Lois Lane, Here…

Life as a world-renowned journalist will continue later this morning when I go interview another Crane Festival organizer and wildlife biologist. I hope this time I remember to take the questions with me. She’s a person I’ve met before — on the golf course on skis. I liked her.

Yesterday I worked on the article, integrating my last interview into the structure of stuff I already have. Some basic information has to go into that piece, but as I transcribed the interview I took last week I realized what my job is; it’s less about informing people as it is about exciting people.

What a cool job description! “Write a story that makes people excited to see Sandhill Cranes.”

When I was talking to my cousin on my birthday I learned that he’s written a book. It would be his second. As he talked about what he’s doing (getting editors, having it read, etc.) I thought but didn’t say, “Tom, there are no guarantees.” I did say, “Wonderful!” And somewhere in there I said, “The most important thing about writing is that you do it and enjoy it.” But really I can’t speak for anyone but me there. He could have heard that in a lot of ways — one as me trying to cushion him from disappointment, but, I was just speaking from my experience.

Sitting here with all these independently published books I feel differently about THAT than I might have felt 20 years ago. Independently published books are not (necessarily) “second class” or “not as good as,” not at all. Usually (in my experience) they are just different. The big difference is in audience, not the quality of the writing. IF these authors had sought “conventional” publication and had not found it, it would have been, in most cases, because the book they’d written would not have an audience. The publisher wouldn’t sell many of the books he’d paid to produce. That’s the major factor in the decision to take on a writer’s work. Logically so from a business perspective. The moment I understood that for myself, I knew what direction I would have to take. It’s a self-knowledge thing, I think.

Well, that said, and none of it new, I’d better get ready for my gig… Here’s Stephen King’s advice for wannabe writers. The only points I agree with unequivocally are #6, #8, #11, #14. For me the other points are matters of personal taste and style. Some people are quashed by a “daily writing goal,” for example. I have no idea where the word for today, “coddle,” was supposed to go in here; I had an idea when I started, but… OH well.

Write the Book

My post yesterday about the books I read for the contest had some undesired repercussions, so I took it down. Here’s the deal.

Why might someone write a book? They might have something to say. They might have had an experience they want to share with others. They might have a great story to tell. They might have a collection of poems or short stories they want to put in one place. Some people set out to write a bestseller. Some people need outside validation. There are myriad reasons, as many as spiderlings in a nest, but ultimately it’s because the writer wants to. I think, if you want to, do it.

Writing a book is a great experience.

As for what I’m doing now? I’m judging a contest. I’m not judging the writers of the books I’m reading, but the books against each other. It’s a foot race. Someone is going to be the fastest. It’s true that some writers (or their publishers) spend a lot of money on the finished product, but I’m not judging that. It’s one small line in my rubric, and that regards whether or not the book design interferes with the readability. A pretty egalitarian bar right there. The rest of the criteria have nothing at all to do with the book’s appearance, and none of them have anything to do with what someone else has said about the book.

I have entered contests such as this. Martin of Gfenn was short-listed for one, and My Everest “lost” in the other one. Contests are expensive and completely optional. I was encouraged to enter The Price in another contest, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to go to the trouble or expense. By the time I wrote The Price I understood fully why I write and why I care about writing well and neither has anything to do with winning a prize (though some of the prizes are GREAT!). I wrote The Price because my Aunt Dickie had written me that she hoped I would keep writing that story “about my mother’s family.” It’s only tangentially about my grandmother’s family (in the 1700s) but my Aunt Dickie loved the other two books (13th and 16th century) that are very tangentially about our family. I started the book, lost the thread, got the letter, started again, my Aunt Dickie died, and I finished the book — for her. Is it good? Yes, very good. Would it win a contest? That would depend completely on what else was entered in the category. Yeah. That’s it. “The fastest runner in the class” is not necessarily the “the fastest runner in the world.”

The real and lasting prize is the pleasure of writing the book, the poems, the stories, of working on them until they are as good as they can be. The second best prize is someone who reads it and loves it — and tells you.

I don’t know if any of you remember the 90+ year old man in Seattle who started buying my notecards a year or so ago, with whom I have become friends. He wrote his life story for his grandkids so they could know that it was like growing up in Del Norte in the 1930s. Seriously, who cares? They don’t. I do. I really wanted to read it, so he sent it to me with a few rueful words about his family not caring. Well, I had parents from his generation and ONE of them couldn’t shut up about her childhood and the struggles of her family. I got so I stopped listening, and maybe that’s the story here, but I don’t know. Anyway, he sent it to me. I was disappointed that it’s only 6 double-sided pages long.

In the “olden days,” there were no publishing companies as we know them. Publishing basically meant printing and the company that undertook the printing of a book took on some of the financial risk, but often the author or sponsors of the author paid for the publishing. Often the author took his/her books around to bookstores “Here, sell my book for me and keep X%? Do we have a deal?” Books were also sold at book fairs. Over time publishing became the business of booksellers — the market driven book trade. There’s a lot more to the history of publishing, and I don’t know it, but the advent of indie publishing has, in a way, returned the publishing business to the author and smaller publishers — academic publishers, regional and local publishers, etc. Indie publishing is NOT vanity publishing which — thank goodness — is less present and pernicious than it was in the past.

I, personally, think the person who “knows they have a book in them” should write that book, and, if they want, they should see it as a book.

Anyway, I never mean to discourage anyone from writing their book. It’s an amazing experience — a learning experience, an experience with inspiration, a transformative experience, a writing lesson, it’s just a great thing to do.

The book I was referring to in my post yesterday was The Story of the Stone or Red Chamber Dream by Cao Xueqin written in 1779. Cao wrote that he had no motive in writing the book (which is very long) beyond entertaining himself in hard times and possibly entertaining his friends who gathered to hear him read. It was illegal to write novels in Manchu China, but who would know it had been written if the novel were never published? I have loved Cao’s reasons since I first read them in the early 80s. He had no ambitions of building a name for himself with his novel; in fact, it was better for him if the novel remained secret. Imagine, writing something as beautiful and true as that novel is JUST FOR ITSELF. Wow.

Or, as Emerson wrote in The Poet: “Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say ‘It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity. Nothing walks, or creeps, or grows, or exists, which must not in turn arise and walk before him as exponent of his meaning. Comes he to that power, his genius is no longer exhaustible. All the creatures by pairs and by tribes pour into his mind as into a Noah’s ark, to come forth again to people a new world. This is like the stock of air for our respiration or for the combustion of our fireplace; not a measure of gallons, but the entire atmosphere if wanted. And therefore the rich poets, as Homer, Chaucer, Shakspeare, and Raphael, have obviously no limits to their works except the limits of their lifetime, and resemble a mirror carried through the street, ready to render an image of every created thing.”

Or Wilco sings… ❤️

A new way to self-publish! Stories About Dogs, Nature and Wildlife — Wild Sensibility

I love dogs. I also love how my dogs have interacted with nature and wildlife over many years, helping me observe so much I would otherwise have missed when we venture into the wilderness. I have so many stories. And photos. Even a few videos. I decided to create another Kindle Vella. An e-book in […]

Stories About Dogs, Nature and Wildlife — Wild Sensibility

A chapbook?

I expect this to be live April 7. I’ll post the link when it is!

I decided to collect my little poems into a chapbook. I didn’t even know for sure what a chapbook was even though, back in the day, all the poetry MFA “kids” in my graduate program in English at the University of Denver went on about them at potluck dinners saying things like, “Yes, I hope to have a chapbook ready by the end of the quarter.” It all sounded very precious, so I ignored them reverse-snob that I am. Basically it’s just a small book that holds one chapter of a longer work or enough poems to fill 40 pages. I guess it was the way they said it… Oh well…

I put the poems together for my dad who died 50 years ago and wanted me to be a poet when I grew up. So… I guess this means I’ve grown up. 😄 Most of the poems are about nature and dogs (who knew?) The title is also explained in the book.

It will be for sale on Amazon April 6 or 7 for $5.25. I will make a whole dollar in royalties. Silver dollars would be cool, but I don’t think it’ll work that way.

It was a fun project to design. It has a couple of photos but that wasn’t my first idea, just as I worked today to finish it up I thought, “Hmmm this needs a picture and so does this,” so there are two photos.

The Writer Reads Again

Yesterday, in the anthologies I evaluated for the contest, I read a couple of pretty haunting stories.

Because the category of “anthologies” is so all-encompassing, they can be anything. They are difficult to evaluate because, unless they’re thematic anthologies with stories or articles around one theme, they come through to the unknowing reader (which would be me) like a random assortment of stories which is what they are. They demand I be flexible as a reader — and I am, up to a certain point, but we all have our breaking point.

I recently won first prize in a contest that leads to just such an anthology. Unfortunately, I forgot to put the party on my calendar so I didn’t go. AND after years of submitting stories and having them rejected, now when I submit stories I forget about them. But it was very cool to get a little note in the mail with a check enclosed.

Well, I have a few more anthologies to wade through this morning.

I have come across a couple of amazing books. If you’re planning a trip to Rome, I have never seen a better more interesting attractive and complete tourist guide than the one I read yesterday. Rome Keys to the City — The Astute Traveler, Patty Civalleri. It made me want to go. I also read a very intriguing book about the famous Parisian Cemetery which shelters the remains of Jim Morrison and even greater lights, Pere-Lachaise Cemetery. City of Immortals.


Marvel of the Modern World

Not really all that long ago I went to my first ever – well, OK, 12 years ago – writers conference. I had my doubts about it — it was to be my first real foray into the world after my first hip surgery in 2007. I was apprehensive (which I’ve learned is normal after a joint replacement). I might not have gone, but I felt the need to challenge myself, the conference was in town (San Diego) and I had paid. A couple of my male friends were there — both aspiring writers, both talented.

Ahead of the conference, I had done everything I was supposed to. I had a flyer about my book (Martin of Gfenn). I’d set up three interviews with agents. I’d found a couple of sessions I thought I might learn from.

The first was packed, and I had to stand outside the open door while an agent — one of those I was scheduled to talk to later — complained about the sheer number of manuscripts that were sent to her. “You don’t know what that’s like,” she whined.

I was a writing teacher. I knew EXACTLY what that was like and I had a vision of this person lying in bed sipping gin and eating bon-bone and opening manuscripts and tossing the ones that didn’t “grab” her in the first sentence. I hated her. I didn’t have that luxury (or the gin and bon-bons) of tossing those essays that didn’t “grab” me in the first sentence. I had to read every damned thing all the way through and then GRADE them and face the possibility of being yelled at by the kid who got a (god forbid) B!!!

I walked away, grateful I hadn’t been able to get into the room. But, I’d also signed up to have lunch at this woman’s table. When that moment arrived I sat with 9 other aspiring (and, in a couple of cases, groveling) writers and I saw that the gin was possible, the bon-bons unlikely and that she was a woman in her fifties in the early stages of burnout. Everyone burns out, I believe. When I met her in the interview, my assessment proved correct. She talked to me about the challenges of raising a teenage son alone. We didn’t talk about my book at all.

Another session that I attended that day was a woman speaking about “self-publishing.” Publishing books online was in its early infancy then. Putting a book together and publishing it was an expensive and challenging process. This woman had not gone the route of “vanity publishing,” which is where you pay someone thousands of bucks to publish your book so it looks like a “real” book. She’d done the work herself. This woman had written a couple of kids books and they were bound like theses or dissertations. Her big thrill was that they were BOTH in her local library. She was a retired school teacher and it had been her life dream just to write a book and have it in a library.

I felt a strange sense of superiority that day when I drove home. I can’t explain WHY. Of course then I thought, “Well my book is so good SOMEONE is going to publish it and I will become famous and NOT have to self-publish it and beg for it to be put in a local library.”

The next several years were — wow, a huge challenge. Sometime during the struggle of regaining my financial footing after ejecting the Evil X and battling the Great Recession, I discovered LULU and its self-publishing platform. I don’t think Amazon had built its platform completely at that point, anyway, when I tried it, it was cumbersome compared to LULU’s. I thought, “What if?” and I built my first book. It was fun. That book is/was Free Magic Show and it’s just a collection of stories and thoughts. It was a marvel to me that I could do that.

Meanwhile, somewhere in there, I realized, thanks to the tutelage of Truman Capote, Martin of Gfenn was an over-written, repetitive mess. That’s when my life as a “real” writer began. I understood that I owed my effort to my work. I still studied HOW to reach an agent, but the advice I found seemed random and impossible. Every agent wanted a different thing, partly because the whole process of submitting a manuscript was changing. It took a while for online submissions to become “thing,” and submitting a manuscript required a lot of paper and postage. I have saved one of those manila envelopes with the pricey stamps. It’s been very interesting living and working in this moment of time — crossing the bridge between the “old” days of paper manuscripts and the “new” days of electronic submission.

Now, I think, it’s really up to an author what they want from the experience of writing a book. For me, the biggest part is love. I have pretty much abandoned the process of soliciting agents. I know it’s not going to happen, and I no longer regard it as failure on my part — though I did. There’s a certain freedom in “failure,” and that is no external entities (readers, agents, publishers) have any expectations of me. There’s no, “Hey we need another of those dog books,” for example or, “You write science fiction. What’s with this leper? You’re going to lose your audience,” or “We need seven chapters by October 1.”

This entire argosy has taught me that — for me — the reward of writing a book comes from writing it. Designing the book at the end of the process is the cherry on the sundae. Twelve years ago at that writers conference, I could not have imagined being here now.


Publish WHERE???

Everyone (thinks they) know everything. Since I’m not one of everyone, I keep trying to find things out.

I was reading a blog post on IndieBRAG about why I shouldn’t publish books using Amazon because bookstores hate Amazon. I should use Ingram/Spark. So, I went to see about that and found incredible complexity. Since I was up most of the night with an upset stomach, most things are too complex for me right now. I can see, though, they might be a good platform with a few more options, but… I wondered about Amazon’s “expanded distribution” which puts books out there where Ingram puts books. I wasn’t sure so I found a Youtube video about this and a young, bald, bespectacled talking head yammered at me from a position too close to the camera and never answered the question. Why is it so many people who make Youtube videos do that? Why is it so hard for them to get to the point?* Anyway, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know. The books end up in the same conduit where libraries and bookstores can order them if they want to.

I need a proxy to do this stuff for me, to make these decisions and learn all this stuff continually because I’m not into it. I tell myself that I don’t care if people buy my books, but it’s only a half-truth. I do know that I’m not sitting here today trying to figure out another publishing platform. I don’t know what I’m doing (tired, still a little funky in the stomach) but I’m not doing that.

*I have the same problem with TED talks, except for the too-close to the camera part. 😀 Probably the price I pay for not being an aural learner, but stronger on visual and kinesthetic learning. I focus on people’s faces and what they do rather than hearing their words.


Rambling Discourse on Self-Publishing

I’d be lion if I said I have something to write this morning about lions. I don’t. More of a tiger person, myself.

Yesterday I got the idea of looking at some of my short stories, many unfinished, and that’s consuming me until I get the proof of the China book back from my editor.

This is the fourth book my editor, Beth Bruno, has helped me with. Long, long ago when I first wrote Martin of Gfenn and was submitting it to agents, I got a response. The agent had written in Magic Marker, big black letters, “Get an editor.”

I honestly didn’t know what he meant. I thought that was what you got after you got a publisher. It took fourteen years or so for me to “finish” Martin of Gfenn by which time the agent thing was moot. I published it. I sent it around. Then… I looked at the published book and saw it was rife with small errors of the type someone like me would never, ever, ever see. Savior was (I thought) finished, but I was afraid it was also fraught with errors. I went online to find an editor and I found Beth.

I found others at the same time and contacted several. I ended up hiring Beth because she presented herself in a straight-forward manner, and her commitment seemed to be helping writers write THEIR boosk rather than writing HER book through someone else, if that makes any sense. Many of the editors I found did not seem to have the professionalism or detachment Beth has. Her references were good and supported my perception of her.

It was expensive (for me) but it was worth it to me. Since then, Beth has helped me with three books. Now that she knows what she will be getting from me (a finished manuscript that doesn’t need a lot of development assistance) it’s more affordable for me, and we have evolved into a team. We work using the comments and changes feature on Words/Pages and by phone. With the China book, she was especially helpful in reminding me that I was writing about a world most people have not experienced, and I needed to clarify terms, ideas, moments, cultural details so others would know what I was writing about.

Working together on the China book has been great. After she finished the work specified in the contract, she offered to do a final reading of the finished project, something she’s just completed. We both love the project, I guess.

I was also thinking last night that initially I considered self-publishing (Indie publishing, has that phrase caught on?) to be failure, something you did when no one wanted your work because it wasn’t marketable for any one of a number of reasons. I still feel that way, but I also understand that a work not being marketable might not mean it’s a bad book, poorly written, or uninteresting. It just means that there’s no agent who feels they can sell it to a publisher because there’s no publisher who sees a market for your work. The market isn’t the arbiter of quality, just what people will buy.

Over this evolution I read a lot of best-selling historical novels that I would be ashamed to have written. I learned that I have an intrinsic sense of what makes a good book and that sense is sacred to me. I also realized none of this really matters. I understood this when I saw that just because I couldn’t find an agent, I would not stop writing. I also learned that I enjoy the process of putting a book together. For a brief moment I had a publisher for one of my books — The Brothers Path. That experience showed me the compromise that would be involved if I went “legit,” so to speak. And then he went out of business, and I was able to do my book myself. Disappointed, but…

Recently, The Price garnered an IndeBRAG Medallion. I’m happy and proud because that means all three books in that trilogy get to wear that badge. It also meant I could combine them in a single book and sell it at a lower price.

The president of IndieBRAG messaged me that she loved the cover of the The Price and asked who’d done it for me. I wrote back that I’d designed the cover for that and all my books. She was surprised. But I think it’s fun to figure that out; what images tell the story?

I still wish that there was an agent who saw the possibilities for my books, but the process of submittal got to be really grueling and my attitude toward it shifted from one of hope and possibility to, “Who the fuck are you to sit in judgement on my books?” That shift began at a writer’s conference in which an agent complained about having manuscripts to read. Really? That, Sweet Cheeks, is job security. Another wondered if the leprous hero in Martin of Gfenn got married and had children at the end. Over time, I encountered this again and again and realized that I’m just not on the public pulse. Can I go there? I don’t know. I don’t think so, even though there are a lot of good books out there that ARE on the public pulse.

Do I still feel that self-published books are “failures”? Yes, in a way. But a bigger failure would be allowing an external notion of success to stop me from doing what I love.


Reflections on My Recent Virtual Book Tour

IndieBRAG graciously invited me to write a post for their blog on my recent experiences with a virtual book tour for The Brothers Path. Overall, the experience was a mixed bag and quite (for me) expensive.

As I put together the post I came up with things I wish I had known and questions I think might help any author decide if a virtual book tour will help sell their book and will be worth the investment.

SO…if you think you might be about to self-publish your work and you want to sell it and you’re in a conundrum about how best to invest your (limited) funds to the best advantage, my little article might be helpful, at least give you something to think about.