Self-Publishing – 5 Questions To Start

Joe’s Post #104

So, as Silk posted, there is more than one way to skin that ‘get-published’ cat. Things that used to be true, hey, just aren’t anymore.

Being me, I wanted to talk to an expert. I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve gone the traditional publishing route – Write, get agent, get published.

Now, it’s time to see what’s possible in this new fangled world of ours.

Here is what Karen Abrahamson had to say. A self-published author and a great writer.Afterburn Cover 6x9 cover  for interior

Joe – What brought you to non-traditional publishing?

I climbed on board this horse fairly close to the start. I was at an Oregon Coast Writer’s workshop and the instructors got talking about it as an option for publishing stories/novels that had either sold previously, or for novels/stories that have never sold.

At the time I was in one of those horrible places in my writing career. I felt stuck and knowing that an editor was going to look at one of my novel manuscripts just about had me immobilized in terms of writing. At the time I knew I was in trouble because my production had decreased from four novels a year to about one and I wasn’t feeling particularly good about those single novels.

Learning that there was an alternative to New York editors and agents, or a place to go if the New York thing wasn’t working was like a lifeline.

So I grabbed it.

I started with Smashwords and Amazon and a single story and started to see sales. From there I put my backlist of short stories up and then novels. It hasn’t been particularly lucrative–I haven’t made my first million yet, but every month sales trickle in and that’s more than those stories would have gotten sitting in my drawer.

It has also been wonderful to actually have readers around the world and to occasionally get fan mail!

What advice would you give to someone looking into it?

krisdeanI would say first of all go check out some of the good blogs on indie publishing, such as Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s, Dean Wesley Smiths, John Scalzi and so on.

Hugh Howey is another one. Some are people with longevity in the publishing world, while others are newcomers with recent success.

I would also be really realistic with my expectations. The indie world still has great opportunities, but it isn’t the gold rush it was a few years ago. Still, new writers are selling all the time.

I would also caution against getting caught in the ninety nine cent ghetto. When indie publishing was young you could give a story away or sell it for ninety nine cents as a loss leader to get known and to get people to read your books.

Nowadays it doesn’t work the same, so you need to be prepared to continually upgrade your knowledge either through following the blogs or workshops or listserves.

Hand in hand with not going to the ninety-nine cent ghetto, is knowing how to price your work appropriately. It’s easy to undervalue yourself, so look around for guidance on this and watch what other are doing, but don’t give your work away.

(Joe note: Ok, seriously, you have to look at everyone she mentioned. They’re amazing!)

What pitfalls are there?

Well, there is the WORK.

First there is the website – as an Author you should have one, but this is even more important when going indie. So you need to get one established and populated and then keep it updated.

Then you should also establish a publisher – yes, you become a publishing house so that your books come out under a publisher’s name. And of course  publisher needs its own website, too.

A bigger time sink is the publishing itself, there are a couple of ways you can go about Indie Publishing.

One way is to write the book and send it to someone who can prepare it for publishing for you. Reputable companies like Lucky Bat Books will do this without the writer having to sign over any royalties like you would with an agent or traditional publishing house.

I also urge caution about just sending it to a friend who says they know how to format. A friend of mine paid another friend to format their electronic files and they formatted incorrectly resulting in numerous problems trying to upload the novels to Amazon, Smashwords etc. But a reputable company will hire an editor, a copyeditor, a book designer, a cover artist etc. to get your book publication-ready or you can pick and choose what you services you want to purchase. But it costs.

The alternative is to do the work yourself which has the other problem– it takes time and work to learn the programs. For example, to get manuscripts ready for electronic publication, you can generally do it in Word. There are a variety of formatting niceties that need to be adhered to, but they aren’t insurmountable and there are lots of helpful sources of information on line.

But to go into print, I’ve had to learn InDesign, a publishing software that took a lot more time. I also do my own covers, and that took more time and Photoshop which I, thankfully, knew due to my interest in photography. But it takes a fairly substantial amount of time and it helps to have friends also going the same route who you can call for help. There are good courses to learn these skills and I would highly recommend Lynda.com as a place to learn the various software programs.

And of course software changes. I’ve recently started using Jutoh and it is a wonderful program to create Mobi files (for Amazon) and e-pubs (for everything else). So you have a choice here: a money sink or a time sink. And don’t even get me started on the sinkhole of time spent on social media. Unless you are a person who loves the stuff, don’t go there.

What do you know now that you wished you knew when you started?

I’m not really sure here.

Perhaps how to design a better cover? Some of my early ones were pretty poor, but I’m not too displeased now. The trouble is that cover styles change so that you have to keep upgrading.

Oh, and how to write decent cover copy.

karenIt really is being able to change hats from writer, to marketer, to editor, to publisher. It takes a lot of time (at the start, less so as you get experience) and you need to decide where to spend limited time, but the publishing should never take over your writing time. Writing must be number one. As a result I’ve had to keep rebalancing my focus from creation to publication. I also think it would have helped me if right from the start I’d started to think in terms of creating a publishing schedule to help me hold myself accountable.

What’s the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Cruising airspeed velocity of an unladen European Swallow is roughly 11 meters per second, or 24 miles an hour. Of course if you want the air speed for an African Sparrow I’ll have to do the calculations again….God bless Monty Python.  

Karen’s Website is www.karenlabrahamson.com

Thanks for sharing!

Next week, more info from people who’ve been there and done that.

The age of the hybrid

hybrid

Silk’s Post #91 — Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “hybrid”?

Cars that run on gas and electric power? You’re probably ecologically-minded.

More productive strains of corn and tomatoes? You’re probably a farmer or a gardener.

Alien lifeforms arising from cosmic cross-breeding? You’re probably a sci-fi fan.

Your next book? Wait a minute. What do hybrids have to do with books and authors?

Possibly everything.

As part of my preparation for our next crazy 5writers challenge (launching September 5, 2014 … watch for it!), I’ve been doing yet more research on the publishing industry. This may seem redundant, since the five of us – as wannabe-published authors – have tried to  proactively inform ourselves about what it takes to get in print. Many books, many articles, many blogs, many discussions with published authors, many scans of online writers’ groups, many workshops, and many writers’ conferences later, we thought we were on top of it.

Think again.

What my latest web scan revealed is that publishing opportunities yesterday are already very different from publishing opportunities today, and I mean that literally, not figuratively. Whatever received wisdom you believed about publishing, say, six months ago, it’s probably wrong now.

Because we’ve now entered a new age: the age of the hybrid author.

Here’s how Chuck Wendig, in his February 2014 Writer’s Digest Magazine article “Case Study: Becoming a Hybrid Author”, describes this new creature we are all probably going to morph into:

“A hybrid author is one who refuses to accept that there exists One True Way up the Publishing Mountain and who embraces all the methods available. The hybrid author prefers a diverse approach to getting her work out there, which means utilizing both the traditional system of publishing and also acting as an author-publisher in order to retain control and self-publish her own work.”

This may not sound new to you. Self-publishing has been going on forever. But here’s what’s different in the new hybrid world:

#1 – There ain’t no taint to self-publishing

The headwinds buffeting the traditional book publishing industry are blowing away some old musty ideas. Historically, self-published authors who resorted to “vanity presses” to see their own words in print were presumed to be – forgive the expression – permanent rejects. Tainted. Writers whose work was never going to be good enough to get out of the slush pile. Budding authors were warned that self-publishing was the kiss of death with agents and “real” publishers.

Now, let’s be realistic. Is there some real sh*t out there among self-published works? Yep. Lots of it. (Of course, it’s self-evident to the discerning reader that traditional publishing is not exactly sh*t free, either). But self-publishing a book is no longer considered a literary felony, sentencing the author to automatic disqualification from working within the traditional publishing system on other projects.

Writers who evolve to this new hybrid author state may be the survivors in this new publishing environment.

#2 – In today’s marketplace, all writers need to be entrepreneurial

I don’t think I’ll stir up a lot of disagreement when I suggest that the publishing industry is undergoing massive change. I’m no economist, but it’s easy to see industry after industry becoming revolutionized in our newly networked, globalized world.

These factors have accelerated the free-market cycle, where businesses spring up, compete and grow in the lush times, then consolidate when things get leaner and meaner. The strong swallow the weak, gaining control of the marketplace (for instance, only a handful of publishing empires now control most imprints you’ve ever heard of). Ouch. There are so many reasons to worry about powerful monopolies that are bottom-line by nature, serving shareholders first, customers second, and suppliers/producers (often) last. This is especially sensitive in industries that sell creative products.

Monopolies that calcify can become vulnerable – more fragile than they seem. Enter the independent challengers: the Amazons and Apples of the world who move fast, break the rules, and build new business models (and monopolies of their own) on a large scale. But this upheaval also leaves space for many new players: the smaller-scale indies. They’re like economic phytoplankton, the profusion of life at the bottom of the food chain that keeps the whole ecosystem alive.

This pattern is already well underway in the music industry, in the movie industry, in magazines and newspapers, in radio and television. Virtually everything that has to do with news and entertainment is in flux.

The book industry is following suit. Where once there were clear rules, standards and pathways to success, now virtually anything goes. Anything that works. There will, of course, be winners and losers (and I truly mourn the decline of the comforting, beautiful, traditional bookstore). There will be good and bad outcomes. The deserving will not always be rewarded. And the roadmaps that will help authors find their way to the goal of publication and success are still being drawn.

Hybrid authors will need to become creative opportunists.

#3 – There are more reasons to self-publish than rejection

Increasingly, writers with their ears to the ground will hear strange tales of bestselling authors choosing to self-publish a project. Of new authors turning down traditional publishing contracts in favour of going the indie route. Of agents working with hybrid authors in new ways, and seeking new talent among the latest crop of successful self-published writers.

Heresy!

Where will you find these weird anomalies in the books of advice for writers on your groaning bookshelf? You probably won’t, unless the book was published very recently. You may begin to hear hints and rumours at a writers’ conference workshop. But if you look in the right places online – where trends now show up first – you’ll discover that the hybrid author is already alive and well. And comes in every shape and size.

So why would any author actually choose self-publication over the traditional route – except rejection? Isn’t traditional publishing the holy grail we’re all seeking? Here are just a few possible reasons:

Creative freedom — An established writer may want to do a project her traditional publisher is not interested in. Maybe it’s outside the writer’s usual genre, or it’s experimental, or for some other reason the publisher doesn’t think it will fit their list or profit expectations. What choice does the writer have but to follow the creative dictates of her publisher? Yep. Become her own publisher.

Money — A writer, whether previously published or not, may put on his business hat and take a close look at the numbers. Shockingly, he discovers that he can make more money – sometimes a lot more – if he self-publishes than if he signs a contract with a traditional publisher, based on realistic estimates of sales and author revenue likely to be generated by the two different routes. Careful, though. Risk-reward ratio is not an easy calculation to do, even for the experienced. Better rattle some chicken bones and throw in some eye of newt for good luck. Welcome to entrepreneurship.

Choice and control — A writer may want to keep certain publishing rights – such as e-book rights – and sell other rights to a traditional publisher. The author may have already self-published electronically, but now has an opportunity to take her book to market with an interested publisher. Or she may have been traditionally published and now wants more control of a new project and an opportunity to share more of the profits. This is where the new hybrid agent and the new hybrid author may need to have a meeting of the minds. Tricky new territory, but early pioneers could be creating the pathways and precedents for many hybrid authors to follow.

Career direction — A published mid-list writer may be dropped by his traditional publishing house, and now must either self-publish, or find another publisher (and not many traditional publishers are dying to sign up lots of new mid-list authors who have been dropped elsewhere). Of course, she could always take up another career such as brain surgery, which might be less daunting. Getting back on the horse may require becoming a hybrid author.

So that’s what I’ve learned from my research to date. I know just enough to know that I need to learn a lot more about hybrid authorship. It’s a brave new world out there.

What do you think about it? Was any of this news to you?

Does it fill you with excitement and hope … or does it seem fearfully overwhelming?

We’d love to hear your comments.

 

 

 

The end of the beginning

winston

Joe’s Post #104 — I still love words and few people do it better than my old pal, Winston Churchill. “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Now if I said that in the writer’s group, I’d get a few odd – and somewhat confused – looks. He was a bit wordy, that Churchill character, but he was wise.

But why is this important? Well, after the last meeting that both Paula and Karalee mentioned, we decided that we needed to shake things up a bit. We were becoming too stale, too fearful, too non-writerie. So we came up with a plan.

I won’t go into the details just yet. That’s for a later post, but good things are happening, again. We have a direction. A focus.

However, let me say that we will be taking on something we’ve never done. So, when I have to do something I’ve never done, like ziplining or becoming a parent or doing my own prostate examine, I do what I always do.

I talk to people who’ve been there and done that.

It doesn’t make any difference if they succeeded or failed or somewhere inbetween. All experiences are valuable.

So, for my next 3 posts, I’ll be talking to people who’ve undertaken what we’re about to undertake.

I hope that anyone reading this blog will pipe in with their comments and questions and even fears.

Until then, I’m off on another adventure myself.

teaseConsider this a teaser post.

You have been teased.

Is fear holding back your writing?

Karalee’s Post #83 — At our 5Writer’s meeting this week we agreed we are all writers (see Joe’s last post), and that we would all love to be published, and that above all else we are all writers.

Beyond a doubt this job is hard work.

Unlike in the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, none of the 5Writers are getting any younger, and we feel the need to start pulling ourselves up the learning curve towards the sign that says, “You’ve made it. You are now a published writer.”

Of course we would all prefer to simply write.

Our meeting has me reflecting on my writing past, my challenges at present, and what I need to start doing to reach my published goal.

Like Paula, I have my monsters lurking too, but my fear factor has changed as I’ve churned out more words under my fingertips and learned more about the craft of writing. I now have more experience taking my ideas and creating characters and stories.

So how has my fear changed?

First off:

When I decided I wanted to delve into writing in a big way, fear was a huge barrier. Could I really write anything someone would want to read? Then, when I thought about my friends and family reading what I wrote, fear spiked again. I write murder mysteries with nasty villains with nasty thoughts and nasty families and relationships. What would people I know think about how I think?

But I started writing anyway, turning my ideas into stories I thought were compelling.

After a couple of years:

I enjoyed writing and kept writing and forgot about the fear of putting down words that people would read and maybe judge me by. It didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. I felt more open to write without worrying and when I was writing I lived in my own isolated world that felt normal to me.

Then I got more serious about my writing:

I felt the need to bump up my writing skills and have other people read my work and give me feedback. I could do the same for other fellow writers. I started going to SiWC and I joined a writing group (one before the 5Writers). Once again I had to conquer the fear of my work being read and critiqued, but go forth I did, and my writing improved.

I got even more serious and joined the 5Writers:

To join this group I had to submit a piece of writing and a resume and have the existing members decide if I had enough to offer to the group. This was on a new level for me and rejection was a possibility, and of course fear to submit my work reared its ugly head.

I passed and have been in the group for four years.

I’m struggling though, at this higher level of expectations for myself. I have yet to develop an outstanding protagonist that pulls my stories to the level I’m striving for and it is driving me mad.

Silk reminded me that often our protagonists are a reflection of ourselves and I take this to probably be true for less experienced writers like myself that is-yet-to-be-published. I’ve thought about this and realize that I’m not pushing my protagonist enough, or making him or her different enough since “I” wouldn’t do that.

In effect I need to get out of my comfort zone! I’m still holding back due to the fear that my protagonist may be seen as “me” and not everything I want my protagonist (or my antagonist) to do is “nice” or seen as “normal.”

I have come full circle with fear still holding me back. I could stop and say that I’ve been spinning my wheels, wasting my time the last couple of years and not making much progress, but I believe everything happens in its own time.

What’s different this time though, is that I’m less fearful about what people think about “me” in my writing and I also understand the craft of writing more than when I first started. So, when one of my fellow writers said to me, “Make your protagonist someone you are not,” it made absolute sense, and I can now consciously change my bad habits and head in the direction I need to go.

Without working through all the learning and other writing challenges before now, this simple suggestion would not have the insight it gave me.

Thank-you 5Writers! Often times it is the subtle suggestions that have the greatest impact on one’s learning. Even though fear is still there, it is challenging me to push forward, not holding me back. It’s all a matter of perspective, right?

I’m pretty sure we all have some fear of putting ourselves out there for others to view part of who we are. What are your fears? Are they holding you back? Sometimes it is recognizing and acknowledging them that allows us to work with (or around) them and not against them.

Happy writing!

I’m on holidays for the next few weeks and will be back on schedule in the middle of August. Enjoy the summer weather.

 

 

Monsters under the bed…

 

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Paula’s Post #80 – Today was one of our periodic 5writers brainstorming sessions. The kind of day where the five of us gather from near and far, clear our schedules and huddle in a room for hours on end and try to decide where, as a group, we should go next. The kind of gut check any group needs from time to time to reboot creative juices and add more glue to the bonds that keep us together as a group, even as we  move further and further apart on the time-space continuum.

Since writing is an art… a calling… a craft  …an avocation, these meetings also demand a great deal of mental fortitude and creative energy, so we inevitably also ensure we are fired up by enough sugar, caffeine and protein to adequately fuel our bellies and our imaginations.

Today, our meeting was hosted by our 5writer colleague Karalee and she didn’t let us down.

Typically, I come away from these marathon sessions both invigorated and exhausted. Excited by the synergy of the group, daunted by how to make sense of the many creative ideas we’ve managed to cover in such a short time. But perhaps the most important outcome of almost every one of these sessions is the individual and collective opportunity to look in the mirror and do some soul-searching. To see where we have come from and chart a course to where we want to go next.

For every writer, this is an integral part of the process of getting better. Essential for making the leap from occasional dabbler to published author. For learning the skills and discipline necessary to conquer the modern writer’s brave and often complex new world  of publishing, marketing, blogging and self-promotion… not to mention writing.

Did I mention writing?

Let’s face it. That’s another big advantage of having an active writers’ group. Your buddies, your colleagues, your critiquers know if you’ve actually been writing. So today, in our usual show and tell, we all disclosed what we’d been working on… and what we hadn’t been working on.

Now,  I’m not going to violate any confidences of inner sanctum (aka Karalee’s kitchen); my job is not to spill the beans and rat out my 5writer colleagues. But today’s meeting did serve as a painful reminder to me that I’ve a lot of “monsters” under the bed.

Monsters, you ask?

Yes, monsters. In my case, an unwieldily number of bankers boxes filled with first and second drafts of the half-dozen or so novels I’ve written in the last few years.

They haunt me.

They taunt me.

For some reason that no doubt would require a dozen or so years of psychoanalysis, I have trouble polishing first and second draft manuscripts to the stage where they are ready to submit to agents and editors.

Seriously. It’s not that I haven’t had invitations. I’m the master of the fast-talking ‘pitch’ at writers’ conferences. I have literally dozens of invitations to submit my work for consideration. Sometimes the first few pages… sometimes some chapters, often the full manuscript.

I’m almost ashamed to admit how few of these invitations I’ve actually followed up on. All talk, no action. That, I fear, is me. At least recently.

The only consolation is that I’ve no doubt that I’m not alone in this problem.

If you wish, you can leave a comment and add your own ‘true confessions’ right here. In fact, I’d welcome your input as to why you think you haven’t moved on and taken your manuscript to that ‘next level’. The level where you’re ready to submit to editors and agents.

Some say it is fear of rejection. But in my case, I don’t really think that is the problem. I spent my life being rejected (no, not unlucky in love. In that department, I think I’m the luckiest woman in the world). But in my former life, as a prosecutor, I spent a lot of time getting rejected: some days, my submissions didn’t sway the Judge. Other days, I’d concoct a novel argument as to why some necessary piece of evidence ought to be admitted and get summarily shot down. Many days, my idea of a fit and proper sentence range was not that of the presiding Judge. In short, I’ve developed a thick skin. I’m used to rejection.

I know what to do when visited by it. Get up, dust yourself off, start all over again.

Period.

No excuses.

I’ve never felt, well, destroyed, when I’ve opened a letter or an email from a literary agency rejecting my submission nor query. Usually, there is some consolation prize to be found within: a few nice words of encouragement, or, if I’m really lucky, some constructive suggestions about what worked and didn’t work in my writing. 

So that isn’t, I think, my particular problem.

I have a few ideas of my own about where the problem lies. Some of them have to do with the fun of dashing off first drafts vs. the drudgery of trying to make sense out of the muddle I’ve made of that rollicking ‘seat of the pants’ wild rush to the finish. How to unwind and re-work the mess produced by that heady cocktail of adrenalin and inspiration that propelled me from the moment I typed ‘Chapter One’ to the moment I sighed and tapped out, ‘The End’.

As Earnest Hemingway so famously said: the first draft of anything is $h*t!

But for me, there’s no comfort in knowing I’m not alone. I need to move from second drafts to third, fourth and fifth drafts. Trying to figure the ‘why’ of my reluctance only helps so much. I just need to move on and get on with it.

The plain fact is that I have reached the time and place to stare down my demons.

For me, it’s time to confront the ‘Monsters under the Bed’ and pull out and sort through some of those first and second drafts. I know from the feedback of my dear critique group colleagues some of them show promise.

I need to winnow out the most promising among the bunch and try to fall in love all over again. I need to try to rekindle that initial magic.

In the next few weeks, when the days are long and the moon is bright, I’m going to confront my fears of he dark. I’m going to confront those Monsters under the Bed.

 

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Moment of truth

down-the-road

Silk’s Post #90 — Tomorrow (Tuesday) the 5Writers will get together to talk about where we go from here as a writers group. Over the four years that our current membership has been together, I think it’s fair to say we’ve all learned a lot about writing. But we’ve learned even more about ourselves, and about the value, challenges and rewards of collective creative effort and mutual support.

It has been an incredible experience – one that I would encourage other writers to seek.

What have we actually accomplished? I can only testify to our progress since I was invited by colleagues I first met at the Surrey International Writers Conference to join the group in 2010 – after our founder moved on to bigger and better things as bestselling crime thriller author, Sean Slater. I missed those first, inspiring days. But since 2010, here’s a brief recap of our evolution:

For two years, under the optimistic banner “Future Bestsellers”, our focus was a regimen of critiquing each other’s first drafts at a rate of 30 pages per month. We were all roughly in comparable stages of our projects. We put a lot of work into each critique, typically providing margin notes, summary comments (usually anywhere from 3 to 6 pages), and a face-to-face presentation/discussion. Thus were 10 books fully or partially critiqued. And we weren’t shy about it.

This feedback was critical to me. You might say it tore the veils from my eyes and forced me to look at my own work in a different way. Some sessions I would leave with soaring spirits, others with a heavy heart. But because of the caring and supportive environment our group has cultivated, and the honesty and intelligence of its members, I always left a meeting feeling that I’d learned something of great value that would help me become a better writer.

In retrospect, I believe that the even more important lessons were learned when critiquing the writing of others. It’s so much easier to see what works and what doesn’t work in someone else’s manuscript than it is to see it in your own. But if you have an open mind and are honest with yourself, you’ll recognize those same characteristics – both flaws and successes – in your own work. It’s a revelatory process.

But routine can be an enemy of creativity. So, two years ago, we decided to re-invent the group through the 5writers5novels5months challenge, which we launched on September 5, 2012.  This began with the wild idea – dreamed up virtually on the spot – to each write a novel in five months, and blog about the process. If you’ve been following us for a while, you know how it went. The mission to complete five novels on deadline was partially accomplished. The mission to start a blog that might be interesting to writers and others has been a whole education in itself, and, I think, a pretty successful venture. The mission to create a learning experience was absolutely accomplished, culminating in a fantastic, week-long writers’ retreat in Whistler, BC in June 2013, where we delivered full-book critiques (and ate a lot of candy bars).

But the publication mission is still to be accomplished for the 5Writers.

Over the past year, we’ve each pursued our own writing agendas and kept blogging, while a number of other priorities have kept the 5Writers extraordinarily busy. But now, the break’s over. We’ve come up with a number of ideas for again re-invigorating our group and challenging ourselves as writers. We’re ready for a new phase. We’re getting fired up. We all want to go that final mile on the road to publication.

And that new plan starts tomorrow. A meeting of the minds. A celebration of how far we’ve come, and a re-commitment to how far we still need to go. A new jolt to our comfort zones. And hopefully … a moment of truth.

Stay tuned!

True or false: writing is its own reward

Photo credit: Susan Alison

Photo credit: Susan Alison

Helga’s Post # 86: Did Henry Miller get it right?

A great many thoughtful comments followed Silk’s post about the all-important question “What am I willing to sacrifice for my writing?”

It’s a question that every writer has to answer sooner or later. We might try to push it aside, but like a nasty persistent skin rash, it keeps coming back to bug us.

So what’s the answer?

I read Silk’s post to my husband, just to get a non-writer’s perspective (though he hastened to add he writes ‘lots’, but it’s all technical specification stuff, so doesn’t quite apply here). He had an interesting perspective that I hadn’t thought of before. ‘Serious writers are not that different from tennis pros or pros in other sports.’

How so?

Well, for pros, the sport always comes first. Their daily training routines, their workouts to get and remain fit, both physically and mentally, and even their diet – especially their diet. Their grueling daily schedule, regardless of whether they feel up to it or not, putting all else in second place. They do this because it’s the only way to move up in the rankings, to compete and get noticed, and eventually win out over their competitors. They don’t have the luxury of choice to opt out of their regimen, to forego their strict schedule or diet (ice-cream anyone? you must be kidding).

Of course they do all this under the direction and control of a skilled coach who won’t let their charge stray from that strict regimen.

We writers don’t have the luxury of a professional coach. Nobody tells us what time to start writing in the morning, how many pages to write, how to stay physically and mentally – especially mentally – fit, and to fend off any and all interferences to our writing. We don’t have anyone but ourselves to prioritize our commitments and duties, to decide what to ‘sacrifice’ to write that next chapter or scene.

One of my biggest challenges is to decide how much time I can reasonably devote to nurturing and growing my friendships. Friends are so incredibly important and such a rewarding part of our lives. But, let’s face it: friends do take up a lot of time. If they happen to be writers, they understand; they live with the same constraints. But others may not be quite so forgiving. Try and explain to a friend why your ‘hobby’ (their definition) is more important than a daily phone call or a two hour coffee chat. Try to point out that you are using all your mental resources to juggle everything else in your life, and to keep a semblance of balance to what you will never give up: your spouse, family, and yes, a modicum of chats with friends, time permitting. Try explain that the amount of time you spend with them is not that relevant, because true friendships will last through distances and even stretches of time where we don’t seem them.

Don’t expect understanding or empathy. How could they know? This is where we writers have to take a step back and appreciate that others (members of the non-writer species) just don’t share that space with us. We can’t expect them to. So if you get a blank stare when you try to make them understand your constraint, put yourself in their (non-writer) shoes.

So that’s the predicament. Surviving as a writers with friendships intact, to take care of your loved ones, and above all, enjoying the ride. And to keep enough energy in the tank to say, hey, life is good. I can have it all. If I’m not too greedy.

One of the comments on Silk’s post (Judy’s) talked about putting writing on the top of the list before all else (barring emergencies). I hear you. I want to believe you! Can it be done? Sure. But it needs a steely discipline. Especially because we don’t have the luxury of a coach to keep us on the straight and narrow. We have to do that all ourselves. And that’s what makes it so indescribably challenging. To keep that discipline without anyone to reign us in if we stray from it. Nobody to tell us, don’t open the fridge for that leftover piece of pie, don’t binge on Netflix to watch three series of Mad Men in one sitting, and for heaven sakes, stay away from the blowout sale of the season at your favorite boutique.

Then there is the question of motive, or objective, for writing. One, much bantered about, is that a writer simply has to tell a story. A particular story. An honorable cause to be sure. How many writers can truly admit that this is their driving force? I’m conflicted, not sure where I stand on this one. Again, the tennis pro comparison comes to mind. He (Novak or Roger) or she (Maria or Eugenie) keep their eye on the prize. Sure, they love the game, but without that overriding drive to win they surely wouldn’t put up with all that sacrifice.

We want to be published. That’s the prize. Yes, we love to write and we write even in the face of discouraging statistics about getting published. Of course we can leave all our unpublished manuscripts as legacy to future generations of family members or whoever, but is that enough incentive to keep on plugging away on the keyboard day in and day out, for decades of our lives?

That’s a question I would love to get answers to. Why do we write? Honestly?

As for myself, I am still searching. At different points in my life I wrote because I simply found it an enjoyable pastime. An artistic expression, like a painter adding color to a blank canvas. At other times I felt compelled to write, as if I had no choice. Perhaps a bit presumptuous about my talents, but those were my most productive writing times. So, yes, believing that we can write a great story, worthy of the ‘prize’, may just be the most important ingredient.

None of this is new, or particularly clever. The debate has gone on forever. It’s at the heart of every writer. Take these two divergent views:

‘All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’ – George Orwell

‘Forget all the rules. Forget about being published. Write for yourself and celebrate writing.’ – Melinda Haynes

What makes a writer a writer?

Joe’s Post #103

After reading Silk’s amazing post about what it takes to be a writer, it got me thinking and when I getz me a-thinkin’, I wanna write about it. Actually, I want to write about it more than I want to talk about it, but that just might be the introvert in me turtling in my little cave.

So, ok, yeah, what makes a writer a writer?

dickensI must admit I zoned a bit on Dickens, but what he said, in Joe-speak is this, write because it’s important to you and don’t expect anyone to say, hey, awesome, wow, gosh, here’s a billion dollars.

It’s that simple. Writers write. Because it’s important that they do.

They probably write a lot, but I’m not sure that’s even necessary. I mean, what’s a lot? Stephen King writes a book a week, I think. GRR Martin writes a book every 10 years or so. Ok, I exaggerate a bit, but you get my point. They’re both writers, yes?

But here’s what gets in my head. Here’s what gets in a lot of writers’ heads. Here’s what you hear a lot.

Have you been published? Have you got a book someone could read?

It seems that THAT is what makes a writer.

Sure, that’s a bit harsh, but not unfair.

from belief.net

from belief.net

However, if that’s why we write (to get published), then we are in for a certain amount of heartbreak. It’s hard to get published (and I’m talking books here), with the mainstream publishing houses. Hey, they want to make gobs of money and why in the world would they want to risk a ton of promotional dough on a newbie who’s writing about angels and dwarves and a one-eyed heroine?

I get that.

But there are other options for getting published. The e-publishing business is taking off like mad. However, with several writing friends taking that route, let me tell you (and this may not be a surprise), but getting people, a lot of people, to buy and read your e-book isn’t easy.

Silk’s right, both avenues take a LOT of work.

They don’t tell you this at the writing conferences. It’s the dirty little secret.

But does that hard work make us writers? It may make us SUCCESSFUL writers, but if we write, we’re writers. It’s that simple.

Let me take you back a few weeks. I had the honor of going to a company BBQ with the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world. We listened to the Beach Boys (who looked tragically old) and we even won a nifty prize, but I have to confess, I hate these types of events.

Why?

Because sometimes conversations go like this: “So, hey, I hear you’re a writer.”

Me: *gulp* “Errr, I guess, kinda, yeah,”

“A writer, eh? Where can I get one of your books?”

“I haven’t been published.”

“No?” They give me a look like I’m an actor who never gets an acting gig. “So what book are you writing?”

“Currently, I’m writing a thriller mystery about a Vancouver policeman who has to stop a serial killer who…”

“Is that all you do? You know, writing?”

“I also eat donuts.”

“Right. So no job?”

“They don’t pay me to eat donuts, no.”

“So, like, you don’t work.”

“Well.”

“Oh, wait, there’s someone I… uhm… bye.”

And that’s the concept that eats away at us writers. The idea that it’s not work or a career or a viable life choice. Money-wise, it might not be. Let’s be honest here. Money-wise, it’s gonna take a LOT of work.

But being a writer, answering the question of what makes a writer goes back to a simple thing. Writers write. Sure life throws us some curveballs, sure, there are times when you need to take a break, sure there are moments you doubt that you should even be attempting this madness, but if you write, a blog, short stories, articles for magazines or newspapers, novels, even creative letters to penthouse, you’re a writer.

It’s ok to be a struggling writer. It’s ok to not have anything published. It’s ok to just write.

As a successful writing friend of mine, Karen Abrahamson, said, “I write for myself.”

Isn’t that what Dickens was trying to say, the wordy bastard that he was?

 

 

 

Sacrifice

writer-keyboard

Silk’s Post #89 — I think there’s a point in the life of every writer when this question must be answered: what am I willing to sacrifice for my writing?

I’m at that point.

Why is this moment inevitable? Because the muse is a demanding boss. Because becoming a really good writer, and becoming a published writer (though two entirely different things) require that writing be a writer’s top priority.

Because writing takes work, and work takes time.

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”   — Stephen King

“I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true – hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don’t love something, then don’t do it.”   — Ray Bradbury

“I don’t know much about creative writing programs. But they’re not telling the truth if they don’t teach, one, that writing is hard work, and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.”   — Doris Lessing

Ah! There’s the rub.

“Writing” and “being a writer” are not the same thing. Being a writer is a calling, not a hobby. And in our age of seemingly endless possibilities, it’s difficult for us not to want to check the “all of the above” box on our menu of life choices. How else could you explain the mind boggling  statistic I cited in my last post: that over 80 percent of Americans would like to be an author?

But how many of them would put this desire above all (or at least most) others? How many would actually give up something else they desire to do – or more likely many things dear to them – to achieve that goal?

And am I one of those?

“The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”   — John Steinbeck

“I hold my inventive capacity on the stern condition that it must master my whole life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands on me, and sometimes for months together put everything else away from me … Whoever is devoted to an Art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it and to find his recompense in it.”   — Charles Dickens

“There’s no point in fooling with [writing] unless you have to – unless you have a need to do it … A publisher friend of mine says that most writers are not real writers, they are just people who ‘want to have written.’ Real writers are those who want to write, need to write, have to write.”   — Robert Penn Warren

Serious stuff, eh?

Maybe, like me, you’ve come to a kind of commitment watershed at some point in your writing life. In my heart of hearts, I’m a committed writer. But it’s time to admit that this is not truly reflected in my sustained commitment of time and effort. I give it all I can … without having to give up other things that are also important to me. And that’s not really enough. In fact, not nearly enough.

So.

For me, the time has come to go beyond dabbling. To put up or shut up. I’ve known for a long time it was going to come to this. If I seriously want to be a real writer, I will need to make real sacrifices to feed my passion and inhabit my craft.

And what’s the reward for such sacrifice?

The greats who have gone before us down this road have sent back these eyewitness reports to inspire us who follow them …

“Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free.”   — Annie Dillard

“Who am I and why was I born and what is it all for? Who are these others and what have they to do with me and what have I to do with them? To answer these questions is to seek the essentials of some sort of philosophy of life. And to answer them in one way or another is the meaning of literature. Whenever a book, through the direct voice of poetry or through the voices of characters in a novel, recognizes these fundamental questions of the human heart, that book is read and lives on and on.”   — Pearl. S. Buck

“Writing is an affair of yearning for great voyages and hauling on frayed ropes.”   — Israel Shenker

“I write to find out what I’m talking about.”   — Edward Albee

“The aim, if reached or not, makes great the life;
Try to be Shakespeare, leave the rest to fate.”   — Robert Browning

 

 

My Story Mill

 

Danish flag

Paula’s Post #79 – The Power of Story

Dateline: Copenhagen

This is my fourth and last 5writers post from Europe. I’ve been on the road for almost a month now on a journey that has taken us from the misty peaks of the Isle of Skye to the low, flat countries of the Baltic Sea. Perhaps no surprise to our 5writers followers, I’m composing this post in the departure lounge of yet another airport. This time, I’m at Copenhagen International Airport (CFH), a beautiful modern hub not far from the city centre.

The last month has given me so much opportunity to reflect on the power of story.  A few weeks earlier, my own personal journey (and the research for my novel-in-progress) took me to the depopulated Islands of northern Scotland. Here, the bitter deprivations of the “Highland Clearances” and the ravages left in the wake of the potato famine decimated the crofter families and robbed them of their traditional  livelihoods of small tract farming, kelping and fishing. That is my family’s story, or at least part of it.

But  on this trip I’ve discovered I’m not the only one tracing my family history. A few weeks later, upon boarding our cruise ship, we discovered many of our fellow passengers were embarking on their own personal pilgrimages, a journey to the lands that their parents and grandparents left behind. Their stories, like my family’s,  time-worn sagas of heartbreak and perseverance, hope and despair. As I listened to their powerful and oftentimes tragic family histories, I found myself yearning for a pen. Hoping to make a few notes to capture some of these tales of incredible fortitude and resilience.

For many of our fellow passengers on board our Baltic cruise,  their family story started (or ended) in the war ravaged states of the Eastern Baltic: particularly Russia, Lithuania and Latvia, where the rough cobblestone streets of the towns and villages are forever stained, at least metaphorically, with the bloody struggles for survival, with generations of heartache and despair.

During the second world war, the Baltic States, sandwiched between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, by fate of both geography and history, endured some of the most horrific events of the war, (though  not all suffered equally). Some, like the Finns, resisted Soviet occupation, just as the Norwegians resisted Nazi  occupation. Others, like Sweden and Denmark realized that their armies were no match for the onslaught of German military might and signed neutrality agreements at the start of the war, leaving their citizens living in a kind of ‘limbo’ for the duration. Others, like Latvia suffered through multiple brutal occupations, first the Russians, then the Germans, then the Russians yet again.

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga, Latvia stands as testament to one of the saddest chapters in mankind’s history. Established as an independent country after the first world war, Latvia’s hopes  for the young nation were brutally crushed by Stalin, who carried out mass deportations when the Soviets occupied Riga at the start of World War II.

Stalin’s pact with Hitler gave the Red Army free rein in the eastern Baltic states, with the result that thousands of Latvians were sent to Gulags in the far-flung corners of the USSR, primarily in the mines and forests of the north., There, they were utilized as slave labor, toiling under extreme deprivations. During this period, Latvian farms were also collectivized and the landowners dispossessed, with women and children separated from the men: the former sent to underpopulated Siberia, the latter to the aforementioned Gulags.

Little wonder the remaining citizens of Riga looked to Germany as ‘liberators’ when the tides of war turned and Germany declared war on the Soviet Union. But yet again, hope turned to despair as within months, the Nazis  occupiers carried out mass executions of Jewish population of Latvia including the infamous Rumbula Massacre, where on two non-consecutive days, November 30 and December 8th, 1941, over 25,000 Jewish citizens of Riga were executed in or on the way to Rumbula forest, just outside Riga.

Today, Riga is one of the fasting growing regions of Russia. marked not only by a solemn remembrance of times past but also with an incredible optimism for the future. As I walked through the cobblestone streets, I was struck by how quickly the ‘world turns’. How the bloody streets of war-torn Riga have, in just a few generations, transformed into a tourist mecca characterized by bustling cafes ubiquitous American fast food joints and even young lads peddling pedicabs.

But it is the power of story that helps us to remember the ravages of the past, no matter how transformed the present seems, how optimistic the future appears.

We disembarked from our cruise in Copenhagen, a vibrant, progressive city with few cars and many bicycles. Once again, I was struck by how much inspiration one can find by just walking through a city’s streets. You don’t need to travel to a far-flung destination for this to hold true, similar sources of inspiration are found in every town and city of the world, from Vancouver to Tokyo. In Copenhagen, where outdoor cafes abound, we had abundant opportunity to just sit and watch the world go by as tourists and natives alike bustled about their business (or pleasure, as the case may be). Observing couples holding hands, parents herding toddlers, gypsy musicians hustling tips and lovers squabbling over directions (okay, in truth sometimes it was actually my husband and I doing the squabbling) I felt a hundred story ideas burble through my subconscious. How easy to imagine a hidden motive behind a strangers act of kindness, or a loved ones mysterious, undisclosed secrets, past and present.

At one point, my husband wandered off in to a private courtyard and ‘disappeared’. Only for a minute, mind.

When we reunited a few minutes later, he told me he was staring with admiration at the garden in a hidden courtyard, when a women invited him in to take a photograph. Of course, a couple of dozen yards ahead, I had no idea where he’d gone. One minute he was there, the next ‘poof’ he vanished. And then another dozen storylines popped onto my head, all clamouring for space in chapter one of an espionage novel about the new cold war, the mysterious disappearance of a woman’s husband.

Dateline: (Greenland)

At least I think we’re over Greenland – or at least some reasonable facsimile where one can see craggy blue, glacial peaks and what seems like an awful lot of icebergs breaking off and floating about in the North Atlantic. I don’t know about you, but I think those global warming people may be on to something. Something big.

In any event we survived the short flight from Copenhagen to Heathrow, London. We even survived Heathrow, where, with the recent developments in Syria, Iraq and Israel, and concerns over air travel, the airport is under a heightened security alert. More fodder for the story mill, with even the most seemingly innocuous of travellers a suspect. At least in the writer’s mind.

This writer’s mind is overwhelmed with stories. A fantastic jumble of images and ideas, inspiration and settings, which one day I hope will materialize again when I’m ‘stuck’ and looking for some story ideas.

My imagined stories inspired by history and people of  the countries we visited were not my only companions on this journey. As a young girl, I discovered the experience of travel was enriched by reading a novel set in the region one was visiting. In this manner I discovered the espionage novels of Scottish-American author Helen MacInnis and American thriller writer, Robert Ludlum. If you’re not familiar with MacInnis’ work, you may want to take a look at her obituary from the New York Times.

This trip, I downloaded Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace,  the first book in a two book series chronicling the life of intriguing Catharine the Great, Monarch of Russia, a fascinating accompaniment to a visit to present day St. Petersberg and to the many palaces Catherine occupied during her reign.

So many books, so little time. Right now though, my suitcase is tipping the ‘overweight’ scale with the giant hardcover ‘History of Skye’ that I purchased after our visit to Armadale Castle, the castle of Clan Donald, in Sleat, on the southern tip of Skye. I haven’t even cracked it open yet, but I have an eerie premonition that when I do, I’m going to end up with even more story ideas.

Clan Donald

For me, there is no more effective influence than travel to help generate powerful story ideas. I’m a bit sad to be heading home from our travels, but know that the last few weeks have helped to create a wealth of new story ideas I’ll be able to bank and borrow from in the months and years to come.

Postscript:

Dateline: Gibsons Landing.

We’re back to reality. The hit and miss wi-fi at Heathrow prevented me from posting this update when I hoped. But back on track in the land of real wi-fi, with mountains of laundry waiting and many, many memories, safely tucked away in my ‘data bank’.

Do you have a favourite story idea that came to you when you were travelling? Or maybe you have a different ‘Story Mill’ for generating story ideas. We 5writers always like it when our followers share their inspiration for great story ideas.