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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Guest Blogger Lena Roy: We are writers, hear us roar!

The web of support that frames my life as a writer was first anchored in a writing workshop taught by Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time. Sitting at the feet of the author of one of the most influential books of my childhood, I gained not only a richer understanding of literary craft, but a spirit of generosity, nurturing and acceptance that has guided my work, my relationships with other writers, and my teaching.

Edges by Lena RoyThrough that web, I recently connected with another writer, Lena Roy, whose ties to Madeleine are not only creative but familial.

I’m honored to welcome Lena, Madeleine’s granddaughter, to The Writers Circle. Her debut novel, Edges, was published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Lena and I have become digital friends over the months leading up to her book’s publication. Finally I’ll have the chance to meet her in person, this Saturday at 2PM at Words Bookstore in Maplewood. Join me there as she shares her work and her own writer’s journey. She loves to meet new people, and I know she’d adore a crowd!

~~~

We are writers, hear us roar! For published and pre-published writers alike, the journey through this industry is an arduous one. (Unless of course, you are Snooki. However, I am assuming that Snooki and her wannabes are not reading The Writer’s Circle Blog.)

Do you have a compulsion to write? Does writing help you make sense of the world? Do you feel that you must write, even though sometimes you want to tear your hair out? Then you are one of us.

After seven years of hard work, I made my “debut” last month with my novel, Edges. It is a story of love and grief, addiction and redemption, set in both NYC’s Upper West Side and in the red rock desert of Moab, Utah.

Why loss and addiction? Why realistic fiction?

I had the image in my head of the first scene for years before I wrote it down on paper. Luke, a seventeen-year-old runaway, is setting up a home for himself in a trailer in Moab, Utah. What was his story?

In 2004, when my middle child was two and a half, before my daughter was born, I gave myself permission to find out.

When we write, we are delving into the soup of our sub-conscious. I wrote the first draft in three months, discovering with each word, what Edges was about. That first draft was a mystical, messy experience.

I had to fall in love with revision. I wrote and rewrote over the next three years, sending my manuscript out to agents and even a couple of publishers, having some experience with rejection before finding my agent. I made more revisions before he sent it out to an editor at FSG in late April of 2008. Then in July I got the call that they wanted to buy it.

Elation! Vindication!

But it has been far from the fairytale experience I thought it would be. Things took a really long time, to the tune of two and a half years. The two months up to my book launch in December were fraught with anxiety. I had to focus so much on marketing, and that fed my insecurities. Was I doing enough? What was everybody else doing? How can I be noticed? Nobody will know about or read my book. Wah! It felt a little like . . . well, high school! When Barnes and Noble and Borders only agreed to buy a small amount of books for the NYC area, my heart broke a little.

But then I had a moment, an hour before my book launch party, taking my kids to see Santa Claus at Macy’s. This could be as good as it gets, and you’re missing it. Enjoy it!

I ended up having a book party that exceeded expectation. My joy was boundless. I was able to revel in my accomplishment, knowing that I had worked hard for it. “Edges will be championed by librarians and independent book sellers,” my editor told me confidently. “The big chains are not a barometer of success anymore.”

Yes, getting published might not be a fairytale, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still really incredible!

I wake up every morning pinching myself that I am able to do what I love to do, having proof in Edges that the more I practice writing, the better my stories get. I can also say that I practice what I preach when I indulge in my other passion – teaching writing to kids age 8 – 18 in Northern Westchester.

I roar as a writer by reaching my hand out to other writers and creating community, finding compassion, strength and support with others on the journey.

So what do you say? Will you roar with me?

Lena RoyLena Roy was raised in New York City, in the cloistered environs of a theological seminary, with extracurricular education provided by Manhattan’s club scene. She has worked as a bartender, an actor, and with at-risk adolescents in Utah, California and NYC. Lena now lives with her husband, two sons, daughter, cat and four African water frogs in Katonah, New York and teaches creative writing workshops for kids and teens from 8-18 with Writopia Lab in both NYC and Northern Westchester.


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Digital Treasures for Pay or Free

It’s amazing, but also scary, what you can find on the web. With a little skillful searching, you can turn up treasures – whole digital libraries you can read online, video interviews and audio clips of some of the greatest thinkers and writers of our time.

Just this past week, I discovered two fantastic offerings: most of The Best American Essays of 2010, online and for free, and an honest, witty and wise video interview with British writer and actor, Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18. All this, plus the opening of The Paris Review interview archives that I mentioned a while back just scratches the surface. And believe me, I barely have time to review half the cool stuff that comes in through my RSS feeds every day.

One really worth mentioning is Open Culture, a tremendous resource for all things fascinating. In the last couple of weeks, they’ve posted links to iTunes versions of the complete works of William Shakespeare, a Halloween tale by Virginia Woolf, free online courses, a talk by the Dalai Lama and a documentary on fractals narrated by science-fiction icon Arthur C. Clarke. Whether you’re doing research or just plain curious, as most writers are, it’s a treasure trove of inspiration – and distraction.

At the same time, I worry about what I’m seeing. So much of this material is, was or should be protected by copyright. So many of us are posting work for which, once upon a time, we might have been paid. I don’t mind giving away what I put on this blog. I see it as an extension of my teaching. But in the current marketplace, both the number of outlets for a writer’s work and what we are offered for our carpal-tunnel angst are dwindling at an alarming rate.

Meanwhile, I’m seeing interesting movement toward a new pay-model for both digital content and print-on-demand. Michael Hirschhorn summed up the shift in his aptly titled article in The Atlantic, The Closing of the Digital Frontier. Pay walls are going up almost as fast as one did in Berlin back in 1961. And some authors, even on their own, are taking advantage of the new paradigm.

Take science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. His self-publishing platform for a new short story collection, “With A Little Help”, is multi-directional and social network driven. He’s a tech-savvy guy who clearly believes his efforts will pay off. “I’m thinking $70,000 to $80,000 net,” he says in a recent NPR interview. That’s more than most authors ever see even with a contract from a big publishing house. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Doctorow already has a pretty impressive following.

Meanwhile, author Stephen Elliott has made a fine go at distributing his memoir, The Adderall Diaries, via an iPad/iPhone app. Dennis Johnson of Melville House Publishing, said in a recent New York Times article about Elliott’s technological solution, “If you publish work that is hard to sell in the American market, say literary fiction in translation, this is another format to hardcover, paperback and e-book. A fourth line of revenue.”

As much as the web is amazing and free, it has also gobbled up desperately needed income from many a struggling writer (or musician, or artist, or whatever). Now the digital landscape is offering new income options, if we are wise enough to figure out how to take advantage. Granted, most of us won’t make lots of money this way. But in a media culture that is already so fragmented that it’s nearly impossible to get traction, it’s better to stretch palms and spread fingers as wide as we can so that our works may touch just a few more spirits and minds.


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Shouting in a Crowd

Written in support of Stuart Lutz, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors, Stephanie Cowell, Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet, and all my other friends who have, will, or long to be published.

What’s it like to be an author today? To be sure, the days of rarified literary isolation are over. Authors in the 21st century are expected to be our own biggest advertisement, shouting loudly and clearly from the highest height at the top of our lungs for attention, recognition and, most of all, sales.

No longer is publicity the realm of a professional publicist. Old school publicity methods, like press releases and pitch letters, are losing steam. Blogger Jonathan Fields lays out the new landscape in a strident but accurate gripe in The Huffington Post about the dismally ineffective methods of one unnamed career publicist whose pitch Fields immediately and repeatedly deleted as spam.

Truth be told – no publicist, for almost no amount of money, can dedicate the time, expertise, creativity, energy and intimate awareness of your work to properly promote the creation of your literary heart and soul. Any publicist assigned by a publisher, however well meaning and enthusiastic, is also working on several other authors’ books that are equally pressing (and hopefully just as worthy).

They will promise to do their best, but they will most likely follow a prescribed formula, reaching out to standard media outlets: newspapers (whose review sections have shrunk or disappeared), magazines (whose pages have literally halved to match their dwindling ad revenues), a short list of radio talk shows (God bless and keep you, NPR!), television morning shows (for that solid gold 60-second pitch), and of course, Oprah (ah, to live the dream!).

But beyond that list (which, by the way, nearly everyone uses), publicists simply don’t have time to handcraft a marketing and publicity scheme. Even if you hire someone, you might get a bit more attention, but the bang for your buck is mostly likely going to have to come from you.

Publishers know this and increasingly rely on it. Authors are expected to be expert entertainers, artful networkers, personable, presentable, articulate and with any luck – yes, it counts – attractive. Maybe even funny (no matter if our work is of a deadly serious nature).

Long before our books are ever in print, we find ourselves swimming in the ill-fitting publicist’s shoes, developing our websites, marketing materials, ads, booking library talks, readings and signings for our own mostly self-financed book tours. [The D.I.Y. Book Tour, NY Times, January 17, 2010] We blog for anyone out there who’ll let us. If given the opportunity, we will happily tap-dance naked in Times Square, if only someone would look our way.

How can it help but feel like we are all shouting into the same abyss – like the Grand Canyon itself lined with authors, actors, artists, musicians, dancers, playwrights, TV producers, video game creators, Ipod App developers (anyone I’ve missed?) begging for someone to notice our creation and make it the next big thing.

The likelihood that we’ll get any notice at all feels (is) pretty small, so when we get a little feedback, it’s as if we’ve won the Pulitzer. Yet our interaction with the public is no longer professional, it’s personal. There’s no packet of letters carefully screened by our editor or agent. Instead our inbox is laced with emails requesting advice, correcting our facts, critiquing our work, and once in a while – yes, bless them – praising our words. [The Perils of ‘Contact Me’, NY Times, January 10, 2010.]

We are expected to find time to tweet, social network and blog. We’re expected to be a part of the conversation. It’s a valid demand in the world where virtual socializing is more prevalent than face-to-face. But all of this takes incredible amounts of time. [Memoirist Vicki Forman on Book Publicity, http://lisaromeo.blogspot.com, January 19, 2010.]

Many writers I know simply give up hope of actually writing when they’re gearing up for the book launch. Beyond the strict reality that there are only 24 hours in the day, the effort to be so completely out-in-the-world contradicts the literary necessity of digging deeply inward. The two are incompatible. Better not to fight the split

Maybe it’s a good thing. Most authors I know bemoan their lonely state. (One reason I originally began teaching was, as many of you know, to be around humans other than my family for longer than the time it takes me to drop off or pick up my kids.)

But must the contrast be so extreme? And how many of us – savvy, articulate and ambitious as we are – are really equipped to take on this incredible burden?

Honestly, I’d love to hand over my publicity to someone else. I’d love to trust that it would take care of itself so I could sink down deep into my office chair and slip utterly into my newest tale.

But for all the work I put into my most recent creation, who better to sing its praises? Who better to honestly enthuse about the topic for which I sweated, cried and bled? Who better to know just where to find people with similar passions?

Writing is our agony and our joy. Sharing even that bit of experience draws us together with anyone else who struggles for rare rewards. Every time I cry into the abyss and hear something back, I know that, this time, it’s not an echo. Someone out there has really read and understood what I meant.

Finally, I know I’ve been heard.