Rob Roberge's fourth book, the novel The Cost of Living, is forthcoming from Other Voices Books (Spring 2013). He’s a professor at UCR/Palm Desert’s MFA and has taught at the MFA program at Antioch, Los Angeles, and at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he received the Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing in 2003. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and have been anthologized several times. Previous books include the story collection Working Backwards From the Worst Moment of My Life and the novels More Than They Could Chew and Drive. He plays guitar and sings with the LA punk band The Urinals.
What advice would you give an unpublished fiction or non-fiction writer with a polished manuscript ready to submit their work?
As hard as it is to hear—be ready for a lot of rejection. Just being good, or even great, doesn't guarantee publication or representation. At least not quickly. I've been doing this for over twenty-five years—more than half my life now. (I was actually a late starter compared to most of my writer friends…many of whom wrote as kids…I didn't really write anything until college.) I've been teaching creative writing since 1996. And one thing I've seen over and over is that if someone writes well and is relentless about sending their work out, they usually end up doing well, publication-wise.
If you took a brilliant writer who had trouble with rejection and a mediocre writer who took it in stride, as part of the business, and just kept sending their work out—the mediocre writer will have a much more impressive (on paper, publication-wise, at any rate) career.
So, my advice would be that if that unpublished writer took all the care and work and study that it takes to create a polished, publishable manuscript, then they should be willing to deal with the part of the business that is often dull and painful. Submitting work and waiting for word isn't anybody's favorite part of the writing life, I don't think. But, if you worked that hard to learn to write well, if you've honored your craft and art, if you've done all of that, then it's just good to remember that you owe it to yourself and to the work to deal with the submission process. And realize you're not alone. Everybody (this includes your favorite writer, whoever he or she is) has had to deal with enormous amounts of rejection. Most well-published writers STILL deal with more rejection than acceptance. Know you're not alone.
The other, perhaps more practical, thing I would mention is this: just because an agent says they want to represent you does not make them the best agent for your work. The old saying that it's better to have no agent than to have the wrong agent is true. Just because they want to represent you doesn't make them right for you. Ask them questions. Get a feel for how they view your writing. This is a more important relationship than most—you will probably have several more editors in your writing life than you will agents. Get a real sense of who they are and how they go about their business. If something feels wrong in your gut about them, something probably is wrong.
What is a critical step in the revision process?
One critical step is being open to the changes that make the manuscript better. And sometimes that means letting go of things you like but that aren't good for the manuscript. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald said that anyone can cut bad writing (not true, but everyone should be able to), but it takes a real writer to realize that sometimes cutting very good writing is what makes for great writing. Be able to defend why every single word is in the manuscript, and "I like it" is not a defense. A writer needs to be able to make a sound aesthetic argument for every choice he or she makes.
What is key to writing a great character?
There are probably a ton of them, but one area where I think people go wrong in a fundamental way is that they try to dictate and control who a character is, rather than listening to the character as he/she develops on the page. A writer needs to listen to his/her text at least as much as they try to control it. When characters start doing and saying things that you had no idea they were going to do or say, that's a good sign. It means you're more inside the character, seeing the world through their eyes and their history—which is not the same as yours.
The Mark Program is broken down into three parts: the Defense, the Mid- Project Review, and the Final Review. Can you tell us how this structure helps a manuscript?
I think it gives the project structure before its final stages, during its final stages and near their completion—which is something I think I could have benefitted from greatly with my first publishable book-length manuscript. I still finished the book, but I did much of it blind. I didn't have a plan. I didn't have a schedule. I didn't have anyone asking me key questions about the manuscript at every stage, or caring that I hit my deadlines and finished both to a high standard of quality and on time.
What is the key to getting to the heart of a story?
A big part of it goes along with what I was saying about character—getting to the heart of the story has as much to do with listening as it does to the writer's ideas about what they thought or think their book is about. Most good work comes from the writer asking questions. Milan Kundera said that an idea, even a solid one, may not be enough to give a writer one story. But that a question could offer them a whole career—he said that his entire writing career was born from the question of what happens to the individual under totalitarian regimes. And if you look at his work, this question is explored in work that is very different in character and event/plot and setting. The work is unified by a writer's governing obsessions. So, a lot of finding the heart of your story is in reading and listening. The story will tell you what the story wants to be if you pay attention and avoid your ego trying to determine these things.
Also, it may sound simple, but identifying the central desire(s) of your protagonist (and, by extension, all of the characters) will give you a clearer sign of what your story's about than anything you might think going in. A writer needs to always be in touch with the two questions a reader cares about:
1) Who do we care about?
2) What do they care about?
When you know what your people want, you can set them in motion in their world. And the nature of desire is that it's met with opposition….and desire met with opposition creates tension and conflict. And when you put your characters under pressure, what is revealed is what's truly inside them. So—what do your people want? What are they willing to do to get what they want? When you are asking question like this—questions from the inside out (rather than ideas dictated by the writer), you are getting much closer to finding the heart of both your characters and their story.
Tell us about your new novel, The Cost of Living. What was your biggest challenge in writing it?
It covers about 30 years in the life Bud Barrett, a professional musician who's spent much of his adult life fighting his drug addiction and trying to find answers about his mother's suicide and his father's violent past. It's a book about a character trying to come to terms with both what's happened to him and what he's done—and about the price he's willing to pay to be a different and better person than the one he's been.
The biggest challenge? Probably it applies to your previous question. I did several drafts of what I thought the book was before I really—with the enormous help of my editor at Other Voices, Gina Frangello (who also happens to be one of my favorite writers)—found the heart of the story. At first, for probably the first five drafts, the book was a linked collection of stories. That was my original intention. And, ultimately, the book wanted to be a novel. That was the form that was best for exploring the life of the protagonist. And it took quite a while and a lot of writing to realize that it should be a novel told in chapters—not stand alone short stories. So, the biggest challenge, as is often the case, was in finding the story inside the story I thought I was telling and allowing myself to listen to the work, listen to what it was trying to say.
Who would you recommend apply to the Mark program?
A writer who is not far away from reaching the final draft of their manuscript. Someone who has come as far as they can with an enormously promising manuscript, but who would benefit from the guidance of professionals for the polishing stages. It's a great program. One I wish I could have applied to when I was trying to get what later became my first novel ready for agents and editors.