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Monday, January 11, 2016

Being an Author

These days, it’s growing harder and harder to be taken seriously as an author. It’s becoming a hassle, even to be thought of as a writer. Plenty of us know about that One Little Moment. Know what I’m talking about? You’re at a bookstore, grabbing the hottest new how-to book or supporting your writing community by purchasing a copy of your friend’s newly-published novel. That One Little Moment comes when you’re checking out with the cashier, or talking to the in-house barista. That One Little Question always pops up, and that One Little Moment can be defined as the moment of hesitation and trepidation, that shake in your heartstrings, whenever he or she or whoever asks, “What do you do?”
I’ve spoken with too many talented people who have told me first hand that they immediately default to their day jobs when confronted with this question.
“I’m a loan officer.”
“I work at the local food bank.”
“My husband and I have a small gardening business.”
My persistent question is, where does all of this fear come from? Why are we so afraid to identify ourselves with this part of who we are?

Let’s be honest, not everyone is receptive and kind whenever we’re brave enough to respond proudly that we are, in fact, writers, or in other cases, authors. The truth is, we’ve all seen the light go out of a stranger’s smile, and most of us have gotten a little verbal, condescending pat on the back for our proclamation. Far too often, we’re met with a patronizing “good for you”, and even more egregious are the times when we’re met with hostility.

I have a friend who has published short stories in multiple magazines across Australia and has even won prizes for her hard work and creativity. Recently, we were having tea and catching up at a retreat we both attended and she, a sweet individual with a kind disposition, regaled me with the tale of how a gentleman about her own age became downright disparaging when she told him with pride that she is a writer of non-fiction short stories. “You mean to tell me you flip burgers and write little stories in your free time, right?”

Perhaps there is a trend here, stemming from how afraid we all are of following our dreams. Perhaps individuals who respond with such hostility and rude natures are simply regretful that they, themselves, did not follow their own dreams, be it writing or painting, dancing or sculpting, or perhaps just not following in their parents’ footsteps. While there’s no shame in any of this, just as there isn’t any shame in being a loan officer or being a business owner, there should be no shame in our hearts or minds of something so intimate to our being. I am a writer. You are a writer, too.

I hope the next time you find yourself faced with that One Little Question, you feel the pride in your accomplishments, no matter how big or small, and proudly let the person (and the world) know that you’re a writer.


***

Whether to write ‘organically’ or to plan meticulously is deeply guarded personal preference for most writers. This is the difference between going forth and writing as it comes to you, basically, and planning as simple as a barebones outline or character charts, chapter synopses, etc. Of course, there’s no right way to write, so to speak. There is, however, I believe, a right way to write for the individual, and even if there’s no formula, some people do have an algorithm.

For a long time, I was an avid organic writer. I am a notoriously (let’s just say it) lazy person, and even though I was still willing to pour everything I had (or everything I thought I had) into my writing, I balked at the idea of not jumping in to every project feet first. Why on Earth should I try to work out the details of a project before the project revealed itself to me?

Little did I know that I was a yet undiscovered planner.

For a long time, it was actually uncommon for me to completely finish a long term project. I was able to churn out flash fiction and usually short stories a well, but for me, even a novella was a serious struggle. Nonetheless, I was determined, and my passion for writing never allowed me to give up. I did my best not to be discouraged when friends would ask me to read over a completed two hundred and fifty page manuscript for them, I remained happy for them with their successes, but I just couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t capable of the same longevity of my projects.

A few years ago I came under the tutelage of an older, more experienced writer with an absolutely unbelievable (to me, then) prolific streak. He had more novel publications (and does to this day) than he had years in the craft. One of his very first insistences was that I follow a procedure that he developed for planning and writing a novel.
To say that I kicked and screamed would be a dramatic reference and falsehood, but I must say that I did in the metaphorical sense. Not to him, of course.

It took me perhaps six to eight weeks to completely finish his prescribed course of short outline, character outline, plot outline, chapter outline, etc. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done, when it came to writing, and it was a grueling process. I stayed in touch with him via the Internet during this time, feeling guilty for not showing him more in less time.

Wouldn’t you know it, once I finished the pre-writing, the writing came much more quickly? I finished my first novel within six months after that, and that was including a few edits of the entire manuscript, as well.
The point you should take away is not to always plan, plan, plan, of course. There’s no right or wrong way to write. You should, however, try new things. It may just change the way you write forever.

***

I once met the daughter of an author who lived in huge fame and success several decades ago. She used to talk about her father and many other big names in literature (I don’t want to divulge and break confidence) like they were to her, just regular people she knew and loved, while I listened with awe in my widened eyes. One of the most fascinating things she ever told me was that, when she was a little girl, these famous authors would visit her father and sit down on the family couch, head in their hands, talking about what troubles someone was giving them. It wasn’t until she was older, she told me, that she realized they were talking about characters in their novels.

Isn’t that amazing? It certainly rings true for most of us. I’ve called writer friends in a tizzy, more than once, over how frustrated I was with such-and-such or so-and-so, knowing damn well they were not even “real” people. I used to be a little embarrassed for any non-writer to hear me talk about my characters, because I find it utterly impossible not to speak of them as anything but real. Can a character be anything but real to us, however?

Hearing my friend talk about these heavyweights of literature behave the same way as me, and many others that I’ve known, has been an assurance. I’m sure I’m not alone in appreciating a little validation that I’m not, in fact, insane, every now and then. We’re writers, after all, and one look at our internet search histories could make someone think we’re barmy. We’ve all spent countless hours researching for minute details to be added to an aspect of our characters or plot, and that’s dedication. Is it crazy, however, to speak and even think of our characters as “real”?

Of course, we know that these people are creations of our own minds. We take pride in their individuality and achievements, we smile at their kindnesses and cry at their hurts. Think about it, though: When you read the work of others, do you not feel an intimate connection with the characters? Do they feel anything less than real to you?

A thought-provoking character that readers can make an emotional connection with become real, in that reader’s mind. It’s not with shame that we should face our own feelings for our characters. That’s what they’re supposed to do, it’s how our readers are supposed to feel! I once heard, as you have too, I’m sure, that if you don’t feel anything about something you’ve written, a sentence, a scene, the entire work, the reader won’t feel anything, either. In regards to the “realness” of characters, that’s certainly food for thought. I know I’m not the only one who imagines inconsequentials such as their favorite cereals, stores at the mall, and how they would make a sandwich.

***

Being the only writer in your family, especially growing up, can be difficult to deal with. In the same way it’s difficult to explain exactly what you’re thinking, especially about a project, with a non-writer, it’s difficult for those that do not write to completely wrap their heads around or understand some of the things that we say.

Writing has been an important cornerstone of who I am for as long as I can remember, but it was not something that my relatives easily understood, which lead to hurt feelings for me, and a sort of isolated feeling.

It is generally understood that the arts are important, and that it is crucial to encourage creativity in young people. Everyone has their own voice, and some can only feel truly heard through artistic, creative media. If they are too ashamed or anxious to share their work with their own family members and friends, how can they feel heard, or find the courage to share their work with the world?

Tragically, creative writing and other forms of the arts are fleeing public school curriculums left and right. They are increasingly seen as “unnecessary” elective classes that are pushed out and ill-encouraged in the face of an educational system slavishly devoted to test scores and alienating students, parents, and even teachers, who are flocking from the profession at dangerously high rates. After school programs, too, have a lack of creative options as they feel the heat and demand to be more of an “enrichment/remediation” device for children. Never minding the risks and dangers of pressuring children to the max with tests (an average of one standardized test every week and a half is common in a lot of areas), what are we to say or do about our children’s spirits when all they have are academics, no play, and no art?

Recently it was shared with me by a friend who is a teacher that she is not allowed to teach any plays to her students for the first time in her career. That’s right: An English teacher at a public high school will not be teaching any sort of drama, not even a Shakespeare play. The reason? In the wake of the PARCC disaster, many states have flocked to the ACT Aspire test, and since there is apparently no room on the test for anything associated with plays, there’s “no reason” for my friend to teach any, let alone for there to be a theater department (heaven forbid!)

Where will the new generation of writers come from if they are not even taught many creative works, now? The state tests given to students are increasingly driven toward scientific and technical texts, even shifting away from non-fiction historical documents. These things are vital to a rounded education, yes, that is undeniable. So is learning to write, however, and so is finding one’s voice to becoming a rounded individual.

***

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of self-publishing as a way for writers to get their works out there for others to read. Some people have found great success this way, and possibly never would have been discovered otherwise. Let’s face it, it’s easy to get burnt out on sending query letters and manuscripts only to receive rejection letters.

A lot of the time, it does not even matter how interesting or well-written your manuscript is. It is simply a point of fact that publishers are becoming increasingly more choosy, take fewer manuscripts per year, and have less money to spend on buying new manuscripts.

Some would blame this on the rise of self-publishing, in fact, and while this has likely lent to the problem in recent years, it’s also true that people had to have some reason for giving up on traditional publishing routes. There’s a certain disenchantment with a growing number of writers with even trying to send short stories to magazines and online publications. Meanwhile, the atmosphere has become deeply divided between those for and against self-publishing.

The situation with certain major corporations offering self-publishing options that are hard to say no to has lead to dire changes in the publishing industry itself. It’s affected book stores like Barnes & Noble the way that such huge retailers affected small, local book stores, forcing some straight out of business and into oblivion. It’s left a terrible taste in the mouths of a lot of people whenever the topic of self-publishing, especially those involved with the industry. My agent practically uses mouthwash after he deigns to discuss the topic.

It’s touchy, yes. It’s uncomfortable. Perhaps some of the things that I’ve said in have offended, but there are lots of things to consider and discuss about this issue. For instance, I have known people whose next rent payment depend on their work with publishers, either small shop agents or authors, and I have known authors whose ability to feed their kids rely on the huge cuts they get on their own book sales because they self-published. I don’t think that the entire issue of right or wrong rests in such polarity. I think there’s a lot beneath the surface. I think I don’t have the right to tell someone what not to do with their own work.

Self-publishing means the chance to be recognized for some, the way to earn income for others, and autonomy for even more. Publishers are notorious for taking important choices out of a writer’s work, which can often lead to further disenchantment. Still, people look at self-publishing sometimes as though it’s ‘watered down’ literature. Self-publishing is often associated with bad books hardly worth the $.99 cents they’re charged for.

The whole truth and the ramifications of this shift in the world of authors and publishing are, as of yet, unfelt, unseen, and unknown. Maybe it’s the end of an era and an adaptation we’ll have no choice to make, better or worse.
***
I know it’s hard, but put down that rejection letter and step away from the ice cream: It’s going to be okay.

Well, you don’t actually have to stop eating the ice cream because it’s fabulous, but wallowing in your own puddle of disappointment is not. You’re fabulous. Your writing is fabulous. These are facts.

This is a pep talk for every writer who has ever cheerfully opened an envelop just to receive a regrettable message from a publisher, I.e., all of us.

Really. The most successful woman I’ve ever met says that for every single acceptance she’s ever gotten, there’s been an average of fifteen rejections. An average, folks, and she’s just as fabulous as we are.

So really, it’s ooooh-kaaaaaaay.
You know how many times F. Scott Fitzgerald tried to get The Great Gatsby published? And then Ernest Hemingway helped his buddy out and it got published. Have you consulted with friends, gotten it looked over for notes and edits? A lot of people out there will copyedit your work for a fee. Some are quite reasonable. Isn’t your baby worth the cost of perfection?

Know what? Your manuscript could be completely perfect and some publishers would still turn it down. There are tons of possible reasons, too. I’ve spoken to many people that work through publishers, and most will tell you that they decide within the first page or so if they’re going to take a book. Someone could have just been in a bad mood when they read the first page or so of yours. Maybe the budget got cut. Maybe the budget was never big to begin with.

Point is, there are all kinds of reasons for rejections, and it doesn’t always equal, and doesn’t even usually, that your work isn’t good enough.


Keep up the good work, keep fighting the good fight. What we do is important and touches a lot of people out there.