Thinking outside the traditional writer’s box

There’s a big debate going on over at Pennwriters right now between those who have been published traditionally and those who aren’t about which writers “should” do.

The old guard insists that if you want to write novels you must get them to one of the five big houses, get the publicity machine and promotion. Of course this means you have to get an agent. If you’re a writer who has tried to do either, chances are 99 times out of a hundred, it’s just not happening.

The old guard then cites the urban legends of authors who just kept sending out until sure as heck, that 101st letter did it. And maybe they did. More power to them.

Over the last year, I’ve been reading a lot about the state of publishing, and indeed about the world of communication in general. Time Magazine did a whole series of articles about publication in the digital age, and their conclusion is that the traditional routes are no longer exclusive.

Lev Grossman’s article says that “Publishers Weekly (PW) predicts that 2009 will be ‘the worst year for publishing in decades.’ A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn’t dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it’s done.”

But at the same time, newspapers are closing their doors, magazine and book publishers alike laying off staff, and paying markets, in the way we have always thought about them, are drying up.

Also at the same time, the whole concept of access to the masses has changed. Once upon a time, you needed to be cherished by Harlequin or Doubleday to even have your book see the light of day, unless you wanted to type out versions on your old Royal typewriter, one at a time, to circulate them. The Internet has changed that game.

Now authors have options. They can self-publish through Lulu.com or iUniverse, or epublishers which pay a royalty for books available digitally, or in print books.

Writers don’t need the fancy publicity tour, either. Authors like CJ Lyons and Christina Katz, aka Writer Mama, do  tours online by guest blogging in as many places as they can. Cost? Your time. The Internet has millions of outlets to reach the people who want your work.

Many professional artists are choosing non-traditional routes to promote work they want to do, and it’s starting to make headlines. Musician Jill Sobule found the traditional music business wasn’t working for her–and didn’t get money in her hands– so her latest album was funded entirely by donations from fans, and giveaways.  Screenwriters like Joss Whedon are thinking outside the box with projects like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, which first appeared on the Internet for free, but only afterward started collecting revenues.

Communication venues like Twitter bring the celebrity even closer to fans.  Time this week has a story about celebrity Tweeting that shows how Shaquille O’Neal, Levar Burton and John Hodgman all use Twitter to connect  directly with regular people. Email and forums bring artists directly to their public, for the kind of one-on-one connection that sells readers, just as it sold Barack Obama to the American people at election time.

So we can all dream about that blockbuster sale, movie rights and New York Times listing right out of the gate. We can even work at it around busy lives of work, parenting and other distractions for 40 years. Maybe some of us will get it.

But in the meantime, don’t you have something to say? Maybe instead we should be out there exploring the new digital publishing world, meeting our readers, and sharing what we have to offer.

Just write it

I’m a lucky writer.

I participate in two writing groups that are very supportive, both at meeting time and after. One is based in a Unitarian church, and the small group is well-meaning and cheerful, though the members aren’t regularly published; it’s mostly people who like to write for themselves. The other is part of the larger Pennwriters group that’s branched off to meet in Erie, and is made up of people who are professionally farther along, and mostly published writers. I’ve been meeting with this group for maybe five years–they were a group before I came along. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we can evaluate new projects in light of these.  Some write and improve the same pieces over and over to bring for critique, working toward perfection; others, like me, tend to work in mass quantities.

As a result, I’ve been able to accomplish my earlier goals, preparatory to making a run at a second NaNoWriMo, completing a full edit of one on my sci-fi novels so I could send it to an editor I met this spring at a conference, as well as sending out multiple queries for my 2007 NaNo novel, since the agent who had accepted it is now having some serious solvency issues. I have two weeks now to edit my urban fantasy, complete with deep gratitude to long-suffering writing partner Jean, who red-penned it (ouch! but it’s necessary) so I can be ready to send it to yet another agent who expressed interest at the conference. I have one novel under review by Harlequin; another by a well-known New York agent, and not one, but TWO Cup of Comfort books coming out in the next year. (More on that when the publicity packs come out.)

So….with the patient understanding of the Cabana Boy and children, who all know I’m a better person when I’m involved in creation, it looks like I’m on track for the chemical-free rush of NaNoWriMo.  Well, except for the caffeine.  LOTs and LOTS of caffeine….

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If you’d like to see a great assortment of pieces on and about writers, come on down to the Just Write Blog Carnival where you’ll find much to interest you, including a piece of mine!

That time of year…again!

That Chris Baty email in my inbox leaves no doubt–NaNoWriMo is almost here!

Each year the folks at NaNo take down the site for a week or so just before new signups, to clean up and clear out the forums. Then October is a steady run of everyone getting their engines ready to roll for November.

For those who haven’t heard, the name stands for National Novel Writing Month. This doesn’t just mean, as might be inferred, that we celebrate people who write novels for 30 days. It means that we get people to write novels IN 30 days. Yes. 30 days. 50,000 words. In 30 days.

It can be done. I entered for the first time last year, and actually wrote 68K on my story before it came to conclusion in that month. As reward, I was able to download an exciting certificate to put on my wall, and the little button there to the right in the sidebar. I was thrilled.

The story went on to be polished and In Search of the Lost Chord is sitting this minute in an agent’s office, at her request. She’s even sent me a contract. I’m not sure the relationship will go anywhere in the long run, but that’s still pretty exciting.

I’ve been ready to write again ever since last December 1. In the meantime, I penned another novel draft, an urban fantasy set in western Montana, because that story was ready to come out before the months had passed. I’ve kicked around a number of possibilities for topics, themes, and plots, and I think I have something I can work with.

The point of NaNo is not to write the Great American Novel–International Novel, actually, because people from all over the world participate–but to write a novel. To get the words down purposefully. It’s a fairly small commitment, 30 days, and inside those parameters, you have your own permission to write the book you’ve always felt was inside you. Maybe you discover you really don’t have it. At least now you know, and you can move on to other dreams to try them out. Or maybe, as I did last year, you can get your story on paper and send it out to find a home.

Even as the excitement grows, my writer friend’s words haunt me: It is fun to chunk the novels out, one after the other, but without commitment to the whole process, editing and sending them out, you’re no closer to publication than before you started writing. For the first time, that fundamental truth is finally starting to sink in.

So I’ve made a to-do list, reviewing five manuscripts I already have that are essentially salable in the current market. I’ve agreed with my NaNo-anxious self that before I can devote the energy to a new piece, that I will overhaul these and send out appropriate queries and copies to agents and editors. That, after all, is the bottom line for me, as I’ve said before: writing for others to read. I’ve begun already, one of my sci-fi novels taking on greater depth as I turn one of the characters a little evil. I like where it’s going. Four to go. I’m hoping that, just as NaNoWriMo spurs people to let that commitment drive them to completion, that my desire to hit that adrenaline shot in November will drive me to get my work out where it needs to be in the next six weeks.  Wish me luck.

P.S. If you’d like to sign up for NaNo and need someone as part of your support team, add me to your list–I’m there as babs1e! I’d be glad to help cheer you on!

Serendipity and blessings

There is no feeling like the one you get when you experience a gathering, be it conference, revival or reunion, where everyone is excited about a topic and all the energy flows in one direction.

Can I get an Amen?

I had expected the Pennwriters shindig this weekend would be exciting; to be surrounded by so many others who love to do what you do is inspiring. But the serendipity of the particular blend of folk who were there went beyond into a real blessing. The fiction workshop was well-drawn and planned by Susan Meier, who read our opening chapters and tailored a session for us, even though most were not writing romance. Melanie Donovan was a delightful and gracious woman, open and friendly, who joined my traveling companion and I for meals and drinks in addition to the actual pitch session. Joyce Carol Oates was dark and mysterious as one might expect, but gave a wonderful presentation and answered questions on all topics from attendees.

I had two editors and two agents express interest in my work and won second place in the non-fiction contest. (Four of us traveled from my critique group, in addition to my award, one took first place in story beginnings, one took third in short fiction, and the other took first in the costume contest; we are a decorated bunch.)

So I’m pretty pumped.

I also scored an interview with SF writer Keith R.A. DeCandido on his series work, which I will do soon, as well as being published by a fellow Pennwriter at the AIR Equation site. That deserves an Amen!

It turns out autism is now becoming an issue in children’s fiction, according to Melanie Donovan. She said she has one book coming out soon about autism, and another where a character may or may not be autistic. So I’m on the cusp here. Let’s hope that these other authors use their characters to create better understanding of characters like our children, and not just as a token to latch onto the latest flavor of the month.

And on that note, one of the sweetest moments of the weekend was Saturday night when I called home to make sure the Cabana Boy was surviving the chaos. The boys were full of exploits to share; Captain Oblivious had gotten his cast off and was thrilled, Ditto Boy had the latest Lost in Space episode to tell me about. Little Miss, however, has never liked talking on the phone. She mumbles or speaks so quietly that she can’t be heard, and bolts as soon as she can.

Except Saturday, when she got on the phone to speak with me, told me about her field trip to the local historical site, her dinner with her brothers, and then said “I want you to come home.”

And for that blessing, my brothers and sisters, I will give witness any time. Amen! Amen! and Hallelujah!

Still walking those streets

“Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.” — Moliere

After the joy that was NaNoWriMo last November, when my family and I agreed I could throw everything into those 30 days and write a novel, I’ve worked on many writing projects, including this blog, in off-hours from real life. This week, I have permission to enter the writing life at full throttle again–and I’m grabbing it with both hands.

Oh yes, there are a few client matters to be handled first, and a round of doctor visits for the kiddies, but those are under control. The real business of the week is the Pennwriters Conference, including the special fiction seminar spanning the day Thursday. Ah, sweet abandon. To be surrounded in a place with 450 others as enamored of this vice as I, to speak of it day and night, to learn techniques and shortcuts and formats, to steep in its heady liquor until–

Whoa. I’m getting carried away already. Sorry about that.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Making connections. When I went to my first conference a number of years ago, I was really a fish out of water. Since then, I’ve met a number of folk of the Pennwriters persuasion either online or in person, so I’m a little more familiar. I’m also published regularly now; then I’d been practicing law a little more full-time. I have spiffy business cards from my Firefox gig. I have a blog and a whole new cadre of friends. I’m an author with a book under my belt and a story in another coming out in December.

I have a literary agent– a new development last week that was VERY exciting. My agent read my NaNovel with the autistic heroine and it clicked with her–because she, too, has an autistic child. Serendipity. Her comment was this: “What better way to encourage understanding than through a fictional and incredibly interesting YA novel?” What better way indeed?

At the conference, I have a PennPal–this means I’ve been appointed as the guide and gopher for one of their celebrity guests, in my case Keith R. A. DeCandido. So I’m excited about that, though I don’t even know where it might lead. At least we can commiserate over the loss of my dear Firefly as we curse the Fox Network over a few drinks.

I have an appointment to pitch my novel to Melanie Donovan of HarperCollins Children’s Division. How often do we get to see a real editor face to face? Everyone knows editors don’t put their pants on one leg at a time! Eeek! I haven’t practiced my elevator pitch yet, but I’m giving myself time to do that this week. Maybe I can get it down to a two-floor long speech.

So yes, I’m getting ready to sell myself. I’m even getting my hair done. But I don’t think I’ll be selling myself short. Wish me luck.

The write stuff

Next month, I’m going to the Pennwriters’ annual Writing Conference. It’s a fairly big deal, some 450 writers, editors and others, our keynote speaker being Joyce Carol Oates, and agents and editors falling out the cracks to find their Next Big Thing.

Of course, I’ve signed up to pitch an editor, attend the critique sessions for opening pages, and meet and greet at cocktail hour. I’ve decided not to sell my book at the Author Tea and Book Signing–no one really wants to be seen buying a book on divorce. I’m also passing the Published Authors’ luncheon, even though I’m entitled to attend. I want to manage my time well, as there’s a lot of ground to cover. I was accepted (one of only 15) in the special fiction intensive workshop on Thursday, so I expect my head will be reeling with all sorts of advice and new ideas.

This will be my second Pennwriters’ event; I also attended in 2004. I’ve been to a dozen smaller conferences over the years, those mostly focused on writing and publishing from the technical point of view, i.e., how to improve your work. These big conferences, according to their promoters’ hype, are for The Purpose of networking and pitching your manuscript to an agent. Many of the people supposedly in the know jabber on about this raison d’etre at great length, and name-drop and practice their pitches incessantly.

Last time, I bought into the hype, terrified that I would do something “wrong.” I was a Pennwriters newbie and only knew a few people from the northwestern Pennsylvania region. I’m not what you call shy, but I’m just not good at professional schmoozing, unlike several of my blogroll comradettes. (Jane and Daisy, you know who you are.) I practiced my pitch, got in with the agent, who sat back, coolly disinterested, and asked me to send the manuscript to one of her fellow agents in her office. Blown away, I did–and of course got a polite rejection letter in eight weeks.

Since entering the blogosphere, I have done extensive reading on the subject of agents, at the Writer’s Digest site, and others, and what I’ve discovered is that although conferences are the place where most would-be novelists may have their only opportunity to meet an agent or editor face-to-face, that most agents and editors are not using that interface to select manuscripts and clients. Editors are reading blogs. Agents are reading synopses by email, saving time and paper. While networking is always important–you never know what connection will click in the future–the conference pitch is not the be-all and end-all some believe it to be.

So, I’m spending my energy looking over the delicious workshop list, choosing what will be valuable to my development as a writer, and what will refresh my spark. My critique partner Jean and I are traveling and bunking together, so we’ll probably divide and conquer, gathering twice as much information for our time.

I found, last time, I received as much valuable information from nameless writers sitting at the bar or those casually eating boxed lunches, and from speakers who didn’t remotely write the same genre as I, as I did from the so-called “big guys.” I hope I can return the favor for others.

Wayne Dyer says, “Just as we’re all students throughout life, we’re all teachers. In fact, we learn best by offering what we desire for ourselves to as many individuals as we can, as frequently as we can…..Following this line of thinking, it’s imperative that we make deliberate effort to increase our inspirational energy, as this will lead us to being both a spiritual learner and teacher simultaneously.” Here’s hoping that by working together, we free our spirits to express those stories within us.

Why do we write?

Some people write for themselves. Their journals or dark poetry or rants help clear their heads and remind themselves where they’ve been.

Some people write because it’s a job. They’re technical writers or copy writers, and they churn out words in response to demand to advertise or explain the topic of the day.

Some people write because Mrs. Cowan in 10th grade lit made them do it. Ugh. Another essay on Great Expectorations. (And yes, we used to call it that. Along with the other fine American classic, Ethane Chrome. Ha. Science majors are so funny. )

Me? I write because I have to. Some small voice starts nagging at me as the wisp of a plot coalesces in a shadowy form, growing as characters emerge half-constructed from the miasma. They, in turn, draw lines of tension, which stir the cauldron of story line, that then marches inexorably on to spark the final climax and denouement.

Like now. I’ve got the next story leaking out. I’m taking notes on scraps of paper at the office, next to the bed, on coffee filters, just so I don’t forget this urban fantasy, a takeoff on the Cinderella story. But I can’t work on it. Not yet.

Three other writing projects stand in the way: the first, the final edit of my new YA (that’s Young Adult, for the neophytes) novel so I can submit it for possible publication; the second, a review of a book forwarded to me by WolfPirate Publishing, where I’d like to be published one day; and last, commentary on a YA novel currently being penned by my 17-year-old niece in Chicago. And then there’s the continued sucking hole that is the blog, whispering “you have to write againnnnnn…” every couple of days.

That’s the problem. I write for others to read. I need others to devour my words, collaborate with me, share the journey, make comments, enjoy the experience. So it follows that “the writing” is not enough. I must then make the effort to get the writing out into the world for the Others. The blogosphere makes that pretty easy. I have an average of 50 people a day who come by and see what I’m babbling about at any given time. (And I’m grateful. I am.)

But for poetry, short stories and novels, it’s a little harder. No. It’s a lot harder. It’s a huge effort to find an agent or editor to even consider your work. For every 50 letters you send, you might get someone willing to look at some chapters. Even good work gets passed these days because of the vagaries of the market; you need to catch the particular reader at the right place on the right day, or you’ll miss out. But you have to send the letters if you want the chance to get your words into the hands of Joe or Jane Reader. So I’m sending them. A few at first, but maybe 20. Or 50. Or 100. If I really believe in the worth of the manuscript, I should be willing to go to the mat. Maybe Editor 101 is the right one. Maybe not.

Either way, it gives me fodder for reflection here and a goal to work toward. After all, that spare eight minutes a week is calling.

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This week’s carnival event is the Moms Blogging Carnival