jacket, the director’s chair, cuff links, Jaguars, chef’s frocks. What of a writer? Steaming coffee? A typewriter? The yellow pad? Writers, but especially the aspiring writer, is more in love with the Hemingway-ian ideal. Writing for a few hours in the morning, then going to the bars, or hunting, or to the bull fights, having affairs, shotgun intimacies.

I follow a lot of writers on Twitter and a lot of writers on Twitter follow me. There are a LOT of people who call themselves writers. Many self publish, some have contracts, but most look to occupy the writer’s space versus gutting it out, as Verlyn Klinkenborg is so apt to say.

When you graduate medical school you’re a doctor. When you graduate law school, you’re a lawyer. When can a writer call itself a writer? Penning a letter? A blog post? An essay? A column? A book? A traditionally published book?

The line is murky. This started as a post on the symbols we strive for. I think mine is my reporter notebooks and voice recorder. These are my fishing nets, how I gather information, my symbols.


Tag Lines: How Netflix can improve yours

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Yes, tag lines. What are they and why are they important? First, it’s a one-sentence summary of your book. In about 30 words, can you successfully and succinctly sum up what your story is about? Second, in your marketing questionnaire, you’ll need to build one so it will fit nicely in a catalog. Or, if you’re lucky enough to be in the presence of an inquiring agent or publisher, you need to pop this sentence off and hook them in the ten seconds it takes you to recite it.

Now that I’ve defined it, how can Netflix help you out?

On the live stream, every show has a tag line below it. Here’s the one for my favorite show, Lost:

After their plane crashes on a deserted island, a diverse group of people must adapt to their new home and contend with the island’s enigmatic forces.

26 words. Quick and easy. It doesn’t mention the greater game at play between Jacob and the Man in Black. It doesn’t mention the Dharma Initiative or time travel. You know a plane crashes on a mysterious island. I’m hooked.

Another one of my favorite shows is Breaking Bad. Here’s the Netflix tag line:

A high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer teams up with a former student to manufacture and sell crystal meth to secure his family’s future.

No mention of escalating drug wars and gruesome grips for power. Perfect.

How about something a little lighter, say, from the movie Thor:

Powerful thunder god Thor is stripped of his power and banished by his father Odin, forced to live among humans on Earth to learn humility.

Here’s Walking Dead:

In the wake of a zombie apocalypse, survivors hold on to the hope of humanity by banding together to wage a fight for their own survival.

Bottom line we see what the stakes are and why we should be interested. You must be able to do this. It’s a good exercise in brevity, getting to the point, and using word economy to sell your work.

And another important matter, if you can’t sum it up in a tag line, you don’t know the what you’re book is about. If you don’t know what your book is about, you can’t distill its essence to a greater public. You won’t even reach that far. It won’t get to the public until you can reduce your 100,000-word tome to 25 words. It ain’t easy. So let’s play.

What’s your tag line for you project? Let’s workshop them in the comments. I’ll start with two of mine.

For Six Weeks in Saratoga:

Filly Rachel Alexandra caps off an undefeated season by beating the boys for a third time en route to being named Horse of the Year.

For The Last Championship:

A son watches his father play senior softball and learns to reconcile to the bitter end to his own baseball career by playing again.

Now it’s your turn!

Goliath vs. Goliath: Tim Ferriss vs. Barnes and Noble


Written by Brendan O’Meara

Author and life hacker Tim Ferriss knows a thing or two about self promotion and he needs every iota of that skill to get his latest and possibly most exciting book—The 4-Hour Chef—into the hands and e-readers of the public.

It would be made easier if Barnes and Noble planned on stocking the book. But they’re going Ghandi and hunger striking this “cook book”. Why? Ferriss’ publisher is Amazon. Correction. Ferriss’ publisher is AMAZON!

Barnes and Noble is willing to concede the profits Ferriss’ best-seller-bound book will generate in an attempt to sink Amazon’s publishing ship. Yeah, Amazon published Penny Marshall’s memoir (which has tanked), but if she’s a revolver, Ferriss is Amazon’s atomic bomb. If there were ever an author equipped to give the middle finger to the establishment it’s Ferriss and he will need to summon other-worldly skills to get this book sold.

And just look at what he’s doing. First, check out this book trailer (a great 20th-century tactic authors need to adopt for promotion) and tell me you don’t want to buy the book.

His blog gets 1.2 million visitors a month and it’s all free content. His platform is the type that makes agents drool and others like me very, very envious. He uses it for fun. Homeboy has earned it and I’m rooting for him. Penguin and Random House became a—pardon the expression—Frankenpublisher in an attempt to go Moth vs. Godzilla. We’ll see. My money is on the giant dinosaur stomping Japanese skyscrapers.

Ferriss is a tactician and I think that while he’s miffed by the boycott, he’s excited by the challenge of using his Major League talent at promoting himself to stick it to the establishment.

Big time pitchers like to face big time hitters and by boycotting Ferriss, Barnes and Nobel better brace itself for a 100+ MPH fastball it won’t ever be able to catch up to.

And, by the way, here’s another bullet in his chamber.