All my life I wanted to be a writer.
By now I probably qualify, because I have two books published under different pen names (the one you don’t know about is an extremely geeky science book, so never mind that one), and because I write full time (counting editing, publicity and teaching as well as actual writing of manuscripts).
What I thought it would be like to be a writer is different than the reality, for better and for worse. That’s no surprise; everything we imagine that becomes real has a texture and taste of its own, like the difference between looking at dirt and falling down and tasting it.
I once harbored the illusion that the words “rich” and “famous” always go with the word “author.” Experience has disabused me, at least in part. One friend with many books under his belt and all kinds of critical acclaim is working behind the counter in a bookstore to make ends meet. On the other hand, another friend sold a million copies of her very first book. I am tempted to say, “go figure,” except that I know too much about both of them to do that.
The first friend is a curmudgeon who seems to enjoy pissing people off. I think he’s great and I learned a lot in a class I took from him, but my opinion isn’t universally shared, partly because he spends a lot of time dissing other writers on social media. He’s all about anti-networking, and some folks love him for it.
The second friend is a natural born marketer who Skypes into book clubs to answer questions, has tried every single marketing angle on Amazon, takes meetings with everybody, and while she takes no shit from anyone, builds alliances wherever she goes.
Yet at first sight the biggest difference between them seems a lot like luck. My friend who sold a million books self-published her novel on Amazon when that was first happening. When her marketing skills led to initial success, Amazon showcased her as one of their early lead authors and gave her all kinds of free publicity, to show other writers what was possible. Meanwhile my other friend, the one who works in the bookstore, mocked self-publishing bigtime until it was too late to ride that initial wave. They say that fortune favors the prepared mind, and you know it’s true. Even so, not everyone who prepares their mind sells a million copies of their first book.
I’m pretty sure that, although they live five miles apart, these two writers have never met. Keep them in mind as I describe what this writing life is like for me, and then we will craft a moral, Aesop-style.
I published my second book, Aphrodite’s Pen, with a midsize publisher, and I did not use an agent. Those are two big decisions that I made that seemed simple at the time. I met someone from North Atlantic Books at a writing conference, mentioned the book I was writing, and she said, “Cool, call me.” I did!
The other big decision I made on instinct was not to use a literary attorney, even though I had no agent. Instead I read all the free advice from literary lawyers that I could find online. Each one provided different information that writers need, in hopes of attracting clients. I paid nothing for all that legal expertise. Was that a smart choice? I can only tell you:
- My contract for this book was a lot better than the contract for my first book;
- I compared contracts with another friend whose first novel is coming out this month, and who was represented by an agent, and her contract was no better than mine (in my non-lawyer opinion); and
- I did get an advance.
So maybe this decision was OK. Would my advance have been bigger, had I used an agent? Big enough to cover the agent’s fee? Alas, life is not a controlled experiment.
I had concerns about the first cover design my publisher suggested, so I ran an informal focus group to give feedback. The upshot was a new cover that the focus group, the publisher, and I were all happy with. At the same time, I was making major edits of the manuscript in consultation with the publisher. And I was soliciting back cover endorsements from writers whose work was related to mine. And on top of all that, I was working a full-time consulting gig.
I did not go to the gym much during that phase. I knew that was a bad idea. Something had to go, and what went was the consulting, even though it was lucrative. Casting myself adrift on a sea of Social Security and a bit of investment income, fingers crossed for future earnings on books or more consulting later, provoked some lingering anxiety.
There is a point before you are finished with a book when you really wish you were. It’s a bit like the third trimester blues, when you can’t sleep and you’re sick of being pregnant and you just wish the baby would be born already. Other writing projects look so inviting. A trip to the dentist has more appeal than that last round of edits. Nevertheless, you persevere. And one day you are done.
There is nothing like the thrill of getting those boxes of writer’s copies in the mail (yes, I negotiated for two cases in my contract). I suppose everybody compares the moment when you hold your book in your hands to the thrill of holding your baby when it’s born. The difference is, beautiful as it may be, your book does not react to you. The reaction is delayed and comes in the form of reviews and sales. And audience response to your readings -- which you, as the author, get to arrange yourself.
Do you remember the old-fashioned book tour, arranged by the publisher? Somebody to meet you at the airport, wine and dine you, and deliver you to the appreciative overflow crowd at the venue? Well, that was then and this is now. I did lots of networking with bookstore folk, who are generally lovely people. A bit territorial, though: Don’t expect to line up a reading a few miles away from another venue where you’re scheduled to appear.
But there is a different kind of tour: The virtual tour. No matter what your book is about, there are bloggers and e-zines and podcasts tailor-made to showcase your book, and those electronic venues yield far more sales than readings at brick and mortar bookstores. My publisher has been extremely helpful in lining up those possibilities. Which is fabulous, because that kind of publicity goes everywhere and stays online forever. It takes writer time and commitment, though, especially during the first three months after publication. I did a slew of writing that was not for a new project but rather on publicity for my book.
And that was challenging because my new manuscript, a screenplay, has a hard deadline. Brilliant Charming Bastard is my main project for 2020. I will turn the script in to Meryl Streep’s The Writer’s Lab in March, and then expand the script into a novel that I will either self-publish or give to a publisher in the Fall. Publicity for Aphrodite’s Pen is still going on, at a steady pace (including an interview for CrunchyTales Magazine that is scheduled for publication in mid-March). Meanwhile I’m also writing short stories. And another aspect of being an author in this electronic age is feeding the maw of social media: Posts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn, as well as blogs and, yes, this newsletter, all take time. So does writing curriculum for classes and workshops on writing, attending writing conferences, and networking with other writers.
I thought that when I retired I would sit in an unheated garret under a slanting attic window and write in splendid isolation, drinking tea (because I hate coffee), as my brilliant manuscripts piled up for some admiring acolyte to discover and publish while worshipping at my feet with the adoration I so clearly deserved. Money would probably pour in but if it didn’t, I would not care because I would live on tea and air. A lingering death from tuberculosis may have factored somewhere into these imaginings. You notice there is almost no human contact in this fantasy, except for whoever did the adoring and whoever was writing the checks. I sometimes wonder whether my writer friend behind the bookstore counter harbors a fantasy something like this one.
But the reality I’m living is a bit more like my other writer friend, she of the big hit novel, except I don’t have a big hit novel yet. Yes, writing itself is a solitary pursuit. Yes, as a matter of fact, I do write in front of a mansard window. And, as it happens, I have an adoring partner who puts much of my writing online (like this piece, right here). But that is where fantasy ends and reality begins. Being a writer now has more in common with American expats gathered in a Parisian café, drink in hand, Hemingway style, than with the lone artist scribbling and shivering. My connections with other writers are many and varied, my experience is a perpetual mix of writing and self-promotion, and I’m continually discovering a rich new life that I co-create with others who are writing, teaching, promoting, and sharing. We support each other in many ways, creating workshops across disciplines of writing and art, telling our students about one another’s classes, sharing information about the publishing process. Now that I’ve written my first screenplay, that may provide access to a whole new community of writers. And my eyes are always open for the next new way to connect with readers. Whatever Amazon’s successor is (and you know there will be one), I hope that my network, my platform and my books will help me to jump that wave.
I promised an Aesop’s Fable-style moral of the story, and here it is:
I was in a job interview once, way back in the seventies, and must have said I was glad it wasn’t a sales job. And the interviewer said, “Every job is a sales job.” That turned out to be true, which depressed me until learned to live with it and then to embrace it in a way that felt authentic. When I became a writer, I thought I had escaped into some rarified atmosphere, above all that. But guess what?
Writing is a sales job.
Which can be a downer – until we learn to embrace it.