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

Little Victories

Little Victories

Love Amazon (the Internet mega-store, not the river) or hate Amazon, it has become quite possibly the most influential player in the publishing industry. From the monolithic, Big 5 publishing houses to the plucky, self-publishing writer/dreamer, Amazon is the goddess to whom we all must supplicate ourselves in order to earn her favor and an invitation to her online temple. There are few brick-and-mortar bookstore chains left, and the ones that survive are on life support. Independent bookstores are following the sad and narrow path of local record stores. They both occupy a cool but mostly nostalgic niche in their respective industries. Those who are old enough to remember the bookstores’ heyday will certainly miss them, but those who have and are coming-of-age on the Internet will think of them in the same way I think of drive-in movies – meaning not at all. Just as I effortlessly and happily stream my movies to my television rather than drive to a theater, an ever-increasing number of readers will download their books to their eReaders rather than make a trip to the bookstore. As for me, I’m not the nostalgic type. I say the King is dead; long live the King.

I have had the good fortune of traveling both routes to publication: traditional and independent. Each of these routes ultimately ran into the mighty Amazon. Under the traditional model, I initially loathed Amazon, believing its pricing severely reduced an already slim profit margin for the author. Ultimately, I recognized the hypocrisy of my position, for although I condemned Amazon’s squeezing of authors’ profits, as a reader, I was benefiting on the other end and purchasing books at much more affordable prices. And, as a lover of literature, I want to support anything that puts more books into more hands.

Now that I’ve independently published GOODNESS FALLS, I’ve come to see what a friend to underdog writers Amazon is. The simple fact is that without it, the vast majority of self-published authors would never have lived to see their dreams come true through the traditional publishers if Amazon had not cleared a path. Who cares that much of what is self-published is fairly amateurish? Don’t be such a snob. Childhood dreams are coming true! Who is hurt by self-publishing that anyone should give a shit about? Yeah, the traditional playing field is being a little bit muddied, but it’s also being leveled. The book market has been truly freed from the control of agents and editors who have long enough acted as self-appointed gatekeepers. The party isn’t being crashed so much as being taken to the streets by upstart writers who refuse to take “No” for an answer and, instead, turn to the reading public as the arbiter of what deserves to be read. What could be more democratic.

As for “Little Victories,” over the little more than a week that GOODNESS FALLS has been available for purchase, it has danced in and out of the “Top 100″ YA Sports Fiction Books” in one of Amazon’s many bestselling lists. It doesn’t sound that impressive, and to be honest, it isn’t. But, it is something for a book that has no support from a big publisher’s publicity department. The coolest thing for me is that it has frequently been on that list right next to various books by Matt Christopher, who was my favorite author as a child (“Catcher with a Glass Arm,” “Crackerjack Halfback”) and who initiated my love of reading by fusing my love of sports with fiction. That alone has made publishing GOODNESS FALLS well worth it.

GOODNESS FALLS is available for purchase: http://www.amazon.com/Goodness-Falls-Ty-Roth/dp/162287529X

Validation!

http://www.amazon.com/Goodness-Falls-Ty-Roth/dp/162287529X

My decision to break away from the traditional model and publish GOODNESS FALLS independently was further validated this past week, when I received a very complimentary letter from an agent who, clearly unaware that I had already moved on and despite praising the novel and my writing talents, had determined not to offer her representation. Her decision reflects the reality that quality is often not the prime determinant of whether a book makes it to market; rather, it is regularly trumped by novelty and trendiness. This is no revelation, but it is an argument for a writer who believes in the quality of his/her work to pursue an alternative course to publication. But what reinforced my choice was the length of time it took this agent to make the determination to reject the novel. It illustrates one of the reasons that many authors are moving away from the old model: it just takes too damn long. In a world that is constantly accelerating, the traditional publishing process continues to churn at its long-established glacial pace so that in addition to the months/years an author has already spent writing must be added what is typically an eighteen-month process of cover design, editing, copy editing, promotion, sales, etc. before, if it is lucky, it lands on a shelf in a bookstore.

The aforementioned agent is one for whom I have high regard and with whom I would love to work. She is, however, part of a monolithic structure that in its reluctance to evolve is inching slowly – ever so slowly – towards extinction. As a case in point, let’s trace my history with this agent. I originally contacted her early in 2013 with a standard query. Upon her request, I immediately provided a partial manuscript based upon which she requested a full manuscript. In September, she responded enthusiastically to the manuscript and offered some very insightful critiques and asked for a revised version. By Thanksgiving, I had rewritten the entire novel and returned it for her perusal. Then . . . nothing. I didn’t hear from her until last week. By which time (after only beginning the process in January of 2014), I had author’s copies of GOODNESS FALLS already in hand. Remember, even if her recent rejection had been an offer of representation, it would be some time in 2016 before the novel would be released. For some books, that may not be a problem. SO SHELLY, for example, did not require a rush to market because it is based on past events. Although GOODNESS FALLS addresses a number of timeless and universal themes, its plot is driven by the issue of sport-induced concussions, which is currently a hot topic in the zeitgeist. Right now, it has resonance. By 2016, however, the issue may be played out or, better yet, resolved. If I didn’t want to simply toss aside what has been years of work on this project and chalk it up as a near miss, I had little choice but to take the route of independent publishing. Other than a small percentage of superstar authors, legacy publishing fails to meet the needs/wants of its authors and, ultimately, readers.

Although, I have not ruled out a return to the traditional model for the right projects, it would be difficult to surrender the control and freedom I have discovered in the process of bringing GOODNESS FALLS to market. If I’m able to continue to carve out a niche and please my already-established readership, that will be more-than-enough to have made the experiment worth it.

Zeitgeist and GOODNESS FALLS

Zeitgeist
One of the most difficult realities for writers is that much of a book’s potential for being picked up by a publisher and subsequently finding an audience has little to do with the quality of their writing. Countless are the writers who receive effusive praise from agents and editors alike who sing the praises of the author’s manuscript yet choose not to take it on, explaining that it just isn’t “the right fit.” It is a completely justifiable reason for rejection. After all, both agents and editors are in the book SELLING business; they are not merely munificent purveyors of art.

The vast majority of books lose money for their publisher. The ratio often quoted is somewhere around one in ten. The one that succeeds typically either mirrors or forces itself into the ever-fluid cultural zeitgeist. In other words, it fits. Zeitgeist. It’s a silly sounding German word that means “the spirit of the time.” I like to define is as “what’s on people’s minds” and/or “what people are talking about.” For example, zombies are entrenched in the current zeitgeist (The Walking Dead, World War Z, etc.), as are anti-heroes (Walter White, many of the heroes of Game of Thrones, the nerds of Big Bang Theory), and dystopian series (The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.). The zeitgeist, however, is fickle, transient, and quick-to-change. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to write to the zeitgeist. I may be making an unfair assumption here, but I believe it’s a little more doable in the music world, for example, to tap into the zeitgeist and respond in a timely fashion, as the process of conceiving of, writing, performing, producing, and distributing a three-minute song is much more compressed than writing a novel.

This reality was the most significant deciding factor for me in choosing to publish GOODNESS FALLS independently. I have no qualms with traditional publishing other than its glacial pace for moving a book from date of acquisition to its launch date. I had several agents interested in the novel, but it was clear that the rewrite, pitch, and publish process was going to be a long haul. For some books, that is no big deal, especially when they, like all of the best ones do, confront universal ideas that always have been, are currently, and always will be of interest and resonance to people of all places. Some books, however, are more time-sensitive than others, more responsive to and reflective of the current state of things, and in danger of irrelevance if not hurried to market. The best of these also have compelling plots and their themes aspire to universality, but the incidents/issues that the author utilizes to hook and engage readers are time sensitive and in need of immediate availability.

Such was the case with GOODNESS FALLS. The major issue of the story is repetitive traumatic brain injury, a condition suffered by the story’s main character, a high school football player. There are several youth sports (not just football) that I sincerely believe we, as a society, need to reexamine the value of and, at least, make a reasonable judgement on the side of safety regarding what risks with our children’s health we are willing to consider acceptable. I hope GOODNESS FALLS can help raise awareness of the devastating consequences of traumatic brain injury and bring people to the table to discuss what can be done to lessen its occurrence in youth sports. Due to several high profile cases in professional sports, the issue is currently in the zeitgeist, yet I fear that those with vested interests (typically financial) in maintaining the status quo will move to quell any outcry that threatens those interests, and the novel will be ignored.

I hope to reach a day when a story like GOODNESS FALLS will have little-to-no-relevance to the lives of young people and the adults who provide them care. Today, however, is no that day.

Butterflies in Reverse

???????????????????????????????
My favorite band, The Counting Crows, have a song called “Butterfly in Reverse.” The telling line in the song says, “Marianne, you’re better than the world.” This line and the song’s title remind me of so many of the seniors I teach and the young adult characters I create who are “better than the world” they’re about to enter.

Eighteen years earlier, they emerged beautiful and innocent into a world whose toxicity slowly dimmed their colors, tamed their natural flightiness, and turned them into “butterflies in reverse.” Despite good intentions, too many of us – meaning parents, teachers, coaches, churches, politicians, media – have failed so many of them. We’ve trapped them in nets and pinned them to boards by imposing on them our own limited visions of their potentialities, our own failed hopes and dreams, and our own ignorance and prejudices.

In my novels, I find myself repeatedly creating teenage characters who are victimized by the adults in their lives: parents who involve themselves too much or too little in their kids’ lives; teachers and coaches who use student/athletes for their own self-aggrandizement or worse; institutions and companies that profit off of the dreams and accomplishments of young people who are not fairly remunerated for their efforts; and the many of us who use them for our entertainment without proper consideration paid to their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Below, I’ve inserted a very cool recitation of the lyrics to “Butterfly in Reverse,” written by Adam Duritz and Ryan Adams, being performed over the music to the song “Fallen Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

I know that raising, teaching, and working with young adults isn’t easy. It’s what I’ve done nearly every day for the past twenty-nine years. I also know that we have no greater responsibility and that, as a whole, we can do better. At that age, they need adults who guide, foster, and facilitate rather than those who use, demand, and indoctrinate.

“Can I Graduate?”

Third Eye Blind asked the question above in their song “Graduate” (It’s linked below.). I’d emphatically answer, “No!” I’ve long had this theory that no one ever really graduates from high school. The triumphs and tragedies of our time there remain etched into our psyches for as long as we live. In fact, most of us just take our high school personas into the adult world, so we still behave like and run into bullies, wallflowers, jocks, eggheads, freaks, cool kids and nerds at our jobs, amongst other parents at our children’s sports and activities, at the clubs to which we belong, and even, one day, in the nursing home.

This has come even more abundantly clear to me since I entered the publishing world, where authors regularly size up one another and make value judgments based on a variety of factors, primarily genre and sales. For example, despite being one of the few genres to consistently increase in popularity and earnings over the past decade, young adult authors are typically viewed as somewhat “less than” authors of adult novels; even though, the audience for YA novels is actually comprised of a large number of full-grown adults. The coolest of kids in the author hierarchy are those high earning and best selling authors/celebrities who land keynote speaking gigs at all of the best book events and who go on publisher-financed book tours and command long lines of fans during their book signings and readings.

After the release of SO SHELLY with Random House, I found myself in the purgatory reserved for “mid-list” authors, the land of so-so; not good, not bad; fair to midland; meh! Although well-reviewed and good enough to earn a number of honors, the novel didn’t earn out its advance. I believe that, like nonconformists in high school, SHELLY struggled because she was different than the majority of YA novels. It wasn’t paranormal. It wasn’t dystopian. It wasn’t maudlin. Based the lives of three literary giants, it wasn’t much like anything else in the YA genre. Sometimes being different can work for you in high school or as a writer, but sometimes you just don’t fit in anywhere.

The lowest of the low, the un-coolest of the kids in the world of published authors (I found this out first hand like Lindsay Lohan in MEAN GIRLS by actually being temporarily part of the cool clique.), are the independently-published authors, who have the audacity to crash the party. I mean, who do they think they are?! They weren’t even invited. I was surprised by the condescension toward and disgust directed at them by many of the traditionally-published authors at the various book events I attended, and I must admit that I melted under peer pressure, played along, and did nothing to contradict the petty loathing. But, Karma, like high school, is a bitch.

Since I determined to independently-publish my second novel, GOODNESS FALLS, I’ve found myself whistling a different tune. I could have been patient and waited for an agent to bite; several were close and one wanted the novel but with revisions I just couldn’t make. But I had a story I believed in and didn’t want to wait (The traditional route to publication is so slow!), even if it meant losing the long distribution reach of a big publishing company. Besides, I had their reach with SHELLY, yet she didn’t fly off the shelves and only remained on them for a few months before being replaced by the next season’s selections. At least, GOODNESS FALLS will get seen, and if it’s good enough, I hope positive word-of-mouth will market it better than some stretched-too-thin publicist at the publishing house. It it’s not good enough, at least a good number of my family, friends, former students, and the audience I built with SO SHELLY will have had a chance to read it. I’m cool with that.

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 Do LeBron James and Self-Publishing Have in Common?

Until now, I’ve put off throwing my two cents into the debate regarding self-publishing. I’ve hesitated because, frankly, that penny jar is already overflowing. However, in the wake of LeBron James’s recent decision to take his game to South Florida, I recognized a similarity to those who abandon their dream of attracting a mainstream publisher and choose to self-publish.

I’d like to say I’m not judging either James or self-publishing writers; however, that would be a lie. The fact is that I am judging both of these choices. As for James, and it has been pointed out many times, any future glory he may gain in winning championships with the Miami Heat will be tainted by the reality that he didn’t earn it as much as he purchased it. The indisputable fact is that he failed in the attempt to elevate his game and his Cleveland teammates to a level deserving of an NBA championship. Then, instead of persevering in his original and noble pursuit, sadly, James’s desperation for validation as one of the all-time NBA greats (which, rightly or wrongly, is measured by titles won) motivated him to “sell out” and to travel what he perceives to be an easier road to a ring.

As for the writer who surrenders the dream of winning an agent and a publishing deal with a mainstream publisher, he commits the same error as James. In desperate pursuit of recognition as a published author, he hires a print-for-hire publisher, who delivers the books but little of the glory. As James too will discover, should he ever win a title in Miami, the self-published author wins little of the respect he desires and will, most likely, spend more time justifying the legitimacy of his “achievement” to skeptical followers and to himself as he will spend relishing the attainment of the goal. For, in fact, the original goal was never reached.

I have many other objections to self-publishing. I also concede that legitimate reasons for choosing it do exist, and the very occasional self-published title does meet with success. For me, however, I never considered it, precisely for the reason I’ve already outlined. There simply is no glory in it. I chose either to publish according to the rules of mainstream publishing or to fail nobly. To my great fortune, despite over four years of meeting with constant rejection, I persevered, threaded the needle, and earned a two-book deal with Random House/Delacorte. Should I sell fewer than one hundred books, I sincerely believe I have met with a satisfaction that the exclusively self-published author will never experience. Just as LeBron James will never know the sense of accomplishment felt by Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, and many others who earned their rings the right way.