Embracing ignorance

I entered my first marathon as a favor for a friend. He wanted to surprise his girlfriend by running one with her, but he needed a training partner.

I was fueled by ignorance.

I didn’t train enough. I wore shoes made for running 5Ks. I knew nothing of protecting myself from chaffing and other long-distance injuries. My legs were leaden pegs when I crossed the finish. My toes bled through my sneakers (I eventually lost nine toenails.). I was so sore in the days after that even driving was difficult.

Still, I finished the 26.2-mile route in less than four hours, pretty respectable for a first-timer.

I wrote my first novel the same way. I knew nothing of novel writing. I had too many primary characters in the first draft. The pace in the first half differed from the pace of the second half. I edited as I wrote, which slowed me down. It took me six years to write my first novel, and I spent another two years revising it.

Still, it was a semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, respectable for a first novel. It remains my favorite and it has been the favorite of two literary agents. I have shelved it for another look at a better time in my career.

I credit ignorance for my success in completing that first novel, the same kind of ignorance that carried me through my first marathon. I believed all through the writing process that novel would sell, and I became more firm in that belief when I signed with my first agent. I even told the kids we would celebrate its sale by buying a Wii.

A year later, my husband and I caved and bought them a Wii anyway.

For first-timers, the novel-writing process can seem daunting and the goal, unachievable. The greatest obstacle is self-doubt and the greatest feat is pushing through that doubt to cross the finish line. So why not allow them that ignorance? Why clue newbies in on the perceived impossibilities?

Let them write. Let them make mistakes without knowing they are mistakes. Let them cross the finish line just once with pure joy, unaware of the bleeding toes, chaffed skin and torn muscles they acquired along the way.

I had started my next novel before I knew the first one wasn’t going to sell immediately, and that was a good thing. I had learned from my mistakes and inefficiencies. The next novel took two years to finish and that is a pace I feel comfortable with at this stage in my life, with young children to raise and elderly parents who need me.

I recently signed a contract with Black Opal Books for that second novel, a thriller entitled No Stranger Here, and for the two novels I wrote next, which are part of a mystery/suspense series. I am happy with my work and thrilled by the contract, but I’m not sure I would have made it to this point without the gift of ignorance that first time around.

I ran five more marathons after the first one. I trained smarter and ran faster for the second two. For the last two, I focused only on finishing injury-free, relying on my previous experiences as a guide. I ran a few minutes slower than my first marathon, but I finished without lasting pain and was able to hit the roads and the track again two days later.

I loved it.

I stopped running marathons when I started my first novel. The two decisions were unrelated, influenced by other factors in my life, but I am not sure I would have succeeded in one without the experience of the other. Marathon training prepared me for novel writing, but it was ignorance that got me hooked on both.

 

 

 

Authors: Don’t quit your day jobs

A friend once confided in me that he was nearly finished with his first novel, but that he was keeping it secret from his co-workers. He planned to quit when the novel sold and earn a living as an author.

He was young, optimistic and enthusiastic.

I didn’t want to crush his dreams, so I said nothing.

We all believe we will defy the odds, and maybe we will. Maybe my friend’s novel will earn a huge advance, the movie rights will sell immediately and the never-ending sales of licensed t-shirts, trinkets and video games will keep his coffers full. Then, maybe the second novel will take off, too.

But a new survey from the Authors Guild, the largest of its kind, suggests otherwise. The Authors Guild, in cooperation with 14 other author organizations, collected surveys from 5,067 published authors who are U.S. residents about their 2017 earnings, and the picture it paints is rather grim.

The median incomes of all published authors (This includes part-time, full-time, traditionally published, self-published, and hybrid-published authors) was $6,080, and that’s not just royalties. That figure includes money earned from freelance writing, speaking engagements, teaching — anything writing-related.

From books alone, authors earned a median income of $3,100.

But those figures include everyone.

Here is a more specific breakdown:

  • Median income for full-time authors for all writing-related activities: $20,300.
  • Median book-related income for self-published authors: $1,951. (That climbs to  $10,050 for self-published romance and romantic suspense writers.)
  • Median book-related income for traditional authors: $12,400.

These figures do not include the 25 percent of all published authors and 18 percent of full-time authors who earned no royalties on their books in 2017.  Yes, that happens. Books often take a long time to write. In a year without new publication, it is possible to earn nothing at all.

It’s not all bad news though. The highest paid authors in 2017 still did well:

  • Traditionally published: $305,000.
  • Self-Published: $154,000 

But that is for just one year. It is possible to get a large advance from a publisher for a book, and then never make anything more. A writer’s income is rarely consistent, which is another reason so many writers need day jobs.

Does that mean my friend should give up his dream? Absolutely not. Most of us write because we have a passion for writing. It’s in our blood. If we can make money doing what we love, even if we still need to hold onto our day jobs, why shouldn’t we?

We can also work together to improve the situation for each other. We can share ideas on marketing and promoting books. We can join organizations like the Authors Guild, which advocates for writers by keeping them informed and providing access to free and discounted services.  We can promote the love of reading and writing in our communities.

Maybe I should have warned my friend about the financial status of the industry, awakened him to the reality, but I was selfish. I wanted him to enjoy the ignorance a little longer. I learned these things piecemeal, beginning in my college days, and each time a bit of industry news got me down, something else pulled me back up — a published short story, a friend’s success story, a contract offer from a publisher 17 years after starting my first book. (Yes!)

I want that for him.

A career as an author does not make financial sense, but a trip to a local book store is evidence that writing is about more than the money. All those authors. All those books. They happened anyway. He will find out soon enough, or maybe he already has, but I still expect to see his name on those shelves someday alongside my own.

 

 

 

Inside Sing Sing


I had expected a journalist’s tour when I visited Sing Sing Correctional Facility in July, the kind where I’d meet hand-picked inmates; visit only clean, curse-free cell blocks; and encounter corrections officers who were instructed to wear only their sternest and most focused expressions.
But this was a tour for mystery writers and no one seemed concerned we would rush back to our laptops, type up secret memos crudely written on napkins and passed to us by inmates of the maximum-security prison with stories of mistreatment, conspiracies or trumped-up charges, and then publish them, inciting public outrage.
I had no responsibilities and no power to persuade.
My status as a fiction writer gave me freedom.
It was a relief.
I came to Sing Sing seeking the realism that is critical to good fiction, and I got it.
Well, okay. So they didn’t open the doors to the isolation cells, take us through the psych ward or allow us to fan out in the recreation yards to mingle with the inmates, but I’m cool with that. And I fully understand the presence of Superintendent Michael Capra throughout our tour led to a wee bit more politeness than we might have experience on our own.
I’m cool with that, too.
With so many imposing gates locked behind us and in front of us, it was comforting to know we were accompanied by a man who could make the inmates’ lives even more hellish should they attempt anything at all.
Like many Sing Sing newbies, I got lost trying to find the entrance to the prison, which is located in Ossining 30 minutes from New York City. I was steered to the huge sage-green bars that protected the main doors by two kind strangers who lived in Sing Sing’s shadow. Its cinematic appeal is immediately obvious. The prison, with the skeleton of its oldest buildings mixed among its newer, yet still quite ancient facilities, sits on a hill overlooking a wide section of the Hudson River.
It would make an excellent site for a plush resort.
Our group of 20 members of Mystery Writers of America stood outside chatting until the officer at the gate had taken each of our licenses through the bars and then admitted us a few at a time. We emptied our pockets (I had to give up my gum! Apparently gum is useful for disabling locks.), stepped through metal detectors and got our hands stamped with that invisible ink that shows only under ultraviolet lights.
Sing Sing, New York State’s third oldest prison, is home to about 1,600 inmates and most are serving time for murder. With a ratio of one correction officers for every 60 inmates, they don’t mess around. Yet, despite the intimidating atmosphere, three inmates in green jump suits were allowed outside the gates to haul boxes down the steps we waited on. They were cautious and respectful, and the officers who oversaw them did so with a wary kind of trust.
As I watched them, I understood they were probably among the minority – the inmates unlikely to return, the ones who took advantage of college and vocational programs in hopes of succeeding when they are released. About 95 percent of Sing Sing’s inmates will someday experience freedom again, Superintendent Capra told us. That gives them hope, which is an important motivator for better behavior. The biggest challenge for Capra and the staff is getting inmates to recognize and embrace that hope so they never come back.
The superintendent began our tour with the auditorium and worship areas, where Sing Sing offers rooms for people of any and all religions. Like much of the prison, the auditorium is made of aging concrete and the rooms lack good ventilation. It feels and smells of an old, leaky basement, a good reminder that the people who worship there have major sins to address. Many years ago, an inmate lured a female officer to the adjacent chapel with a false phone call, the superintendent told us. The inmate raped and killed her where we stood.
Another good reminder.
Next, we toured the 88-cell honor block, where the cells are unlocked for most of the daylight hours and inmates can wander outside to work out, play volleyball or garden; play games or read on the picnic tables in the hallways; or venture to the basement to cook meals or do laundry. They also hold jobs and sometimes do paperwork for administrators.
The aroma from the basement was enticing as we descended. An inmate was making some kind of spicy pasta dish with food he’d bought from the commissary. Further down the hall, two inmates were doing laundry just steps from the shower area, where, unlike in the rest of the prison, inmates can sud-up behind curtains, enjoying a little privacy.
As the superintendent talked with the group, I chatted with an inmate about cooperation among the honor block residents, how they help each with laundry and meals. A corrections officer, with a hint of panic in his expression, ended the conversation after just a few minutes. Despite my curiosity, a part of me was grateful. Twice during my 11-year journalism career, I was lunged at by inmates, and both times it came out of nowhere.
It was good to know the corrections officer had my back.
The honor block, where feral cats feed out of dishes placed in the stairwell, can be deceiving. As Superintendent Capra reminded us, it is home to only a small percentage of inmates who have proven themselves over the years. Their living quarters are in sharp contrast with A block, where inmates stared down at us from four tiers of 8×10 cells (600 cells in all) either still locked up for the noontime count or on their way to lunch, cramped on the fenced-in catwalks that couldn’t have been more than about eight feet wide.
My plotting mind imagined what it must be like for a corrections officer, carrying only a baton (Guns are not allowed inside.) who must walk from one end of the catwalk to the other while the inmates are moving out of their cells. Corrections officers never know when they might get punched, slashed, spit on, covered in urine or hit with feces. One-third of the officers are females, who have other issues to deal with. It is not a job I covet, but it is a job I greatly respect, even more so after seeing first-hand the crowding on those walkways.
Our walk-through ended with an indoor recreation area with a basketball court, gym equipment and tables for gathering and playing board games. Days are divided into three parts for inmates. They must be active for at least two of those parts, working jobs for money toward commissary purchases, hanging out in the recreation yard or attending classes. No baggy clothes allowed during recreation. It’s too easy to hide weapons in clothing or blend in after an incident. No milling around in large groups either.
Then we talked about what we didn’t see – crisis intervention teams that track gang formations, counselors who wander among the inmates to study the culture and keep threats at bay, the inmates who are liaisons to the administration, offering ways to keep their fellow residents busy and out of trouble while also relaying expectations to the general population.
The superintendent treated us to lunch afterward in the administrative building and shared his views on the portrayal of prisons in fiction, both on screen and in print. For the most part, he said, the job of a corrections officer is not all that exciting, so he understands we have to spice it up a bit. Quite a bit. Historically, administrators have cooperated with groups that want to film at the prison.
He’s unbothered by it all.
But I found the reality truly intriguing and full of potential.
When the prison gates closed behind me and I stepped into the sun (with my gum once again tucked into my pocket ), my mind began swimming with possibilities – plots, characters, motivations, settings, the works – all stemming from what I had seen, felt, smelled and heard. The real stuff. Unspiced. Fresh in my mind.
Reality.
That’s what suspends disbelief.
That’s what elevates certain novels above the rest.
I’d most certainly gotten what I’d come for.

Oops. I grew as a writer, but so did my waistline.

Four months ago, my husband bought me a Fitbit.
We live in a large house with three levels on lots of land in the country.
I was sure I’d be racking up those steps in no time.
Instead, I looked at my wrist after a long day of writing, transporting children to school and to various activities, making dinner and putting kids to bed to find I’d walked only a little more than 3,000 steps.
Experts recommend 10,000 per day.
It was quite a shock for a formerly obsessive runner with six marathons in my past, but it forced me to face reality.
I’ve completed three novels over the past five years and I’ve gained an average of ten pounds per novel. (That’s on top of the pounds I’d kept after giving birth to my twins eight years ago.)
Writing wasn’t the only distraction from my health (We moved, built a new house, and our aging parents grew more dependent on us.), but it has been a big one.
And I know I’m not alone in this.
I’ve watched several writers grow with me during this same time frame. Some of us have ramped up our writing to distract ourselves from the painfully slow submission process. Others are newly published authors under pressure to get the next novels out.
We share an insatiable passion for writing, but we have one other important thing in common.
We are all parents of school-aged children.
It makes sense. When we parent-writers look at our priorities, we often find our own health is the easiest thing to put on the back burner. Our health affects no one but ourselves in the short run and we honestly believe the priority shift is just temporary.
We’ll start eating better in a month or so.
We’ll go back to the gym after the holidays.
We’ll get more sleep once this latest project is completed.
But that time never comes.
The months pass as do the years and, as the pounds accumulate and the muscles whither, it gets harder and harder to muster the enthusiasm required to shed the weight and rebuild strength.
Writing is my passion.
It’s my past and my future.
It’s my greatest priority next to my family.
But those numbers on my wrist made me realize writing would have to share that second-place ranking from now on.
I miss running.
I miss being healthy.
I miss the way my clothes used to fit me.
I want to keep up with my kids.
So I started by focusing on my step goal.
No more nonstop writing.
Nowadays, I take breaks.
I walk our quarter-mile driveway to the mailbox. I walk the trails on the property. I walk the country roads. I walk laps around the playground while my youngest kids play. It’s 2 p.m. now and I’m at nearly 5,000 steps.
My efforts have paid off. I’ve stopped gaining weight.
But that is not enough.
My daughter is running on her school’s cross-country team this fall. She needs to build her endurance and I vowed to help her. To do so, I need to lose weight and get back in shape again. So, a few weeks ago, I started doing five minutes of floor exercises every other day and jogging a bit on my walks.
Last week, I ran a mile with her at the track and even did a little speedwork.
I jumped roped for ten minutes a couple of evenings and I swam half a mile the other day at the YMCA.
It’s too soon to see any results on the scale, but something cool happened last night.
My husband and I were talking as we walked the quarter-mile hill that is our driveway at a fairly brisk pace. I realized as we neared the top that I wasn’t short of breath. Not at all. Not even a teensy bit.
That had never happened before.
The feeling that overwhelmed me was much like completing the first quarter of a new novel. I know I have a long ways to go toward my goal, but I feel motivated. Invigorated. I feel like this is going somewhere and that each step brings me closer, just as each paragraph brings me closer to the end of a novel.
My productivity as a writer has suffered, but not nearly as much as I’d feared.
I’m fine with that because when I do finally get published, I’d like to be healthy enough to enjoy the royalties.

A business revived; a passion reignited

Life was crazy when we made the decision to move from a Cincinnati suburb to rural and mountainous North Central Pennsylvania.
It got even crazier after we moved.
The older kids were nine and ten, and starting a new school for the first time.
We did our best to make it extra challenging.
We live in Pennsylvania, but we placed them in a neighboring New York State district. We pulled them away from the Museums Center, The Cincinnati Zoo, Kings Island and Newport on the Levee, relocating them to a place where the nearest mall was fifty miles away.
Then we gave them tiny rooms in a house with bats, a furnace that struggled and no air conditioning.
They needed me.
The twins were less bothered by such aspects of the move.
They loved the house, their rooms and the neighbors.
But they were three and, as adorable as they were, they were trouble.
They darted outside and in different directions whenever they got the chance. They used their fists, teeth and feet to relieve their frustrations with each other. They were impossible to discipline, yanking each other out of time-outs, tipping over high chairs when I tried confining them with the chair’s buckles, and screaming in unison when they didn’t get their way.
They were (and are) loving and good-natured, but they had caught the independence bug and they were on the move.
Constantly.
I’d left all my babysitters behind, so there was no one to take charge of the kids while I slipped away to Panera or Starbucks or a charming cafe to work on the next novel. In reality, there was no place to go anyway, no place with wifi, coffee and a corner table.
Only a deli that closed as night fell.
My husband did his best to help, but he was frequently on the road for work.
Something had to give.
That something was my online retail business, Exclusive Writer Gifts.
Financially, it was a minor blow, not even a scratch, really.
The business didn’t net much, probably because I didn’t advertise much. It was something I started, with my husband’s help and encouragement, out of love and kept fueling out of love. It helped me keep a foot in the grown-up world, and it distracted me from the sometimes-depressing realities of my quest for traditional publication.
Money was not the object (though it was, most definitely, appreciated).
But there was no room in the house anyway for the note cards designed by my sister-in-law and printed by my brother-in-law, or the mugs and pens I had made especially for the business by Cincinnati businesses, or the scale or boxes or biodegradable packing peanuts.
We packed it all away and trucked it to the storage unit and my mother-in-law’s barn, where we kept our overflow.
In time, the older kids adjusted and flourished, declaring they never wanted to go back, except maybe for a visit. They learned to appreciate their surroundings and their small-school atmosphere. They started to feel at ease in my husband’s hometown, where, they learned, they are related to more people than they can count.
Every year, the twins became easier and easier to handle. They started to grasp consequences and they became eager to please, an excellent combination. They also started school, which gave me more time for my writing.
But last year was the big year.
Last year, we realized a dream.
We built what will be our final house, a timber-frame hybrid with air conditioning, a new furnace and no bats. All the kids’ rooms are the same size: big enough. My husband and I each have an office and, we even have room for guests.
We no longer needed a storage unit or space in the barn, so we started moving the boxes we hadn’t opened in nearly five years.
Just before Christmas, my husband lugged a case of coffee mugs inside.
Then he brought the boxes and the note cards and the envelopes.
We dug more until we found the scale and everything else I had packed away, all the remnants of Exclusive Writer Gifts, and that was when it hit me. The craziness had evolved into calm. We had plenty of room in the house.
I could bring the business back to life.
So I did (Well, WE did. I couldn’t have done it without my techie husband who designs websites for fun, keeps inventory on Excel sheets, and creates templates for shipping labels, receipts and all sorts of other things.).
Exclusive Writer Gifts is reborn, and so is my enthusiasm.
My goal is to offer moderately priced gifts for writers that givers can’t get anywhere else, gifts writers can actually use and enjoy. I’ve started with a small inventory, but I plan to add another item or two each year.
I still won’t earn much.
Writers don’t earn much and, often, neither do the people who love them (many of whom happen to be writers themselves).
But that doesn’t worry me.
I have two novels under submission with publishers, another novel under review by my agent and a fourth entered into a contest. This writing and publishing thing is a game of patience, and sometimes we writers need a distraction beyond the next novel.
This, for me, is it.
I’m distracted, I’m excited and I’m having fun.

Make-up-free selfies: Why breast cancer awareness undermines the movement

My sister is a recent survivor of stage-four breast cancer, her second battle with the disease in eight years. During her chemo treatments — after she’d traded her hair for scarves — she experienced an awesome show of support from the staff at the elementary school where she works.
They all wore scarves or hats in her honor.
She was overwhelmed.
With those scarves and hats, her coworkers showed they were thinking of her, that they understood every day she came to work was a struggle and every day she missed work was a disappointment. The hats and scarves were symbolic of the strength, love, prayers and positive energy they offered.
Now imagine that, instead, they all showed up without make-up.
Let’s face it.
There is a reason we feel both brave and vulnerable posting make-up-free selfies. Like it or not, we judge books by their covers, especially female books. It would be awesome if the make-up-free movement helped women become comfortable with our natural selves (I know I’m not.), and if society would become more appreciative.
But here’s the trouble.
These particular selfies are not posted in an effort to affect change. Rather they are intended as a show of support for those less fortunate than us in terms of their health. We wear no make-up to bring ourselves “down” to their level, the level of people who are suffering and fighting.
We, as a society, do not accept the “natural look” as inherently beautiful. We clearly do not accept it ourselves as evidenced by the fact that we consider posting such a selfie a “brave” act — a challenge we present to others.
It’s done with a gulp and a “Here it goes!”
The intent is, no doubt, honorable.
But here’s the message we unconsciously send to those battling breast cancer: “You look like crap, so I’m going to make myself look like crap to make you feel better. See how brave I am? I am even willing to look like you.”
I have not quizzed my sister about her feelings on this topic, but I’m pretty sure she would have been overwhelmed in an entirely different way had her female coworkers honored her by wearing no make-up. And if she cried that day, I’m fairly certain hers would be tears of a different kind.
I’m not opposed to make-up-free selfies in general.
Not at all.
In fact, I have nothing but praise for author Laura Lippman who started the movement after an actress was heavily criticized during the Oscars for looking like herself. Laura posted a natural selfie and encouraged other authors to follow suit in an effort to take down some socially created barriers. Built self-confidence. Help females authors support each other.
It worked for me.
With my novels current under submission to publishers, I’ll admit that the potential for post-publication photographic attention makes me nervous. I can’t help comparing myself to photos of those always-gorgeous looking authors who seem to confident, so put together.
Then I saw this slew of selfies.
I learned that many of those women looked different without make-up, but not in a negative way. The lack of make-up drew my eyes to their smiles, something I had never put much emphasis on previously. They made me smile inside.They made me realize these other authors are just as real as I am.
And that was an awesome feeling.
They were brave to post those selfies, but brave for a different cause.
They were brave in an effort to create change.
While I am absolutely certain the intentions of those who post make-up-free self portraits are honorable and that the posts show an admirable level of braveness and humility, breast cancer awareness or support is just not the right reason.
Do it for yourself.
Do it because it feels good to be free.
Do it to free woman like me who have not yet found the courage.
Do it because you believe it shouldn’t require bravery and because you want that to change.

Writing for … glamour?

I emailed an author a while back for information about her experiences with a publisher who was interested in one of my novels. She insisted I call her immediately and sent her phone number.
The reason for her urgency?
Apparently, the publishing world had deceived her.
Authorship wasn’t glamorous at all, she said, and she suggested I get out of the novel-writing business before I suffer similar disappointment. Her advance was small, her sales were slow and she wasn’t becoming famous.
What?!
It took me a while to respond.
First, I thought she was joking.
Then, I thought she must be insane.
Finally, I realized she was quite serious.
So, I laughed.
It never once occurred to me to pursue fiction for celebrity status. Nor did I ever consider the profession “glamorous.” I expect to spend every penny I make on my first published novel (and then some) promoting it, so I certainly am not anticipating wealth.
Where did this illusion come from, I wondered?
How could someone who managed to write a novel, find an agent and land a publishing contract remain so ignorant to the business for so long?
So I started paying attention and this is what I found:
Novel writing has its celebrities: JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James are rolling in cash. What so many people fail to recognize, however, is that most of their money comes from movie options, movie royalties, etc.
They were popular writers before their novels became movies and probably made some admirable amounts of cash, but glamour struck when their novels hit the theaters and their incomes reached seven to ten digits.
In fact, many of their fans are not even avid readers.
Take the woman who excitedly told me someone had entrusted her with the ending of a Harry Potter film he was working on. She was thrilled to have such privileged information. Giddy, even.
Little did she know everyone who’d read the series was already privy to the end.
Unfortunately, the attainment of millionaire or billionaire status is not the norm among authors, though many sell movie options (the exclusive rights to a film production company to someday make a movie of the novel if ever they feel like it) for perhaps $100,000 or so per novel.
Success like JK Rowling’s is probably one in a million, if not more.
But those are the writers we hear about.
Those are the stories we know.
Add to that the magic of social media, and forces behind the misconceptions quickly become clearer.
Search for “author” on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, any of those sites and face-upon-smiling-face will appear. Promote, promote, promote. That’s the buzz word in the writing world these days.
A self-published author with sales of ten can appear to be a celebrity simply because he or she has created that illusion via social networking, web pages and blog tours. What looks glamorous is often the result of a ton of effort and, sometimes, loads of money, on the authors’ parts.
All this was starting to make sense to me.
I was beginning to understand the star-stuck author.
But then came the kicker: House Hunters International.
I rarely watch television during the day, but I was sick the other day — can’t-get-off-the-sofa sick — and I needed something mindless to occupy me. So I chose House Hunters International, intrigued by the fact that its focus on a crime fiction writer.
According to the narrator, the husband gave up everything to follow his wife to Australia, where she had an opportunity to promote her novels. That was the first thing struck me as odd. Why move to Australia to promote her novels?
Couldn’t they just visit?
Next, I noted they were leaving behind a 7,500-square-foot home in Texas.
Then, they set a budget of up to $4,000 for rent.
On a writer’s salary?
Surely, I must have heard of this woman.
I researched her, figuring she was someone famous who had slipped past my radar.
Nope.
She published her novels through CreateSpace, a self-publishing company and a choice many writers make who want full control of their work. Her novels are far from best-sellers and I’d never heard of her.
So how could they afford this?
After further research, I found an article from an Australian newspaper. According to the interview, she and her husband were leaving Australian because his temporary job appointment had ended. She had sold 1,000 of her six novels overseas, for a total of what?
Maybe $3,000 in two or three years?
Surprise.
The producers had lied, further enforcing the illusion that writers live glamorous lives and make tons of money.
Here’s the truth.
I know many glamorous writers. But they are not glamorous because they sold a bunch of novels, made a ton of money and are recognized in supermarkets worldwide. They are glamorous because that’s who they are.
They are kind, charming, witty women and men who write with passion, not with dollar signs in their eyes. They are personable, helpful and accessible. They love their readers. They love their art (though who wouldn’t mind seven-digit checks for doing what they love!).
The woman I called didn’t have that.
And I doubt she ever will.

Writers as book club members: Is it even possible?

When we first moved to rural Pennsylvania three years ago, a few well-meaning folks suggested I join a book club to get to know like-minded people.
I thought about it … for about two minutes.
While I would greatly enjoy the wine (What’s a book club without wine?) and the socialization, I know I would be a lousy and annoying member.
I cannot think of a novel I have read in at least the past two decades without an edge of criticism, and it’s not the kind of criticism other readers would want to hear.
It’s sentence structure.
It’s word choices.
It’s how well and with how much artistry the author has suspended my disbelief.
It’s logical flow of plot and voice.
It’s pacing.
It’s whether the facts are right (because, yes, a good author strives for accuracy even in fiction).
While other members reach for deeper meaning, I can imagine myself reaching for a red pen.
So my question is this: Am alone in this?
Can writers succeed as book club members?
Or should we just skip the criticism and stick with the wine?
Do you, as a writer belong to a book club, or do your book club have a writer as a member?

The Rejection Generator Project: if only I had known

I remember too well the sting of those first rejection letters.
I thought I was prepared.
Fellow writers had told me I’d be swimming in them before I got my first contract offer from an agent.
So I cleared a wall for their display, a means of confronting rejection head-on and with pride.
Still, it hurt.
But it hurt only the first few times.
After a while, I became numb to automatic rejections and I learned the value of the personal notes, which sometimes came with feedback. I even came to miss them when I finally signed with an agent nearly three years ago, eagerly searching my inbox for strays.
I have since parted ways with my agent and returned to the hunt.
I knew I would have to endure those early stings again, so I steeled myself and fired away the first few query letters. I waited weeks, sometimes months, never knowing when I would open my inbox and read those words that pierced my heart and soul.
Too late, I learned it didn’t have to be that way.
I could have been rejected on my own terms with the negativity self-inflicted, expected, hard-hitting from the start. I could have beaten myself up five times in one day and gotten the whole thing over with, numbed myself immediately instead of waiting, waiting and waiting..
I could have — no, I should have — used The Rejection Generator Project.  
I will tell you no more.
Check it out.
Spare yourself.
Be warned though, it can be addicting even for those who already have agents or publishers. 

Sniffling gets you nowhere

To pass the time while waiting for the next round of cuts in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, many of us 500 quarterfinalists chatted on an ABNA online forum. A common topic was whether we would be upset if we made it no further.
Most of us agreed that we’d be thrilled regardless.
Our novels had been selected from a pool of up to 10,000 first-time novelists. That earned us critiques of our excerpts from two Amazon reviewers and, we would soon be receiving full manuscript reviews from editors at Publishers Weekly.
The reviews alone, we said with skin thicker than armadillos, were worth it. We couldn’t wait to read the critiques from Publishers Weekly, we wrote. And most all of us agreed that harsher was better. What good was a pat on the back? We wanted to know how to make our novels better.
Bring it on, Publishers Weekly editors.
Bring it on.
So they did, and virtual lips started quivering.
Not all of them.
Most folks took it well and vowed to move forward.
But the volume of the sniffling few hurt my ears.
One woman wanted to throw in the towel because, amid all the compliments, a reviewer wrote that her novel suffered from disorganization. Gee. A disorganized first novel? Writing takes skill and talent. Organization is simply hard work.
My advice to her?
Get working.
Disorganization is fixable.
From what I read, every criticism by the Publishers Weekly reviewers focused on an issue that could be addressed: organization, depth of characters, pace. Now I didn’t read them all, but I didn’t find any that bashed a writer for lousy writing.
A successful writer needs thick skin and an open mind. And, for that reason, I have a feeling that the loudest of those rejected and dejected contestants will never be successful. That’s a shame. They had some good stuff there.
My own review was everything I had hoped for.
Before entering the contest, I had shelved Spring Melt for further revisions. Too much back story, especially in the second chapter, I figured. I had wanted to rip those parts up and incorporate the same information more smoothly and at a faster pace throughout. But I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing.
Then I saw the announcement for the contest. Entry was free and, with each round of cuts, contestants got more reviews.
Why not?
With the first cut, I learned that my pitch (the general storyline) and my first 17 pages were good enough to attract professional attention. That was, for me, the validation I needed that my novel was worth my time and effort.
(As the rejections pile up, you start to wonder, you know?)
On April 15, I learned that I did not make the semifinals, where the field was trimmed to 100, but I did get that Publishers Weekly review last week. That single paragraph consisted mostly of a well-written synopsis.
But, in that paragraph was a one-sentence gem.
A precious one:

“At times muddied with flashbacks and digressions, this is still a solid story with believable characters and a pleasant and surprising resolution.”

Those words –“muddied with flashbacks and digressions”– were the words I was looking for. That meant that I was on the right track. That meant that If I could just resolve that issue, I would probably have a pretty good book on my hands.
I wasn’t just guessing any more.
Now I have to admit that my skin is not thick all over. I’m more like a well-frozen river. I’m super thick-skinned in most areas of criticism, but my skin gets dangerously thin in those few areas where currents run fast underneath.
I’m human, afterall.
But the folks at Publishers Weekly knew just where to skate.
My lips didn’t quiver. I didn’t start sniffling. I didn’t throw any towels.
I did, immediately and with renewed enthusiasm, started tearing my novel part.
So thank you Amazon.
Thank you Create Space.
Thank you Penguin.
And thank you friends, family and strangers who posted encouraging reviews.
I lost.
And I feel good.