Selling – the writer’s bane

I’m reading a book about selling. I know, I know. It’s hardly beach reading, and besides I should be writing. Or reading about writing. Or reading a great writer’s writing.

But, no, I’m reading about selling. But it turns out to be a very interesting book by a very good writer who offers a fresh perspective on the topic of selling. Okay, if you’re a writer, you may be rolling your eyes right now. Selling yourself is probably the part of writing that you most dislike, or fear, or look down on, or are just plain confused about. Bear with me, though.

The book is called To Sell is Human – The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. The author is Daniel Pink, who happens to know a lot about writing and selling, as the author of five non-fiction books. His titles Drive and A Whole New Mind were long-running NY Times bestsellers, his books have been translated into 34 languages and have sold more than a million copies in the US alone. So much for the jacket blurb. The guy knows something about social sciences and modern culture. And his premise is that … wait for it …

We’re All In Sales Now.

He puts a literary shine on this thought by opening with a quote from Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman” (1949):

“The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is, you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.”

Pink begins by acknowledging the distasteful reputation that the iconic character we know as “the salesman” has in most people’s minds. He conducted a survey for his book, in which people were asked “when you think of ‘sales’ or ‘selling’, what’s the first word that comes to mind? Then, taking out the neutral synonyms for ‘sales’, he plotted the adjectives in a word cloud to demonstrate respondents’ predominant feelings about the topic. The biggest word in the cloud was ‘pushy’, followed by yuck, hard, ugh, difficult, sleazy, annoying, necessary, slimy, dishonest, manipulative, cheesy, scary, painful … you get the idea.

So this is what he thinks we’re all turning into? No. Of course not. Who’d buy his book if this was its message?

His message is focused on what he calls “non-sales selling”, which is essentially influencing people, whether that be a prospective employer you want to work for, a colleague whose support you need, a spouse you’re trying to interest in a vacation destination, a citizen you’re convincing to vote for you, a grandchild you want to try a new food … or a reader, an agent, a publisher you want to look at your book. Forget used cars. In the broadest sense possible, “selling” simply means convincing other people to listen to your ideas, engage with your cause, try something new, think differently, support you.

Haven’t we all had to do that on a daily basis? In fact, could we even get anything done, run our lives, or be happy if we didn’t engage in this everyday “non-sales selling”?

So what’s the point? We all need to be aware of, and get better at, these kinds of negotiations – and maybe rethink the whole concept of what “selling” means in our daily personal and professional lives.

Now, you can certainly quibble with Pink’s definitions and terminology. After all, he’s selling a book, so he needs a provocative premise to engage people. But what you can’t quibble with is the fact that, as a writer, you do have to take on the role of “salesman” at times if you wish your work to ever be read.

And that simple fact leads us, inexorably, to what Pink calls the “ocean of rejection” which is the lot of unpublished authors seeking agents and publishers. The dreaded query process, followed by the dreaded rejection letters.

I don’t mean to be harsh here, but this is reality. Getting published is not a quest that involves Fairy Godmothers, unicorns, lucky charms or rainbows. Even if you do it yourself. Sorry.

But it does involve sales. Sorry again. Try to keep your lunch down.

Throughout his book, Pink cites the career, attitude and fortitude of a man named Norman Hall, who is (literally) the Last Fuller Brush Man. A nice guy, by the description in this account. A soft-spoken, dedicated man who has learned how to remain buoyant on that “ocean of rejection” and keep his soul together. And how to keep going. And going. And going.

And from Norman Hall’s story, as irrelevant as it may seem to our publishing ambitions, writers can learn (if they’re willing) the incredibly valuable lesson of persistance and enduring self-esteem in the face of rejection. And some of the strategies that makes a salesmanship a worthwhile skill. Because most of us are going to need it at some point in our careers.

So here’s the punchline. One of the strategies for staying afloat in the ‘ocean of rejection’ and finding the resilience to keep going, and going, and going, is to conquer one’s fear of disappointment. To, in effect, depersonalize rejection and to realize that life goes on and it’s still worth trying again and again and again.

Based on psychological research, Pink recommends that you enure yourself to rejection letters by writing one to yourself. Apparently, this kind of mock assault on the emotions helps writers steel themselves for the real thing. Believe it or not (I had a hard time taking this seriously myself until I checked it out), there is actually a website that will do this for you – that is, send you a rejection letter to your specifications.

The service is on the stoneslidecorrective.com website, and is called the Rejection Generator Project, designed specifically for writers. Check it out, whether in earnest or for a giggle.

The serious take-away here, though, is simple. As a writer, whether you seek traditional publication, or decide to go indie, you are a salesperson. And successful salespeople need to stay buoyant, confident and focused while navigating an ‘ocean of rejection’.

It’s not an easy thing to accept. We all hope that somehow we’ll be the one wearing the glass slipper. That our True Writing Selves will be discovered almost magically. That the value of what we’re creating will earn us the support, attention and accolades we feel we deserve, without having to stoop to the dirty business of selling.

And you know what? That would make a great story in a book … of fiction.

Note to readers: Since I’m writing this on a tablet, on a boat, without reliable internet connections or easy access to the usual WordPress tools and photo resources, this post is not only visually blah, but may have some technical glitches. Sorry if you find links that don’t link, or other weirdness!

Conundrum: More than a wine – just ask a writer

fork-in-the-road

Helga’s Post # 87: What’s a poor writer to do with a completed manuscript of a beautifully told story, edited and polished to perfection?

Not as simple as it used to be not so long ago: draft a query letter to an agent who might fit the bill, print the first three chapters and a synopsis, and mail it all off in an 8.5×11 envelope with a self-addressed stamped (all-important) return envelope.

And wait and hope for a positive reply. And wait some more. Sometimes three months, maybe six. Maybe the reply never comes. And to get more discouraged with each rejection letter that arrives one after another with cruel regularity.

But there’s a new wind blowing. Not so new to some savvy writers who take the business side of writing as seriously as the trade itself. It’s a brave new world for writers, as we have known for some time. The recent blog posts from 5writers Silk and Joe have tried to do justice to this complex topic by raising some fundamental issues and shining the headlights on what we writers all need to come to grips with and understand. From comments we received, not surprisingly, there is frustration and rejection of what appears to rapidly become the new business model.

So which fork in the road should a writer take? Indie, self-publishing, Amazon, New York literary powerhouses for traditional publishers? What road will lead to our stories being read by most readers – or not at all? That may well be the conundrum of brave new world writers in times to come.

After all the dust has settled on the current debate, it may well turn out that the cards are dealt slightly, or perhaps a lot more than that (time will be the judge), in favor of writers, at least on the surface. An entirely new world is opening up to writers who, for the first time ever, get a chance to have their stories read, stories that traditional publishers deemed not to have been worthy of sharing with the rest of the world. Sort of brings to mind some historical milestones in Czarist Russia and pre-revolution France that didn’t end too well for the establishments in power.

Remember when you drove to Blockbusters or some other video-rental store to pick up a movie or two for Saturday night? Not so long ago in years, but an eternity in terms of technological advances. The big question of the time was Beta or VHS. Those shops are gone, relegated to the dustbin of so many other industries now redundant. Is there a parallel with publishing? How an industry could go into oblivion because they failed to reinvent themselves, or simply could not keep pace with innovation?

But let’s not fool ourselves. The traditional publishing industry is not going to roll over and play dead. They surely have some powerful ammunition in their arsenal. Such as client lists that boast the crème de la crème of authors whose books we all have come to love, the books that became successful movies, books we will always willing to pay full price for. Books that we may not be able to borrow from our local library, because the publisher doesn’t have to make it available.

So, if you are one of those writers mentioned above who has worked hard and sacrificed much to produce one or more marketable manuscripts (meaning final drafts, edited and checked for every possible error, even the most minor), you’ve likely done the research. Which fork in the road to take? Like to see your book prominently displayed on Barnes & Noble or Chapters shelves? How far will you go and how long will you wait until that happens?

You likely know the pros of self-publishing (courtesy of Author One Stop):

  1. You make more money per book every time you sell one.
  2. You can get your book printed and have it ready to sell very quickly.
  3. You have total control over your cover design and title.
  4. No one can tell you to edit anything out.
  5. You own all the rights, except for the ISBN.
  6. If you already have an audience for your talks or seminars, you can use the book for immediate back of the room sales.
  7. You can print in small quantities.
  8. You can sell your book on Amazon (the firm Author One Stop will put this in place for you and you will receive a 20% royalty). – My note: What? Shouldn’t this go into the ‘cons’ section; 20%??

But there are of course cons of self-publishing. Consider some of these, not all-conclusive:

  1. Distribution is limited as chains, for the most part, do not accept self-published books.
  2. Marketing and promotion is your responsibility (similar to traditional publishing).
  3. You’ve got to do everything yourself or nothing is going to happen.
  4. If you aren’t already out speaking or giving seminars, or in the public eye where people will have exposure to you, sales can be quite challenging.
  5. You’ve got to put out the money for printing.
  6. Most reviewers won’t review books that are self-published.

We can expect that this passionate and probably brutal debate will rage on for some time to come. It will be fascinating to watch this huge turf war unfold. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy our trade and apply our craft. What greater achievement than creating stories that people will remember and talk about months and years after they finished reading? Nothing succeeds like success. It starts and ends with one thing: Having a novel that pulls readers in. Telling a story that people are willing to fork over 99 cents or $19.95. Making sure your story premise is big enough, deep enough, with enough conflict to turn pages no matter what the time of day or night. With enough of our own heart in it, with story events that are monumental, be that external, emotional or best of all, both.

But that’s not the end. It’s only part of it. Because now we have to decide how to get those stories into our readers’ heads. Full-service publisher? Indie? Doing it all ourselves?

Here is how some authors see it:

“Anyone who says it’s easy to self-publish a book is either lying or doing a shitty job.” – – Nan McCarthy

“The good news about self-publishing is you get to do everything yourself. The bad news about self publishing is you get to do everything yourself.”

- Lori Leski

One of the more poignant quotes I found that sums it up nicely for the self-publishing camp comes from Rayne Hall, author of forty books in different genres and under different pen names, published by twelve publishers in six countries, translated into several languages:

“Authors today need a publisher as much as they need a tapeworm in their guts.”

Surely the discussion over the different options for publishing will continue. Surely also the confusion will deepen for a while until the crystal ball turns less cloudy. Personally, I welcome the opportunities of writers having more viable options. However, it also raises the question of pay-off: how much energy from our creative process are we writers robbed of, how much time and working in uncharted territory are we willing to serve the goal highest on the agenda of many, if not most writers, namely getting published?

Which brings us back to the question that this blog wrote about a few posts back, ‘Why do writers write?’ Just like a good story, this question is taking on the shape of an incomplete circle that will ultimately close. Until then, I will just carry on with what I love most: create and write stories. I will worry about publishing when I am done. Maybe I have a one-track mind, but I can’t – or am unwilling to – do both at the same time.

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

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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?