Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

Monday, May 23, 2011

Dear New Writer (Who Probably Googled 'Book Publishers for New Authors' to Get Here)

This just landed in my inbox, and I'm going to publish it here because I get a variation of this letter at least once a month. It's starting to make me a little loopy.




Dear Jenna, I've completed my first manuscript a few months ago and have since received 7 acceptance letters, however 5 are from "self-publishing" companies. One from PA and one from Dorrance. PA has already sent me a sample contract and an Aug. 1st deadline but after reading your comments, now I more confused then ever. Bottom line, I have no funds for Publishing law firms nor Self-Publishing companies. I'm looking for the name of a legit company that can help me without costing an arm and a leg.


Okay, new writers, this one's for you. Let's dissect what's wrong with this question:

He says has received 7 acceptance letters, but five are from "self-publishing companies." (Which are not actually "acceptances," but rather sales pitches.)

Our first dilemma is that he sent at least five self-publishing companies his manuscript.

Why?

Unless you are seeking to self-publish on purpose, and you have a good reason to do so (we'll get to that in a minute), then there's no reason to send your manuscript to any of them. However, many, many writers think it's a good idea to find publishers by Googling things like "publishers that want new writers" and "book publishers for new authors." Even just Googling "book publisher" is a very bad idea. You know who works really hard on search engine placement to attract never-been-published authors? Vanity presses. (Or "self-publishing companies," whichever wording you prefer.) Real book publishers are not trying to get themselves on top of search engines to attract writers-- they have plenty of submissions as it is, and their business is to sell books, not to attract more submissions from inexperienced writers.

If you spent the time writing a manuscript, then do right by yourself and spend time doing the research necessary to find it a good home.

It's not difficult. It's moderately time consuming, but isn't your book worth a few days of research?

Okay, so onto our second dilemma. He says he has 7 acceptances, but 5 are from self-publishers. Am I to take it to mean that he has two offers from legitimate commercial publishers, but he's still trying to figure out who to trust among the self-publishing firms? Sorry, I don't buy it. I just plain don't.

But I'll skip over that. Here's the thing: PUBLISHERS ARE SUPPOSED TO PAY YOU.

You are not supposed to pay a publisher for anything at any time.

You're not supposed to worry about costing "an arm and a leg"-- you're supposed to worry about how to spend your advance money. If you're a nonfiction writer who can't get a real publisher to pay you a real advance, something is probably wrong with your submission.

Nonfiction is sold on the basis of a book proposal. I've written lots and lots about proposals; I won't get into it here except to say that even if your whole manuscript is complete, you STILL need to show a proposal first. It contains information that's not in a manuscript, such as your target audience, your marketing plans, an analysis of competing books, your qualifications, etc. Some agents will look at a book proposal unsolicited, but most prefer that you first submit a query letter the summarizes it first, then if they give you the go-ahead, you submit the proposal.

For fiction, you'll need to write the whole manuscript (but submit a query letter before submitting the manuscript or sample chapters). And I don't judge things the same way with fiction, nor am I an expert in this arena-- I know there's quality fiction out there that doesn't find a publisher for reasons unrelated to quality of writing. But I digress.

I suggest sending out your query to a small group of agents before anything else. This way, you'll get a little feedback before sending it to your next group. If your first group all reject the query, you'll know to rewrite it. If they reject the proposal/manuscript, try to learn from any feedback you receive and move on.

Over and over, I get e-mails with some variation of, "I'm a new writer and I don't know who to trust. Can you tell me the name of a company to send my work to?"

First, no. I've done my homework for 14 years and I'm not about to do yours for you, too. (Not you, of course. You wouldn't ask me to. I know.)

Look, here's who to trust: THE PUBLISHERS WHOSE WORK YOU CAN ACTUALLY SEE ON BOOKSTORE SHELVES, AND AT WAL-MART, AND AT CVS, AND IN LIBRARIES.

Google is NOT the place to look for a publisher. Think about your goals: If your main goal is to get a book published and actually see it in Barnes & Noble, then go to Barnes & Noble. (No, I'm not speaking metaphorically. I literally mean: just go there. It's the least you can do if this is your big goal.)

Once you're there, look for books that are similar to yours in content or theme. Now write down the names of the publishers who published them.

Then look at the acknowledgments pages and write down the people you see thanked inside: editors and agents.

You now have a list of who to trust. How hard was that?

Those are the people who actually managed to get a book published and on bookstore shelves. Self-publishing/vanity publishing companies are not going to do that for you.

I'm not opposed to self/vanity publishing. I think there's a place for it and that it can peacefully coexist with traditional publishing. I think which way you go depends a lot on your goals...



  • If you just want to have something in print for friends and family, go for it. (I've used http://www.lulu.com/ for this.)


  • If you know you have a very limited market and publishers aren't interested, but you want to get it out there anyway, fine.


  • If there's a reason you need to get something out very quickly, it may be your only option.

  • If you're a published author who wants to get your out-of-print books back in print and you can't find a publisher to reprint them, it's probably better than nothing. (I say "probably" because poor self-publishing sales could hurt your chances of a new contract.)


  • If you have a built-in audience that you know you can sell to, then it may work out great for you. If you do a lot of public speaking or performing and you just want to have a book to sell from the back of the room afterwards, or you have a dedicated online following, then self-publishing may be the thing. It offers a higher profit margin per book, meaning that you need to sell fewer books total to make the same money as you would publishing with a commercial press.



But keep in mind that with companies like iUniverse, Xlibris, PublishAmerica (don't... just don't... whatever you do, don't go with this one), their average authors sell about 75 copies.

75 copies. In total. Ever. And all authors think they'll be the exception.

I can point to a growing number of self-publishers who did it right and have been successful at it, but it's nowhere near as simple as, "Write a book, send it to Xlibris, sit back and watch royalties come in." There's no way for me to even summarize all the relevant editorial, production, marketing, and distribution steps here. I'm not going to try, because what I really want to say is:

Slow down. Don't expect others to give you all the answers. It's awful finding out that you just signed over the rights to your manuscript to a company that's going to do nothing for you, that your book will never see the light of a bookstore, and that you're not going to get a second chance because a real publisher isn't going to look at your "Oops, I made a mistake" book that sold 75 copies.

You probably have one shot with this book. Get it right. Slow down.

Once you have your list of agents and editors, then is the time to run things through Google, and http://www.publishersmarketplace.com, and http://www.agentquery.com. Find out who's selling what and who's buying what. Find out which of those agents and editors have moved around since you read those acknowledgments. Find out their submission guidelines and follow them.

And our last dilemma from the letter: "I'm looking for the name of a legit company that can help me without costing an arm and a leg."

He's looking at it wrong. Publishers are not in business to "help" writers. They're in business primarily to sell books and make money... which, in turn, does help writers, but not in the way I suspect he means.

Legitimate publishers cannot afford to be do-gooders who pick up unknown writers' works just to be sweet and kind and make someone's dream come true. If they did, they'd all be out of business and those of us who've actually made writing our life's work would be furious. New writer, your work has to compete. If you can't compete with experienced writers, then you're not ready to submit yet. Publishing is a business with small profit margins, and publishers need to make smart investments. "Hey, this writer has potential" is not good enough. Publishers have to believe that your work is going to have an audience, and that audience is going to spend their hard-earned money on your book in sufficient numbers to warrant all the work and money that's going to go into producing it.

The cold, hard truth is that most new writers who are running around submitting like this don't have a chance of actually getting published. Whether they can change that with hard work, study, critique groups, etc., I have no idea. Some can, some can't. But many newbies overestimate their readiness and expect publishers to have some kind of soft spot for them. It just doesn't work this way. Most editors and agents are thrilled to help someone get their first big break-- but only if that person has earned it. You earn it by writing something great, and editing it until it's terrific, and submitting it to people who are appropriate for it.

And not PublishAmerica. Ever.

Are we at least clear on that?

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Publishing and Me, and the Great Freakout of 2010

When I started writing, older writers would often say things like, "The publishing world has changed! It's not like it was when I was starting." I'd wonder what publishing was like for them; they painted utopian pictures of editors who spent lots of time nurturing writers who showed promise but didn't have professional polish. They described bookstores giving "fringe" authors a chance, and not giving up on authors whose first books didn't sell well. They described publishing as a kind, gentle world where promotion was left up to the publishers and writers had nothing to do but work on their craft.

I don't know how much of that was factual and how much was romanticized. My guess is about 50/50. It's true that when I began writing professionally in 1997, the publishing world had become more competitive, more prone to the chain bookstores' "bestseller" mentality (leaving less space on shelves for books with smaller audiences, regardless of how well-written they might be), and more likely to give up on writers who didn't sell well out of the starting gates.

Probably the most important shift was to "platforms." No longer was publicity something we got to leave to others-- we had to get in there and stomp on those grapes ourselves and get our feet all stained purple and red if we expected to get some wine out of the deal. (Speaking of which, guh-ross!)

Although there was talk of platforms in '97, it's overwhelming now. Agents and editors want to hear your book summary in the first breath, and your platform in the second. Your great book idea is unlikely to sell unless you have something to back up the marketing of that book-- speaking engagements, a radio show, a popular blog, a zillion Twitter followers. Which means that authors today are busier, and less focused on just the writing. We have to be skilled not only in writing great books, but also in making online "friends" and fans, speaking to the media, and generally drawing attention to ourselves. That suits some people fine, and others (like me) wish we could just write and leave the sales to someone else. There's a reason I switched majors away from advertising, you know.

Most of my books are published by large and medium-sized presses. Some are small press books, and I've self-published a few niche titles and one anthology for charity. I wrote a few e-books back in the 90s and early 2000s, and I recently released one exclusively for Kindle. So, in short, I've published books in pretty much every way one can publish books. When I say I've written 19 books, I'm referring only to the ones that have been published by real publishers. In reality, I've probably written more like 26 or 27, but I don't count the others, just because I don't.

If you were looking at a graph of my career as a writer, you'd see a nice steady upward climb, for the most part, since 1997. And then came 2010. What the hell happened in 2010? In my view, publishing collapsed.

It didn't, of course. Books were still being published. But I went from being so in demand that I could pick and choose from a variety of great book offers to having to send out missives to every editor I ever worked with begging for assignments, and those assigmments paid less than they did a year earlier. I had to drop my "minimum" book fee and still couldn't find work. I second-guessed myself. I wondered if I should take up a career better suited to my strengths, like professional basketball. When my daughter told me she wanted to be a ghostwriter when she grew up, I just said, "Awww. That's sweet. Also, no freaking way."

(I didn't say that. She was 3. I would have fired myself as her mother had I said that.)

I confided in my writing friends that I was worried. Did I actually suck as a writer and it just took 13 years to catch up with me? "It's not you," they assured me. "It's everyone."

The publishing world as we have always known it was and is in trouble. At least one major publisher put a moratorium on new submissions, saying that it was not acquiring any new books indefinitely. Bookstores closed. Chain bookstores focused more and more on their cafes and DVDs and gift products and less on books, and still are in trouble. Amazon began selling used books on the same screen as new ones. As the economy tanked, people bought fewer "luxury" books.

One bright light in the well has been the emergence of popular e-readers, which was a long time coming. It took a lot of flops before we saw the Kindle and the Nook. But early evidence suggests that people who use e-readers buy a lot of books-- more than they would buy in print. And that's great, mostly. There's a new article out about how the vast majority of e-reading people claim they still buy almost as many paperbacks and hardcovers as before, but frankly, I don't believe them. And I don't believe that trend will continue if it is true. We're becoming an e-culture, and I, at 35, am already a dinosaur. I love my print books. Moreover, I love writing print books.

Several of my books would not work as e-books. The Marilyn Monroe Treasures and Celine Dion: For Keeps are the most obvious-- they're gorgeous, oversized gift books filled with beautiful photo layouts and removable memorabilia in vellum envelopes. How am I going to get a removable marriage license into a Kindle? I'm not. And I'm not even going to make many sales on Amazon of books like that-- those are books that people have to see in person to appreciate. They have to walk into a bookstore and notice the gold foil cover and open the pages and feel the textures and be delighted at the beauty of the layouts and the intimate feel of the memorabilia. I love writing those books. A culture dedicated to e-reading will kill those books.

A culture dedicated to e-reading will kill bookstores.

It's something I didn't even want to acknowledge as a possibility before, so this is kind of a step for me, typing it out loud. Here's the trend I see as inevitable: as people are more able to buy books online and on e-readers, they are less likely to walk into bookstores and even book sections of megastores like Wal-Mart. As bookstores' profits continue to dwindle, they will have less money to invest in books that aren't guaranteed to sell. That means publishers will publish fewer books, focusing their efforts on books by celebrities and politicians and authors who have already hit bestseller status. Fewer options in bookstores will make readers even less likely to walk into a bookstore, considering that-- at this moment-- everything they want is at their fingertips on Amazon.

"At this moment" is the key, because the cycle hasn't caught up with us yet: as publishers publish fewer books, consumers will no longer be able to find new books on every conceivable topic that are published by "reliable" publishers. That will shift toward self-publishers and e-presses. A major publisher is unlikely to publish a book with a small intended audience, so an author who wants to write that book will be foreced to either self-publish or forget the idea. But self-publishing means there are fewer guarantees for readers: the quality of self-published books is, at best, a risky gamble. Self-publishing authors often don't hire editors (or if they do, they don't hire qualified editors-- partly because they don't know any better); they don't have their work professionally copyedited and proofread and typeset and designed. In short, they don't go through all the same steps that are meant to ensure quality control in commercial publishing. (Again, let me emphasize the word "often," because I'm not trying to tick off the small portion of self-published authors who do actually follow all these steps.)

And I'm not even judging the authors who don't follow those steps... it's expensive! Hiring all those professionals and paying for an ISBN and copyright and whatnot is expensive. Add that to the fact that you're not getting an advance and there are no guaranteed royalties, and you're talking one heck of a leap of faith for those who don't have a lot of money to begin with.

So, end result, readers who buy self-published books are probably going to have a bunch of bad experiences with writers whose work isn't vetted, fact-checked, or properly designed. They may or may not get fed up enough to cut back on their book-buying habits altogether.

And where does that leave us career authors?

Again, in my Great Freakout of 2010, one of my other author friends who was previously very successful and had become... not so successful... told me that she had branched out. Now she was mostly taking on private clients for editing, consulting, and teaching work. She suggested I try that, too, but I was uncomfortable consulting and teaching when I was currently not succeeding at the very thing I would be teaching. I knew I had to get back on top before I could feel okay about telling others how to be a writer.

I swallowed my pride and took on assignments I wouldn't have taken since my earliest freelancing days-- articles for local publications, cheapie articles for websites-- because this is all I have and my daughter and I need a place to live. But I felt miserable about it. Then I pulled out all the stops and began trying things I'd never done before: I took out some Google ads, put out an ad on Publishers Marketplace, joined ASJA, started handing out my business card to people who spoke at seminars, asked for meetings with a couple of great agents.

And then the miracle happened. It wasn't just one thing or the other. I don't know how to pin it down, other than to say that I do believe the economy is rebounding a bit and people are more optimistic, but in the course of a couple of months, I got work... more work than I have ever been offered before in my entire career.

The swing was phenomenal, from scraping by to having to turn down multiple projects each week because I was just too busy. They aren't all the same caliber I had before; whereas I had gotten very used to having editors and agents come to me with their best projects, now I'm taking on more private clients who don't yet have an agent or publisher. But I'm taking them on only if I believe they have what it takes to get commercially published, because I can't stand letting people down. And the advances are still down; an editor who might have offered me a $40,000 advance a few years ago now offers $20,000, and I'm supposed to split that with a ghostwriting client. But at least the assignments are there.

When I mention that I have an overload of work now, I get a deluge of responses that say, "Give your extra work to meeeeee!," which shows me that not everyone is out of the woods, and that bums me out. When I first saw my work picking up, I hoped that meant that everyone's work was picking up and that the whole publishing world was coming back to living color again.

I'm trying not to let all these offers get to my head, though. I hope that this means my career is permanently back on track and that I can look forward to decades of smooth sailing where I'll never have to freak out again, but I still feel the publishing trends of tomorrow breathing down my neck. I still fear that, long term, we're going to lose most of our bookstores and many of our publishers. I fear that the genres that are best suited to e-readers (like romance, fantasy, and practical nonfiction) will do well while the books that are more often "bookstore finds" (memoirs by unknowns, gift books, graphic novels, pop-up books, etc.) will fade away. I fear that talented authors who aren't skilled at interacting on Facebook or speaking at conferences will lose their place in the publishing world. I fear the sky is falling, and I want to get all of us to help hold it in place.

I know I'm long on fears and short on solutions today. And I hope I'm wrong about most of it, and that e-readers really mean what the optimists think they'll mean. What I know is that for today, I'm okay, and my shelves are still full of wonderful books. My editors haven't lost their jobs, and the agents I work with are still getting by. There are a few new authors who are achieving stunning successes in the e-world in addition to the print world. For today, that will have to be enough, while we figure out who's in charge of holding up the sky.


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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Where Commercialism Rears Its Head

"Funny you should ask that, Bob. As it says in my book, in chapter 4..."

That's where I roll my eyes and change the radio station or TV channel. I hate... freakin' hate... being "pitched to" in ways that are thinly veiled as something other than pitches. Free webinars that are really just teasers to try to get you to buy big packages of audio books and DVDs, free e-books that promise to tell you all the REAL secrets in the book that you have to pay for... etc.

I think I've struggled with the concept of self-promotion-- and commercialism in general-- since college, when I was an advertising major. Actually, I started as a fine art major, but by sophomore year, realized I wasn't good enough, so I switched into advertising. By the end of junior year, however, I realized I didn't want to spend my life convincing people to buy things they didn't need and couldn't afford.

It's just that it was too late for me to switch majors again without adding another year to my tuition bill, so I graduated, knowing full well I wouldn't use the degree for its intended purpose. (I did take writing classes in school, though, and college was worth it for altogether different purposes, so I'm not complaining.)

As a writer, I struggle with it on an ongoing basis. I'm just not a J.A. Konrath, though he fascinates me. And it's partly about the kinds of books I write, I think. It's not easy to get all "Tweet this!" and "Buy my book and I'll throw in a free report!" when the subject matter is, say, the murder of a 15-year-old boy (My Stolen Son: The Nick Markowitz Story).

It's even harder for Nick's mom to navigate, though. She and I have different sensibilities about promotion. She has no qualms about going up to people and asking them to buy her book, but this has also given the murderer's friends/family fuel for their vitriol. Under pseudonyms, they use it to attack her character, saying that she's making money off her son's murder.

Well, if you want to go that route, actually, I'm the one making money off her son's murder.

Susan paid her entire advance and then some to me to write the book with her. Don't think that makes me happy, either. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Usually, when I ghostwrite books, there's enough advance money for my client and me to split in a way that makes us both happy. Every now and then, there isn't, and then the client has to make a decision about whether to keep me, whether to go with a less experienced (cheaper) writer, or any one of several other options (self-publish, try for another offer, etc.).

Anyway, Susan kept me, mostly because money had nothing to do with why she wants this book to sell. She did this book because she needed to find a purpose to go on living. Her only child was killed over the stupidest damn thing-- a drug debt owed by his half-brother-- and Susan was in and out of mental hospitals for years, trying to kill herself every few months. Mostly pills, which would mean she'd get her stomach pumped and have pointy objects taken away for a few days, then she'd get released again and try to figure out if anything had changed... nope. Her son was still dead and she still wanted to join him.

His murder was made into a movie (Alpha Dog, which was fictionalized somewhat, but true to the main facts), and the person who pulled the trigger was sentenced to the death penalty. The person who ordered the murder, however (Jesse James Hollywood-- yes, his real name), went on the run and evaded capture for years. He impregnanted a woman in Brazil after learning that Brazil wouldn't extradite someone who fathered a child there. Luckily, when police finally did track him down, they didn't have to worry about extradition. He was there illegally, so he was simply deported, then arrested when he landed in California.

It took nearly 10 years from the time of the murder until the time when Hollywood was sentenced. He was just sentenced earlier this year-- life in prison without the possibility of parole.

When the media asked for her comments, Susan said she was writing a book.

The majority of people were very supportive. A few were nasty. One accused her of trying to get her 15 minutes of fame (because, sure, everyone wants their son to be brutally murdered so they can be famous, right?). Another basically said she was tacky and should leave the selling to the publisher.

When Susan started her work on this book, it was more like a journal, and I think it was mostly for her own therapy. Over time, it became something more. There were lessons here, insights she wanted to pass on. Part of her motive was still to share her memories about her son, so it wouldn't feel so much like he was just "gone," and part of it was to show people-- in a brutally honest way-- where things went wrong. How the family got to the point where things were so out of control, and what the aftermath was like.

It's very hard to sell earnestness, though. I wish it didn't feel so in conflict-- wanting to tell everyone, "BUY THIS BOOK! IT MATTERS! IT'LL STICK WITH YOU FOREVER!" yet knowing there's an undercurrent of "And I have a financial stake in it!"

I have to believe that we'll strike the right balance, and that most people will understand that we both worked on this book for the right reasons. Making money is a fine goal; it just wasn't the main goal for this book. I wanted to do it because it felt like an honor; Susan wanted to do it because it might just mean her son's death wasn't for nothing. Together, we wrote a damn fine book, and I'm trying to step out of my happy little shadow to make sure the world knows it.


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P.S. New review at True Crime Book Reviews-- "She is so open, so brutally honest, so personable – I spent three-fourths of this book in tears..." Thank you, Kim Cantrell.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Starred review in Publishers Weekly!

This just in:



My Stolen Son
Susan Markowitz with Jenna Glatzer, Berkley, $7.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-425-23634-5

This poignant memoir tells the painful story of a brutal slaying that captured national attention when it became the basis of the 2007 drama Alpha Dog. In the summer of 2000, Susan Markowitz's 15-year-old son, Nicholas, was kidnapped and murdered by a local drug dealer in revenge for his brother's debts. Nicholas's death, the ensuing trials of his killers, and the international manhunt for a fourth suspect nearly tore his family apart and sent his mother on a decade-long quest for justice and sanity. Markowitz writes with candor about her grief-induced alcoholism and suicide attempts as well as the troubles that shook her family's foundation long before Nicholas's death. Her unflinching honesty makes this a deeply powerful story that will move fans of the film and anyone grieving a loved one's death by homicide or suicide. (Sept.)

Thank you, Publishers Weekly! Thank you, reviewer! This is our first published review of My Stolen Son, and it's thrilling to see that it's a starred review.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Why I'm a Ghostwriter

It's funny-- if you had ever told me that I was going to become a nonfiction ghostwriter and actually LIKE it, well, I would have cocked my eyebrow at you something fierce. I probably would have even said, "Pshaw!" at you. In my school days, I thought the only kind of "fun" writing was fiction writing. And when I began nonfiction writing, it was only because I saw that it had better financial prospects; it's tough to make a living as a writer, period, but really tough to make a living as a fiction writer.

But I did wind up liking nonfiction writing. Getting paid to learn stuff that interested me? What a deal! As I gained more experience, I began getting offers to ghostwrite books. Little did I know at the time that I'd find my calling there.

My line of work has put me in touch with some amazing people, both of the celebrity variety and of the regular ol' phenomenal-person-next-door variety. It seems like no accident that I've written the books I have; each person whose book I've ghostwritten or collaborated on has taught me something at just the right moment.

Jamie Blyth inspired me to expand my boundaries after I overcame panic disorder. At the time, I was pretty content just being able to go out to restaurants and stores again, but he had done some really wild things to conquer his own anxiety disorder-- like flying to Sweden to join a basketball team, even though he didn't know anyone there. Thinking about his story every day made me want to try bigger and bigger things in my own life, such as...

Working with Celine Dion. I smile every time I think of her. The editor who offered me this book assignment was really taking a leap of faith-- I didn't have any big book credits on my resume when I submitted it to her, but she liked my writing style and thought I had heart. She thought Celine and I might like each other, and she was so right. Hanging out with Celine night after night until 3 in the morning, I learned some of my most important adult life lessons. I learned, most of all, that I was happy I never achieved the fame I once sought when I wanted to be a Broadway star. She taught me that I really was meant for just the kind of work I was doing. And I will forever admire her for the way she cares so deeply about people.

Tracy Elliott taught me more about the kind of mother I wanted to be someday, and about the idea that you don't have to be a victim of your circumstances. She was orphaned as a little girl when both of her parents died, and was abused by her uncles, and riddled with addictions as a teen and young adult... but you'd never guess that to meet her now. You can write your own happy endings, I thought.

Along those same lines, you don't have to look very deeply to figure out what I learned from Scott Rigsby. The dude has no legs, and yet he did the Hawaiian Ironman triathlon. The HAWAIIAN flippin' IRONMAN. Do you know how insane that is even with two perfectly good legs?

And then Susan Markowitz, who showed up in my life just as my custody battle began. Her 15-year-old son, Nick, was murdered because of bad blood between his half-brother and a drug dealer named Jesse James Hollywood. Nick was just a pawn. Anytime I start feeling sorry for myself, Susan snaps me right out of that. Nick was her only child.

I feel lucky that my job puts me in contact with people like these, and that I get to know them so well. It enables me to ask the personal questions that you just wouldn't ask someone at a party, but you'd always be curious about. I know how Susan felt when detectives knocked on her door at dawn to say they'd found her son's body. I know how Scott cursed God for taking away his legs. I know things I'll write about, and some things I'll never write about, because they were shared just between us.

In some professions, you're taught not to get too "personally involved" with your clients. I'm lucky that ghostwriting is not one of those professions. As a ghostwriter, part of the joy for me is in crossing that line. It's the middle-of-the-night phone calls and the e-mails about nothing in particular. The Christmas presents, the family visits. If you don't want to be your subject's friend, I'm not sure how you can make readers love him or her either. (Of course, there is the case for the antihero... but still.)

I love the fact that I never know who I'm going to meet next, or whose life story will grip me for the next year. I love the appreciation I get when the subject feels I've gotten it just right. This is what I was meant to do, and I hope to keep doing it for a long time to come.


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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Unthinkable!

Imagine you were 18 years old, riding on the back of a pick-up truck as you worked a summer landscaping job with your friends. You're about to go off to college, and this is your last summer all together as a group. Then the unthinkable happens.

Your pick-up truck collides with an 18-wheeler. You're launched out of the back and thrown onto the road, where your leg gets trapped and you get dragged 324 feet along the asphalt.That's what happened to Scott Rigsby, who lost both of his legs as a result of that accident.

For many years, Scott was lost and depressed, and couldn't figure out a purpose for his life. Then, while browsing at a bookstore, he saw two physically challenged athletes on the covers of magazines. Inspiration took hold, and in 2007, Scott became the first-ever double-amputee to complete the Hawaiian Ironman triathlon... yes, the one that's televised every year on NBC. It's a crazy physical challenge that even most able-bodied athletes can't complete. But Scott felt something telling him that God wanted him to do this. He made history, and broke down barriers for other physically challenged people, showing them that sometimes the "impossible" is possible.

Scott and I wrote a book together, Unthinkable, and it's in stock now on Amazon. The book has a lot of heart, and I think it's of interest whether you're into triathlons or not. At its core, it's a story about faith and overcoming the odds. I sure hope you'll read it and let us know what you think. We're eagerly waiting for our first review.


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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Honoring Nick Markowitz

Several months ago, Susan Markowitz contacted me to ask if I'd help her write her memoir. Her only son, Nick, was kidnapped and murdered when he was 15 years old. This was the basis of the movie Alpha Dog, which starred Justin Timberlake, Sharon Stone, and Bruce Willis. After seeing the movie and reading about her story, I knew this could be the most important book I'd ever write.

Susan spent several years in and out of mental hospitals and attempting suicide. As she explained it, each time she told her story in a group, suddenly everyone else realized they didn't have any real problems. Susan's first letter came to me one day after I was in court fighting for custody of my daughter, and I was very down. It was as if God was flicking me in the head and saying, "Here's some perspective for you."

I hate that Susan has to be that perspective. But nine years after losing her son, she is remarkably strong and put together, and ready to do great things.

This week marked the end of the murder trial of Jesse James Hollywood. Jesse was a drug dealer who had a falling out with Nick's half-brother, Ben. He and his cronies snatched Nick for revenge, and held onto him for three days before executing him and buring him in a shallow grave on a hiking trail in California.

After Nick's body was found, Jesse ran off to Brazil. The other kidnappers and murderers were caught and convicted, but Jesse stayed on the run for 5 years before someone turned him in for the reward money. While in Brazil, he fathered a child, believing he could not be extradited if he had a Brazilian-born child.

The trial lasted a month and a half, and it's in the jury's hands right now.

I created a Facebook group to honor Nick and to provide a place for people to show support for his family. I'd love it if you'd join: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=99705960901

We just accepted a book deal from Berkley and will have details soon about when the book should be released. I hope to do it justice, because I think this is a story that might just change a lot of lives.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On Word Counts: Shorter is Harder

After 10 years, I'm finally realizing that I have a comfort zone when it comes to word counts. At least when it comes to magazine articles. I'd much rather write 1200-1500 words than anything much longer or shorter.

When an editor wants me to write front-of-the-book type stuff-- 400 to 800 words or so-- I cringe a little. I know it's going to be just about as much work as the longer stuff, for less pay. I'm still going to have to do interviews, I'm still going to transcribe them, I'm still going to write the same meat of the article... and then I'm going to struggle like crazy to trim it down to what almost always seems like too small a space for the topic.

Worse, though, is that there seem to be many editors who cannot grasp that 400 words is not enough to pack in everything they ask for in their brief. "Please write the entire history of the the automotive industry, and a sidebar about bicycles" is just not do-able.

So then I do the mental equivalent of stuffing 2 weeks' worth of clothing into a small suitcase, sitting on it and jumping on it and breaking into a sweat trying to get the darn thing zippered. Then I get the editors' follow-up questions: "This is interesting, but you haven't mentioned why tires are round, or the name of Henry Ford's great-grandson, or why puffy dice became a rear-view-mirror fad." And I have to reopen the darn suitcase and figure out how I'm supposed to stick MORE stuff in it without making the toothpaste explode.

By the end, I'm just closing it up with duct tape and a staple gun. The resulting word count is almost always longer than it was supposed to be, because there's just no way to do it otherwise. But I still get paid for the original assigned count, unless I manage to negotiate otherwise during the request for revisions. (If the editor is asking for something outside the scope of the original assignment, I can try negotiating for more money at this point. Otherwise, I'm pretty much out of luck.)

One of my fantasies involves my asking an editor what word count she wants, and having her reply, "Oh, you choose. I trust you. Heck, we'll just wait until your article arrives and format the rest of the issue around it."

That comes right after the "we'll-pay-you-$5-a-word" fantasy.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Freelancers Union: Worst of the Worst

Freelancers Union, also known as Working Today, offers freelancers health insurance in 31 states. I signed up with them two or three years ago, when the National Writers Union lost its health insurance provider. It seemed like a good idea-- an organization for freelancers, by freelancers, to negotiate good health insurance rates for the group.

Ha!

I began experiencing trouble with their customer service right away. It was clear that the organization's president, Sara Horowitz, used lots of nice words that had no actual meaning. She wrote to us about their commitment to better customer service and how glad she was that people kept them accountable... then did nothing to improve anything, and ignored our letters.

To be more specific, I'll use my current example.

They made a math error on my August bill. I had overpaid for two months, and they owed me a refund. Instead, they charged me again. I began politely e-mailing; they refused to acknowledge the problem. They told me to call-- I did, and was put on hold for MORE THAN ONE HOUR, then hung up on.

You'd think that would be enough torment, but no, I called back-- and got hung up on again.

I e-mailed several times. Here's the main point I made:

I overpaid for two months at $1067.49 (total: $2134.98) when my plan cost $683.65 (total: $1367.30), so I should have been credited a total of $767.68. That would have meant one month (my 8/15 invoice) where I didn't have to make any payment, plus a credit of $84.03 toward the following month. Instead, I was charged $299.81, which means that only half of my overpayment was credited. Or I was charged for an extra month. Either way, I do not have a credit for the full $767.68 that I overpaid.


They have ignored me for weeks. I wrote again to let them know I had been on hold more than an hour, and asked them to call me instead. They did not.

Then-- surprise!-- they sprang a fast one on their members. They decided not to provide health insurance through other providers anymore. Instead, Freelancers Union would be its own health insurance company... with higher premiums and fewer benefits than members had in the past with other companies. No choice: all of us would be dropped from our current plans at the end of December. Hey, thanks for the notice!

Even people who had just registered for Freelancers Union last month specifically for the health plans offered were not informed that they would get only one month on the plan they selected, then be forced to switch to the (for-profit) plans offered by the brand new "FIC" (Freelancers Insurance Company).

So here I am on hold again. I'm typing this as I wait. So far, it's been 28 minutes. I think I'll go make lunch.

Here's a link to read more in the meantime: http://upsetfu.blogspot.com

UPDATE: After I stayed on hold for 31 MINUTES, they hung up on me again. Nice system!

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Friday, November 14, 2008

No autographs, please!

And now I'll blow your mind (unless you're a published author, in which case you may already know this scenario).

There I was in Barnes & Noble the other day. My book The Marilyn Monroe Treasures has just come out, and I happened to be across the street with my mom, so I suggested we stop in and take a look at it in all its glory.

I already knew it was selling pretty well at that store, because a friend of mine had seen 16 copies on an endcap, then my mom went in two days later and there were 12, and when we walked in this time, there were 5. So at least 11 copies had sold that week. I felt good about that.

Since it was an impromptu stop, I didn't have a Sharpie on me. I went to the customer service desk to borrow one.

"Hi," I said. "I'm the author of The Marilyn Monroe Treasures, which you have in stock up front. I'd love to sign the copies you have if you can lend me a Sharpie."

The clerk actually looked upset. She referred me to a woman I assume was her supervisor, who looked the way you might look if someone offers you a plate of pickled mice.

"Well, we don't usually do that," she said. "But I guess... tell me about your book."

I pointed down the aisle. "It's right there. Why don't I just show it to you?"

She walked with me, with a face that told me she was trying to look polite, but was truly not happy that I had come to the store.

"Oh, it's one of these books with the memorabilia. How nice. People really love these books."

"Yes," I told her. "I love working on them. They're such beautiful coffee table books."

"This will do well for the holidays. Okay, I'll need to see your ID," she said. I laughed. My mom had just asked me in the car if bookstore employees ever ask for ID before I sign books. I told her no one ever had.

My mom laughed, too, and flipped to the back of the Marilyn Monroe book to show the woman my author photo. "There's her ID," she said.

The bookstore worker smiled, but still wanted to see my ID. I pulled out a credit card or something, and she was satisfied. I also mentioned to her that I was happy to see that they had sold so many of my books already this week.

"Well..." she said hesitantly, picking up two out of the five books. "Why don't you sign a couple?"

At this point you may be wondering why in the world a bookstore worker would ever want to discourage an author from signing her books. Doesn't that make them more valuable, more likely to sell?

Yes. But I already knew what this woman was thinking: "If she signs them, we might not be able to return them."

So I tell her, "Oh! Barnes and Noble actually published this book, so you don't have to worry about returns. You're not going to return it to yourself."

She kind of believes me. But she explains, "Yeah, that's the problem. When we try to return signed books, publishers won't take them back because they say they're 'damaged.'"

I've heard this before. I don't know whether this is wholly true or not. I suspect that maybe a few publishers do use this excuse, but I'm skeptical about this being a widespread problem.

See, bookstores still work on consignment. They can order in, say, 25 copies of your new book, then wait and see how they sell. If only 5 sell, they can just return the other 20 to the publisher and get full credit (sometimes including shipping). And generally, they can return those books at any time. They might pull them after just a few weeks, or they might literally let books sit on the shelf for years-- long after the publisher believes the books have been sold and spent the money from them. Publishers know that the money they've received can be taken back at any point. It's a crazy business model, and everyone knows it.

I once had a bookstore refuse to let me sign books at all-- because the books were shrink-wrapped. (This was Celine Dion: For Keeps, which was shrink-wrapped so the memorabilia wouldn't fall out or get damaged. I hated that, though, because it meant no one could thumb through the books and see how beautiful they were-- and how likely are you to spend $39.95 on a book you can't look through first?) For me to sign the books, they would have had to take off the shrink-wrapping, and... you guessed it. They worried they wouldn't be able to return them.

This bookstore worker "let" me sign the five books, and my mother asked if those were the only ones left, or if they might have more in stock in the back.

"I don't know," she said, "But I wouldn't have her sign more than five anyway."

So much for my explanation about how, y'know, they PUBLISHED this book, so they weren't going to return it to themselves. Sigh.

As I was signing the books, though, a woman looked over and asked, "Is that a biography of Marilyn Monroe?" I said yes and handed her a copy to look at. She told me she was going to buy it.

"Great," I said. "Do you want me to personalize it to someone?"

"Um, if you do, I have to ask you to buy it first," the bookstore worker interjected.

I don't mean to blame the worker. I get that she's doing her job as assigned. It was just such a sad state of affairs, as I apologetically followed the woman to the cash register.

I hear this treatment of authors isn't the same everywhere. I suppose a lot of this is because I live in New York, state of authors on every corner. I've even heard tales of authors being treated to muffins and scones and whatnot. Though I suspect the scone author was exaggerating. I mean, seriously. Scones! For free!

You think they'd do this to Stephen King?

"Um, okay, Mr. King. You can sign five of these books. Could you do it in pencil so we can erase it if they don't sell?"

I'm glad I picked a field where they keep my ego in check. I mean, my self-esteem was approaching lukewarm when I entered the store. That could be dangerous!

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Scott, Kimmi, and Sarina

A few months ago, my former editor at Nomad (hi, Lauri!) recommended me for a job writing a book proposal for Scott Rigsby, the first double-amputee to complete an Ironman. He was featured on NBC's 2007 Ironman special-- a great show, which you should definitely watch if it reruns again. I'm no sports person, but this was a human interest piece to the extreme. Great stories.

So that's what I've been doing these past few months: working with Scott to get this book proposal ready. Slowly. (Yeah, this balancing-motherhood-with-writing stuff is still a huge challenge to me.) How lucky am I to have found a person who doesn't mind being interviewed at midnight?

The proposal is just about done, and I can't wait to see where this book lands. A few publishers are already interested, just based on the pitch, but I suspect a lot more will be excited about it once they read this proposal. It's the longest one I've ever written... closing in on 60 pages. I thought it was important to write three full sample chapters on this one, which I've never done before. I wanted to give a sense of the highs and lows of the story, which is hard to do in just short snippets.

Anyway. The reason I'm mentioning him now is that he's a top-10 finalist in the Energizer "Keep Going" Hall of Fame, which will be decided by online votes. It would be a great accomplishment for him to win it, so I'm asking you to click on over and vote for him if his story inspires you. You don't need to register, and you can vote once a day. Right here.

You can also learn more about Scott at www.scottrigsby.com. He's a very cool guy.

Also want to give a shout-out to my friend Kimmi, who just SOLD HER AWESOME MEMOIR, currently titled The Unbreakable Child. 'Bout time.

Oh.

And some more Sarina pics. ;)








She's more and more affectionate these days. She's very into the "leg hug," and squeezing really hard around the neck.

New-ish feats: she signs to me to let me know when her diaper is dirty, she's starting to dance, she's attempting to feed and offer drinks to her stuffed animals, she blows kisses to strangers, she removes her high chair tray and says, "Done!" as it falls to the ground (naughty, naughty), she knows how to use keys, she sticks things into the VCR (already?! Sheesh. This thing is going to be filled with crayons within days, I know it), and she writes with a pen.

Also, she's reading. I know, now I just sound like a show-off, but I kid you not. Without my coaxing, she started pointing to words and reading or signing them. I've heard her do "all gone," "milk," "done," and a few others. She also recognizes some letters-- the ones that show on her alphabet mat that I mentioned several posts ago. There are toys on top of the mat, so only certain letters are showing on the floor. When I ask her to find the letter R, or Y, or O, she goes right over and points to it.

And that's all the news that's fit to print today.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Me and My Girl (and Marilyn)


I'm hoping and hoping to finish the Marilyn Monroe first draft before Christmas. I'm not sure if it's possible yet, but I'm going to try.

I've interviewed a number of people for it, but am still trying hard for several others. Did you know Gina Lollobrigida and Marilyn were good friends? I'm trying to reach her, and Eli Wallach, and her singing coach, and... well, about 50 others who haven't yet answered me. Time is getting tight. I have enough material already, but it would add a lot to the book if I could speak to people who don't ordinarily speak about Marilyn. I'm aiming to get interesting little anecdotes from people who met her along the way somewhere, even in very limited capacities. (Psst, know anyone who knew Marilyn Monroe? I'll be your BFF.)

I'm so distractable about the actual writing, though. Every night, I tell myself I'll do nothing but write, but I have irresistible impulses to do stupid things online. Like, does eBay have any new finger puppets today? (I already bought Sarina the Wizard of Oz set for Christmas. How many finger puppets does one baby need?)

I wasn't always like this. But I'm still getting my work done. It just means I'm staying up until a million o'clock. I don't really kick into gear until 2 a.m., so to work for a few hours means I'm really messing up my sleep hours. I sure hope I get this figured out before Sarina's in kindergarten. I may have to really cut myself off from all my online time-wasters.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

An extra hour to write

Michelle tagged me to write a post about what I would write if I had an extra hour every day to write. Hmm.

Now, the real answer is that I'd just use that hour to get my assignments done, but I have to assume that the spirit of this meme is to find out what our "heart projects" are.

Someone else asked me about that by e-mail recently. Well, technically, I asked myself. It went sort of like this: He asked me if there was anything no one ever asked me about my writing before that I wanted to be asked. I said I had never been asked if there was anything I wanted to write but wouldn't. So... he asked.

Anyway, what I explained then was that I had several ideas for books that I'd love to write, but wouldn't be commercial enough to justify the time I'd spend on them. Some Absolute Write readers might remember the time I went searching for a book that would be appropriate to teach my brother (who has Down syndrome) about dating. He had asked me for a book that would teach him how to talk to women, how to kiss... and I found nothing that seemed at all appropriate. There were books for boys just beginning puberty, or books about "how to score" for horndog adults, but nothing that seemed right for his situation.

I wanted to write that book. I know I could have interviewed psychologists who specialize in helping adults with intellectual disabilities and come up with something good, but the audience for it is just too small-- I'd wind up with a small advance from a specialized publisher, and that would take away from the time I have to spend writing "bigger" books and making a living. So I can't do it.

There's another project, though, that falls on the cusp of commercialism in my mind-- a "positive thoughts for pregnancy" book. I was terrified toward the end of pregnancy, and had to really find ways to stay positive. I mostly did so by asking people for good pregnancy stories, and by trying to focus on the "good" statistics (most babies are born healthy, most women don't have long-lasting complications from labor, etc.). But so many of the books I read, even the ones that were supposed to be inspirational, were totally scary. They contained labor horror stories, and because the baby wound up okay, it was supposed to be a positive story.

Anyway, that's probably what I'd work on if I had extra time. A pregnancy book that contains only happy thoughts for women who are scared about pregnancy. I do tend to write books that I wished I had myself when I was going through something (panic disorder, beginning a writing career, etc.).

For this meme, I tag Lori, Frank, and anyone else who wants to write about this topic!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Thank you, creepy professor

So where was I? (Read the previous post first if you haven't already. I'm writing about how I became a writer. I'll wait here.)

Right, so I was now an advertising major, and as such, had to take writing courses. That was cool by me because I had always enjoyed writing and had taken elective writing courses as an art major. I had even tried to take an advanced workshop in poetry, but I was turned down. What a disappointment that was! I remember waiting outside the class when the list was posted, and searching and searching for my name. I remember, too, the poem I used as an "audition," and how stupid I felt afterwards. Dumb poem! Why did I write you? Why did I think you were any good?

I had a slightly weird writing history in school. Very early on-- I'm talking first grade, I think-- my teacher wrote on my report card that she expected to see my name on the New York Times Bestseller List. My mom, who was an English teacher and thrilled! thrilled! thrilled! by this notation, saved that report card and mentioned it roughly every three days for the remainder of my life to the present day.

I loved books. Loved reading under the covers after I was supposed to be in bed. Joined all the summer library reading clubs. Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Shel Silverstein... I remember writing to Ann Landers once, too, asking for her advice about where I could be hired as a writer. I was maybe 8 or 9 and wanted to know if she knew of any newspapers where they would "let kids in."

But along the way, and I can't point to when or why, exactly, I dropped the idea of becoming a writer. Although I did well in English classes, only one or two of my teachers really seemed to see anything special in me. I didn't do wonderfully on my AP test. I wrote a lot of bad poetry and short stories, but I stopped reading for pleasure when the required reading selections in junior high and high school sucked the joy right out of it for me. I'm really not fond of "the classics," and overanalyzing literatures kills any of the magic it might contain, in my mind.

More than anything, my passion was always the theatre. I was a good stage actress, and that's really what I always hoped to do. Everything else I studied and worked on sheerly as "fall-back" options, because I knew how unsteady acting was as a career.

I had begun college as an art major only because my father wouldn't let me major in theatre. He thought it would be a bad life for me, and that you didn't need college to become an actress anyway. I'm really not sure why he thought art would be more stable, but he didn't complain about it. He was happy when I switched to advertising, though.

So. Advertising. Writing courses. Right. It was my introduction to writing for mass communication class, or some title like that, and the professor taught me more in the very first class than I had ever learned in any other class. Primarily, he taught me to analyze every word I wrote to make sure each word was necessary. He asked us to write about ourselves during the first 15 minutes or so of that first class, then said, "Now take out every unnecessary adverb, adjective and every word that isn't essential to the meaning of your essay." It was so enlightening to me to see all the cross-outs. And, I'll be darned if he wasn't right-- getting rid of all those pretty adjectives and adverbs made it a much stronger piece. He taught us about strong nouns and verbs, and about the discipline of rewriting.

Our first real assignment, though, was to write about a turning point in our lives. I agonized over my essay all week, mostly writing fairly trivial things until I gave in and wrote the thing I knew I had to write about. On the last day before class, in an all-night sort of frenzy, I wrote about being raped. I was scared to death to turn it in, and scared into the afterlife when he handed back all the papers but mine and instead told me to see him after class.

What he wanted to do, though, was to literally shake me by the lapels and tell me I was going to be a writer. I told him that I wasn't, but he insisted. It was a nice feeling, even though I was sure he was wrong.

I've told that part before in interviews. It's the next part I don't think I've ever mentioned.

He followed me home.

Not that day. It was a growing crush he developed. First, he paired himself with me during a profile-writing exercise. After I finished "interviewing" him, he told me I had left off a question. "What?" I asked. "You didn't ask if I'm married." "Oh. Are you?" "No," he said with a smile.

Oh.

We met on the subway by chance one day, and he sat next to me and told me he was a hobbyist photographer and would love to take my picture one day because I had such an interesting face. It made me squirm a little. But it was the following-home episode that really almost had me calling campus security.

He often talked with me after class, and we sometimes walked out together. Usually, he wanted to recommend that I read certain books, or he wanted to comment more on a piece I had written. This day, he had brought Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground and he wanted to read it to me. Seriously. He began reading... and when I told him I had to go home to change for work, he simply got on the subway with me and kept right on going. When I said, "This is my stop," he got up and walked with me as if I had invited him to.

It was all very weird because I had no idea where to draw the line. He hadn't ever tried anything physical on me, nor said anything sexual, but I was pretty sure professors weren't supposed to follow their students home. When we got there, the power in my house was out, and only one of my roommates (out of TWELVE) was there. The professor followed me to my bedroom, and that's where I finally told him he'd have to leave because I had to change and go to work.

He never tried that again, and I never saw him again after that year was over, but as I reflected on it later, there was a giant compliment in all of it: I had been hit on and stalked before, by men of varying ages and marital statuses, because of my looks. I had never been hit on because of my brain.

And that's really what this was. There were plenty of attractive women in that class, I'm sure several more attractive than I was. But it was my writing that did it for him. He was completely infatuated with my way with words.

I had always wanted to be great at something.

Maybe I could be a great writer.

I took more writing courses, and found out that I got similar reactions from two more professors. Not the hitting on me or following me home stuff, but the pulling me aside after class and telling me I was meant to write kind of stuff. One wrote, "You humbled me" on my first assignment, which was my favorite compliment. I knew he had expected me to be... not very good. I came in with daisies in my hair and an eyebrow ring, and I understood he thought I was an airhead. Another taught my favorite workshop, and encouraged me to intern with the university's literary magazine (I did). He e-mailed me a couple of years back and let me know he wasn't at all surprised that I became a successful writer.

So, really, I was the only one who was surprised I became a successful writer. I thought it would be a hobby, but it was the panic disorder that fixed my wagon. I was acting in a children's theatre at the time, then became housebound and had to find something to do from home. I wondered if I could really earn any money as a writer. I set out to find out. Obsessively.

I had nothing and no one in my life at the time outside my immediate family. I couldn't go out-- the panic attacks would just take over. So for years, I had nothing else but this desperate hope to make it as a writer, to prove that I still had some kind of worth.

I got a couple of magazine assignments quickly, but it was beginner's luck. It took at least two or three years until I had steady magazine work, and another couple of years to make my mark in book publishing. My "big break" actually came in the form of several smaller breaks that I can trace all the way back to my earliest work-- some of which I did for little e-zines for minimal payment. I wrote whatever anyone wanted me to write in those first few years, regardless of what I got paid, and I don't regret it for a second.

I hinted a couple of posts back about the things I learned from Celine Dion, and the biggest lesson for me was this: I spent an awful lot of time feeling cheated that I never got to take my big shot at acting. I had planned on moving to LA with a friend and seeking out my fame and fortune, but that was when the agoraphobia hit. Celine and I talked through the middle of the night again and again about fame, about her life, about the paths we choose and the dreams we create and how the things we think we want as children aren't always the things we want as adults. She wistfully talked about how she wanted to be "owned" by her son, but often felt "owned" by the public.

I could never have handled fame. It would have been entirely wrong for me. And as I sat there on the floor with this marvelous woman, I realized that I was happy exactly where I was. I didn't feel restless anymore. I was doing what I was always meant to do, and I was enjoying it. Telling other people's stories was becoming a real blessing in my life-- it meant that I got to meet some really interesting people and learn from them, and I got to feel good about helping them. I'm a good listener, and good at writing in others' voices.

So it's a bit like that song-- what is it? About going around the world before realizing that the person you love lives right next door? Writing was my "guy next door."

And Sarina owns me.

And I'm glad.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Recycled notebooks

For just about every book I've written, I've kept a large looseleaf notebook filled with notes, correspondence, photocopied medical studies, etc. If I kept all these notebooks on my shelves, though, they'd crowd me out of my office eventually-- so I reuse them. I have two big ones (1 1/2 inch ring binders) and two smaller ones that I keep swapping out when it's time for a new book.

It's always a strange feeling, though, tossing out the old. Each of those notebooks represents several months of my life. But when I look through them, I realize I'm done-- there's no need to hold on to a hundred newspaper articles about bullying when the book is already in bookstores. So I throw the notebook contents in the recycling bin and put a new label on the spine of the notebook... but it's still hard to do.

Only once did I regret it, and that was my Celine notebook. I still know which one it was. I replaced it with notes for another book, but every time I look at it, I think, "That's my Celine book. That's the green binder I lugged around to Vegas, the one I carried with me through the casinos and shows and hotels. The one I read and reread in the hotel hallway at 5 in the morning so I wouldn't wake anyone." I tried to distance myself from it and pretend it was just another job and that it was time to move on just the same as I always do, but I was faking it. That was an experience.

Maybe this next book will be, too. If so, I promise to let myself keep the notebook in tact for sentimental reasons.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

How will I write again?

I didn't expect it to be this hard to reconcile motherhood and writing. I figured all along that I was so lucky to be in the position I'm in-- I work from home and make my own schedule, so I always thought I'd be able to continue fairly easily once baby arrived.

I've hesitated to write a post like this, because it brings up another issue bloggers face: my editors could read this. My editors could read this and think, "She's not going to be committed to her work." But for the past 7 years, I've been telling the truth about my career and what I know about publishing in the hopes that it might help other writers, and I don't want to give that up now because it's a riskier topic. So I'll tell it.

Somewhere around halfway through my pregnancy, I stopped actively looking for work. I continued the projects I was already contracted for, and took on some small work here and there, but took a "wait and see" approach to the bigger work. I didn't want to sign on for a new book before I felt secure about being able to handle it.

I've now signed on for my next book, and have offers for several others. Normally, I'd work on at least two books at a time (I've done up to four at a time, but vowed not to do that again), but not now. I want to stick to one. So I have been telling the agents and editors who call on me that I'm booked until February, which is when that next book is due. None of them balked, so I'm still in talks and deciding which project (if any) I want to take on after that.

It's an awesome position to be in. I'm sure that if I were a struggling new writer reading this, I'd hate myself and warn myself to shut up now. But the feelings of "OMG, I get paid to write all day" do fade after a while, and even though it's a great job, it is still a job. So I continue...

Lots of offers. Several that really interest me. But I'm so torn. All I really want to do is make my daughter laugh all day. That's it. Right now, I want to be asleep next to her, instead of researching on the computer. I want to be a well-rested mommy so I can always be at my best for her.

We can't make it on one salary, though, so there isn't much of a choice: I do have to go back to work. My total earnings in the last seven months are about $200 for a couple of reprints. (I am waiting for other checks to arrive from more recent work, but I've depleted my savings paying the bills.) The question becomes how much work to take on, how soon, and how to figure out completely new time management.

Used to be that I'd work 16-hour days much of the time, especially as deadlines came nearer. I didn't have to worry about scheduling interviews far in advance; I could basically tell people that I could be ready whenever they wanted. Now I need advance warning, and I need to make sure Anthony or my mom is around to watch Sarina while I'm on the phone.

Wouldn't be a big deal if it was an occasional thing, but for a biographer, phone interviews take up a lot of time. And you really can't say, "Let me call you back... the baby needs a bottle" more than once.

The unpredictability of naps is tough to work around, too. I'm so used to sitting at the computer for hours, checking e-mails and Absolute Write and whatever before settling in to do whatever writing needed to be done. Then I'd have the liberty to "get in the groove" and write all night long. Now I may have 15 minutes in a stretch where baby is napping, I've finished the dishes and the pumping, and I'm hoping she doesn't wake up before I've come up with at least one new paragraph.

By the time I have another 15 minutes, the groove is blown, I've forgotten what I wanted to write next, and I lose hope of ever finishing anything.

I'm in this uncertain place, and it makes me edgy. I don't like not having a handle on my time, not feeling sure that I can work out a schedule that'll work on my short deadline. I have to do it, yet I worry that I might screw this up. I want to give 100 percent of my attention to my daughter, but writing a major book in 4 months is going to take a lot more than 0 percent of my attention.

And what if I get it done, but nearly lose my marbles in the process? I'll already be committed to one or more other books after that, no break in between. On the one hand, that's a good feeling because it makes me feel secure that we'll be able to afford what we need, but on the other, it makes me feel trapped on the same overachieving wheel that landed me with a panic disorder a decade ago.

I wrote an article last night. It felt good. Maybe it's just going to take some small "mommy steps" to get me back to a semblance of balance again.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Mail Woes

This is one of those deflating moments you never really think about when you're in the honeymoon stage of book publishing-- you know, the time between when you sign the contract and the first month or so after the book comes out. Those months are so full of possibilities. Then, there you are five years later with an unearned-out advance and a statement showing that you've managed to lose money in the last 6 months.

How, you ask? Simple: the number of returns exceed the number of sales.

"Returns" doesn't mean that a customer returned the book. It means that the book was sitting around on the bookstore shelf and someone who works in the bookstore finally decided it was just taking up space there and probably would never sell, so they get to return it to the publisher for full credit at any time. I guess some of those stores have been hanging onto the book for the full five years. Nice of them, really.

Anyway, there does come a point-- maybe after the first two or three royalty cycles-- where you pretty well figure out whether you're ever going to earn out. If so, then the countdown begins. You think to yourself, "Cool! I just have $340 to go before I start getting royalty checks." And you predict when that'll happen, and you fantasize about how big the check might be and for how many years you'll get to sit back and collect on the title. But if you realize it's never going to earn out, then it just feels mean for them to keep sending you statements. It's like a quarterly or biannual reminder of your failure. By about the fifth statement, you just want to say, "Okay, I get the point already! Quit rubbing it in."

"Earn out" days are always glorious, even when the checks aren't very big, because they represent the potential for lots more checks. I should probably knock on wood before I say this, but none of my books are out of print yet. Nonfiction has a longer shelf life than fiction, in most cases. So some of them have been earning modest royalties for me for several years.

But alas, today. Today the mail just taunted me, showing me that not only would I never earn out on this particular title, but that I had managed to go backward instead of forward, "owing" the publisher more money than last time. (I put "owing" in quotation marks because you don't actually pay back the publisher if the title doesn't sell enough to cover the advance. But they do show you in each statement how far you have to go to "pay back" the advance before you begin getting additional payments.)

Luckily, I accidentally sold a reprint yesterday, which cushioned the blow somewhat. Reprints are the other great bonus in a writer's life. You don't have to actually do anything except send the article out again (or, in this case, not even that-- the editor contacted me instead of the other way around), and presto: a free check. Cool, huh?