The goal in blogging/business/inspiring non-fiction is to share a truth, or at least
a truth as the writer sees it. To not just share it, but to spread it and to cause change to happen. You can do that in at least three ways: with research (your own or reporting on others), by building and describing conceptual structures, or with stories that resonate…
A more heavily-researched approach to writing [is] exhausting, but the work is its own reward…
The biggest takeaway for anyone seeking to write is this: don’t go looking for the way other authors do their work. You won’t find many who are consistent enough to copy, and there are enough variations in approach that it’s obvious that it’s not like hitting home runs or swinging a golf club. There isn’t a standard approach, there’s only what works for you (and what doesn’t).
I read Godin’s blog every day. His advice here is spot-on.
“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Journalism” was just published in China, which is pretty cool, and a first for me. Now I’m seeking someone to read it and compare it to my original to see if they censored my section about appalling labor conditions in Shenzhen, China where they make parts for Apple and others at Foxconn.
After two books published by major commercial houses, I’ve lost my innocence about how bare-knuckled a business publishing is, that’s for sure. I have no illusions — which many yet-to-be-published writers naively and deeply cherish — like the publisher will: 1) be my new BFF; 2) that they will pick up the costs of designing and maintaining my website; 3) send me on a book tour.
The only way I got my own book from China was having it sent by a photographer there my husband knows, who did us a personal favor and Fed-Exed two copies; my publisher still hasn’t sent me any.
But I still really love the process of writing books, if not the selling of books. Trying to tell any truly complex story in an article is like trying to shoe-horn an elephant into a matchbox — articles are too short, too shallow and pay poorly.
You can’t dive deeply or widely enough, even in a 5,000-word+ story, (which very few people assign now).
You need to write a book.
This week I finally sent in the proposal for my third non-fiction book to my agent. I’m nervous as hell. I hope she likes it. I hope she doesn’t require more work on it as I’ve already spent about a year creating it (in addition to all my other paid work.); it’s about 10,000 words.
The real challenge will be finding a publisher to pay me enough to actually make writing it worth my time financially. Let’s say — hah! — I got a $100,000 advance, a sum extremely difficult to attain.
If I did, and if we could negotiate it into three payments, (also difficult now) — on signing the contract, on my delivery of the manuscript and publication — I’d get about $28,000 to start out with, (after the agent’s 15 percent cut, always taken off the top.)
From that, I also have to fund all travel costs and research; (I’ve already started looking for researchers.)
Many non-fiction writers have full-time jobs and/or teach as well. Few writers can actually support themselves, and their families, only by writing books.
Drug-addicted beauty writer Cat Marnell has landed a book deal with Simon & Schuster for her memoir, “How to Murder Your Life.” Marnell, who has been in and out of rehab for her addiction to prescription drugs, famously told us she’d rather “smoke angel dust with her friends” than hold down a full-time job after being fired from Jane Pratt’s Web site, xoJane.com. Now she has chronicled her sexual and narcotic adventures in a book, to include her life as a spoiled rich kid of a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst and her drug-fueled rise through Condé Nast, xoJane.com and Vice magazine…The proposal details her numerous sexual conquests [and] four abortions.
Because, you know, get-up-wash-face-work-hard-sleep-repeat is so…..vanilla. Who cares?
And then there’s the inevitable email I got yesterday, giving me 25 days to buy back several thousand unsold hardcover copies of my second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which was published on April 14, 2011 in hardcover and July 2012 in paperback.
They’re being offered to me very cheaply, but I don’t have a spare few thousand dollars right now, nor the deep desire to fill every square inch of our garage with unsold books.
This is stuff you rarely hear about publicly because who dares admit envy of an advance orders of magnitude bigger than yours? For self-indulgent shite?
And no one will even publicly admit that their book didn’t sell out, because then…OMG….you’re a failure! Facebook is like sticking pins in your eyes every day if any of your friends — and this is common among established writers — have indeed become best-sellers. “Friends” being, you know, a word with some variance.
One of them keeps crowing and crowing and then another and then another and you start to think the only thing that seems obvious: “I’m such a loser!”
My publisher, (bless their enthusiasm!), printed too many. Partly because that’s just when e-books began taking off and we sold many more (cheaper) e-books out of the gate than hardcovers. We’re also still in a recession and my book is about low-wage labor so many of my would-be readers might have balked at shelling out the dough for the hardcover; there was a four-week wait list for it at the Toronto Public Library, a friend there told me.
The publishing industry is a moving target and every single book they choose to publish is a gamble, a guess and some tightly-crossed fingers.
Yes, some authors — Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, et. al. — are safe bets. They’ve become like major league baseball teams, winning franchises. But I know of one best-selling author (I’ve seen the numbers) whose two previous books barely sold more than 1,000 copies before she Hit It Big.
So you never know.
So, this week, feeling foolish and weary and yet, and yet, and yet…working on my book proposal. I will never get $500,000 for any book I propose. To even get $100,000 would be a lovely thing, but also nothing I can expect.
So, as my new agent said, “If you’re really burning to write this one”…
Many people say they want to be professional writers.
Having taught journalism and writing to adults and to college students and writing professionally since 1978, I wonder, though, how many really do.
Here are some of the things you need if you truly want to make a living as a writer of fiction, non-fiction or journalism.
If you’re too scared to attach your name to your work, or to publish it, or to show it to blog readers/editors/agents, how will you ever be(c0me) a published or read writer? Every writer is scared shitless on some level, often on so many levels we resemble a multi-storey office tower. But the whole point of writing is sharing your voice and your ideas with others. You have to be certain you have something to say.
Workshops and classes and graduate school can be amazingly helpful. Or they can sap your self-confidence as you place more value on others’ opinions (and grades.)
Being a writer means you’ll face a lot of rejection. You have to listen to feedback — whether about your ideas, your execution of them, your crappy attitude, your procrastination. Every single person whose work has been selected, edited and chosen by others as worthy of publication faced the same challenges. Get over it!
If you’re not ready for rejection, you’re not ready to be a published writer.
Without which, you’re toast. But talent is subjective, so every rejection can mean you’re lousy — or you just haven’t found your audience yet. You’ll know pretty quickly, because you will sell and keep selling, if you have the goods.
My favorite success is the humor essay about my divorce I sent in to an American women’s magazine, who sent me a smarmy rejection letter. I sent it to a Canadian women’s magazine — who published it and submitted it for a National Magazine Award for humor.
The single most essential element of writing success.
I know people now writing their third or fourth (unpublished) novel. My two non-fiction books, “Blown Away” and “Malled” were each rejected by 25 (!) publishers before a major New York house bought each one. The process was deeply unpleasant and shook my confidence to the core. But my agents (different agent for each) kept plugging away, because they believed in it.
I recently applied for a highly competitive fellowship, again. Too many people just give up and walk away, wounded and whining.
This is not a business of delicate phrases and warm hugs. People yell. Some people swear. Some do both. Readers will loathe you and say so in plain language on blogs and amazon where you cannot respond to them. Some critics will pan you. A sensitive heart
And how, you ask, can you possibly have both of these? You must. The very best writers keep their hearts open — and readers can feel it.
What are you willing to give up or postpone to achieve success as a writer? Work at a horrible day job? Rarely see your husband/wife/sweetie/kids? The world is filled with amusing distractions, but staying focused is the only way to reach your goals.
Especially in journalism and publishing, EQ often beats IQ.
Can you mask your bitterness and frustration (see: drive, persistence, humility) with a big smile and a soft, gentle voice? Can you quickly find a way to relate to someone powerful who’s 30 years younger or older than you? Can you happily continue to network with people whose rudeness, arrogance and/or dismissal of you and your work may have left deep scars?
Members of this tribe are:
passionate about ideas; often deeply insecure about their talent; desperate for recognition and financial reward; ferociously jealous of those above them on the ladder. At every stage of this game, you’ll need every scrap of calm, mature self-management you can muster.
This is also a small industry based on long-term relationships. People in it move from city to city, publisher to publisher. They talk! They meet up every year at the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs and at BEA. We attend and teach at the same conferences.
Keep your nose clean.
You’ll need to forgive yourself when your work fails to find a market. You have to forgive your agent and editor if your book doesn’t hit it big, because they probably gave you their best anyway. Your friends and loved ones will have to forgive you the endless, insane absences that a book or serious project demands — travel and/or solitude.
A stiff spine
No one will stiffen it for you on the latest Monday facing a pile of deadlines — or a dwindling bank account. That’s always going to be your job.
If you’re not intensely curious about the world, what do you have to tell us?
If you’re not intensely curious about how writers think/write/teach/succeed/fail, why do you even want to be one?
If you’re not intensely curious about how to get better at your craft, even after decades, how will you do so?
I’ve given away hours, probably months, of my time and skill and advice over the decades. These days I’m likely to insist on being paid for it, but this business depends on reciprocal help. This week, a friend asked me to read her essay — and wrote me a letter of reference for a fellowship. Last week I spent some time advising one of my assistants, a fresh Columbia J-school grad — and asked her if she’d make an introduction for me at the glossy monthly she’s starting to pitch.
I recently started playing golf. I actually haven’t played a game yet. I just keep going to the driving range, buying a bucket of balls, and hitting for an hour or so. It’s a totally new set of skills. My husband says he won’t play a game with me until I can hit consistently.
Same for would-be writers. Anyone can bang out an awesome piece, once. But it’s showing up for years, doing every single one of them well, that creates a reputation for excellence.
Anyone in journalism, especially, has to crank out good stuff every day — sometimes every hour. That’s what they hired you for!
It is estimated that over ¾ of Americans say that they would one day like to write a book. That’s a LOT of people. Ah, but how many do? How many decide to look beyond that day job? How many dare to take that next step?
So only 5% of the millions of people who desire to write will ever even take the notion seriously. This brings us to the hundreds of thousands. But of the hundreds of thousands, how many who start writing a book will actually FINISH a book? How many will be able to take their dream seriously enough to lay boundaries for friends and family and hold themselves to a self-imposed deadline?
I’m a little dubious about this “statistic” that so many Americans want to write a book. Did Gallup take a poll?
But the larger point is true — many people I’ve met over the decades sigh, wistfully, or say, with tremendous conviction, they, too will soon publish their own book.
Do they? Apparently not.
I think “writing a book” is actually proxy for an unexamined stew of more complicated desires — many of which have very little to do with the talent + endless slog it takes to actually publish a book:
— public validation
— media attention aka “fame”
— showing everyone you really are creative
— proving to your high school English teacher/skeptical spouse/Mom you can do it
— seeing your book at Barnes & Noble
— hitting the (cough) best-seller list
— being able to say you’re an author
Luck is about .000006 percent of what it takes to become a published author.
The definition of “successful” also varies widely:
Did you (as some of my colleagues have done) get on the “Today” show?
Did you hit the best-seller list?
Did you sell more than 500 copies? 100? 10?
Was your advance $150,000? $750,000? (Or, more typically, $25,000 or less?)
Was it made into a movie or television series (preferably starring Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt, maybe both)?
If you work for yourself — and even when you work for someone else — you have to do it.
Do you dread it as much as I do?
The world of social media has made it much easier to spread the word, globally, about how fabulous!!!!! you are but sometimes, truly, I wish everyone would just button it!
I visit LinkedIn almost every day and I enjoy seeing what my contacts are up to. I loatheloatheloathe one woman who “updates” there every 13 seconds with work tips to make sure we do not waste even a single hour forgetting who she is. I know, I know, I can’t email her and say “Enough! Stop! You are boring and overbearing and horrible.”
But I’d sure like to.
With my new book out April 14, I have to toot long, loud, clearly, daily and — pardon the appalling biz-speak — across multiple platforms.Why? Because, in the U.S. where I live, 1,500 books are published every single bloody day!
Frankly, I’d rather organize the linen closet, but I did that last week. Or polish my shoes. Or go to a movie. Or make soup.
Yammering on about how amazing I am makes me feel a little ill. But if I don’t stake my claim, every single one of my loud-mouthed competitors will.
And guess who will sell more books? And get a bigger advance on the next book as a result? Not the shy, quiet girl in the corner.
I grew up in Canada, a nation — like the Aussies, Japanese and Swedes, to name a few with similar cultural values — that hates self-promoters and punishes them with the worst possible paddle. They ignore you!
I’ve lived near New York City for 22 years. You want pushy? Babe, we got pushy!
It’s been sadly instructive to watch the relative “Who gives a s–t? my book has been getting in Canada and the fantastic enthusiasm it’s been getting here. Which, and this is basic, is now fodder for more horn-tooting!
In Australia, it’s called tall poppy syndrome, where the highest flower, swaying happily in the summer sun, gets its gorgeous little head lopped off for — being the most visible. In Japan, they hammer down the tallest nail.
Don’t boast! Don’t gloat! Don’t tell people you’ve done some terrific work and people are liking it!
Yeah, be invisible.
There’s a strategy.
How do you reconcile the career-boosting need to tell others about your skills and work accomplishments and being (blessedly and attractively) modest about them?
A package landed on our doorstep two days ago. Galleys!
These are the first real proof that all those pages and pages and pages you cranked out of your printer — and your weary head — are actually going to make it into bookstores. They are softcover versions of the book-to-be, the ones that go out now to reviewers and magazines so they can start deciding if/when to feature or review them, months before the book is actually available for sale.
They’re expensive to produce and so you don’t get a lot of them, forcing strategic decisions about who is your best target to receive one. A dear friend last night, eager to read the book and knowing this, said “I read fast! I’ll send it right back.”
My publisher, Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin, splurged on color covers (my last book, as many galleys do, had only plain paper) and it looks so beautiful. For those of us without children, this is one of those champagne moments.
It’s an odd fact of publishing a book that, just as you are sooooooo tired and all you really want to do is sleep for a month, you must immediately start on planning and creating your marketing campaign, deciding who (you pray) might write or talk about your book, review it, blog it, feature it, tell all the right people about it.
Which is where utter serendipity comes in handy.
A writer I know a little is married to a man with amazing connections in retail and she suddenly asked for three galleys to distribute. The phone rang yesterday afternoon from the PR person for a major Canadian retailer — and it turned out to be a man whose work I knew 30 years ago when we were both in Paris and both won the same journalism fellowship two years apart. He wants to see one as well.
Like sending your tiny loved one(s) off to kindergarden or nursery school, this is the point at which my baby toddles out into the wider world.
It’s interesting watching how people react to criticism of their work or their ideas.
Too often, they mistakenly conflate a rejection of these for some more general loathing of them as people, whose real and enduring value to the world extends far beyond their professional definitions or creative aspirations.
We all, as Walt Whitman wrote, contain multitudes. When someone (other than an editor paying me for it), hates my writing, I laugh. It’s one opinion, even if shared by thousands.
I’m still a loving daughter, a generous friend, a loyal partner, a talented photographer/athlete/cook/artist, world traveler, formerly nationally ranked athlete. My words aren’t (only) who I am.
Hate my words? It happens. They’re one part of my identity, and as carefully chosen and edited as any other of my public presentations.
If someone swoops in and flays you for yours, then what?
The same idea can be applied to virtually any creative endeavor, whether poetry or photography or cooking or designing a room.
A creator or innovator expresses their vision. Theirs. But it’s easy to forget that:
You are not your ideas. If you can’t divorce the two, you’re putting too many eggs in one basket. Your choice. What will you do and how will you feel when people reject them/you out of hand and possibly very rudely?
People have no idea what to make of the truly original. If an idea is so new or radical or game-changing as to challenge the current paradigm, it will scare, theaten, piss off or annoy people currently deeply invested — emotionally, intellectually, financially or all three — in it. They will shred you. This “rejection” is quite possibly then, about them, not you.
Rejection of an idea may require re-tooling it. Just because this iteration isn’t working out, maybe the next version will. (See: The Wright Brothers.) That’s why artists working on paper have A/Ps — artist’s proofs — to see how it actually looks. It might be lousy. Maybe you need to re-think or fix it.
Are they rejecting the idea or its execution? Many people now, unwisely, conflate effort with success. They did X so X must, simply because you made it, be amazing. No. Some Xs require training and practice to be(come) truly excellent or appeal to a wide(r) audience.
What (hidden, unknown) obstacles lie in its path? I had a brilliant new idea, (I hoped), and ran it past some people in that industry who know its specific obstacles. They liked the idea but explained why it might never fly — not because the idea is weak but because the execution of it is far more expensive that I realized. Now I know!
Feedback is merely information. Take it or leave it. Freaking out is a total waste of time. Take what will help you achieve your goal most effectively and leave the rest. Don’t personalize feedback.
Define your goals clearly and with a timeline and a measure of progress. You want to show your photos or art in a commercial gallery or local library? What steps have you taken on that path? Rejection along the way stings far less if you have aimed for a specific few goals, can be a little flexible about “success” and keep on plugging.
Timing matters. A lot. Many stunning works of fiction and non-fiction simply disappeared from public view, criticism and potential success because they were published on…Sept. 11, 2001. There’s no way anyone could have predicted that, but it hurt many people’s longed-for dreams as the world shifted focus.
You may be offering your work to the wrong audience. Every community has deeply held beliefs about what is valid, important, worth listening to and validating. If your ideas are consistently rejected and demeaned within a community you thought worth joining, find a better fit. Others exist. Make one!
You need the courage of your convictions. Allowing total strangers on-line who shout, shriek, curse — and rally others to their cause to join the chorus — to intimidate you gives them way too much power. Unless they can cost you your livelihood, health, home and/or the safety of your loved ones, (which is when lawyers and law enforcement come in handy), why surrender your peace of mind to the bullying of a bunch of ghosts?
I was lucky. I grew up in a family of people who earned their living — and a good one — through writing, directing and producing material for print, television and film. No one has a pension. No one had a “real job.” We all had agents, learned to negotiate, to live within or below our means because a steak year — success!! — could easily be followed by a hamburger year.
We all know the marketplace is fickle and frightening and so we all developed thick skins, back-up plans and f—k you funds so we can walk away from work and projects that are a time-suck and talent-killer.