Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Temperature of a Writing Decade, 2005-2015

Ten years. I’ve been writing professionally—making money for my work—for just over ten years now. Sometimes it seems as if that’s all I’ve done; other times, I can’t believe it’s only been that long. Things have changed in the industry, almost as much as they’ve done over the past 115 years of time. The goal of an author: to be read.

Self-publishing was a nasty word in 2000; worse than vanity publishing, not as bad as getting a contract with a small, independent publisher who might help sell a couple of hundred copies, where on your own you might sell a hundred books on the open market. In 2003, all I wanted was an agent, someone who believed in me and my work and help get those contracts with the bigger publishers. Since 2005, I’ve had three and a half agents. I’ve published a dozen novels (and am sitting on four manuscripts), a series of children’s historical books, probably a hundred articles to magazines and newspapers, had several radio plays produced, some devotionals. Okay, so I can contribute my first novel sale partially to my first agent, who signed me about the same time as I landed the contract for the novel, but who couldn’t negotiate anything about the contract, and who later couldn’t salvage the contract gone to the South Pole. I had to dredge it back up with my own team of sled dogs. I had another sale with my last agent that ended up floating in a nuclear waste dump. I had to suit up and go fetch my manuscript, with the agent cheering me on and negating the sale. But not one of those dozen published books was directly through an agent. My first novel was with a respectable publisher who no longer publishes fiction. The rest with were with those smaller, independent publishers, and a new fad—micropublishing.

But self-publishing has become somewhat fashionable—sort of like taking the waters in a bathing costume that covered most of your flesh became fashionable. If you have enough credentials, fame, the correct innovative marketing strategy, and paid help, you can pull it off well—well, as in making enough money to keep yourself fed.

Publishing your own work with minimum help is still for amateurs. Amateurs are those who do something for the love of it, versus Professionals—those who work for pay. The lines between amateur and professional are messy, as amateurs are now offered the opportunity to offer their book for sale in public forums. They don’t need agents. They don’t even need a publisher. Nor do they need to write all that well, and have no need for someone to believe in them and their work. They publish because they can; an anonymous printer/e-pubber will gladly take two-thirds of any profit of the top and make it sound like a good deal for you.

Are agents still necessary? Of course. Good agents with contacts and interminable energy and big credentials and a project they believe in that have almighty authorial credentials might be able to land a contract with one of those larger publishing houses—the kind that are still offering advances based on projected sales, good editing, salable covers, the right kind of marketing. But even agents are limited on how many sales pitches they can make to the ever-shrinking larger publishing houses, and many are negotiating contracts with the smaller publishers who don’t offer advances. Many independent publishers won’t work with them at all.

Authors can pitch to agents and publishers at conferences and other venues in person.

What hasn’t changed in the last decade? Professional Authors still want and need Someone Acceptable to believe in them, to vet their work, and tell the public that their financial and reading time investment is worthy. We want to be read, to make a difference in someone’s life. It’s a little harder, but possible. Just possible.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Hitting the Wall

What happens when your manuscript, which has been moving along smoothly, beautifully, without a hitch, suddenly slams into a block of granite a mile high and a mile wide and takes you and its characters right along with it? How do you (and they) recover from your resulting and very nasty injuries, let alone find ways to get back on track?
Granted, this isn't a brick wall, but you still wouldn't want to run into full tilt.
Why, that would be ... unbearable.
Okay, I'll go away now.

Any author worth his or her pile of discarded ideas will admit this happens to them at one time or another--and more likely, on a regular basis. There's just something about a book-in-progress that begs to be flattened against something unmoving and uncaring. I'm not talking about writer's block, a malady some authors suffer that also stops them cold. I'm talking about a book, not a mind, that comes to a screeching halt when just hours before it was racing toward its conclusion, or second or third act, or ending, or heck, its dedication. The point is, it had a vision and was heading toward completion of it, but then that vision either disappeared or petered out or just lost interest in itself.

That happened to me with my latest book and it took me ... gulp, years to recover. Yes, years. Oh, it's not that I didn't write a word on it all that time; that was the problem. I worked on it day after day after day and made no progress whatsoever. Yes, I made my word count, I developed the storyline, fleshed out my characters, basically did everything correctly. I should have been tickled pink with my progress.

But I wasn't. Deep down inside, I knew it wasn't the book it could be. And because it wasn't what it could be, should be, it might as well have been nothing. Scrap paper. Liner for the kitty litter box.

It took a while and a whole lot of rewriting and sweating and praying and no doubt subconscious thought, but it finally became what I knew it was destined to be. You can feel it when you find that sweet spot, just as a football player knows when he's flung (or tossed or whatever they do with the ball) perfectly and it's going where it needs to go. Just as no one knows your book better than you, no one knows how it's supposed to begin, proceed, and eventually end better than you.

What can you do when you hit that wall? First of all, know that your injuries aren't life-threatening to you or your book. We've all been through it. They're a minor, albeit very annoying setback, but nothing more. You're still a writer, and you're still good at what you do. That said, I'm not sure what will work for you, but here are some suggestions:

1.  You can do what I did and simply wait it out. Keep working on your manuscript, toiling over it, and chipping away at that granite wall you and your book are wedged against. Sooner or later, you'll break through. If you're on a deadline, you might want to look at #2. But remember, there's nothing like the cold eyes of a deadline staring you in the face to make your creativity burst forth. Creating as a defense tactic is quite effective. That alone might help you bust through to the other side.

2.)  You can do one or more of a myriad of writing exercises to jumpstart your creative juices. I think we're often just mentally exhausted and our neurons are tired of travelling the same pathways. Give them someplace to go, to explore, and eventually they'll be ready to return to the path you want them to traverse.

I like to choose a person at random at the mall, a restaurant, church, or parking lot, and develop a dialogue between them and their spouse when they return home that night. Is it loving? Antagonistic? Did one of them overdraw the checking account--again? Did he/she lose their job, get a raise or promotion? Are the kids moving out/graduating from high school/in jail/having a baby/giving them fits/joining the National Honor Society/Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines/running for president? Are they going out for dinner and a movie? Excited to see one another? Bored? Livid? You get the picture.

If dialogue isn't your cup of tea at the moment, try describing what you see out your office or car window, then close your eyes and describe only the sounds or smells you detect. Imagine you're stroking the hide of an elephant. Describe how that might feel. Switch to a lion's head (or a baby's or your dog or the petals of that mum plant on the front porch). Use the senses we take for granted because we're so accustomed to using them. One of my favorite exercises is to describe how that first cup of coffee in the morning tastes, smells, feels going down. Describe that sugary doughnut ... whoops, I mean that half-cup of plain oatmeal or grits. We have so many wonderful sensory experiences each day; I think we forget to dip into that vast pool of experience when we need to the very most. These examples aren't mind-boggling or particularly creative, but they do the trick for me. No doubt you can come up with something that works for you.

3.  Lastly, try putting the manuscript away for two, three, six weeks--whatever it takes to make you yearn to get back to it. Yes, absence  makes the heart grow fonder, but purposely keeping creativity from bursting forth drives it nuts. It hates to be penned in just as your heart detests being kept apart from who or what it loves.

Eventually, your book will be the book you want it to be, the book it should be. Then, and only then, will you feel good about releasing it to the world. It's rough out there and none of us want to shove our babies out into the cold, cruel world until he/she/it is completely ready.

And that granite wall behind you? Use the weapons you used against it the next time when you run into its brother.

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