Category Archives: The Writing Life

How do you choose books to buy?

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”  — Winston Churchill

Sam Shepard

In another word, perseverance.  Success and what it means has been in the back of my mind this week.  Sam Shepard died as the week began, and reading about his life as a playwright, writer, and actor proved provocative to my mind. Shepard told an interviewer once that he felt most comfortable in the theater, writing for the theater. That made me ask myself where do I feel most comfortable in my creative life? How does that feeling relate to production and success? I know I am happiest when I am writing fiction.

This morning, I ran across a short essay by Hope Clark, a mystery writer who has a well-known newsletter called Funds for Writers. In this essay, Clark wrote about what the most important thing is about being a writer.  Is it getting credit for writing and publishing? Or is it giving the world a great story experience?

My next thought was that maybe success could be measured in just how great the story experience was that you’ve created. But how does anyone know that? And could one person’s great story experience be another’s failed story experience? Today, for example, I finished reading a novel that has won rave reviews and that I’d heard friends and acquaintances rave about for a long time.  I didn’t think it was that great at all.

I don’t rely solely on what my friends and acquaintances recommend when I’m looking for a great story. I read reviews, I subscribe to the NY Times Book Review newsletter, as well as reading the review sections of other papers and magazines. I have to admit that I don’t pay much attention to marketing blurbs or any kind of promotional pitches. What I pay attention to are the descriptions of the novel’s story, and then a little to genre. I love books, though, that blend genres or bend them. So I guess it’s important to know your own taste and interests before going off to Amazon or a bricks and mortar store to buy books. I do miss bricks and mortar bookstores where I could wander around and actually see, touch, and smell the books!

In her essay, Clark describes the kind of promotional copy that will turn her off a book, and the kind of promotional copy that will spark her interest. Her ultimate point in the essay, though, is that authors need to remember their responsibility to readers, i.e. to provide them with a great story they’ll be glad they paid good money for and spent their time reading. That whatever they say in their pitches and promotions, they focus on the story.

So, Mr. Churchill, I think I’d define success for a writer in this way: Committed to writing the best you can, knowing what makes your stories great,  giving your readers one great story after another, and attaining the recognition of being a writer who produces great stories, i.e. the kind of stories that people want to buy and read.

What draws you to a book? How do you choose the books you buy? What was the last great story you read? Please respond in the comments section!

Writers and Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis

SANTA MONICA, CA – JANUARY 10: Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, winner of Best Actor for “Lincoln,” poses in the press room at the 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards held at Barker Hangar on January 10, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

This past week, Summer began and Daniel Day-Lewis announced that he was retiring from acting. At first, I thought it was one of those internet jokes that pop up all the time.  But no. This news was real. So, I sought out the article to get the details, and I hoped, a reason. But no, no reason. Only that it was a private decision and there would be no further comment. In other words, it’s none of our business why.

I was terribly sad about this. Day-Lewis is an actor I’ve been following since 1986 with a mixture of amazement and profound respect. I’ve written at this blog how his performance in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans taught me to focus on character and helped me to push through a major writer’s block. His performances make me feel human, creative, joyful, and eager to write. I’ll miss him, miss the anticipation and wonder of what he’ll do next.  His last movie, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who directed him in There Will be Blood, is supposed to be in theaters in December of this year.  That will be an event.

He has a Wikipedia page that I found informative. I had not known that he’s now a “Sir,” having been knighted in 2014. Or that he lives primarily in Ireland where he can be a private citizen, more or less, and raise his family in peace. He’s also 60 years old. So it’s not like he’s retiring when he’s 35. But I can’t help feeling that his retirement is a tremendous loss for acting as well as for writers.

In Variety online, Owen Gleiberman writes about the impact of Day-Lewis’ retirement, reviewing the history of acting in the last century: the Olivier School vs. the Brando School. What Day-Lewis did was to combine the two, not only paying close attention to the external details of a character — hair, gestures, facial expressions, voice, etc. — but also to the details of the character’s personality and emotional states. Day-Lewis acted 3-dimensionally. It had to be exhausting at times. Gleiberman ends his article with this:

“He didn’t just want to show up in a movie as some version of himself; he wanted to transcend himself — to literally make acting into an out-of-body experience. The question going forward isn’t whether Day-Lewis is really retiring. It’s whether the spirit of transformation that he represents has come to seem like a mountain that actors no longer need, or even want, to climb.”

For me, Daniel Day-Lewis the actor will always be an inspiration, a guiding light, that I’ll turn to when I need to be reminded about what is truly important in writing. For that, I will be forever grateful.

 

The Cost of Being Independent

The May 2017 issue of The Writer is chock full of helpful and interesting articles! Since I’m working to pay off debt incurred from e-publishing Perceval’s Secret, I was particularly interested in the article, “Going Rogue: Is Self-publishing right for you?” In this article, Kerrie Flanagan compares the traditional publishing model and the self-publishing/independent model, covering all aspects of production, publication, marketing/promotion, and distribution. I recommend this article highly, highly, highly — especially for anyone who believes it doesn’t cost much at all to self-publish.

It depends, of course, on what you want. If you just want to publish an e-book, your costs may not be that high compared to a paperback or hardcover.  I took the advice and suggestions of others, some were writers I knew who’d been successful with self-publishing, and made certain that I found a good-to-excellent editor and a collaborative cover designer for my e-book. Editors can be expensive, anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 depending on what you want and who it is. Shop around, but also shop local if you can. I’m fortunate to live in a literary urban area full of colleges and writing resources. The cover design for me was actually the least expensive cost. I went with a designer who’d done a friend’s book covers. There are writers who are talented in design also, and they can design their own covers, saving money there.

My next expense was to turn my Word document into ePub and Mobi files for Kindle and other e-readers.  For me, this was a painful learning experience. Fortunately, I found an excellent and very patient formatting company, BookNook.biz. Because I had not cleared my Word document of all icky formatting glitches, and Word is notorious for them, there were all sorts of issues with the electronic formatting that cost me more to fix than it would have if I’d cleared the Word document at the beginning. I didn’t know. I paid for my ignorance.  It won’t happen again.  Some writers know a lot about formatting or aren’t scared off by the conversion process. They will save some bucks by doing the conversion themselves.

Flanagan doesn’t go into the cost of ISBN numbers, registering your novel with the US Copyright Office, and marketing/promotion costs.  The last can cost you significantly more than producing the book, depending on what you want, of course.  I worked in advertising at one point in my life and know a bit about marketing.  The most important thing about marketing that you need to know is that unless you are famous or have an irresistible platform, it’s going to be very difficult making yourself heard in the cacophony of promotion at any given moment. In the US, at least 50,000 books are published every year. You’ll be competing with all of them for readers’ attention and hard-earned money. Adjust your expectations for sales accordingly.

With traditional publishing, the writer has no up front costs as with self or independent publishing. The writer also doesn’t have the control that she has as an independent publisher. Traditional publishers take over all the production, with some limited input from the writer about covers, titles, and then proofing galleys. They will also provide very limited marketing and promotion, but are honest with writers that they depend on them for the bulk of this work. It can take up to 2 years for a traditional publisher to publish your book.  If you do it yourself, it can be done in 3-6 months. Perceval’s Secret took 8 months because I slowed the editing and revision process at the beginning.

Photo: aliyasking.com

There is one important thing that traditional publishers (and literary agents) do that writers cannot really do on their own. That is: tell a writer if a book is in publishable shape or not. Even before I contracted to work with my last editor, I’d already been through several edits including a really close line edit. I knew that there would be no major changes or issues for that last edit. There was polishing, however, and that is an important process also. In the last few years, I’ve been asked to read self-published books on occasion. I love helping out a fellow writer, especially if a book is truly worth the attention my review might be able to get for it.  But in all cases, the books were in such terrible shape with grammar, language, sentence and paragraph construction, narrative structure, and in one case, checking facts,  I was shocked. How could a writer allow their work to be published like that? So I’d caution anyone thinking of going the self-publishing route to be absolutely certain that their writing is the best it can be, and do not depend on self-publishing services to provide competent editing for you.  Find your own professional editor.

As I mentioned at the top, I’m still paying off the debt I incurred for publishing Perceval’s Secret in digital form.  I’m coming up on the end of the promotional period on July 1 for the 0% interest rate from the credit card I transferred the debt to (it was originally on another credit card with high interest). I set up a GoFundMe project to raise the funds to pay off this debt, so if you’d like to help out, every $10 or $20 will be a big help. It’d be great if I could raise another $600 in the next couple weeks.  The GoFundMe page is here.  Thank you!  Or please buy Perceval’s Secret at Amazon or B&N, and leave a review there after you’ve read it.

Taking Perceval to the Next Step GoFundMe Page

What makes a writer?

This past week, I had a conversation with a young man who was interested in writing.  He enjoyed working with words when he wrote business correspondence, and he believed he had a knack for finding the right words for whatever he was writing.  He admitted that he didn’t read that much, mostly just what he saw on the internet which sounded like maybe news or commentary sites. I’m not certain what it was he wanted from me.  To tell him he was already a writer?  To tell him how to be a writer?  I suspect that he didn’t know anything about it and wanted me to tell him.  I gave him a catalog of writing classes from The Loft and encouraged him to look it over, see if anything appealed to him and pursue it.

Have any of you had a similar experience?  What do you say?

I’m used to more specific questioning or someone telling me that they are writing a short story/novel/essay collection and they want to know something specific about what they’re writing. This is the first time I’ve encountered someone who was thinking of writing rather than just sitting down and doing it, then trying to figure out what it was all about.

So really, what makes a writer?  Is it publication or is it writing all the time? Is it the compulsion to write?  The need to write vs. the desire to write? Business writing is different from creative nonfiction or fiction, and yet, there are freelance writers who specialize in writing for business, for corporate communications departments.  They consider themselves writers (as do I). And some of them are also writing other things — short stories, plays, etc. Writing is everywhere, if you think about it.  This is the point the inquiring young man made to me.  Yes, it is.  And if he wanted to do that kind of writing, more power to him.  I hope that he looks through The Loft’s catalog and sees for himself that there’s a lot more to writing than he thinks.  He did mention that he thought he could write his own story — autobiography or memoir, I don’t know — but I felt at a loss as to what to say.  Why think about it?  Why not just do it?

What makes a writer?  I have to say that the writers I know don’t think about it, they do it.  Sure, they think about the stories they’re working on, or the ideas that they’re developing for a book or script, but they don’t talk so much about it or just think about it.  They sit down at some point and just write.  And it’s hard. In my confusion, I forgot to tell the young man that it was difficult to do it well.  Yeah, it looks easy — everyone has written something: grocery lists, letters, emails, thank you notes, etc. But to sustain a reader’s interest over a period of pages, that’s something else entirely.

This morning, while cleaning out email (it’s amazing how much it piles up in my mailbox over 5 days), I stumbled onto a note from a writer named Hope Clark — she publishes a newsletter called Funds for Writers that I subscribe to. Her note discussed approaching each day as the best day for writing, even when your writing is going badly.  Even when the writing sucks, it’s still something you can work with to make it better.

Hope Clark quoted Neil Gaiman in an interview in which he talked about what writing is like, and I loved the quote so I’d like to share it with you. It describes accurately, I think, what writing is like:

“The process of writing is not necessarily an enjoyable one. The process of writing is way up there with ditch digging. You write a novel a word at a time. And this will go on for hundreds of pages.”

I’d like to add, that while you’re digging for words in the ditches of life, it’s always a sunny day.

Being a Creative Writer: Under Oppression

In 2017 America, we have access to countless narratives of people existing and surviving under oppressive conditions, be they social, psychological, or political. In my own life, I’ve read Soviet writers who worked in the USSR as well as Western writers who visited the USSR and wrote about their experiences and observations afterward. I was reminded of this today when I saw in The New York Times an article by Margaret Atwood entitled “Margaret Atwood on What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump.” In this article, Atwood talks about her novel and its setting: an America which has gone through a coup that establishes a strict patriarchal rule based in 17th century Puritanism. Under this oppression, human rights, especially women’s rights, are minimal if they exist at all. Only “the elite,” i.e. those in power, have human rights and freedoms. They dominate and control everyone and everything else. Atwood wrote this story in 1984, during the Reagan era in America. It was in 1984 that I first met Evan Quinn, the protagonist of my Perceval series, and began to explore who he was and what his story was.

Since the November 2016 election, I’ve been thinking about the role of the writer in a society that is hostile toward the arts, especially literature, and is obsessed with money. Commerce rules in America, and there’s nothing sweeter than gigantic profits. The sign of success? Your income level, earned, or especially, unearned, as in investments. If you are a member of the Working Poor, you are not a success according to American society. The number of writers in the top 1% income group are few. Most writers fall somewhere between the Working Poor and the middle Middle Class. And no, I don’t have specific statistics on that, just what I’ve observed in Minnesota which is an active literary area in the country. For the last 2 months, we’ve seen a new president and government that wants to keep writers either subservient to them or silent. They’ve acted to destroy the press, calling various media news outlets “the enemy of the people.” They’ve acted to cut federal government support of the arts by defunding and abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This government doesn’t like writers.  Why?

Moscow. First secretary of the Union of Soviet writers Konstantin Fedin (tribune) makes a speech at the fourth Congress of Soviet writers. Photo TASS / Yevgeny Kassin; Vladimir Savostyanov

For the same reason the USSR’s government didn’t like them. And I know that I may be making a controversial comparison here, but please bear with me (I’m not making the Nazi comparison because it’s redundant). The Soviet government established rules and bureaucratic procedures by which every citizen had to abide, except for the ruling elite who enjoyed all the power and perks. Writers observed life in the Soviet Union and how this system affected that life and they wrote about it. And many were “disappeared” because of it. The government tried to corral writers into a governmental structure called the Union of Soviet Writers which was created in 1932 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. If a writer gained membership in the Union (and the Communist Party), he enjoyed financial support and publication. If a writer was not a member, he enjoyed poverty and being banned from publication. Members of the Union had to adhere to the Party’s Socialist Realism in all their creative expression. In this way, the government controlled what the writers wrote.

Example of Socialist Realism in architecture: All-Russia Exhibition Centre in Moscow (from Wikipedia)

I’m a bit surprised that the Bannon-Trump government hasn’t thought about merging the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities into one artist union with departments for literature, painting, music, dance, etc.  (In the Perceval novels, it’s called the Arts Council.) Perhaps they haven’t yet thought of it, or maybe they have and have concluded that it would be a waste of money since they believe the arts are not very profitable but dangerous to them.

What should American writers do right now and going forward? As always, write the truth as you experience it. Whether in nonfiction or fiction, writers need to continue doing what they do best: observe, witness, reveal, and be clear and true in all of their words. In the April 2017 The Writer, Gail Radley (“Through the Looking Glass”) writes about what facts are and how to find the truth. She’s comprehensive in talking about the internet, trusted sources, and how to tell when a website is not to be trusted no matter what it looks like. Her tips could also apply to government websites masquerading as private websites.

Write to resist. Write to witness. Write to record for posterity, whether in a fictional format or nonfiction. If you have activism running through your blood, protest and demonstrate non-violently, peacefully, and meaningfully. Keep it simple. Writers know how to reveal character through dialogue, right? Use that skill to actively communicate to your elected representatives or when you are protesting in a group.

I know, I know. All this sounds rather paranoid. Perhaps it is. But I do think that those in power right now are truly serious about what they want to accomplish. Those who disagree with them, anyone who wants to insure the arts will be available to anyone and everyone forever, all need to be just as serious and determined in what they want to accomplish.