20 Lessons New Authors Learn

 

Simon & Schuster headquarters at 1230 Avenue o...
Simon and Schuster's NYC HQ...Image via Wikipedia

 

My second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, a business memoir to be published in April 2011 by Portfolio/Penguin, is now in production. The assembly line is moving toward publication.

There are few pleasures more satisfying than selling your proposal and writing a book, and few moments as exciting as holding the first fresh copy of your book in your hands. Selling a book catapults the first-time author into a world filled with surprises, some lovely, some less so.

The things I’ve learned along the way! Here, for those who hope to publish with a commercial publisher, are a few of them.

Yes, there are always exceptions to all of these, but much of this is fairly standard for a new and/or mid-list author:

Your advance will be much lower than you hope and takes forever to arrive

I did make more for my second book than for my first, but not nearly as much as we’d hoped. C’est la vie. Book advances, (from which your agent cuts his or her 15% share first), are now typically paid out in three or four installments. It can be six to 12 months, or more, between those payments. How will you meet all your regular expenses plus the research or travel costs of your book? I spent $5,000 for my first book traveling to report firsthand from Texas, Ohio, New Orleans and Massachusetts. For the second, I needed to pay two researchers to help me gather data and sources more quickly.

You have zero control over the pricing or discounting of your own book

As Pocket (the paperback arm of Simon & Schuster) has done with my first book, published in paperback at  reasonable and democratic $13.00 in 2004, they might almost double the price of your book — with no additional income accruing to you.

Life crises can destroy your carefully planned writing, research, travel or revision schedule (and budget)

One friend is on deadline for her book but her husband is terminally ill and her book requires travel. While I was in Dayton, Ohio in August 2002 researching my first book, my mother was diagnosed with a huge (removable) brain tumor. I had to get from Dayton to Vancouver, Canada as fast as possible, alone. This year, with a book deadline of September 1, 2010, I lost four months to a (resolvable) medical emergency seeing five specialists, oral steroids, months of physical therapy, even having to use a cane or crutches for months. Good thing I was able to do other work on the book (reading, interviews) and get back to writing it when my head was clearer.

Plan for chaos.

You’ll pay to create and maintain your book website

Not your publisher. The second your book is sold, register its title as a domain name.

You’ll pay for your book tour

You’ll pay for your book trailer

You’ll pay for your video press kit

See the pattern? Start saving up a wad o’ cash now to promote the thing or it will disappear fast.

You’ll create most of your events and signings

Actually, I find this part a lot of fun as the book is now good to go and everyone’s excited about it. I’ve already reached out to universities, business schools, companies, stores and others across the country to help me set up signings, talks and events.

If you’d like help with this book tour — April through June or July 2011, I’d love to hear from you! Please email me.

Your publisher will forget to send galleys to key players

Galleys or ARCs (advance reader copies) create buzz for your book months before publication once they’re in the hands of people who will talk it up to their audiences. Make a huge press list of everyone you think might review or discuss your book. But stay on top of it as some publicists zone out and don’t follow through.

They’ll pulp your book and won’t tell you

It’s basic courtesy to offer authors the chance to buy back any unsold copies of their book before destroying them. I didn’t get that chance. Keep an eye on your copies.

They’ll make it POD and not tell you

That’s “print on demand” which means no one can find my first book in any bookstore. Amazon, yes.

Your editor may quit mid-stream

Or get sick or be fired. It happens. We all dread it.

So might their replacement, and theirs

Your book then becomes an orphan. It’s happened to some of the best-selling books out there and it’s rough. You need your editor to care a lot about your book and be its in-house advocate.

Editors are really busy

When you get an offer, ask how many books the publisher puts out each month and how many will come out the same day, week or month as yours. How many other books is s/he working on? Does s/he prefer to contacted via email or phone? How often is too often?

Agents are really busy

After your book is sold, you and your agent usually won’t have a lot to talk about until it’s accepted. That’s cool. They’re busy making money. Don’t ask them to hold your hand.

In-house publicists are really busy

As much as you crave their undivided attention, it’s unlikely they can give nearly as much of their time or energy as you’d like. Find out what they can do and then start working around it using your own time and resources.

Book doctors are expensive but possibly necessary

Your agent can’t work on it and your editor may not be giving you all the tools you need to whip your book into publishable shape. A book doctor can cost $5,000, but it might be an investment you need to make.

You have six weeks, max. to make your mark before books are returned to the store

Bookstores don’t buy your books in the standard way we buy something, i.e. you own it now. They buy them with a return policy and one they quickly use if the merch isn’t moving.

Having your book on bookstores’ coveted front tables is totally beyond your control

I’m always so jealous of authors whose books get laid out in those thick piles on bookstore tables, the ones people look through. Those books get there through the use of “co-op” funds. You can ask if this is a realistic use of their funds for your book, but don’t expect it.

Your student/intern/researcher or nemesis from grad school will publish before you (and get much better reviews)

Oh, yeah. Maybe even a front-page New York Times Book Review rave. Ouch!

How I Sold And Wrote My Memoir

 

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I’ve been having lunch with a good friend every week as she recently lost her job of five years. She’s worked in and around journalists and authors her whole career, but, like some people, still finds the actual process of getting from an idea to a finished book — where do you find all those words, she asks? — mysterious and hard to imagine.

I’m in awe of writers who create fiction. I think that a non-fiction book, once you have a clear idea what you want to say and who your readers might be, is not as overwhelming.

You need a clear understanding what the scope of your inquiry should be, how you’ll access the material you need — archives, letters, libraries, interviews, firsthand reporting — and how much time, money and travel this will require.

What I love about writing books is the time to deeply and carefully explore a subject. This is so rare! Unless you are in academia or policy work, no one is going to pay you to learn, synthesize and analyze an issue you find utterly compelling. Nor will you have the time to write, revise, think and repeat as necessary, for many months.

I love having the time to start to see patterns and relationships between the data I find, feeling my understanding start to develop.

Oh, and, yes, to write at length, not hemmed in by standard newspaper story lengths of 700 to 1,200 words or a magazine’s maximum of perhaps 3,000 words.

For this one, I hired two researchers, neither of whom I ever met, one in New Jersey and one in San Diego (both came highly recommended by colleagues) who helped me by finding data, setting up interviews, conducting some interviews and sending me the raw audio.

Here’s how my new book took shape:

September 2007. I take a part-time retail job selling clothes in a suburban mall.  I need steady cash, something manageable, and hope this is the right choice. I’ve never worked retail, and know it will be hard work. My writer friends all think this could make a great book, partly because I’ll be able to describe that world firsthand. I’m dubious, but listen to them nonetheless.

I’m too busy training to think about it much — but on the strength of their advice I do keep detailed notes of those first weeks.

March 2009. I speak on a panel in Manhattan about writing. A lively young woman in the audience turns out to be the assistant to an agent and suggests I write a memoir. She asks me to contact her boss.

June 2009. I sit down with the agent, a woman my age, who — unusual in my experience — takes more than an hour to explore this idea. She sees much more depth in this job and its narrative potential than I had previously considered.

Listening to her flesh it out as we talk it is like watching Batman’s car doubling in size and power. Wow, maybe there is a book in all this.

July 2009. I start writing a three chapter proposal which bounces back and forth with my agent several times to edit and polish it. It’s hard to do so much hard work without any income or even a guarantee this book will sell. That’s the price of a book proposal!

She’s a veteran and I doubt would waste her time, or mine, on something with few prospects. It takes a lot of trust on both our parts.

September 2009. The proposal is making the rounds. The rejections are pouring in — 25  of them. Ouch! She sends them along for me to read until I cry uncle and ask her not to. “Are they bothering you?” Yes. “Someone is going to buy this book. We just haven’t found them yet,” she says.

And someone does! We go into Portfolio/Penguin’s offices to meet the publisher, editor and publicist. It’s all pretty terrifying knowing I can blow the deal by saying the wrong thing (which is…?)

We have a deal. Cool!

December 2009. I quit the retail job now that I have my first payment on the advance. I start writing.

February 2010. I turn in 47,000 words. My editor finds them “whiny and negative” but knows this is “an early first draft.” Actually, it wasn’t. But I started too soon. I haven’t waited long enough to start trying to process this material from the events I’m describing, and it shows. I need more distance to be able to decribe it much more thoughtfully, not simply emotionally.

I can’t rush this.

January-May 2010. My arthritic left hip goes crazy. I can barely walk across the room and see five specialists, none of whom can explain why. I take powerful painkillers — managing to transpose the street address of a crucial interview subject (oops!) — then oral steroids. Life becomes a distracting blur of X-rays, MRIs and medical opinions. Writing a book is a lot tougher when coping with pain 24/7 , veering between painkillers (foggy brain) and exhausted lucidity.

Not what I need right now!

March-May 2010. Too intimidated to come back to this material right now, I read ten books on low-wage work and retail, and interview others about their retail experiences.  I’m still making good progress while gaining a deeper, wider understanding of the industry. But I still have to produce a total of 75,000 words by September 1. I will have to get back to it soon.

I can focus entirely on reading and thinking because my researchers, two young journalists, are keeping the material coming into my email inbox. It’s a huge relief to be able to delegate and to find terrific help even at $15/hour. The several hundred dollars I spend for their time is worth every penny for my peace of mind and ability to focus on other things.

My partner is trying not freak out. He knows I can write quickly and that I write best with a deadline staring me in the face.

May-June 2010. Writewritewritewritewrite. Forget social life and housework. I turn in the book at the end of June and take a two-week vacation.

July 2010. My editor has given me six pages of revisions to make. Can I do it? Do I have the skill? I talk to friends and my agent who all offer tough love and encouragement. The editor loves the last two chapters and suggests I use them as models for the rest. Luckily, her suggestions are all clear and helpful, about 80 percent of which I follow.

August 2010. Revisewriterevisewriterevisewrite. Cut the boring bits.

September 2010. Done, in, accepted. Whew!

(Start planning marketing, events and speaking engagements.)

Literary Siblings

 

Seated man reading a book
Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

 

That’s what I call them anyway.

I grew up an only child (I now have three step-siblings) so never had to fight for my share of my parents’ attention.

Now, as an author, I get a kick of knowing who my agents’ other writers are and watching their successes. Jealous? Sure, it would be nice to make The New York Times’ best-seller list or get short-listed for the hugely prestigious Booker Prize.

But I also know that writing success is a wild mix of talent, hard work, luck, timing, persistence, discipline. It’s not, as so many would have you believe, a zero-sum game — you win, I must lose. There are always many extremely determined competitors our there; some have helped me and vice versa. Score!

I see two sorts of what I call literary siblings — both the other authors sharing the same agent — and those who are published by the same house, maybe even by the same editor. (Which does she like better?)

I heard an author interviewed on the radio recently who is also published by Penguin/Portfolio, who will issue my new memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” on April 14, 2011. Some of their authors have had huge best-sellers, like Seth Godin.

I root for every writer I like but also cheer for those on the same editorial team, even if I’ll never meet them. Our successes will (I hope!) keep our agents and our publishers thriving.

That’s a win for all of us.

Housekeeping Notes: T/S and Me

I’ll still be posting here at True/Slant until August 1. Not sure yet what, if anything, I’ll be doing for Forbes and where Broadside will migrate to, but I’ll keep you posted on all developments as soon as I know anything definite. I’ll spend the summer revising my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio, spring 2011) and putting together proposals for two more.

I’m also now blogging twice a month — upside down and backwards! (kidding) for a new Australian website, on my blog The Grindstone — where I’ll focus on women and work and when and how they intersect. The invitation to do so came as a result of my writing here, which is pretty cool given how many millions of blogs are out there to choose from.

I’ll be in Canada visiting friends and family in Ontario and British Columbia in July, but will post and comment whenever possible.

Weary, Happy, Ready To Surgically Detach From The Computer — My Book's Done

It’s a weird feeling to know I’m done — although “done” is a relative term because that decision will be up to my editor.

Let’s say, I’ve finished writing, revising, writing and revising. For a few weeks anyway.

I attach a photo taken by the sweetie last weekend, a document of the revision process. I print out my work in hard copy, using both sides of the paper, then satisfyingly crumple it into a big ball when I’ve entered my corrections and changes. (Here’s a recent New York Times piece about John Updike and his writing process.)

Every writer, and book, is different. Some people have tremendously sophisticated filing systems; I have two sofas — notes used (check mark) and notes not yet used. Some people write the whole book and only then start revising it from first word to last; I write chapter by chapter, revising each one, then read several sequentially to see how (if) they flow smoothly into one another and then the whole book itself.

Many months ago, I chose five people as my “first readers”, four of them fellow professionals, two of whom have also written books, one of them a best-seller. If everyone hates the same paragraph or page or chapter, I’ll have to figure out what to do with it. If there’s anything more scary than writing a book, it’s turning it over for consumption and comment.

I’ve seen my cover and we’re tinkering with it. I love the title they gave it: “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

The challenge of finishing a book is, just when you really want to sleep for a month, it’s time to crank up the publicity machinery. I’ve registered the domain name malledthebook.com and have yet to design or build the site. Then, (sigh) Twitter.

I love writing books and hope to write several more — as journalism sinks beneath the waves, there are increasingly few places left to tell smart, serious stories in depth. Some journalists hate the idea of writing a book because they fear they’ll get too bored. In both instances, I’ve found the subject so compelling I hated to end.

I’ll keep you posted on the book’s progress; publication date spring 2011.

Want To Write A Story — Live, On-Line? Tomorrow's Your Day

St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writin...
Even St. Augustine had to revise his material...Image via Wikipedia

Want to watch a writer at work — how he thinks, and re-thinks, and changes his mind? How about stepping up to the keyboard and making your own changes, revisions or additions?

Tomorrow’s your chance.

Here’s a wild idea…one writer, Matt Bell, starts his own short story, writes it on-line for a few days, lets two guest writers take over — and tomorrow — you’re up!

I wonder how many people will take up the challenge. Writing is, typically, a private, unseen and invisible process, the machinery whirring away — we hope! — inside our heads.

I had dinner this week with a fellow writer who asked how my book was coming and what my process is. I usually bang out as much as I can, perhaps 1,500 words, maybe 2,000 at most in one go, then stop and take a break. My eyes and my head get tired.

I do some housework or stare at the sky or read a magazine or take a swim class. Then it’s back at it.

I let new material sit for a few hours, preferably a few days, a cooling-off period that allows me to read it more objectively. I print it out on paper and edit in hard copy only. Then I revise on the computer. One joy of being a writer is that no one tells you how to do it. There is no “right” way. You can scribble on a napkin or use a quill pen on parchment or a Mac at the beach.

The final product is yours, all yours. If it’s lousy, well…

I still have 44,000 words to produce to meet my contractual agreement within the new few months. It’s enough to make me huddle in the fetal position beneath the duvet. But, no.

Finding the right ones, making sure they read smoothly, that the entire story is compelling and engaging, are all part of my job. I did use two terrific researchers to help me gather material for this book (the last one used four). Kelly and Peter are both so skilled that, of course, they each just got hired into full-time journalism jobs and are no longer available.

I’d love to add a bunch of elves to my workshop to lighten this load, but, in the real world, it’s not an option.

It Only Took 10 Years, Four Editors, Three Publishers — Interview With NYT Best-Seller Rebecca Skloot, 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'

It’s every writer’s dream, to have your book — let alone your debut effort — hit the The New York Times‘ best-seller list within weeks of publication after garnering rapturous reviews. Rebecca Skloot’s is already at number six.

For Rebecca, it’s been quite the ride. Here is the profile of her from Publishers Weekly, the industry bible:

Skloot’s gifts as a writer and student of science weren’t apparent early on. During a recent visit to New York from Tennessee, where she teaches writing at the University of Memphis, Skloot says: “I was a troublemaker. The first time I got suspended I was in second grade.” She failed her first year of high school because “I just didn’t show up. It was a boredom thing.”

An experimental school finally provided the freedom and challenge Skloot needed, and in only one year, she completed all four years of high school.

Six years later, at Colorado State University, Skloot still “had no interest in writing whatsoever. I was going to be a veterinarian.” But thanks to an academic quirk at Colorado State, she was able to take a writing class to escape the foreign language requirement. “I completely fell in love with it. So I just started taking writing classes every semester.”

From The New York Times:

A thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” also floods over you like a narrative dam break, as if someone had managed to distill and purify the more addictive qualities of “Erin Brockovich,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “The Andromeda Strain.” More than 10 years in the making, it feels like the book Ms. Skloot was born to write. It signals the arrival of a raw but quite real talent.

The woman who provides this book its title, Henrietta Lacks, was a poor and largely illiterate Virginia tobacco farmer, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves. Born in 1920, she died from an aggressive cervical cancer at 31, leaving behind five children. No obituaries of Mrs. Lacks appeared in newspapers. She was buried in an unmarked grave.

To scientists, however, Henrietta Lacks almost immediately became known simply as HeLa (pronounced hee-lah), from the first two letters of her first and last names. Cells from Mrs. Lacks’s cancerous cervix, taken without her knowledge, were the first to grow in culture, becoming “immortal” and changing the face of modern medicine. There are, Ms. Skloot writes, “trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.” Laid end to end, the world’s HeLa cells would today wrap around the earth three times.

I don’t know Rebecca personally, but we both belong to the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a 1,400-member international group of ambitious and talented professionals. Our online ASJA private bulletin boards, where members trade tips, advice and contacts, have been lit up with excitement at her achievement.

She spoke to me today from Athens, Ohio, during her 53-city national tour.

She started planning her mega-tour in October, thanks to help from her father, writer Floyd Skloot.  “He’s the logistics guy.” She’s traveling all across the U.S., lecturing to scientists, researchers, students and community groups, on college campuses, in bookstores, wherever she finds an enthusiastic audience. Her tour expenses have been cobbled together from speaking fees — sometimes from as many as four separate college departments like journalism, medicine and English chipping in together to get her onto a campus.

Her tour began January 29 and ends June 1, leaving behind at home in Memphis, where she teaches writing, her two beloved dogs, Chance and Rhoda, and her boyfriend of six years, a fellow writer (of fiction), actor and director. Luckily for both, his work is similar enough he’s thrilled for her, but different enough he can celebrate without the envy that often poisons partnered writers when one’s career suddenly or finally rockets.

At every stop, Skloot is now happily inundated with additional media requests, in addition to speaking almost every day to yet another group of strangers.

A longtime writer on animals and science, she admits she’s become a traveling science evangelist, a phrase she greets with a friendly but honest laugh.

“In all my talks, I talk about how important it it to just talk about science, to understand it. So many people I’ve met along the way have been afraid to even ask questions of their doctors, about their treatment, about what it means. To even read and sign a consent form. There really was a huge communications breakdown between the scientific community and the African-American community and that has had a huge effect on some people.”

Some members of the African-American community in Baltimore, near Johns Hopkins where the HeLa cells were gathered and used, have long been hostile and suspicious of its scientists, Skloot said. “Some people think if you are out at night anywhere near the campus, they’ll grab you and use you. You may go in and never come out.” At one local Baltimore event, a lone African American man came up to Skloot after her speech to tell her he’d tried to get others to attend with him, but they had refused to enter the premises. “There’s a long history there of distrust,” she said.

Selling the idea for the book wasn’t easy, Skloot said. “When I described it, people would roll their eyes and say ‘That sounds like the most boring book in the world!’ It also took her 18 months of slow, gentle persuasion to get the Lacks family to talk to her and to trust her — yet one more educated white stranger likely to profit from their tale — with their story.

On this long tour, she’s not just reading, lecturing or answering questions — but stepping into crowded rooms filled with strangers, many of them brimming with complex emotion. She often encounters their rage — not at her, but at what happened to the Lacks, and how the medical establishment has behaved in this matter. By showing up in person to talk about it, by taking the time and care to tell the Lacks story, Skloot ends up facing, and managing, tremendous emotion in the room when she addresses African Americans.

They are angry the story took so long to emerge. They are angry that it happened at all.

“There’s a lot of yelling, a lot of anger, about this. How it could happen. That it took so long for the story to come out. Someone always asks me ‘So, how are you different from the rest of them?'” (She has set up a foundation to donate a portion of her book sales to the Lacks family.) While they are glad she has told the tale, and appreciate how well she has done so, this is not , in this overwhelming respect, a typical author tour.

“It’s incredibly exhausting,” she admits. She re-charges with friends, home-cooked meals, visits from her boyfriend, sitting in a kitchen with someone she’s known for years, not just another dozen eager audiences.

The book took ten years, went through three publishers and four editors. Skloot demanded five rewrites of herself.”I write really long, then I cut and cut and cut and cut and cut. Some of it was the challenge of the clarity of the science. I didn’t want to overwhelm people.” To stay on track, (like many writers), she chose a number of “first readers” — people whose opinions and expertise she needed for feedback on the manuscript. These included editors and writers, a group of scientists and readers with high school educations, people “a little freaked out by science. I wanted the book to be broadly accessible and completely accurate.” That meant making it smart enough to engage academics and scientists while readable and engaging enough to pull in the rest of us.

Did she never want to just give up?

“I’m incredibly hard-headed,” she laughs. “I was a very difficult kid, as my parents can tell you. Once I set my mind to something, I do it. I never thought it wasn’t going to work, even when I was having huge fights with one of my editors about it. I just thought — can you get it front of people? I knew the public would respond very positively once I got it there.”

This week she’s in Columbus, OH; next week, Indianapolis and Chicago. Here’s her upcoming events page.

Gerald Posner's Plagiarism Apology — And Why It Doesn't Work

Gerald Posner, a writer I haven’t read and don’t know personally, has resigned from his spot at The Daily Beast for plagiarism. Part of his explanation:

Readers of my writing over 26 years, 11 books and over a hundred articles, have the right to trust that I have personally vetted and corroborated the facts I present, and that I can vouch for them. Plagiarism is insidious because it rightfully violates that trust. Just the mere use of the word raises the idea that the accused journalist has broken one of the cardinal rules of writing and is somehow cutting corners on research, facts, or original reporting.

Since June 1, when I accepted the full time staff position, I have published 72 articles (8 were published freelance before accepting the full-time reporter’s job). That averages about 2 articles a week. They all required intensive reporting, and the subjects ranged from the Michael Jackson death probe, CIA morale, Teddy Kennedy’s fortune, whether there was a John Doe 2 in the Murrah bombing, exclusive interviews with Afghanistan’s Karzai brothers, Roman Polanski, probes into domestic and international terror, and the Tiger Woods story, among many others. At least a dozen stories that I spent time researching did not pan out, and never got published.

I realize how it is that I have inadvertently, but repeatedly, violated my own high standards. The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer – with two years or more on a project – to what I describe as the “warp speed of the net.”

I’m not buying it. As a writer of his vintage, who has written hundreds of articles, likely more than a thousand by now, and only 1.5 books (the second is in progress), I know he knows the rules of the game.

What he’s not telling us, nor does he need to although it might better explain his need for speed, is the payment method that dragged him into this mess. Why was he working so quickly and cranking out so much copy? Because his editor(s) asked him to? Because only then would he make more/enough income from his Beast material? Because that’s what his competitors do?

Every ambitious writer who works in the game of intellectual piecework known as freelance journalism faces growing economic pressure.

Very few  — either because they’re making $8,000 or $15,000 or $25,000 per story can thereby earn $100,000+, which — after 11 books and 26 years’ experience — would barely match what a staffer of that level is making at a decent magazine or newspaper job. Pay rates in journalism are risible. Many major magazines have reduced their freelance pay rates in the past two years and also reduced the number of stories they are assigning. In addition, very few want a story of 3,500 words at $2/word (i.e. a $7,000 check) or $3/word (generally considered a high rate).  When you are paid (as we are) by the word, your income is going down, not up.

Pay rates haven’t budged in 30 years — a payment of $700 or $1,000 or $1,500 is not unusual for those writing even for prestigious outlets like The New York Times, for whom I’ve written since 1990. Do the math. Unless you have a steady gig, or make $3/word+ every time you turn on your computer, it takes an insane amount of production to scrape together a middle-class income, or more.

The pressure to keep up, both intellectually and financially, is enormous.

But…blaming this issue on the acceleration from the slow lane of writing a book to the express lane of blogging doesn’t work for me as a reason. I’m doing it, and others are as well. Every day I’m swerving between those lanes — blogging here and writing a non-fiction book on deadline. Last night I wrote a blog post and spent two hours on my book.

They are totally different creatures. They do require quite disparate ways of thinking, writing and connecting with your audience.

Frankly, and maybe it shows — there are only so many hours in a day — my book will take precedence until the final manuscript is accepted. It is tougher and tougher to get a major publisher to commit to a book, so it’s not something you can or should, take lightly.

I’ll blog here as often as I can intelligently. The pressure, now, for writers to grow their digital “brand” is also enormous and not one we can afford to ignore. But the revenues aren’t there. Books generally don’t pay well either, (maybe for writers of Posner’s stature), but using the excuse of shifting from one slower writing style to another faster one, arguably for some voracious, insatiable audience dodges other issues.

Maybe Posner, like many of us, simply placed inordinate pressure on himself to produce a lot of copy. Two stories a week, of the sort he describes, is a lot of work when thoughtfully reported and well-written. Why two? Why not one? Blaming the “warp speed of the net” clouds the issue.

It’s the warp speed of trying to keep up, to keep up your standards while keeping up.

Like every writer doing the wearying, challenging dance between the old, slower world of print and the newer, faster world of blogging, we have to make choices.

Let your standards slip? Write fewer stories? Fall out of the elite slipstream?

Which is worse?

The Dilemma Of The Half-Finished Book

Water for Elephants
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It sits there, accusingly — half-read, unfinished. Is it worth even more of your time, as they say, a sunk cost, or should you just abandon it?

I just flew home today with two half-finished non-fiction books in my carry-on. And, like some faithless lover, I stood before the racks filled with their shiny, new, uncracked competitors this morning in Tucson, pondering which new books, if any, I’d buy. Wretched woman! How could I so heartlessly dump the two I’d already spent real money one, one even a new, full-priced hardcover? Had I lost my reading stamina?

I could practically feel my unread ones whimpering: “What about me?’

There’s a few of these stacked near my desk at home, too, equally accusatory in their physical presence, their dog-eared pages, their unconcluded arguments. I felt so much better recently when a poll of a bunch of famous authors, asked which books they never finished, included “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth, a bloody doorstop of a book I really wanted to love (a Christmas gift from someone in my family), but just couldn’t and gave up on.

Question is: if you stop reading a book, whose fault is it? You got bored? Fed up? It just wasn’t engaging enough? Badly written? Over-hyped? Is this the writer’s fault? The editor’s?

Or, in the age of CPA, continual partial attention, are we losing the ability to actually focus for several unbroken hours on the written word, whether on a Kindle or paper? I think not: I raced through “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen on vacation and couldn’t put it down. Three women on my flight from Atlanta were glued to their Kindles for most of the two-hour journey.

Now I’m also halfway through writing my own book, a memoir of working retail, and trying not to balk, like a horse at a jump, at finishing it. Partly, it’s fear. Being such an avid reader myself, who opens every new book with a sigh of anticipatory pleasure, ready to be charmed and bitter when I am not thusly rewarded, I hear a chorus of bored imaginary sighs from the worst possible readers, those who paid full price for my book and found it…wanting. Leaving it half-read.

Like every author, it’s my job to grab them all by the lapels, so to speak, happily dragging them into a narrative and writing style so alluring they just can’t bear to leave.

Gulp. No pressure.

What book could you never get around to finishing? What book kept you up all night turning the pages til you’d devoured it in one go?

Writing A Book: Part One — Bring Sherpas!

This is an open suitcase
Time to unpack...Image by emmamccleary via Flickr

As we were leaving a friend’s home after Thanksgiving lunch, a fellow guest turned to me. Like almost everyone I meet socially, she had sighed wistfully hearing I’d written one book and was now writing another. “Oh, I’d love to write a book. I’ve got such stories,” they tell me. Only a few seem to get that it’s not quite as simple as pounding away at a keyboard for a few months.

“How do you write a book?,” she asked. “Do you have an outline? Do you just start writing?”

Writing a book is to daily blogs or daily/weekly/freelance reporting as a Tibetan trek is to a leisurely stroll through your local park. Bring Sherpas!

The former demands a sort of extremely solitary discipline, your writing life — minus competitors, colleagues, editors. You now have only one deadline, and it’s soooooo far away (mine is September 2010) it feels a little unreal, a shimmering oasis on the other side. Of course, you can write a lot faster and turn it in early, which also gets to you the Holy Grail of your next payment; they may eke it out in four bundles over two years. But it also has to be really really really good. No pressure!

I’d lined up my five first readers as soon as it sold; these are five friends and colleagues whom I trust to read carefully and thoughtfully and offer me helpful feedback. They’re essential, in my view. By time you’ve finished a 75,000 or 90,000 or 130,000 word manuscript, you’re often sick to death of it and it’s become far too familiar for you to capture its flaws and omissions.

To sell a non-fiction book most of us sell a proposal, call it a very, very detailed outline, with one or more sample chapters allowing acquiring editors to decide if they like your tone, voice and story. You tightly compress every scrap of your best stuff into this vehicle, find a great agent, send it out, and pray. After it sells, like some circus clown whose little cardboard suitcase carries far more than it looks, it’s time to beautifully re-expand those initial ideas into a book, something you hope like hell will have lasting value to others.

I love writing. So that bit doesn’t scare me. I just have to go do a lot of it now.

As I move through this process, I’ll offer occasional updates.