My two cents on publishing

OK, I’ve published three books in my writing career. Two were self published, the latest — my first novel — was put out by a “real” publisher, but under an agreement called “hybrid publishing” (you kick in a little money, they match it).

In other words, I’m not exactly an expert on the book business. My primary character flaw in these matters has always been a lack of patience. I probably could have found a publisher for one of my self published books, but felt that the information in it was fresh, and I didn’t want it to go stale while I waited to find my “sold mate.” Maybe it’s the newspaper reporter in me that thinks: “Just write it and get it out there before anybody else does.”

I have learned a few things along the way, though, And as I was responding to an e-mail from a friend who asked if I had any advice about publishing her in-progress “road novel,” it occurred to me that this might also serve as a blog post. So …

Dear Suzanne:

After having published my own first novel last fall, with a “real publisher,” I now find myself turning 180 degrees from my previous conceptions about writing and marketing.

Here are what I consider to be the plusses and minuses of traditional and self publishing..

REAL PUBLISHER

PLUSSES
1. If everything works out, they will pay for getting your book published.
2. They will plug your book into Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. BTW, that doesn’t mean most Barnes & Noble stores will actually put the physical book on their shelves, just that they’ll include it in their catalogue.
3. They will do the book cover for you.
4. They will edit the book.
5  They will pay to have the book distributed nationwide by Ingram.
6. They may help you with marketing, although I wouldn’t get your hopes up about that. The tendency is for publishers to be very enthusiastic about a new book for about a month, then drop them to embrace other new books. It’s like that Eagles’ song, “New Kid in Town.”
7. They will send you a royalty check every four to six months.

MINUSES
1. Your share of the profits from each book sold is very small. For example, my novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” is selling for $17, of which I get $2 and change. Plus, it’s hard to find out how it’s selling (or not selling). In fairness, I do get half of the proceeds from Kindle and e-books, which is not bad at all.
2. As I mentioned, you’re dreaming if you think most publishers are going to spend a lot of time promoting your book. You’re pretty much on your own.
3. You’re at the mercy of your editor. In most instances, that’s not a bad thing — they do that for a living, and they’re usually good at it. However, because anything creative is necessarily subjective, your worst-case scenario is an editor who wants to change basic things about your book out of personal preference — or simply because they can. (“Hey, instead of it being just a road novel, let’s throw in some vampires and zombies — they’re big now”)

SELF PUBLISHING

PLUSSES

1. Once you eat the initial cost, you get all the money that the book makes. If you’re in a situation where you have time to do a lot of promotion (social media, book signings, etc.) and you’ve correctly identified your primary audience and focus on it, you can make that initial investment back in a hurry.
2. The relationship is different than with a traditional publisher. With that arrangement, they are obviously in charge. With self publishing, you are.
3. You can still get your book distributed nationwide with something called Ingram Spark. And Amazon now takes self-published books.

MINUS
1. You have to pay for getting the book published, and it may not be cheap.
2. You may run into a reverse editing problem than with a publisher. In some cases, self publishing houses will simply wave at your manuscript and give it a pass, typos, narrative flaws and all.
3. They probably won’t promote your book very much, because they won’t make any money doing that. So that’s generally up to you.

I think the most important thing is that you write something you believe in and share it with the world. Worry about the money later.

Best,

Darrell

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When first isn’t always best

Suppose someone e-mails you and asks: “Could you send me a sample chapter of your book?”

Do you assume that they want your first chapter, or maybe the first couple? That’s what the Amazon Kindle site shows to the world when someone clicks “Look Inside” on your book cover. That’s what a lot of writers promptly send out automatically.

After all, why not start from the beginning, right?

Well, not necessarily.

With novels, in particular, first chapters can be problematic. Generally, they come in two forms:

1. A setup chapter that explains the background for what is to come.

2. An immediate leap into the action, to hook the reader into the drama.

In the first instance, the setup chapter can be a bit complicated. Of all the chapters in my recently published novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” the first chapter is the one I like the least.  I felt like it was necessary, but I really had to work on it to prevent it from being tedious.

Often with a first chapter, you spend so much time trying to explain the plot that you don’t show much of your writing chops. And if you’re not careful, the reader will start thinking: “Geez, this is slow. I sure hope it gets better.”

On the other hand, the “immediate leap” chapter offers problems of its own.  True, these are sometimes ideal to send out as samples — but if the idea is to go for the jugular and worry about background later, you run the risk of leaving the reader struggling for context.

So wouldn’t that be the case with any later chapters?

Well, yes, but that can be fixed. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of sending out the chapter, or chapters, that show your best writing. Then, to avoid marooning the reader on an unknown island, offer a one-sentence explanation at the top: “In this chapter, Marcia — the main character — comes to a crossroads in her relationship.”

Think of your sample as akin to a movie trailer. Most trailers don’t really tell you about the plot, but they give you a good sense of what you can expect.

Sample chapters, chosen wisely, can serve the same function.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun with fiction

As a career journalist, the term “fiction” always made me a little uncomfortable.

After all, that’s the last thing you want to see beneath your byline in a newspaper or magazine, because fiction there translates into … lying.

Indeed, that was always my comeback to people who accused me of “making up” elements of a story.

“If I could do that, I’d be writing novels,” I’d say.

But I didn’t. I could never really see the point, although I enjoyed reading novels by other writers.

All this changed, however, one morning in 1993, when I woke up and decided to create a work of fiction about the newspaper business.

“Where did that come from?” I asked my unseen muse.

There was no answer. Still, I enthusiastically tore into the project. I spent a week at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a writers’ retreat, and banged out 20 chapters, working 15 hours a day. And then, for reasons I can no longer remember, I hit a stoplight.

For 20 years after that, I would periodically summon this novel-in-utero from the womb of my computer, read those 20 chapters, and redo them. Then, a few months later, I’d do the same thing. It became like the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Finally, in 2013, I had some health problems that forced me to the sidelines as a columnist for several months. Free time surrounded and enveloped me, and one day my wife Gail said: “Why don’t you just finish that damn novel?”

So I did, and it was a revelation.

I recently interviewed a successful novelist named Garth Stein who told me: “Writing a novel is like pushing a big rock up a hill. If you’re lucky, at some point you’ll reach the crest of that hill, and then you’ll have to run to catch up with your rock.”

He’s right, and here’s what I discovered — writing fiction is actually easier for me than writing non-fiction.

It reminds me of a song I always liked, from the group REM, called “World Leader Pretend.” The refrain goes: “This is my world, and I am World Leader Pretend. This is my life, this is my time. I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit. It’s high time I raze these walls that I’ve constructed.”

How true. When I’d be stopped by walls while writing a newspaper piece, I’d have to put everything on hold in order to call more people or do more research.  With a novel, you just invent a solution.

Let’s see — why would that character mysteriously disappear for two weeks? Wouldn’t someone see him during that time? Wait! I’ll have him be abducted by aliens! Why not? It’s my book.

What I also discovered in writing “The Kudzu Kid” was that my characters became real people. I became less of a creator and more of a stenographer. When I put the main players together, they would talk to each other, and all I’d have to do was write it down.

In a way, it was like playing with Lego blocks as a kid. I created my own town, supplied it with a newspaper, and added characters. What fun!

Lest I be inundated by angry e-mails, however, I’m not saying writing fiction is easy. Sometimes those characters turn mute. all too often, the plot wanders into a dead end.

And there are reasons why everyone doesn’t write fiction. A lot of people simply aren’t curious, but see things more on a surface level. That doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent, but they don’t feel the need to let their minds wander. They could no more write fiction than they could fly.

Those, of course, were the people who got A’s in high school while I sat at my desk and looked out the window. Now, at last, my propensity for imagination has become a plus.

Sometimes, I think, we all get so hung up about how many books we aren’t selling or how much money we’re not making that we forget that writing fiction can actually be fun.

The thing to remember is, you’re not starting from Ground Zero. As I always tell other writers with whom I work, everyone is unique. No one who has ever lived, or ever will live, will have your combination of genetics, geographic location, parents, friends and life experiences. No one else has watched all the same movies or read the same books as you have. In other words, we all have our own window on the world, and that will make your writing fresh and different, if you let it.

My Mom once gave me a T-shirt that said “Be nice to me, or I’ll put you in my novel.”

“The Kudzu Kid” contained literally dozens of war stories from my long newspaper career, and all the characters were people I have known, or composites of those people.

And if my memory of those prior events is a little flawed, so what? It’s only fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Technically incorrect

“Welcome, my son. Welcome to the machine.” (Pink Floyd).

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Dave.” (Hal, the evil computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against technology. The fact that it seems to have something against me is just another obstacle I need to deal with.

As I’ve often told people with Asian accents as we struggle together over a trans-Pacific phone connection, I’d like to think I’m trainable. The problem is, like too many others of my generation, I tend to be literal.

Whenever I deal with someone who is technologically savvy (and I include my son Jeremy, who has been a great help over the years), I always feel that I’ve missed a step in the instructions.

I don’t want to know computer theory. I probably won’t respond to jargon. Just tell me: “Hit this key. Then hit this key.” And so on.

I love it when something goes wrong with your computer and a message pops up that says: “Error No. 249.”

“Are you sure?” I want to reply. “To me, it really seems more like an Error 519.”

Of course, there is no one to reply to. That pronouncement seems to come from somewhere in deep space, perhaps a black hole.

Computers, to me, are like automobiles. I know how to use them, but I don’t know (or care) how they work, and I don’t know what to do when they don’t.

Unlike cars, however, computers require occasional upgrades. It’s as if you received a notice saying, “For your information, the Interstate highway system has now been upgraded, and your car will no longer be able to drive on it. You must buy a new car.”

The process of editing my first novel became grueling when my editor chose to use “Track Changes.” This software does seem kind of neat, and I was able to click on it and clearly see suggestions and corrections my editor had made. The problem was, my computer wouldn’t let me respond to these notes.

So we finished the edit in little chunks over a too-long period of time, me sitting at a computer in my local public library, surrounded by unemployed people checking the want ads. By the time it was over, my editor and publisher were ready to kill me, and I don’t blame them.

I needed an upgrade, but my computer wouldn’t let me.

Finally, I can’t get used to that subliminal sense of dread that always underlies any creative endeavor on a computer. Anyone who has ever had a story inexplicably wiped away (“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Dave”) knows what I mean.

I envision this inscription on my tombstone: “Here lies Darrell Laurant. He wrote the greatest novel in the history of American literature, but no one ever saw it because his computer ate it.”

OK, so here’s my point, which I have taken a long time to reach. My wife Gail and I are taking a two-week trip this month, during which I probably won’t be sending any more posts. (I’m trying to upgrade my computer so it will watch the house while we’re gone).

This blog can be viewed at snowflakesarise.wordpress.com. The official launch of the “Snowflakes in a Blizzard” project will be April 17. You will notice that my blog is currently unadorned by anything remotely resembling graphics or art, and when we return, I will either try to dress it up or (far more likely) hire someone to do that.

In the interim, though, I would love to get any suggestions. What we will have is a page dedicated to a single book, hopefully (I think the word “hopefully” should be given a grammatical pass and welcomed into the English language, but that’s another blog subject) with pictures of book and author, a bio, a description of the book and “back story” on how it was done, a sample chapter, credit to the editor (editors never get enough credit) and information on where to find it and how to buy it.

I don’t need a video game with flashing, vibrating bells and whistles. I do want it to look nice, and any suggestions toward that end would be appreciated.

And if you look in the upper left corner at the brief description of the blog, you’ll see that the word “writers” has been oddly tagged on to the end. How do I make it go away? Nothing on the site tells me.

Sigh. Have a nice two weeks, Hal.

 

 

 

 

Overriding the myth

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview an author named Garth Stein. We talked on the phone, it was a freelance story for my old newspaper, and I was once again grateful that my job provided me with this access.

Stein’s latest book, “A Sudden Light,” is a big deal. His previous effort, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” — narrated by a dog owned by a race driver (and for all you genreheads, where’s the genre there?) — was a New York Times best-seller.

He told me that people have named their dogs, and even their children, after Enzo, the dog in the book. And that he once encountered a young man who had tattooed one of the lines from “The Art of Racing in the Rain” all around his neck.

That was Stein’s third book. His first two went nowhere. Hardly anyone bought them, and nobody talked about them.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on a press conference with John Grisham. His first book, “A Time to Kill,” was placed with a small New York publisher and failed to clear the launching pad. Finally, frustrated by the publisher’s inept marketing, Grisham bought the last 500 copies and drove around Mississippi selling them out of the trunk of his car. After awhile, he simply started giving them away to anyone who wanted them.

Grisham’s next book was a hit, and so the new publisher re-released “A Time to Kill.” Only now, people thought, “Hey, this guy is famous, so his book must be good,” and that first book ended up eclipsing the followup. (Meanwhile, those first editions that Grisham gave away became valuable collector’s items).

One moral here, obviously, is “Don’t give up too soon.” But after talking to Stein, I started thinking of all the other successful writers I was fortunate enough to interview in 15 years of doing a newspaper book column. And I wondered: What was the common denominator?

I think I’ve come up with one. Through it all, most of these people never stopped thinking of themselves as writers. It was their identity. Not people who wanted to be writers — Writers, with a capital “W.”

Not that they didn’t get discouraged and frustrated at times. But having wrapped that identity around them, they couldn’t casually shed it.

Once you accept that identity, you cross a threshold. After that, whatever job you may be doing to earn a living has to become secondary. That doesn’t mean you don’t continue trying to do it well, but you must start thinking of it as just the means to an end. Writing.

Otherwise, writing for you is a hobby, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Some excellent books have been written by hobbyists, and it’s a great way to exercise your mind. But it’s not the same.

If you play golf on weekends, you can’t really call yourself a Golfer. If you enjoy getting up and belting out your best Sheryl Crow imitation at your local karaoke bar, that doesn’t make you a Singer. If you don’t think of yourself as a Writer, you’ll never be a Garth Stein or John Grisham. And if you don’t see yourself that way, no one else will take you seriously.

Why, then, are so many writers leery of thinking of themselves as Writers? Partly, I believe, because of that cruel myth that has torpedoed more careers than any harsh editor or unresponsive publisher. It goes something like this: Writing is a gift; you’re either born with it, or you’re not.

Hogwash. With any human endeavor, it is said, perhaps 10 percent of the population is naturally gifted at it. On the other end of the scale, 20 percent of us could never master that particular skill no matter how hard we tried. With the remaining 70 percent, however, it all depends on how much you want it and how hard you’re willing to work for it. As a longtime sportswriter, I saw dozens of cases of high-level athletes who had overcome some kind of limitation to get there.

But that writing myth is a straight path to anxiety. If our early efforts are not best-seller-worthy, we fret, then we must not have “the gift”, forgetting that not being a good writer is only a temporary, transitional condition.

Think about it. You may be drawn to playing professional golf, but you’re not going to break par the first time you walk out onto a course. You may envision yourself as a symphonic musician, but you’ll have to endure a lot of sour notes before you learn how to play an instrument at that level.

What happens with so many writers, though, is that they go into denial.  Because they don’t want to admit to themselves that they haven’t been gifted, they forge ahead before they’re ready. It would be like the aforementioned golfer competing in the Masters with a 20 handicap. Their writing isn’t reader-ready, and the readers know it.

Yet I believe that when someone is strongly drawn to something, they have a future in it. I’ve often thought it would be cool to be an airline pilot or a rock musician or a dozen other things, but the urge was never fierce enough to forge a commitment.

I was extremely fortunate in that my newspaper job gave me validation as a writer. Early on, I wrote clumsily, but I had editors who helped, and I read other writers and tried to figure how they were doing what they did, and I learned. But I always considered myself a Writer, and probably a classic case — bad grades, no shiny social life, just an innate drive.

The good news is, there are myriad opportunities today to get better — hundreds of writer-friendly online sites and blogs, college and on-line courses, etc. Find yourself a mentor. Find yourself a good editor.

Most of all, never lose sight of the fact that we can always write better, clearer, with more originality. We’re always learning. That’s what Writers do.

Using song lyrics as condiments

When I wrote my first novel, “The Kudzu Kid,” last year, I  began several chapters with snippets of song lyrics. My editor took them all out.

I didn’t complain, because I liked him as an editor, and because I had never written a novel before and wasn’t sure if I hadn’t violated some unwritten rule. But I’m still hooked on using song lyrics in this way, maybe to a fault.

Realistically, these little “samplings” should probably be employed the way we use condiments on food — good for spice, but potentially sickening if overused. I edited a book in which the author used a song lyric sample to start every chapter, and I nicely suggested to him that perhaps that was overkill. If you lock yourself in that way, you can find yourself reaching for questionable tie-ins in some chapters, and why do that?

Here’s what I like about using song lyrics, though.

1. It’s a chance to connect, if only in a small way, with some of your readers. Unless a lyric is just perfect, I try to borrow from artists who are relatively familiar to a mass audience.

2. I think it shows a certain creativity and intelligence on your part that you are willing to stretch out beyond the boundaries of literature and into another creative realm (although quotes from other authors and books can also be very effective).

3. A well-chosen lyric can sometimes summarize the theme of your chapter — or, if used at the beginning, your whole book — far better and more succinctly than you can. It’s what lyricists do.

With “Even Here,” a non-fiction book I wrote several years ago about a series of “outsider” murders in Bedford County, VA, I started with a setup chapter about how the county was rapidly transforming from rural to suburban, and the tension that engendered. To start out, I used this lyric from Don Henley’s song “The End of the Innocence”:

“Who knows how long this will last; now we’ve come so far, so fast; but somewhere back there in the dust; that same small town’s in each of us.”

I loved that, and I now think of that book every time I hear that song.

The Kudzu Kid is about a big city investigative reporter whose career crashes. The only job he can find after being fired is as the editor of a small weekly in Southside Virginia, a place almost as alien to him as West Africa. At first, he struggles with culture shock, but gradually he begins to realize that he has been given complete freedom to do as he likes with “his” newspaper, and the thought energizes him. So I started one chapter with a bit from REM’s “World Leader Pretend” to emphasize that realization:

“This is my world, and I am World Leader Pretend; this is my life, this is my time; I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit; it’s high time I raze these walls that I’ve constructed.”

You get the idea, and I won’t belabor the point. My musical taste runs mostly to rock music (a generational thing) but song lyrics can obviously come from anywhere — country music, hip hop, old 1940s standards, whatever.

To be honest, I’m not certain about the legalities of this. It is my understanding that it’s OK to borrow a line or two of a song if credit is given, but not the whole thing. There is also the issue of whether the artist should be credited or the songwriter, if the two are different.

Anyone have any thoughts?

Ten cool things about being a writer

Some days, when writers’ block descends, our query letters return like boomerangs and our books aren’t selling, it’s nice to reflect upon what we have going for us.

1. We can travel light. Unlike plumbers and brain surgeons, writers need only a small notebook and a pencil to do our jobs (the current electronic paraphernalia is fine, but optional). And if you’re one of those fortunate souls able to conjure lengthy passages in your head, you don’t need anything at all.

2. We can eat and drink while we work.

3. We face no institutional barriers.  You can’t call yourself a doctor, a lawyer, a minister or a police officer without jumping through some societal hoops. To call yourself a writer, though, all you have to do is write. It doesn’t have to be how you make your living, you don’t need to be published, and you don’t even have to be good at it.

4. It’s OK to be poor. True, it’s not fun — but our literary culture has elevated the starving writer into something of a noble sufferer.

5. It’s OK to be weird. Indeed, for writers, artists and musicians, it seems that the stranger and more anti-social you become, the more intrigued people are by your work. Creative types also get a pass on habitual drunkenness, self-destructive drug use and sexual adventurism.  Think about it: In what other profession would Edgar Alan Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald have been considered success stories?

6. We can change identities at will. All of us, in our darker moments, have fervently wished we were someone else. Fortunately, writers can use a time travel device called “first person” to transport themselves anywhere we like, at any point in history.

7. Writers are allowed to use pen names, a rarity among professions. How would you feel if your banker told you: “You know, this isn’t my real name”?

8. The best writers can become famous without the downside of fame — no paparazzi, no autograph hounds. Most of us wouldn’t know any of the current Top Ten best-selling authors if they were standing at our front door.

9. Everyone has the right to our opinion. If you stood up in a bar or on a street corner and told the world what you thought about some controversial issue, you’d risk being punched in the face or arrested (or worse, in some countries). But if you express your opinion in writing, you generally need fear only a few nasty e-mails.

10. You may never be published, but chances are you will have the ability to write memorable responses to creditors (See No. 4 above), devastating breakup letters to end bad relationships, and, if worst comes to worst, suicide notes.