Writing Advice

I regularly receive requests for advice on writing as a career from friends, family members, former students, and even mere acquaintances. This entry is an open letter to all those so interested.

Dear Aspiring Writers:

It’s great to hear about your interest in pursuing writing as a career. If you’re really a writer, by now you know that writing fiction is not something you do because you want to; you do it because you have to. It is both your blessing and your curse.

I need to warn you that very few people are able to make their living writing fiction. The vast majority of us, me included, write as an avocation, not a vocation. Fiction writing is an incredibly competitive field full of very talented people all striving to earn the same few available spaces on bookstore shelves. The earning potential is nowhere near as plentiful as most people believe, and there are no benefits (at least of the medical/retirement kind). Again, I’d suggest that if you are going to write, do so because it brings you joy or because it provides some kind of therapeutic benefit or opens up imagined worlds better than your own lived-in one. If you are ever lucky enough to profit financially from your writing, consider yourself blessed, and do something fun with the money. You will have earned it.

 As for seeking copyright, that’s an unnecessary step, a waste of time, and sometimes part of a scam. There are many unscrupulous scavengers out there seeking to take advantage of people’s dreams. This is especially true in the publishing world. Once you write it, your work is protected under copyright law without any formal registration.

 As for self-publishing, I’ve done it both ways. My first book was published by Random House in the traditional way; whereas, for several reasons, I self-published my second book. I much prefer the former to the latter. Traditional publishing is very difficult to break into, actually nearly impossible, but it allows the writer to concentrate solely on writing rather than all of the behind-the-scenes necessities of publishing: cover art, typesetting, editing, marketing, etc. If you do choose to self-publish, know that it is very unlikely that it will ever appear on a bookstore shelf. Also know that the typical self-published book sells somewhere between 50 – 150 copies, mostly to supportive or guilt-stricken friends and family, and the vast majority of self-published books do not make money. I’ve been much more fortunate. However, remember I had already built a platform and an audience through traditional publishing. Whatever you do, if you do self-publish, hire a qualified editor (not a friend or family member) to aggressively edit your work. If you don’t, chances are that you will be embarrassed by the product you present to the public, and that is never a good thing.

 Finally, you should know that the vast majority of what I’ve written will never be published. I have written at least five full-length novels that have never been read by anyone but me and that will never exist anywhere except on my hard drive. Those novels represent thousands of hours of time spent at my computer and rummaging around my own head. That’s time that I wasn’t playing with my kids, working around the house, or romancing my wife. Point being: writing is sacrifice, both for the writer and his/her family.

 If none of this has discouraged you, then write on! You truly are a writer.

 Good Luck and Always Love,

Ty

So Far . . .

Last week I declared my reluctant independence from traditional publishing, which,, to be honest, was a little like saying, “You can’t fire me; I quit!” In the meanwhile, I’ve been reflecting on that decision and have stumbled upon several revelations that I’m sure were long ago discovered by those who have made the switch before me. First off, I’ve realized the majority of my reluctance was driven by ego, an adherence to tradition, and a prejudice driven home by legacy publishers and its authors including myself. I’d not only accepted but had deeply inculcated the notion that independent publishing was merely an exercise in vanity and that no other model was acceptable. In truth, the more egregious act of vanity is to suggest that the old paradigm is the only acceptable one and those who find alternative methods are somehow inferior. Whether it has been arrived at through a self-serving reassessment driven by necessity or it is the result of research and recent experiences, I now see the ignorance and outdated nature of my earlier thinking.

This is not to say, however, that the traditional model does not have it’s advantages or that it hasn’t been good to me or other authors. I will be forever grateful to the opportunity and dream fulfillment I was afforded through that model. And as I venture out on my own, I know I will miss many of its offerings. Primarily, I miss the prestige of being with a big New York publisher, but there are several additional, practical benefits I must learn to do without. I’ll miss the professionalism and talent of publishing house editors. Their skills and attention to detail truly shape, fine tune, and provide the finishing touches to their books. Now, I must be my own editor with the assistance of other author friends, but what I gain is complete ownership of my novels’ success or failure. I obviously will miss the guaranteed advance money; now, I must earn my keep entirely on my own and on the basis of sales alone. However, the amount of advance money being parceled out to non-A-listers continues to diminish, and the royalty rate is much higher in independent publishing. Either way, this is a minor concern for me. I really don’t stand to or intend to make much money from my writing. Mostly, I will miss the distribution power of a Big Six publisher. Their ability to place books in bookstores and libraries is extensive and nearly impossible to match; however, the presence of brick-and-mortar bookstores is all but disappearing as an increasing number of readers purchase their reading materials from online bookstores. This is an audience I can reach as effectively as if I were still with a large publisher. A hard reality is that only well-established and high-earning authors can rely on publishers for extensive promotion. The rest of us must rely upon our own wiles to market our books even when under the aegis of a large publisher, so that has not changed.

The greatest gain of this endeavor is freedom. I no longer have to kowtow to the wants of agents and editors, who understandably limit much of their energy to finding and promoting those books that reek of potentially blockbuster sales. Now, because the risk is entirely mine, I can pursue the projects and write the books that I want to write and allow a free and democratic meritocracy determine the value of my work with the purchases or lack of purchases by the reading public. I can live with that. Ultimately, I’d love to work with traditional publishers in the future and pursue a course of hybrid publishing, but if that doesn’t happen, I will not be forced to the sidelines. I can still get in the game.

 

What NOT to Expect as a Debut Author

Now that my novel, SO SHELLY, has been on shelves for over six months, it’s time to look back at the past half year and share what I’ve learned about being a debut novelist with a major publisher. I doubt that my actual experiences will match the high expectations that most have. For example, I’m constantly referred to by others as the “famous author” (I wish, then maybe I wouldn’t still be doing my own laundry, cleaning my own bathrooms, mowing my own lawn, etc.), and people often ask how my life has changed? (Answer: Not much.) The reality is that very little of the past six months has matched my idealistic hopes, dreams, and expectations of life after publication. I do believe, however, that my experience is the norm; although, I’m sure there are those lucky few whose first novels skyrocket them to fortune and fame. All I know for sure is that from the high of being chosen by the American Booksellers Association as one of 2011’s top “New Voices” to the low of having not a single person show up for a library reading, I wouldn’t trade a step of the journey.

Below, in bold, are ten experiences regarding which many debut novelists often have mistaken notions. After each is the reality as I have experienced it and my advice for future novices in the world of publishing.

Reviews in national magazines or USA Today: Be thrilled if you are reviewed in trade magazines such as Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Scrivener and to be featured in any blog, hometown newspaper, alumni magazine etc. that is willing to give you the space. If they don’t come to you, seek them out. Sell your publishing success story to them. Those types of publications are proud to report the “local boy does good” story.

A large windfall of income: Don’t quit your day job, especially if your health benefits and retirement savings are tied to that job. After expenditures, I will have spent more money on my writing career this year than I will have earned.

A free editorial pass on your second book or for the writing of it to come easier: It is much more difficult with your second effort to earn an editor’s approval. She knows that for the good of your career, your sophomore effort must be much better than your first, for an underselling second book can be the kiss-of-death for an author’s career. Remember: very few writers are ever given a single opportunity at the publishing plate, and ach swing-and-miss greatly reduces the probability of getting an additional turn at-bat.

To be recognized everywhere you go. If you’re writing for the correct reasons, relative anonymity is what you should hope for. Remember: it’s about the book, not the author. The title of “author-celebrity” should be an oxymoron. I know of very few authors who are comfortable in the celebrity role, and those who are typically pump out trite, formulaic work of transitory value.

Copies of your book in the majority of bookstores nationwide. Bookstores can be very fickle and independent regarding the books they choose to stock. It’s actually very hit-and-miss as to whether or not a bookstore will stock your book, and oftentimes, a single copy is all they have. Be grateful for any and all of the valuable shelf real estate your book may occupy.

Book tours. My in-house publicist all-but-discouraged a book tour – even one of my own arranging and at my own expense. In fact, you must be your own publicist regarding the vast majority of personal promotion. I’ve arranged all of my own book signings, readings, lectures, and book fair appearances, and I’ve purchased the bookmarks and post cards to advertise my novel.

To grace bestseller lists. Anymore, I’m thrilled when my book climbs into Amazon’s top 100,000, even for an hour or two.

Your agent to be at your beckoning call: The fact is that you are, most likely, one among her diverse array of clients, many of whom are at more critical junctures in the publishing process than you, now that your book is out and on shelves. Expect to be in communication with her on an “as needed” basis.

Constant kudos from your editor/publisher: Similar to your agent, your editor has a stable of authors she represents. They are the most overworked and underappreciated cogs in the publishing machine. Don’t expect frequent updates on sales of your book or a steady stream of congratulatory notes. My advice is always to let your editor make first contact. Like your agent again, she will share any news to which you need to be privy. Trust me, she is not keeping secrets.

That’s one writer’s experience. I suggest you file it under “For What It’s Worth.”

 

Cold Feet

One of life’s greatest ironies occurs when what we believe is the worst possible thing that could happen turns out to be the best. With So Shelly poised to hit shelves in less than three months, I’ve recently found myself gripped by the fear that the converse must also be true. Actually, the proverb already exists, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” Although landing a debut novel with one of the largest publishing houses in the world is a dream realized, the possibility that Shelly’s publication will change my life in ways I’d prefer it didn’t is a persistent fear.

Readers often mistakenly make too strong of a linkage between an author and his characters. They assume that what the characters think, feel, and desire provides a mirrored image of the author. Although I wouldn’t deny that pieces of me are reflected in each character in Shelly, no single one captures my essence. I fear that family, friends, students and their parents, and local community members will find many of the ideas, opinions, and behaviors of my characters unsavory and will associate each of those ideas, opinions, and behaviors with my own. However, I’m a big boy and I can  take it. I’d never write a thing if I worried too much about others’ opinions of me and my work.

The bigger fear is that, if read too simplistically, Shelly may seem to condone, even to encourage, many of the very notions it seeks to condemn or at least caution against, and I may be viewed as some sort of perverted psychopath. Although it’s not straight satire, Shelly does address a large number of foolish, even evil, societal ills faced not only by teens but also by adults. My goal as a writer is the same as my goal as a teacher: to force readers/students to question everything they’ve ever considered right, good, or true. In doing so, I aim for one of two outcomes. Either the values one entered my novel/classroom with are made stronger by opposition to my challenge to their validity, or those values are newly seen as untenable and in need of replacement by values more consistent with reality. It’s a lofty end result for which I reach, but I think it’s the goal most worthy of pursuing as an author/teacher.

Regardless of my fears, Shelly will soon be laid bare, and the “slings and arrows” may follow. I’m more than good with that. If my honest attempt to contribute a unique and challenging piece of literature costs me a few relationships or sidelong glances but successfully engages its readers, I figure I win more than I lose. In the end, I have no choice but to trust my readers. I’ve always believed that the biggest mistake teachers make is underestimating their students. I would be a hypocrite should I not apply that same wisdom to my readers. Most people are smart and, for the most part, “get it.”

Daunting but Doable

I recently listened to an interview with E. Keith Howick, the author of Blow us Away! Publishers’ Secrets for Successful Manuscripts, on The Writing Show podcast. Howick, who is also the president of WindRiver Publishing Inc., gave the following daunting statistics regarding the difficulty of seeing a manuscript from inception to a shelf in a major bookstore.

• There are approximately 20 million manuscripts in circulation in search of a publisher during the course of any given year.
• Of those, only 400,000 new titles will go to press, and half of those will be self-published, leaving only 200,000 titles to be printed by trade publishers each year or 2% of the 20 million manuscripts.
• At any given moment, the average big Barnes and Noble or Borders bookstore shelves approximately 12,000 books. With swapping out of titles, 20,000 different titles will sit on a shelf in one of these major chains in a year, and much of that space is taken by books that have been and will be stocked for a long time. If you’re doing the math, that means only 1 in 10 books published by the trades (not even counting those self-published) will ever sit in a shelf at B & N or Borders, or only .2% of the original 20 million manuscripts circulated each year end up on a shelf.

What’s the point? The point is that the competition is fierce. Aspiring, even established, authors must consistently present manuscripts to agents and editors that represent their work at its very best. I also firmly believe that it’s always better to have a sense of the risk/reward in any endeavor at the very beginning before one determines whether or not the time, effort, and energy required to pursue a goal is worth spending. If you are truly meant to be a writer, there will be no debating the answer to that question. These odds will not dissuade you from your goal, but they will illicit from you your very best effort and talents.

In a paraphrase of the words of Thomas Paine: that which we achieve easily, we esteem lightly. The extreme difficulty of achieving publication is exactly what makes being a published author so unique and worthwhile.

My debut novel, So Shelly, is available for pre-order at all major online bookstores including, Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/So-Shelly-Ty-Roth/dp/0385739583/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1277759993&sr=1-1; Barnes and Noble:  http://search.barnesandnoble.com/So-Shelly/Ty-Roth/e/9780385739580/?itm=2&USRI=so+shelly; Borders:http://www.borders.com/online/store/Home;  Books-A-Million:http://www.booksamillion.com/product/9780385739580?id=4777602269282; and IndiBound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385739580

No Rush to Market

When informed by my editor in October of 2009 that So Shelly was slotted for a Spring 2011 publication, it sounded like a date in Captain Kirk’s star log. “2011!” I thought. “Are there monks locked in the basement churning out copies by hand or what?” Today, with the release date a mere six months distant, I have learned to appreciate the necessity for and the wisdom of the deliberate pace of publishing.

As So Shelly sits ready to go to press, it is a much different book than the one I queried to my agent and she pitched to my editor a year ago. Over a four month period upon the initial signing with my publisher, the novel experienced two exhaustive rounds of editorial reads; each of which required major revisions to be made by me in response to their suggestions. It then received a meticulous read by a copyeditor followed by additional authorial revisions. Next, the manuscript was set in type and proofread with a comb of proverbially-fine teeth and returned to me again for revisions in the form of “last pass pages” with the novel, still in manuscript form, as it would appear when printed on actual pages. Here still, a full nine months removed from the purchase of the novel, final revisions were caught and made. The lesson is that many needed revisions only rise to the surface over the passing of much time and multiple viewings, which the deliberate pace of bringing a book to market allows.

A second purpose for no rush to market is to allow for the design team to experience similar stages of trial and error. There is no overstating the importance of creating an attention-grabbing cover that also accurately reflects the book’s content. Like the text, the artwork requires time to be imagined, brought to life, and viewed by many discerning eyes, including the editors’, the sales staff’s, and the author’s. Typically, the cover and jacket design experiences several workings before reaching a version upon which all involved can agree to support. Additionally, an often overlooked and always underappreciated stage in the design process is the interior design of a book. Choosing a font that matches the tone of the story and setting the type in a reader-friendly manner on the pages is fundamental to the text’s readability. Clearly, the importance of the visual artistry involved in the publishing of a book cannot be overstated, and it should never be hurried.

Finally, especially for a previously unpublished author, time is necessary for the author to build an online presence through such means as Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc., and to network as extensively as possible, both online and off, with those who will aid in the selling and purchasing of his book. The publisher’s marketing department also requires a significant amount of time to plan a public relations strategy appropriate to the book and its target audience.

There is simply little to be gained in the rushing of a novel to market, but there is much to be lost should the revision process, visual design, and/or public relations strategy be rushed. A writer has only one opportunity to present a debut novel to the reading public and to make a positive impression which will, hopefully, result in the building of an faithful audience of readers. So Shelly’s pub date, which once felt as if eons distant, now seems to be hurrying toward me at light speed.

My debut novel, So Shelly, is available for pre-order at all major online bookstores including, Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/So-Shelly-Ty-Roth/dp/0385739583/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1277759993&sr=1-1; Barnes and Noble:  http://search.barnesandnoble.com/So-Shelly/Ty-Roth/e/9780385739580/?itm=2&USRI=so+shelly; Borders:http://www.borders.com/online/store/Home;  Books-A-Million:http://www.booksamillion.com/product/9780385739580?id=4777602269282; and IndiBound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385739580

The Author and Editor Relationship

Not long ago, I wrote an article on the “Author and Agent” relationship. Today, I read a great article by Janet Kobobel Grant of Books and Such Literary Agency on the Author and Publisher relationship (http://www.booksandsuch.biz/blog/you-and-your-publisher-maintaining-communication-lines/), which has inspired me to speak from my own experience regarding this all-so-important partnership between the author and his/her editor.

As with my agent, I determined early on that my relationship with my editor would be based on professionalism not personalities. It would be based on a business model not a friendship. I steeled myself very early in the process to consider my novel a sort of commodity. It was not my child (A metaphor, which, in my opinion, too many artists flippantly use to describe their relationship with their art.). I consider said comparison as inane and insulting as comparing sporting events to war. This emotional separation better enabled me to consider my work from my editor’s perspective, and it lessened the sting of editorial criticism. Not once did I take her suggestions as an affront to my writing, talent, and even much less to my person. After all, our fundamental goal was the same: to bring the most saleable book to market as possible. At times, this required me to compromise some of my artistic vision (including the cumulative deletion of more than forty pages of text), but I trusted that my editor knew her job and my target audience better than I do. I rarely questioned her suggestions, and when I did, I did so calmly with a reasoned defense of my resistance. In the end, we finished with a much better story than I delivered to my agent or she pitched to publishers.

In the nearly ten months of our working together, I have made initial contact with my agent on very few occasions. Whereas anxious authors tend to be consumed by their one sold novel, editors are juggling many, sometimes dozens of projects in various stages of completion. They do not obsess over our novels as we do, and they do not have time to be pestered with emails and phone calls from their writers. My attitude has always been, “If there’s anything I need to know, my editor will inform me at the appropriate time.” This has enabled me to resist sending unnecessary and annoying emails seeking reassurances and updates. I believe my editor greatly appreciates this patience and trust on my part. The last thing she or my agent wants to do is to babysit their authors.

The relationship I’ve described and have established for myself is probably not the one that aspiring authors imagine for themselves. However, I believe everyone is best served by remembering that publishing is a business. What I desire most from my editor is respect for my professionalism and for my artistry.

The Secret to My Success

My entry into the exclusive world of publication occurred according to the oft-quoted principle “If you love something, let it go,” or in the same vein as finding your lost keys by ceasing to look for them. The first three novels I wrote met only with the many and varying forms of rejections aspiring writers have learned to parse for hidden meanings and motivations. I also wrote each of these novels because I passionately wanted to be an author. Passion is obviously an important element in the pursuit of any goal; however, sometimes, intensity becomes inexpedient to success by creating a massive and nearly unbearable burden of self-expectation. When I began writing my fourth, soon-to-be-first-published novel, my motivation had switched from wanting to be an author to wanting to tell a story. It changed everything.

Wanting so badly to be an author and to enjoy all of the profession’s benefits (status, relative celebrity, income, etc.) lead me to tune in too closely to current trends and to seek and take the advice of far too many readers and experts. The end result was that I managed to wring out of my writing much of what made my style, voice, and stories unique, and the novels that I unsuccessfully queried lacked the necessary uniqueness to be plucked from the slush pile and to hook an agent. Ironically, I was choking the life and potential out of my own work.

When I began So Shelly, I was determined to complete it my way. The odds of it being agented, based upon my previous tries and the dismal success rates of aspiring novelists, were infinitesimally small. It wasn’t difficult, therefore, to convince myself that, if I was going to fail, I would do so following my own instincts. Clearly, I had nothing to lose. That attitude proved to be freeing for me. By not letting go but loosening my grip on my dream, I felt no pressure. I didn’t need to be an author. I already had a teaching job and life, in general, that was fulfilling and that I loved. As a result of this shift in focus, during the process of writing So Shelly, I had more fun than during the penning of all of my previous novels combined, and I landed an agent and a two-book deal with Random House/Delacorte.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “Imitation is suicide and envy is ignorance.” I think aspiring writers are often hindered by the imitation and envy of published authors (I know I was.). In so doing, they unintentionally sacrifice the very elements that provide them at least a “puncher’s chance”: their individual take on the world and their means of capturing it in their unique voice.

If any of this applies to you, as a writer or in the pursuit of any goal, consider rediscovering the joy inherent in the endeavor that originally inspired your dream by returning to you and finding contentment in the journey rather than the often unreachable destination.

The Glacial Pace of Publishing

For me, one of the most surprising aspects of the publishing process has been the slow pace at which it moves. It was almost exactly eight months ago that I agreed to a two-book deal with Random House/Delacorte; it is almost exactly eight months from now that my debut novel, So Shelly, will hit bookshelves.

One would think in this time in which we have grown accustomed to instant access and to immediate gratification, sixteen months would not be required to take a book from acquisition to publication. The fact is that for many books – especially those driven by events, trends, or celebrity – this timetable is greatly expedited in order to take full advantage of an interest level and/or platform that may come with an unpredictable or limited lease.

Although agonizing at times, I’ve come to appreciate the methodical pace set for the publication of my book. Firstly, it’s vital that we get the first one right if we expect to build a devoted readership. During the nearly five-month editing process, there were several major plot and character overhauls that needed to be performed and countless tweaks and adjustments. A truncated editorial period and the pressure it would exert would not have provided the time necessary to make the required revisions. Secondly, I interpret the publisher’s desire to move slowly as an investment of their valuable time and energy in my book and my career. Clearly, they do not want to take shortcuts that may result in a book that does not present me or them at our professional best. And, thirdly, since my second novel has a deadline a full month prior to the release of the first, this pre-publication period has provided me ample time to work on that second novel prior to whatever craziness will ensue upon the publication of the first (e.g. promotions, readings, signings, etc.).

Bringing the story, which sprouted in my imagination going on three years ago, to market is not as simple as uploading this blog article. The process thus far has required the talents of my agent, my editor and her associate, a copyeditor, and a design team. During the second half of the process the ball will be picked up by the sales staff, production, publicity and marketing, distributors, and ultimately booksellers. Clearly, (bad pun alert!) “A tome can’t be built in a day.”

In the future, I’m sure I will reflect on this period and marvel at how quickly this time passed. Until then, I’ll take the days one at a time and try to soak in as much of the experience as I can.

The Doldrums

The Doldrums is a region of the Atlantic Ocean near the equator that experiences frequent bouts of such calm and light winds that, prior to the advent of mechanical engines, a sailing vessel might find itself, in the words of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, “a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” I reference this geographical anomaly to describe my mental state as I reach the almost halfway point between last fall’s signing with my agent and my debut novel’s pub date next February. The whirlwind excitement of those first months has given way to anxious anticipation; however, I at this juncture, both of those bookends seem a million years distant.

I don’t mean to whine; I know the waiting is a reality in the glacial pace of mainstream publishing. Throughout the editing, cover design, and typesetting processes, I have even come to understand the reasons and wisdom for the deliberateness. This understanding, however, provides little relief for my childlike impatience. I find myself wishing away months; although, I’ve reached an age where months are measured in smaller and smaller spoons, and I should know better than to wish away a moment –much less months. Nor do I for a second under-appreciate the good fortune I have experienced to be allowed this “suffering,” and I am fully aware that many would (many have) given everything to be in my predicament.

By way of update, I’m waiting on a final cover and for the manuscript of SO SHELLY to be set into pages. My editor is insanely busy (as editors always are) with the many other titles she is currently handling whose publication dates precede my own and, understandably, has little time to babysit me, nor do I expect her to do so. Regardless, I’m left feeling as if I and Shelly are getting nowhere fast.

So, in search of an antidote, I’ll throw myself once more into the penning of novel number two and remain on ever-vigilant watch for fairer winds to blow.