Friday, July 31, 2015

Strong stomach

"It didn't take long for me to learn one of the most basic requirements to become a successful book writer. One has to have the stomach to take the roller-coaster lurches from failure to success and back to failure."
--Gail Sheehy, Daring: My Passages

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Slow reentry

It's always disorienting to come back from time spent in nature, away from the internet and most media. Most of the time, I had no shelter other than a tent. I've barely heard a commercial in 10 days. I have no idea what is going on in the world.

Getting ready to go away is always such a pain that, while I'm packing and making dozens of arrangements, I question whether it's worth it, but I trust that it is. During and after the fact, I can confirm that yes, it absolutely is worth it. I really need that time to hike, to get away from electronics, to simplify.

Every afternoon, after the day's hike and before dinner, I would lie in my tent and stare out at the sunlit trees, feeling the afternoon breeze. I had nowhere to be and nothing I had to do right then. Those moments alone would have been worth it, even if I hadn't also had beautiful scenery while hiking, good companions, and brilliant stars at night.

I always want to hold on to the vacation experience when I return to my "real life." Sometimes I think the vacation part is my real life, and my working life is too cluttered up.

I'll keep trying to figure it out. Slow reentry.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Summer break

A couple of times a year, I unplug from the internet for a week or so. It's feeling like a good time to do that again. In the meantime, have a pretty picture:

See ya later!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bio lines

Authors have to provide bios for a variety of features: some long, some short, some serious, some funny, etc. I've written dozens of different versions of mine.

I've been reading the back issues of magazines I have lying around the house. In issue 61 of The Mindfulness Bell, I find this line in the author bio of Brother Chan Phap Nguyen: "He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock."

This is one of my favorite bio lines ever, especially since it follows an otherwise serious and straightforward recitation of biographical facts. I've certainly read more overtly hilarious bios, but I just like the gentle simplicity of it. Especially since bios often devolve into a long list of awards and accomplishments.

Another bio line I'm partial to is this one from Jon Gibbs: "When he's not chasing around after his three children, he can usually be found hunched over the computer in his basement office. One day he hopes to figure out how to switch it on."

Friday, July 10, 2015

Five years

My first book was published five years ago, and I got to know many authors whose first books also came out that year. I belonged to four debut groups (two that focused on 2009 releases because my book was originally supposed to debut in 2009, and two for 2010 releases), and I've followed the careers of many of those authors with interest.

What I've seen is a variety of paths since then. Many of those authors have published again under their own names: some traditionally, some independently, some both. Some have published under pseudonyms. Some have switched genres; some have tried work for hire. Many have taken breaks from writing, and returned to it. There have been changes in agents, editors, publishers. Some of those authors have had bestselling books; others have vanished from my radar.

Most of us hoped, when we were starting out, that we would beat the odds and become the major bestselling authors, the household names. We knew most of us wouldn't, but that any of us could. Failing that, we hoped to do well enough that we could keep on publishing what we wanted to write.

After my debut novel came out, Borders closed, ebook sales increased, and self-publishing became easier. Social media platforms have mushroomed. My first agent left the business. My first editor left my publisher. I've received negative reviews and starred reviews. I've had a book translated into German. Like many other authors, I have now self-published a book (Loner in the Garret: A Writer's Companion). My first book is out of print, except for the ebook version. My second book didn't sell as well as my first initially, but does better than the others nowadays.

Most of this stuff, I didn't predict and couldn't have seen coming. The funny thing is that publishing is a very slow business--it can take a long time to write a book, and even longer to see it through the publishing process--and yet so much has changed in just five years. I wonder what the next five years will bring?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The receding goal line of revision

There's nothing like thinking that a manuscript just needs one more light pass, and realizing it needs a slow, heavy pass. One that digs into the emotions in each scene, amps up the details, reminds us that we have five senses. One that raises important questions in each scene, heightens the tension, and strengthens the voice.

Yeah, I'll be busy.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

On young writers and early competition

Beth Kephart blogged about the pressure of young writers' competitions, referring in turn to an article in the Atlantic, "Behind the Scenes of Teenage Writing Competitions."

I read these with interest. One reason is that when I was a young writer myself, I earned a prize in the Scholastic Writing Awards, which are discussed in the Atlantic piece. But I had to laugh, reading these lines from the article: "Writers are invited to collect their awards at a special ceremony at Carnegie Hall in early June, and certain submissions, such as senior portfolios, can each win as much as $10,000 in scholarship cash. Either way, medals can translate into invitations to attend choice summer camps and colleges."

I did not go to Carnegie Hall, and I did not receive anywhere near $10K. I did not receive any invitations to summer camps and colleges, let alone "choice" ones. I received a sum of money in the low two figures.

Now, my prize was a fourth place, and this also happened way back in Olden Times. Back in the era that the Atlantic describes as, "Previously, just a select few, often identified by AP English teachers, would enter these competitions, as would a handful of secret bedroom scribblers." Obviously, the whole competition scene has mushroomed since then, just as the SATs and college admissions and everything else about being a teen that was high pressure before seems to have become Out-of-Control-Major-Deal-Pressure in the years since.

And so I know where Beth Kephart is coming from when she says, "Let the young be themselves. Their breakthroughs will have more meaning." I agree that there is a danger to people entering the arena of competition during the time when they need to be studying, practicing, and exploring their craft. There is a risk of stunting one's artistic growth, of chasing the ends at the expense of the means, of pushing work that is too raw into the public eye, of pushing one's self into the glare of public critique when one is still learning to trust the inner self over external judgments.

I feel the same way about publishing. It has become so easy--in the practical, technical sense, that is--to self-publish, that at many book festivals now I usually see a table or two with an author who is still a minor selling his or her own books. Whenever I see that, part of me cheers for the young writer, admires the guts it takes to finish and publish and promote a book. Part of me loves to see any person chase a dream at any age. But part of me wants to fold a protective cloak around the young author and say, "Maybe wait? Publishing can be so brutal, and writing takes such patience to master."

There's no single answer. The award I won while I was still in high school, the story that a magazine published when I was seventeen, gave me huge confidence boosts that I really needed. There was no internet then; I could not find other writers online. I could not find them anywhere. I knew nobody else who was serious about writing, knew nobody else who was published. My early successes gave me hope that my impossible dream of being an author was possible after all, just maybe.

But those early successes were rare glints in a dismal heap of rejection slips. And as good as I thought my work was then, most of it deserved to be rejected. I'm now glad that most of it was never published. I'm very glad I didn't publish a book at a time in my life when a negative review would have crushed me. (My early publications were short stories, which hardly ever get reviewed.) I'm especially glad that stories that now make me cringe didn't make it into the Library of Congress.

There are writers who can handle publication and the big-time spotlight at a young age. There are writers whose work is mature while they are still in their teens. I have met some of them. They are so much better-adjusted than I ever was. I can't say that teens shouldn't grab for that brass ring; it's really an individual decision. But it's just something to think about, something to consider: the chance at the brass ring comes with all sorts of costs, many of them not immediately apparent.