Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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The Times They Are a-Changin’

The Times They Are a-Changin’. I see it again and again. I’m no longer worried so much as bemused (or amused) at the wriggling that the entire book industry is doing right now, trying to find a comfortable fit in so many new and unfamiliar positions. I am wriggling, too, growing The Writers Circle even as I finish the fifth (YES, FIFTH!) draft of my latest novel. Clearly I’m not the type of author who can churn out a book every year. Teaching and supporting writers has become a vital, beloved, and invaluable part of my journey.

How we read (pronounce "reed")


In the meantime, here are just a few of the curious and inevitable adjustments being made in every corner of the bookish world.

First, if you don’t already know it, self-publishing is no longer the taboo “vanity” publishing it used to be. It’s first mega-star, Amanda Hocking, is making every struggling writer start to think, “Hey, I can do it myself, too!” Whether or not that’s true, be sure to read Storyseller, for a look inside the industry-changing success of this author who got there the wrong-way-round.

Next, there’s the squirming of independent booksellers. Whether they’re trying to make a profit or just trying to stay alive, they’re starting to charge admission for readings. This extremely controversial act of desperation is explored in Come Meet the Author, but Open Your Wallet from today’s New York Times.

On the pre-publication front, digital is now the way to go for galleys. A galley, for those who don’t know, is an uncorrected proof – a copy of a book that’s just about, but not quite, final. These used to go out to booksellers, reviewers and librarians in unexciting single color covers that you’d sometimes find on the used book rack or down in the basement at The Strand. When I published my book, they’d already gotten pretty fancy. My galley looks like a paperback copy of my hardcover, cover art and all. Well, now you can get galleys on your iPad or Kindle. It makes sense. Why pay for printing and shipping when the book’s “not quite ready for primetime” but you’re hoping to drum up interest? Check out NetGalley where “professional readers” can request titles before they are published for review purposes. (And if you think, “Hey, aren’t we all ‘professional readers’?” check out their publisher requirements to see if you qualify.)

How We Read (pronounce "red")


All of that said, I’m forever a traditionalist. And my focus more and more is on the how and why of writing, and less and less on the how and why of publishing. First, it all makes me anxious. Life’s anxiety producing enough. (I have two young sons… Need I say more?) Second, most of this is completely and utterly outside my control. But I can gain much wisdom and solace from good reading, good writing and good writing advice. So I turn to an old master – believe it or not Stephen King, whose books I cannot read (remember, life’s anxiety producing enough, per above?), but whose writing on writing is as direct and accurate as one can get.

I was as tickled perhaps as he to find his short story, “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” in May’s issue of The Atlantic. And I know that he was pleased because he said so at the end of the accompanying Atlantic interview, Stephen King on the Creative Process, the State of Fiction, and More.

For him, as for any of us, seeing our work in a high-end lit-mag like The Atlantic or The New Yorker is a bit of a dream come true. Even he got rejected: “I can remember sending stories to The Atlantic when I was a teenager, and then in my 20s and getting the rejection slips.” Of course, he wasn’t “Stephen King” back then…

Or somewhere in between?


In any case, read the story first, because the interview gives a few minor spoilers. In both cases, I appreciated in his work, his candor, his characterization of writers, especially those who are past their prime and yet still working to express what cannot be expressed, and most especially his characters’ recognition that sometimes even the power of words is not enough.


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It’s not about the money (is it?)

It’s a well-known fact that writers rarely make a lot of money at their work. OK, there are exceptions, but most of us can barely afford to buy a blouse with our royalties, never mind J.K. Rowling and her impressive Scottish mansion.

Most of us are just regular folks – OK, regular folks with an odd quirk of imagination that won’t hush up like nice, normal people. We’re just trying to get by, pay our mortgages and educate our kids.

I found this great chart on Lapham’s Quarterly that shows how historically consistent our situation is:

Day Jobs

Even the greatest of us rarely make a lot of dough!

So why do we do it, if it’s clearly not for money? Mostly because we can’t help it, and wouldn’t even if we could. Take Janet Burroway‘s advice in Narrative Magazine. (You’ll need to log in to read it, but it’s worth the trouble for all the great work they publish.) Most of us realize after a while that we can’t write for the market. Burroway says: “The trouble is that… the muse is likely to grow dull and depart. …Writing for the masses is like marrying for money, an exhausting way to become a hooker.”

Some of us have commercial voices and others simply don’t. We each simply must write our own true work and stick to it, thick or thin – mostly thin, mostly for ourselves and, if we’re lucky, for a small audience of others that occasionally lets us know that our efforts have not been in vain.

More and more in this bold new publishing environment, we’re simply one pebble on the beach, shining and new just as the tide recedes. But soon enough our gloss will evaporate and we won’t look any more beautiful or interesting that the millions that surround us. As the scary numbers of books published in 2009 show, our odds of being noticed just get smaller and smaller. More than likely we’ll be left lying there in the sand and forgotten.

So why do we do it? Because we must. Because we’re destined to speak. Because there’s an essence in writing that helps us figure ourselves out that comes only from this kind of exploration and expression.

Most of us eventually accept that we might never become famous or rich or even published unless we publish ourselves (which apparently these days isn’t the vanity taboo it once was. But that’s an entirely different story – check out the links above).

Even well-published authors come to realize what they’re up against. Burroway quotes Adam Gopnik: “Every writer’s life can be summed up, in sequence, by the Four Permanent Titles: Great Expectations, A Sentimental Education, The Way of the World, and, finally, Lost Illusions.” Meanwhile publisher and editorial director at Writer’s Digest Jane Friedman tries to explain what many newly minted authors often agonize about, Why Don’t Publishers Market & Promote the Books They Publish?

With all this going against us, why do we do what we do? Because we must. Because we’re forever dissatisfied with the dull reality of our lives. Because we’re dying to know what it’s like to be inside someone else’s head. Because we’re desperate to record the fleeting wonder that comes to us in the middle of the night or in the shower or when we’re walking the dog. We do it because we hear voices and we can’t shut them up unless we listen and carefully write down every word they say.

That’s why we write. If we get paid for it, all the better. If a few of us get rich from it, God, I’m jealous! But when that rare success happens, remember again what Burroway writes, “that the joy of publication, prizes, prestige, money is never adequate and always fleeting. It is taken away every time such successes fail to be repeated…. But the moment of ecstase, ecstasy that comes usually at the end of a period of effortful and perhaps despairing concentration, and yet comes ‘out of nowhere,’ not as an apparent reward but apparently as a gift, that moment stays and is present every time I remember it or reencounter the passage in which it occurred, or reencounter the reluctance that precedes it or the grace as it descends—because this is my only religion, and it is ‘grace,’ and it does seem to ‘descend’—and these moments accumulate into an awareness of power in the sense of capacity, which cannot be taken from me—except, of course, by dementia or death.”

In the end, success is never about us or our work, it’s about happenstance and timing, the frivolities of taste and commerce. Completely separate from the power of passion, imagination, obsession, “ecstase”.

That’s why we do it. Those are the forces that drive us on.

The rest, whether we like it or not, will take care of itself.


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Two Great Friends, Three Great Events

These past few weeks have been busy ones for me with several friends launching and promoting their latest works.

First came Marc Aronson’s If Stones Could Speak. Then the joyous hullabaloo shared by all The Writers Circle over Stuart Lutz’s The Last Leaf. You all heard from Susan Barr-Toman yesterday and will hopefully make it to her event next Friday at Words. But there are three other critical events that I cannot fail to mention, given that two are for one of my oldest and dearest writing friends and the third is for one of my newest and dearest.

Claude & CamilleDon’t miss Stephanie Cowell signing at Watchung Booksellers this Saturday, May 1, from 1:00-2:00 PM and at Words on Thursday, May 13 for a reading at 7:30 PM. The Boston Globe calls her new novel, Claude & Camille, “nothing short of masterful.” Stephanie and I have known each other for over twenty years (scary to write that!) and in several very concrete ways she was instrumental in my ever being able to call myself a professional writer. I’m honored to have such a loyal, generous and talented friend and can’t wait to celebrate her latest novel.

Tell Us We're HomeOne of my newest dear friends, Marina Budhos, shares a passion for rich, complex writing and the challenging juggle of career and family. So I’m taking my eldest, who is good friends with her son, to the launch of her latest young adult novel, Tell Us We’re Home. She’ll be reading this Sunday, May 2, 2:00 PM, again at Words.

Come and join the celebrations!


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Social Networking for Authors: Reaching Out and Beyond

In anticipation of Stuart Lutz’s book launch party tomorrow night – a Writers Circle first! – I feel compelled more than ever to emphasize the need for a writers community. This extends beyond our own small but growing circle to embrace family, friends, and hopefully an enlarging group of readers who find our work, like it and share it with others.

Writers have always been notoriously solitary characters. We work in isolation, sometimes with only the company of a cat (like the one peering out from behind my computer screen right now). Our stories and characters speak inside our heads. We carry them around with us, an ongoing but invisible conversation that feeds us but also removes us from the immediacy of human contact. Sometimes the only sounds that reverberate in my office throughout the day are the dull clacks of my overused keyboard.

Rosie
Making direct contact these days is vital, both in the creation of a writer’s work and as the finished product reaches for an audience. I have been privileged to work with published peers and struggling first-time writers alike, delving deeply into the creative process, poking, nudging and plucking to find the best way a novel, memoir or book proposal should be shaped. And I’ve relied on peers and confidantes to do the same for me.

Once a book is ready for market, another kind of community steps in. This blog has already seen the contributions of authors Michelle Cameron and Stuart Lutz. I guarantee you’ll see more in the near future. (One’s already in the wings awaiting the launch of my dear friend Stephanie Cowell‘s latest novel, Claude & Camille.)

These “visits” are all part of “blog tours” – the best and sometimes only way authors have found to harness their own destiny in the supersaturated, dwindling book market. Amidst the bewildering churn of digital media, most authors get little or no publisher support. They either hire a costly publicist with generally mixed results or ambitiously go it on their own.

Back in the good old days (like in 2006 when my novel The Thrall’s Tale first came out), publishers still sent a few select authors on the road for a formal book tour. The intention back then was to meet and greet. Publishers were usually less concerned with gathering a receptive audience anxious to hear the author read aloud than with the brisk glad-handing authors shared with favored booksellers who, charmed by the mere appearance of a living, breathing author in their stores, would feel compelled to hand-sell the debut novel, memoir or self-help book to their customers.

I suppose these meet-and-greets were effective in their day. But my tour experience was one of disappointment descending into depression. Try as these lovely booksellers might to draw a crowd, my events were no match for the Superbowl, no draw against the wiles of a violent Seattle rainstorm. The best attended events I had were in towns where I knew lots of friends. (Thank you, now defunct Coliseum Books and all my former colleagues from HBO right next door!) The final stop, in yet another ubiquitous superstore somewhere in the Midwest, amounted to reading to only two people and signing a stack of hardcovers in a back storeroom.

For this, I assure you, I was entirely grateful. Most authors got far less! What impact all this had on sales is anybody’s guess. But I couldn’t help feeling that the money the publisher spent on my excursion (which took me away from my five- and two-year-old for an unbearable two weeks) would’ve been better spent on a strategically targeted marketing scheme.

The way books are bought, sold and read these days is changing so rapidly that no publisher, publicist or lowly author has any idea how to reach out and grab that virtual outstretched hand. These days, an author tour more likely takes place via Skype, Facebook, Goodreads, Shewrites or on the blogs of other writers and friends. Making direct contact is becoming rare indeed. If these new digital forays are adequate substitutes is hard to tell. And although a web presence is absolutely mandatory, I have yet to hear from anyone whether the ROI of a book trailer (almost always paid for out of an author’s meager advance and conceived, written, and directed by him or her as well) is really worth the trouble or expense.

So with all our websites, Twitter tweets, Facebook posts and blogs, how is an author meant to reach out to real readers? And how do we break the wall of our own self-imposed and circumstance-inflicted isolation?

Some authors are touted for the D.I.Y. Book Tour, another way that we have tried to take our fates in hand. The overall experience seems less about selling books than about meeting people, sleeping on strangers’ couches, and listening to readers who never thought they’d even want to read our books. I’ve had the most glorious times in my hosts’ living rooms, listening and laughing to startled responses to my book as we sip wine and nibble cheese. I’ve spoken at endless gatherings where neighbors and friends who either hated or loved my work debated right in front of me their reasons. And I’ve come full circle, supporting my own friends and passing on the tradition to my children, as I did this past weekend at Marc Aronson’s reading in Maplewood. (Yes, that’s my youngest having his copy of If Stones Could Speak signed by the author!)

Passing it On
I’ve begun to realize that, as much as we all long to see our books at the top of bestsellers’ lists, it is community that counts, if only we can find a way to grow and sustain it.

So I encourage all of you to come out tomorrow night and to go to the next reading of an author you know or don’t. Because in the end, we writers don’t often get to bask in the limelight. The few times we do stand in front of an audience are far more satisfying than a blog tour or a Skype talk because the hand shake, gentle pat on the back, and the applause are real.