The latest at Always Be Publishing

If you’re a writer and not checked out my Substack newsletter, Always Be Publishing, you might give it a go. Since I last wrote about it here, I’ve released a few more posts on writing and publishing in the digital age.

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You can find a list of the posts I’ve made so far at the archive. If you’re interested in a free subscription to receive new posts straight to your inbox, here’s where you can start.

Why I wrote a novel about COVID-19

Man in the Middle, by Jim Nelson

At Washington Independent Review of Books, author Tara Laskowski asks, “We’re living through a pandemic. Must we read about one, too?” Her suggestion to fellow writers:

Perhaps the solution is to just skip ahead and set everything in 2025, safely away from the horror that is this year …

In 20 years or so, this point will probably be moot. By then, we’ll be ready to curl up with an escapist historical novel set in 2020; we’ll have gotten enough social distance from masks and lockdowns and toilet paper shortages.

My perspective on all this is colored by the fact that I wrote a novel set during 2020, and it centers around the pandemic and quarantines that have affected us all.

To clarify the chronology, I started writing the book in June (or so) and published it last month. Man in the Middle is set in the first week of California’s shelter-in-place, and although March was not so long ago, paging through my diary entries of those early weeks while preparing the novel reminded me just how otherworldly the world became overnight.

That’s a key point about the book’s development: I started keeping a diary when the pandemic surged in America. For the first few months, I wrote daily, almost religiously, dumping my despair and puzzlement onto the page. When the world opened up and grew less tense, I thumbed back through my notebook and discovered a voice I did not quite know. It was me, but it was not a me I easily recognized.

Certainly I harbored many reservations before I set out to write the first draft. Was the world to be swamped with a flood of coronavirus thrillers? What if a cure is discovered tomorrow? One writer friend warned me off the project entirely. From other people, there’s been a split-brain response: On one hand, writing a book now about the pandemic is “obviously” a commercial money-grab on my part, right? On the other hand, the market for such a book has a tight, closing window, once the vaccines arrive, eh? It’s one of those social situations where they think I’m not seeing the obvious, when in fact I’d gone down those thought-paths several dozen times.

I don’t write fiction to make money. Fiction is freeing for me. No one tells me what to write or how to write it. I set my deadlines. I make my own challenges. I also happen to believe there are readers in this world who, once they’re exposed to my writing, will enjoy it as well. That, more than anything, motivates me to keep writing.

Laskowski relates a comment from her agent:

“If something is set this year and is about the quarantine experience, sort of like a locked-room crime, maybe,” she says. “But a medical thriller about covid? Nope.”

A medical thriller is exactly the kind of novel I told myself I would not write: The beautiful epidemiologist racing the clock to develop a cure; a cold-hearted technocracy blocking her progress at every turn; and her unconscious child in a hospital isolation unit hooked up to a respirator. But the reason not to write a medical thriller about coronavirus is not because we’re living through it—it’s because that thriller has been written many times over, only with different strains of disease of different origin, with different symptoms and different cures.

While I didn’t write a locked-room crime book, I knew early on I wanted it to be a novel of isolation and suspense. The year that is 2020 has been a year of unthinkables. It is also a year hosting a major, tumultuous presidential election set against a backdrop of accusations of foreign and domestic intrigue. Swirled together, these ingredients sent me back to the great political and conspiracy films of my youth (Three Days of the Condor, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 12 Monkeys). In January, when COVID-19 was a curiosity mentioned occasionally in the news, I was reading Orwell’s war diaries, which also left a strong impression upon me. In March, when the shelter-in-place orders came down, I reread Camus’ The Plague with fresh eyes and a fresh appreciation.

Out of all this arable soil grew a claustrophobic, paranoid book about an isolated security guard who can’t tell if he’s detaching ever-so-gradually from reality. Podcasts, experts, and so-called experts fill his ears with contradictory takes on the world’s sudden course correction. That voice from my diary was now his.

Why wouldn’t I write that book? Whether or not Man in the Middle succeeds on its merits, I’ll let the readers decide. But how could I just set this inspiration aside and write about any year except 2020?

To return to the original question, no, I don’t believe people should have to read about the pandemic right now. I understand why anyone who reaches for a book today would want to read about any subject other than pandemics. Subconsciously, though, the question naturally bleeds into the territory of, Should writers be writing about the pandemic now?

As an answer, consider re-framing the original question as “We’re living through the Great Depression. Must we read about it, too?”

Imagine if the writers of The Grapes of Wrath, The Day of the Locust, The Road to Wigan Pier, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, John Dos Passos with his U.S.A. trilogy—and more—decided not to write about the worldwide economic collapse because people were living through it, so why would they want to read about it? For many of those authors ninety years ago, they viewed writing about the Great Depression as a responsibility.

Man in the Middle isn’t an act of personal responsibility, but I did write it for good reasons, even if they’re only my reasons.

(Probably unnecessary disclosure: Tara Laskowski is an editor for Smokelong Quarterly, which published one of my stories years ago. I don’t know if she was an editor there at that time.)

“Always Be Publishing” at Substack

I recently started a new site at Substack, a blog platform with email subscription service. I call it Always Be Publishing.

What’s it about? Why did I start another blog? Some answers are in my introductory post:

Always Be Publishing is about the business and practical side of being a self-publishing writer.

Six years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed about offering advice to anyone about self-publishing, other than “You might look into it.” Today, I feel more confident about what I know and what I don’t know. I’ve also learned from the various mistakes I’ve made.

That’s why I started Always Be Publishing. It’s for people interested in the independent publishing revolution, but don’t know where to start, writers already self-publishing and seeking perspectives on how to grow their readership, and people who are looking for encouragement to keep writing and not give up…

You can find a list of the posts I’ve made so far at the archive. If you’re interested in subscribing, here’s where you can start.

“Use three senses to make a scene come alive”

Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert

One bit of writing lore I’ve heard many times, and always attributed to Gustave Flaubert:

“Use three senses to make a scene come alive.”

I’ve written before on my skepticism of writing lore. It often follows a pattern: Some nugget of keen insight for writers to follow closely, attributed to a big-name writer to burnish the saying with a little authority. Certainly this pattern is being followed with the “three senses” quote.

In this case, though, my skepticism is firmly tucked away. This is one bit of writing advice that’s well worth following (and not because Flaubert supposedly said it).

“She had learned from Flaubert”

Let’s start with that “supposedly” qualifier. I’ve been unable to locate a direct quote of Flaubert making the three-senses pronouncement in any variation. All roads in my search lead to an essay by Flannery O’Connor titled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”:

A lady who writes, and whom I admire very much, wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.

Already the lore around the three-senses maxim is being chipped away. It’s not make a scene come alive, it’s make an object real. The three senses are described here as “three activated sensuous strokes,” an odd phrasing. It could be construed as indicating the object’s three sensory details do not have to originate from different senses. (For example, an old beat-up table might be described with three different sights: the paint color, the length of its legs, and the shape of its surface.) And notice how the unnamed writer “believes” the three sensuous strokes are connected to the five senses—in other words, she is reading into Flaubert’s maxim rather than paraphrasing it.

If he uttered the maxim, of course. A Google search for Flaubert and the original “three sensuous strokes” phrase always leads back to this passage by O’Connor. As mentioned, searching for Flaubert and other variations of the quote, including the most famous version above, don’t pan out either.

What’s more, O’Connor’s unnamed writer friend “learned from Flaubert” this bit of wisdom. There’s some ambiguity here. It could be read as saying the writer had discovered this technique by studying Flaubert’s work, rather than receiving it directly from him via an interview or essay.

And that’s probably what happened here. The unnamed writer is most likely Caroline Gordon, a Southern novelist and critic who tutored Flannery O’Connor. Gordon’s How to Read a Novel returns repeatedly to Flaubert and his techniques for making a novel come alive, which she calls “Flaubertian three-dimensionalism”:

Flaubert never told you what a flower, for instance, was like. Instead, he tried to give you the illusion, by the use of sensory details, that you could not only look at the flower he was presenting for your admiration but could smell it and feel the texture of its petals.

Caroline Gordon

She continues with effusive admiration for Flaubert’s techniques, particularly his use of narrative distancing: One passage away from his characters to observe their situation, then moving in close for intimate details, and then moving into their interior to plumb feelings and thoughts. Gordon plainly admired Flaubert’s writing. It makes sense she would have passed on the “three sensuous strokes” observation to O’Connor.

In other words, the advice “Use three senses to make a scene come alive” may not have sprung from Flaubert or O’Connor, but Caroline Gordon. What’s more, she was discussing objects and not scenes, although I think the generalization is forgivable.

As much as I believe in the three-senses maxim, this is why writing lore—and lore in general—deserves questioning.

Why it works

Provenance aside, I’ve taken the accepted maxim to heart in my own writing. Unlike other writing lore I’ve come to question, the three-senses maxim has served me well, both in making scenes come alive, and in making objects seem real.

I first heard it over twenty years ago—attributed to Flaubert, naturally—during a writers conference at Foothill College. Those years have given me time to take advantage of this advice and ponder why it works so well. Why three? Why not two, or four, or all five senses?

If a story limits itself to two senses, it will likely focus on sight (the most dominant of the human senses) and sound (because sound—dialogue—is our primary means of communication).

A novel of nothing but sight and sound may be compelling in subject matter, but readers will feel locked out of the book’s world. (“You almost aren’t present.”) Scenes will play out as heads talking to each other. Objects will be nothing but photographs displayed from afar for the reader to observe. A very short story may be able to sustain this, but it takes a special kind of novel to keep this up.

By employing three senses, the dream-vision of the story becomes less boxed-in and more nonlinear (“Flaubertian three-dimensionalism”). The other senses—taste, smell, and touch—have less communicative power, but are evocative to the reader. They’re not as cerebral and more bodily.

Naming a paper bag of popcorn identifies the object. Allowing the reader to smell the yeasty aroma, or taste the melted butter, or feel the heat of the kernels through the paper like small coals: These details inflate a flat object into a tangible thing. Imagine the possibilities of foiling expectations with sensory details: The popcorn smells of cigarettes, for example, or tastes soapy for some reason.

Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O’Connor

This is why I think the three-senses rule works: It almost always forces the writer to break away from sight and sound, which dominate the story’s telling, and activate the other senses. The story evokes an experience rather than catalogs a series of events.

While I don’t think four or five senses in a scene is necessarily too much, doing so consistently will over-inflate the story with picayune details. I’ve tried it on occasion, only to cut much of it later as excess fat weighing down the scene. Three senses seems to be the sweet spot.

Flannery O’Connor saw all these problems when she wrote “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”. After mentioning Gordon’s lesson on Flaubert, she cautions,

Now of course this is something that some people learn only to abuse. This is one reason that strict naturalism is a dead end in fiction. In a strictly naturalistic work the detail is there because it is natural to life, not because it is natural to the work. In a work of art we can be extremely literal, without being in the least naturalistic. Art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement. [Emphasis mine]

Keeping the number to three helps limit the writer to selecting only the most essential details, rather than flooding the reader with a surplus to create a sensory shotgun effect. It’s “the essential that creates movement.”

And, yes, there are exceptions to all of the above I’ve discussed. Fiction writers who seek hard rules to follow militarily will soon discover surprises and disappointments. Familiarity with proven techniques, and knowing when to deviate from them, is what separates art from assembly-line manufacturing.

O’Connor’s caution also reminds that the purpose of sensory detail is to invite the reader into the story rather than have them observe it. Sensory details are not the story itself. They are subordinate to the characters, their motivations, and their decisions. Use three senses to make the characters’ world come alive, but only alive enough.

How Marcia Lucas (and smart editing) saved Star Wars

Marcia Lucas
Marcia Lucas

Among fiction writers, the editing process is notoriously dreaded as drudge work, but revision is where the magic happens. It’s where a struggling, plodding story is shaped into the author’s vision.

Recently I discovered “How Star Wars was saved in the edit”, an impressive and succinct video on the high art of film editing. It demonstrates revision so well, it should be required viewing in creative writing courses everywhere.

That’s right: Creative writing. Even though it regards film editing, almost all the techniques described have application in revising fiction.

To clarify, I’m not talking about the Star Wars story line. The formula behind Star Wars has been so imitated and overdone over the past forty years, there are few morsels left to claim as one’s own. Narratological analyses of George Lucas’ little sci-fi flick are bountiful, as are the reminders how he borrowed much of his structure from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. All of this is well-trod ground and not what concerns me here.

What “Saved in the edit” highlights is a criminally unknown aspect of Star Wars‘ mega-success: The role of Lucas’ then-wife Marcia in sculpting the movie’s rough cut into a blockbuster. If Marcia Lucas had applied her formidable editing talents solely to the movie’s heart-pounding conclusion (the rebel attack on the Death Star), she would have deserved the Oscar for editing she eventually received. Her contributions went far deeper, it turns out.

Ordering scenes

I’m most interested in two of the video’s sections. The first is the explanation of intercutting (or cross-cutting), starting at 6m50s in the video. Intercutting is a film term referring to a specific editing technique. For fiction, a more general (and blander) term would be scene ordering.

Marcia Lucas and her fellow editors crispened the first act by reordering scenes to better establish the story and get the audience involved. Since viewers are able to fill in blanks on their own, the reordering allowed for the removal of entire scenes, keeping the story line brisk and taut.

Revising scene order is the author at her most godlike. She is rearranging the events of her dreamworld like a child building up and tearing down sand castle turrets. Scene reordering requires bold moves and wide peripheral vision. It’s not about word choice and tightening dialogue, it’s asking if each scene is in the right place at the right time—or even if it should be included at all.

(Another visual medium that uses visual cuts effectively is comics, a topic I’ve explored before.)

My latest (and, as of today, unpublished) novel offers a personal example of scene reordering in my editing process. My early chapters were a mess. The main character was traveling quite literally in circles. An early reader (and good friend) pointed out the wasted time and lack of energy in the first act.

Although I like to make a rough outline when I write a novel, I don’t organize down to the scene, or even the chapter. After hearing my friend’s criticism, I went through the draft and produced a rough table of contents. Each chapter was listed with a brief one- or two-sentence summary of its major plot points. (A writing notebook, even a digital one, is a good tool for this task.)

Thinking of his complaints, and referring to my makeshift table of contents as a guide, I “re-cut” the opening chapters and produced a sleeker first act. Sections of one chapter were lifted and dropped into another chapter. Events were shuffled to tighten the story, sharpen focus, reduce transitions, and get the story on its legs. Thousands of words wound up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. It was worth it.

Marcia Lucas and George Lucas
Marcia and George Lucas

Ordering beats

My other interest in “Saved in the edit” regards the first meeting between Luke and Obi-wan (11m50s in the video):

Originally the scene started with Luke and Obi-wan watching the princess’ message, then they play with lightsabers, and then they consider to go help her.

The editors realized how “heartless” this scene played out due to the lag between hearing Leia’s holographic plea and discussing whether or not to help her. They reordered the scene by opening in medias res to make it seem the two have been talking about Luke’s father for some time. From there,

  1. Obi-wan shows Luke the lightsaber,
  2. they watch Leia’s message,
  3. and then they argue about flying off to help her.

It’s a simple change, which is kind of the point: Sometimes vital edits are not complex or massive, but surgical and subtle. What’s more, notice how this edit did not require re-shooting the scene. All the elements were in place, the problem was their presentation.

The new ordering creates an emotional cone. The tension starts low with exposition (Luke’s supposedly-dead father, a forgotten religion that tapped into a mysterious cosmic “force”). The stakes rise in pitch as they watch Leia’s plea. A tension point is reached when the old man in the desert tells Luke he must drop everything and travel across the galaxy to save a princess.

If you find a scene you’re working on meandering or feeling aimless, consider how the tension rises within it. Is it building, or is it wandering around?

In play-writing, the basic unit of drama is called a beat. A beat consists of action, conflict, and event. Marcia Lucas improved the scene with Luke and Obi-wan by unifying a beat that had been split apart with the lightsaber business:

  1. Action: Obi-wan wants Luke to learn the Force and save the princess;
  2. Conflict: Luke has to stay and help his uncle with the farm;
  3. Event: Luke refuses Obi-wan’s call and goes back to the farm.

Not all edits are rearranging action/conflict/event. If you think of a scene as a collection of little beats, sometimes revision is moving the beats around, much as scenes can be reordered.

One sin I’m guilty of is opening a chapter with the character in the middle of action or a conversation, then dropping to flashback to explain how the character wound up in this situation, then returning to the scene. It’s a false and inauthentic way to start chapters in medias res.

How to correct this? Sometimes by moving the flashback to the start of the chapter and rewriting it in summary. Often I drop the flashback and assume the reader will catch up on their own (as Marcia Lucas did by opening the Obi-wan scene in the middle of the conversation). Each edit is situational and requires a film editor’s mindset. Simplifying scenes is the core of powerful revision.

These editing skills really should be the stock-and-trade of every novelist and playwright. Yet I’ve never seen a book on writing fiction explain these points as ably as “Saved in the edit”. It’s unfortunate it takes a YouTube video on the making of Star Wars to lay out the power of editing in such a lucid and compelling way.

Writing a book is like being an all-in-one film crew. The author is director, screenwriter, editor, and casting agent. The author plays the roles of all the actors. The directing and writing and acting is the fun part, or at least it can be. But editing is where a manuscript goes from a draft to a novel.

Further reading

For more on Marcia Lucas, I suggest starting with her biography at The Secret History of Star Wars. It details the shameful way she was written out of the history of the movie after divorcing George Lucas.

“Marcia Lucas: The Heart of Star Wars is another fine YouTube video, focusing more on her career and her role with other 1970s films you’ll recognize, such as Taxi Driver and The Candidate. It also does a nice dive into Marcia Lucas editing American Graffiti into the phenomena it would become.

Marcia Lucas’ influence on Hollywood and film editing is still felt today. The Beat‘s “5 Editors That Broke the Hollywood System” are all women, including Marcia Lucas, even though the article is not specifically about women in film history.

Crappy cover letters

Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott (Zboralski, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Anne Lamott is the author of nearly twenty books and numerous short stories, but she’s best-known among writers of all stripes for her essay “Shitty First Drafts”. Her pitch-perfect rumination on the writing process captures the messiness of penning books, short stories, plays and scripts, all of which start with a shitty first draft:

This is how [writers] end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. … Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.

If I might borrow some of Lamott’s magic, I’d like to a coin a corollary to her term. If the story-writing process starts with a shitty first draft, it ends with a crappy cover letter.

To bust ass to write a great story and then summarize it in a paragraph or two is the tragicomedy of the author’s endeavor. It’s reaching a marathon finish line and having the judges inform you there’s one more mile to go for good measure. As with Lamott’s first drafts, my cover letters are initially shitty, but they are so insubstantial I prefer to view them as merely crappy.

A one-page single-spaced cover letter has to satisfy seemingly a half-dozen tasks at once: Introduce the work, summarize its contents, establish the writer’s bona fides, suggest the writer’s past successes without dwelling upon them, demonstrate the writer is committed to the craft but is someone the editors can work with when revision time rolls around, and most of all, that the work being submitted is perfect for the publisher’s needs and will sell like hotcakes (if that’s their goal; it’s not a given.)

Hence as I’m writing a crappy cover letter to an editor, a voice in the back of my head whines: Can’t you just read my manuscript?

This is my theory why writers generally loathe to tell strangers about their work. (“Oh, you’re a writer? What do you write?”) Standing before someone and explaining a book in twenty seconds is essentially ad libbing a cover letter in audio-book form. When I’m telling a person about my work the same voice in the back of my head whines: Can’t you just read my books?

Whether submitting to a major New York publisher or a twee not-for-profit literary magazine, cover letters don’t merely summarize—the writer has to sell the story in one or two short paragraphs, even if the intention is for no one involved to make a dime. By and large writers are horrible salespeople, hence, crappy cover letters.

(This may be why so many writers love Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s a peek into a bizarre alternate universe no writer would want to inhabit—but damn is the dialogue sharp and the situation taut. Always be closing.)

I recall one published writer whose counsel for success was Write your cover letter first. His bright idea was to make sure your novel can be summarized in a sellable way before writing the novel itself. (Is your cover letter crappy? Write different letters until one is good, and then turn it into a novel.)

I’ve never done this so I can’t advocate for it. Personally, I think it’s kind of crazy. I have to write a novel before I know what I should have written.

I have scant advice to offer a writer confronting the challenge of whipping up a cover letter for their latest story. Know that you’re not the only writer who hates this final mind-numbing step. One option is to limit your cover letter to your credentials and pray the editor reads your story cold. (I’ve done this with short stories to mixed success; I sincerely doubt it would work for a novel.)

Like Lamott’s first drafts, your first stab at a cover letter will read like crap. So, walk your cover letter through a similar process as any short story or novel: Take your time writing it. Put it through several edit passes. Ask your writer friends to critique it. Hell, pass it out at your writing workshop if they’ll allow it. Remember, writing is an iterative process.

And when you think it’s ready to send…let it sit on your computer for a week or two. Trust me, when you return to it fresh later you’ll spot all kinds of problems you missed before.

A quarter-century writing in cafes

cafe(友光軒) by voo34oov (CC BY 2.0)

I’ve spent twenty-five years writing in cafes. For a quarter of a century, I’ve attempted to produce passable fiction within the thin caffeinated air of Bay Area coffeehouses. I’ve endured countless hours of crummy music blasted overhead by baristas with something to prove—coexisted with hundreds of cafe patrons as neighbors, each with differing notions of privacy and personal space—suffered wobbly cafe tables and seats as hard as steel—and consumed gallons upon gallons of coffee, steamed soy milk, and espresso shots—all in the name of writing books someone might want to read.

My first foray into the writers’ cafe subculture came in the mid-1990s with the purchase of a Fujitsu laptop computer. This machine freed me from writing on a desktop PC-compatible occupying the corner of my bedroom. This freedom gave me a way to find a neutral place to get writing done—a place neither the home nor the office.

Cafes back then were largely for drinking coffee and reading a newspaper or book. Writing, when it was done at a cafe, was performed with pen and paper. The parallel advents of cheap personal notebooks and wireless Internet rewrote the cafe landscape in America, morphing the coffeehouse from a casual light-fare experience to a pseudo-shared office for the creative class.

Any writer will tell you, finding a good writing cafe is a cherished gift. Every move of address I’ve made since I started writing were always followed by long days of stumbling from one neighborhood cafe to another in search of the right cafe—the mother lode, the comfortable and welcoming writer’s cafe. Even when traveling abroad I make a point of finding a local cafe for writing. As such, I’ve written in so many bad cafes I cannot begin to categorize them—but I’ll try.

Where to begin? There are the noisy, crowded cafes, the cafes where the baristas play Dave Matthews so loud I cannot hear my own music, even when I press my headphones tight against my ears with my palms. There are the cafes I can never find a seat in and must ask to share a table. Most creative types seem to find this burden distasteful and will invent an invisible friend joining them shortly, so, sorry, you’ll need to sit elsewhere.

There are the overpriced cafes. There are the cafes with rock-hard high stools seemingly designed by 1970s MacDonald’s interior decorators. There are the cafes that are too hot, even in the winter. Here in San Francisco the opposite is largely the case, the cafes where the owner props the door wide open no matter how cold it is outside, allowing chilly breezes to charge inside at sporadic moments.

Clocking in years of cafe time taught me never to explain to anyone sniffing around that I’m writing a novel. Doing so only elicits all manner of unproductive responses, from snarky to nosy to rude to inane. More than once I’ve had to pry myself away from a chatty cafe patron who, delighted at my endeavor, felt compelled to describe to me all their book ideas. (Sometimes they offered to let me write their book—”We’ll split the profits fifty-fifty.”) Once, in an otherwise wonderful cafe in Campbell, a regular got his tenterhooks so deep into my work I would startle to find him crouched behind my chair peering over my shoulders to watch me write.

I’ve seen tip jars stuffed full of bills ripped from counters, and the thief racing out the door with coins clanging across the floor in their wake. I’ve seen notebook computers swiped off tables while the patron was still typing and likewise rushed out the door. I’ve written in cafes decorated like giant doll houses, cafes decorated like discount clothing stores, and cafes so meticulously decorated I felt I’d entered a movie set. I’ve seen a darkened cafe in San Francisco arranged like a ziggurat with staggered levels of cafe patrons seated facing you as you enter, every one of them typing furiously on MacBooks. The uniform rows of the backlit Apple logo could only remind me of the 1984 Super Bowl commercial.

There are cafes that cap their electrical outlets to force laptop owners to run on battery power only. There are cafes that employ exotic WiFi systems that only give you so much time online before you must buy another drink or pastry. Some cafes are too-brightly lit, making one snow-blind in the evening hours, and some cafes are so dim you cannot see your hands on the keyboard. There are the cafes that close early, eliminating prime evening-hour writing spurts, and there are the cafes that don’t open weekends for mysterious reasons.

I’ve been in cafes where the owner would assure me I could pay anytime before leaving—and then grouse I never paid for the first coffee when I returned to the counter for a refill. I’ve been in cafes where the owner relentlessly pushed a food purchase on me. I’ve been in cafes with owners who grumbled under their breath about people not buying enough coffee or staying too long.

The Slate.com feature “My coffeehouse nightmare” is the Platonic example of this type of owner. He served his coffee “on silver trays with a glass of water and a little chocolate cookie,” hired a Le Bernadin baker to produce specialty croissants, and thought the fast-track to coffeehouse profits was pulling Vienna roast espresso shots instead of Italian. In six months, his cafe was out of business. “The average coffee-to-stay customer nursed his mocha (i.e., his $5 ticket) for upward of 30 minutes. Don’t get me started on people with laptops.” By which, of course, he means people like me.

Cafes hold a unique position in American culture. They straddle commercial and social divides. As a cafe patron, you are engaging in commerce with the owner and her staff. On the other hand, you share a quiet, almost intimate, personal space with other patrons, perfect strangers often seated less than a foot away. Unlike a movie theater, where all are sharing a common experience, cafes are a collection of private moments (reading a book, engaging in conversation, outlining a novel) hosted within a shared public situation. At the risk of romanticizing it, successful cafes are places where both halves—the commerce and the social—are well-balanced. Failure, I’ve always found, is where such balances are missing.

My personal code of cafe ethics? Always buy something. Don’t bring in outside food or drink. Tidy up the table before leaving. Don’t hog the electrical outlet. Voices down and phone calls outside. Please and thank you carry a lot of water in any situation, social or commercial.

What cafe do I recommend for writing? The one I’m sitting in right now. And, no, I’m not telling you its name.