Category Archives: Getting Published
First, my apologies for letting this blog languish these last few weeks. We’ve been busy with holidays, planning for spring and summer, and yes, actually WRITING. In fact, that’s the topic I’ll focus on in this first entry for 2013: Finger Biting Days.
I know I’m really writing when my fingers are a mess, bloody and bit to the quick and slightly aching from all the gnawing. I pick my cuticles when I think. I always have. I know, it’s a terrible habit, but it’s one I’ve accepted as part of the way I work. Honestly, when my fingers look good, I know I’m not writing deeply enough. And right now, my fingers are wonderfully horrific.
When we write, we want our work to be perfect. We think deeply and muddle for hours, days, sometimes weeks to get a scene just right. Yesterday, though my schedule wasn’t luxurious, I thrilled simply to find a single perfect word that I’d been mulling over the day before, going from Thesaurus.com to the real thesaurus and back, knowing that it was there if I could only find it.
We want our work to be perfect because we love it. We want to fully express ourselves and share with the world what is living inside our heads all this time. But on a more practical note, we NEED our work to be perfect – as perfect as humanly possible in the subjective world of words.
If our work going to have even a chance in the competitive traditional publishing world, it’s got to be better than anyone else’s. No – more important still – our work has to look like it will sell.
Now I shall tangent to acknowledge the many avenues available to writers today that don’t require the approval of an established editor and a Big 6(-1) publishing house. Still, that is the brass ring. It’s what every writer who is honest really wants. I recently listened to an interview with Guy Kawasaki, a successful published and now self-published author, talking about the challenge of self-publishing and how, if he had the chance, he’d still go back to the traditional route.
What none of us want is to have to hock our books to the market like common street peddlers. (“Books! Books for sale! Fifty cents a book!” I see myself with a pile of books on my head like the classic children’s tale.)
So we anguish to get our work just right. We muddle and fuss and ponder and fret and bite our nails to the quick because we’re anxious – no terrified – that we won’t be good enough to have a shot at the “big sale”.
In truth, the market is taking fewer and fewer chances. In order to survive, traditional publishers have turned increasingly to sure-bets, authors with well-established reputations or celebrity or both, and fiction from well-recognized names. When you’re not one of those authors, you’re in the midlist. Even in the old days, five or six years ago, midlist meant struggling against obscurity and begging for just five minutes of your over-worked publicist’s attention. These days, more and more, it seems the midlist is simply gone.
And yet any one of us would claw with our half-bitten nails to get that glorious five minutes. We’d claw for the chance to realize at last that someone cares about what we write besides our family and friends.
In fact, I often wonder if publishers today are cutting their nose to spite their face, as it’s said. Without the midlist, they are taking their bestsellers and putting them at risk of the chopping block. In a shrinking pool of offerings, each book simply cannot be a bestseller, can it? Statistically, there has to be a bell curve – some winners, some not quite , a few inevitable bombs. Will the lists shrink more and more until all that’s left are a few prefabricated “surefire hits” as risky and interesting as a McDonald’s hamburger?
So, back to biting nails. I’m clearly almost finished with my draft – yet again. I shouldn’t even say it because the last time I did was over six months ago and I’m still not finished yet. But I’m really almost there. And I want it to be perfect. So I glory in the discomfort and occasional Bandaid.
As Guy Kawasaki said in the same interview, “The best two motivations for writing a book are first, because you have something to say that is of value – what a concept! The second would be because it’s on your bucket list, it’s an intellectual challenge.”
If that’s all I get from all this angst, then it’s worth it. But I can still hope for just a little more.
The Writers Circle rang in the holiday season with its second annual Holiday Bash on Friday, December 7. After last year’s cozily packed party at Sparkhouse, this year we held the evening event at our brand new, fabulous loft space, MONDO, in Summit. Despite having more than three times the room, we were a bit breathless to realize how much our community has grown over the past year.
Over seventy TWC students, teachers, friends and families gathered together to share the holiday cheer and to launch of our very first literary journal. The Writers Circle Journal Volume I 2012.
TWC Director Judith Lindbergh shared in her welcoming remarks, “We’ve grown from just three instructors and a handful of workshops a year ago to three locations, nine instructors and twenty-seven workshops offered this session.”
Guests brought their favorite dishes and holiday treats to share in an abundant potluck with enough sweets to make some of the youngest guests woozy!
The highlight of the evening was a reading by eleven of the contributors to The Writers Circle Journal. The Journal, which was compiled and edited by a fabulous editorial team over the past six months, includes work by TWC’s children, teens and adults, as well as artwork contributed by members of our circle. The gathering was a perfect celebration of fabulous year of growth, creativity and inspiration shared by all.
Judith promises, “We’ll do it again next year. But we might have to rent a hall!”
I have been pondering the pace at which I write my novels. I’d thought that I’d been working on this latest book for five years now, until I realized just today that in fact it’s edging past six, since Memorial Day half a dozen years ago when I cried my way through a wholly unsatisfying draft of a different half-baked work and finally realized it was destined for burial in the bottom drawer.
So here I am, six years, five drafts, and a whole lot of paper, toner and heartache later, ALMOST DONE!!! If I ever had a following among readers somewhere out there, they’ve almost certainly completely forgotten who I am!
I comfort myself that another dear author friend has been working on her novel for at least that long, and that Stephanie Cowell, who used to amaze us at writers group meetings by pulling out an entire, completed manuscript from her tote bag every month or so way back when, now sometimes also struggles for years on a book. (Though she as easily finishes one in a few months, which leaves my mouth gaping.)
I had started to call myself the Queen of the Ten-Year Novel, until my truly brilliant and wise editor, Carole DeSanti, revealed at a book talk the other day that her newly released and absolutely gorgeous novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R., first formed in her mind seventeen years ago. Seventeen years!! If I am the queen, then she is the duly crowned empress!
No one in their right mind begins to write a novel of any scope and thinks, “Oh, I’ll whip this off in a few months, maybe a year.” Writing novels is a labor of love – emphasis on LABOR. If you value your craft, if you respect and love books – reading them, holding them, pondering them, standing in awe of them – and if you long to see your own broad spine proudly tucked beside others in one of the few precious bookstores left in this world – then you must accept that the work will be long, lonely and hard.
You do it because of that love, or because of an insane vision that shows up in your head one foggy dawn, or because of the voices that start speaking and won’t shut up or leave you alone until you have finally listened to them.
This is the writing’s tormented blessing, its muse, its terrible genius. In her recent TedTalk, Elizabeth Gilbert defines “genius” in its original sense: genius wasn’t in us, it spoke to us. We did not own it. It was separate from us and came to us at its will, not at our calling.
Let me tell you truthfully, that is the nature of this strange work. And sometimes it comes, and those days for a writer are glorious.
But they are rare. Many days for most writers are just work – hard work that requires attention, discernment, discipline, a critical mind and the patience to expect that some days you won’t get it, that you’ll stare at the screen and move paragraphs around and write three dense pages and delete them. And that’s OK. That’s part of the process. Whole drafts are scraped and thrown away. But we pick up and keep going because we have to get it right. Only then do we dare to put our work out into the world.
And yet the pressures of modern technology and the voracious consumer market seem to scoff at the deliberate slowness of both the novel and its creators. A recent article in The New York Times declared “In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking“. Should this make writers like me feel guilty?
The best rebuttal to this pressure came in a comment to the article itself, that if we want our work to join the mass of forgettable fiction that’s piling up out there, feel free! Dash it off! Self-publish and start your marketing! Everyone has something to say and something to sell!
And I don’t blame you. In a world where we can reach an audience so readily, it’s all too tempting.
But in this very same world where writers can push a button and be instantly “published”, the true craft and expectation of excellence are all the more on authors’ shoulders. In respect to the larger goal – to create something memorable, worth reading at least once and perhaps even again – we must take the time to craft the very best novel we can and not regret the labor or the time involved.
As Graham Swift wrote so eloquently in his essay, “Words Per Minute“: “a benign intrusion into someone else’s life for even such a short duration seems to me quite a feat of communication, … a time-suspending experience that stays with them well after they’ve closed the book and that they might one day wish to return to, …that’s as much as any novelist can hope for.”
A conversation with Judith Lindbergh and Michelle Cameron
In anticipation of our upcoming workshop, “Reading Your Writing for an Audience”, Michelle and I thought we should discuss why we thought such a program was really relevant to writers. Below is the result of an interesting back and forth. We hope you enjoy it and even pick up a tip or two.
Michelle Cameron: My husband has often said that he thinks writers should never read their work aloud. Like so many of us, he’s suffered through some really bad readings. He feels that writers should be confined to the medium where they thrive, mainly the printed page. I’ve tried to convince him otherwise – especially in this market – but to no avail. What do you think?
Judith Lindbergh: He definitely has a point. I’ve suffered through readings, too – some by highly regarded literary icons – and been shocked by the droning or pretentious deliveries. I’ve also attended readings where the writer truly breathes life into their already stunning words. I remember Toni Morrison at the 92nd Street Y. Her presentation sang with dynamism and drama. She truly made her writing leap off the page — a storyteller in every sense of the word.
MC: Indeed. I remember so clearly how Billy Collins read one of my favorite poems – “Litany” – at one of the Dodge Poetry Festivals. We were standing in the shade of some trees listening, and I remembered thinking – how natural and how full of dry wit – some of which only became apparent to me when he did read it.
Yet even good readers can run into problems. Maybe they’ve read their work too often. Their readings can sound overly rehearsed. Then there’s “the poetry voice.” Many poets read in an entirely unnatural style – using rising inflection at the end of lines whether or not they belong, adding ridiculous pauses, a seething tone, oddly drawn-out syllables. Check out this great reading by Taylor Mali that demonstrates that voice with perfect irony:
I have never understood why poets feel this fake, strained, nearly incomprehensible way of reading imbues their work with greater importance. It’s the other side of the stumbling and bumbling – an artificial voice that really grates on their listeners.
JL: The problem is that most writers are not natural performers. Many of us write precisely because we’re more comfortable on the page than out loud. Reading silently is a private act, an exchange of thoughts between writer and reader. But speaking in front of an audience is absolutely public.
MC: You’re right, most writers are the wallflowers in the crowd, the ones who step back and observe what’s going on around us. Most of us are decided introverts. Can you imagine Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson or even the more vibrant Emily Bronte having to perform their work?
JL: The problem is that, these days, all writers must promote their work. Publishers expect it. In this competitive market, if we want our books to get any notice at all, we have to get out there and make a lot of noise. That inevitably means getting up in front of a microphone at some point and reading our work aloud.
MC: So maybe it behooves us to get past our trepidation and learn how to embrace that part of the job. You’re an unusual writer because you’re a former actress. Can you give those of us who aren’t natural performers any words of wisdom?
JL: Reading my work is fun for me because I draw on my stage experience. I still get nervous, of course, but when I read I change hats. I convince myself that I’m not an author presenting my work. I’m my character and I literally try to step into his or her shoes.
When I was on tour promoting The Thrall’s Tale, I always read three passages – one from each of the main characters’ voices. Bringing them to life wasn’t difficult because, even as I wrote the book, I’d often “perform” their passages aloud. It helped me understand my characters’ emotions, experiences and sometimes even their physicality. When I give a reading, I draw on those same voices and emotions. I try to “be” my characters as I read.
Still, I don’t act my readings. Imagine trouncing around in a bookstore gesturing and emoting—ridiculous! But there’s a way to bring musicality to your voice – perhaps a light tone for a young or innocent character, or a deep, gravelly voice for someone old or tired. I practice and play with my rhythms and try to find the right place for pauses and emotional highs and lows. Practice and play are critical to find confidence and to develop vocal control. Finally, I always remind myself to listen to my own words and feel what they are saying. When we’re nervous, we often just read and don’t think about what our words mean. We have to remember that this reading is the first time our listeners have experienced our thoughts. We want them to be as fresh as if we made them up just now.
It truly comes down to confidence and abandon – letting go of our self-awareness and stepping out of our writerly selves to become the narrator of our own adventure.
MC: I like that — confidence and abandon. It’s definitely a skill worth cultivating, especially in the current publishing marketplace. And the nice thing is that even timid readers — and I’m one — can gain that confidence when they learn how to reach and touch their audience. I always read the Talmud burning scene to audiences when I talk about The Fruit of Her Hands — and there’s nothing to match the absolute stillness of an audience when they listen to that heart wrenching passage. That’s when your words really come alive!
JL: Stillness! That’s wonderful. You really have brought them into your world when you get a reaction like that. I think that’s the reason, in the end, that many of us write fiction. We want to express our imaginative visions and try to make them real for others. When we witness someone else who is moved by the worlds and lives of our characters, we know all the hard work of writing has been worth it.
Learn more at The Writers Circle Speaker Series event, Reading Your Writing for an Audience with Sandra McLaughlin & Leonie Higgins, Sunday, April 1, 2:00-4:00 PM at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, NJ. Register online at www.writerscircleworkshops.com.
As I noted in our last post, Kathy Lynn Harris and I go way back. But I think it’s how we kept ourselves moving forward that really mattered; encouraging one another through the good times of our individual writing careers and — regrettably — the bad. I’m celebrating right along with Kathy on the publication of her novel, Blue Straggler. Here she shares more of her experience finding an independent publisher for her novel after first striking out on her own. — Michelle Cameron, TWC Associate Director.
In my first guest post, I wrote about how the decision to self-publish eventually led to a publishing contract with a small, independent press. In fact, Blue Straggler was officially released this week in paperback! Exciting times for this writer who has waited more than 10 years for this moment.
Working with my publisher, 30 Day Books in Seattle, has been a wonderful experience so far. I’ve had input into the book cover (We decided to keep it the same as the ebook.), the contract and profit-sharing arrangement (a splendid 50/50 split), the release date (March 1), and our publicity plans. (Did I mention I need a clone?)
There have been a few factors that have taken some adjustment. First, I’ve had to relinquish a bit of control, and trust someone else to love my work as much as I do. That’s not as easy as it may sound when you’re a complete control freak like me.
For instance, while my publisher kindly consulted with me on the paperback’s pricing, it was ultimately not my decision, of course. The publisher knows how Amazon and traditional bookstores work — and understands the discounting process that will likely take place after the book is on the streets.
Also, with my ebook, I had complete control over proofing and making subsequent changes. Now, I have to trust that my publisher gets it right and that my changes are eventually made as I envisioned them.
My publisher is outstanding at publicity and promotional ideas – and has plenty of them! The plan includes everything from blog tours and media interviews, to book signings and social networking goals, to contacting reviewers and media and book discussion groups. It’s a great plan, and I’m sure it’ll generate a large amount of buzz on a small budget. But a majority of the publicity work requires a close-knit relationship between me and my laptop. I’ve had to learn to break down our substantial promotional plan into smaller chunks, so that I don’t get overwhelmed with all that is expected of me.
The publisher also hopes to “brand” me, building a certain image of who I am as an author, which I know is great business sense. But it’s difficult for someone like me, a feisty Texas girl at heart, who would really rather hide away in my log cabin in the mountains and not actually have any attention focused on me.
A commenter on my last post asked if I’d seek out self-publishing again. The short answer is yes, absolutely. I felt freedom, pride and accomplishment from my self-published ebook.
But the long answer is that having an indie publisher believe in and back my work still carries a certain legitimacy that self-publishing does not have, at least not yet. Bookstores and libraries are more open to purchasing copies. The publisher has contacts and channels I do not. They know how to get my book into distribution processes that I had no idea even existed as a self-published author.
And in the end, all of that will hopefully move the book-sale meter a good deal farther than I could have alone.
Have other questions about self-publishing or working with an indie publisher? Post them here, or please feel free to contact me at kathy [at] kathylynnharris.com.
Blue Straggler is available for purchase via Amazon:
Kathy Lynn Harris and I go way back – all the way to the first writing conference I ever attended, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, some 15 odd years ago. The conference, in addition to solidifying my ambitions to become a published author, also gave me a great gift ― our enduring long-distance friendship. I’ve shared Kathy’s frustrations when her worthy novels were passed over for publication ― many times getting very close. Now I am thrilled to share the story of her eBook success as today’s guest blogger at The Writers Circle. — Michelle Cameron, TWC Associate Director.
I began my fiction-writing journey by just putting pen to paper, joining a critique group, reading everything I could get my hands on, and attending writer’s workshops and conferences as much as my day-job would allow. Through the years, I finished one novel, and then another. My manuscripts placed in a couple of regional novel-writing contests. I landed a New York literary agent, then an even better one on the West Coast. My novels were pitched to all the Big Publishing Houses. The result was a “maybe” here and a “maybe” there, all of which eventually turned into a solid “no”. The feedback? Interesting stories, good character development, but plots that were “too quiet” to make it past the All-Powerful Marketing Departments.
I licked my wounds for several more years but kept writing, having some moderate success publishing children’s books, poetry and essays. But one of my fiction manuscripts ― Blue Straggler ― persisted in keeping me up nights. I loved my characters — Bailey, Idamarie and Rudy, a quirky threesome of unlikely friends. I loved my settings — rural South Texas, the city of San Antonio and a small mountain town in Colorado. I liked what the story had to say about friendship and family secrets and discovering who we really are inside. I liked that no matter how many times I reread chapters, I smiled. I knew it was a polished and well-edited manuscript. Readers (and not just family members or friends, by the way!) seemed to enjoy it. It just seemed like such a waste to have it sitting in that proverbial desk drawer gathering dust.
Then, in 2011, I began to travel by plane a lot for my job. I noticed the gradual rise of the e-reader — probably two out of every three fellow travelers were now reading on Nooks and Kindles, and then iPads and other tablets. The ebook was reaching a tipping point.
I reconsidered why I wrote Blue Straggler in the first place. I quickly realized that what matters to me most is pretty simple. I want readers to enjoy the story and characters. To read a passage and laugh. To think about something just a little bit longer than they might have otherwise. To read the last page and consider that their time with my story had been time well spent.
And I recognized that I didn’t really need to be on a Random House bestseller list to feel good about my work.
I made the decision to get in on the ebook action. I spoke with a friend, Jeremy Kron, who helped me navigate the ebook formatting world. He was also — lucky for me — a wonderful interactive designer who designed my book cover. Together, we prepared Blue Straggler for publication as an ebook via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Program and Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! Program in August 2011.
Positive reviews began to come in from readers and bloggers. People began to talk about the book via social media. Sales were promising. And then an independent publisher, 30 Day Books, emailed me with interest in publishing Blue Straggler as a trade paperback in early 2012.
Within four months of releasing my novel as an ebook, I signed a contract. The paperback’s official release date is March 1, 2012 (even though it can be ordered right now via Amazon).
The moral of my story? Well, I could stick with the age-old adage, “persistence eventually pays off.” But really, what I’d rather other writers know is this: Technology and ebooks have opened up a whole new path to publishing, whether it be self-publishing or catching the attention of traditional and indie publishers. If the conventional gatekeepers have declined your work, but you still believe in it with all your heart, and you want and need to get it out into the universe, it can pay to take a chance. It did for me.
Stay tuned for Kathy’s second guest blog in a few weeks; she’ll be discussing her experiences working with a small indie publisher as her first novel debuts.
You can read more about Kathy Lynn Harris and Blue Straggler via her author website at http://www.kathylynnharris.com/. Check out Kathy’s blog, as well. And connect with her via Twitter (@KathyLynnHarris) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/BlueStragglerFiction).
OK, this is totally out of character for me, but it’s also totally brilliant, so I just had to share. This episode of The Simpsons came to me through very reliable channels. Anyone who is even contemplating authorship will be equally terrified and amused. Click below to launch the video, and laugh while you weep: