Why Do I Write?

Possibly the second most-asked question for writers, after “Where do you get your ideas?”, is “Why do you write?”
I’ve reposted the meme about (paraphrased) “writing is like breathing; if I don’t do it I die” several times. A bit dramatic, of course, but I’ve spent so much of my life writing, I can’t imagine doing anything else. When I got a job as a reporter on an aviation magazine, it was a died-and-gone-to-heaven moment: They paid me to write about what I loved, airplanes.
I write because it’s how I communicate best. Often, the spoken word fails me, but the written word never has.
I write because I feel deeply about the world around me. When I saw genocide in the Balkans, I had to write about it. When I saw a disproportionate number of black men killed by police, I had to write about it. When I see injustice, racism, sexism, etc., I have to write about it.
Writing for me is catharsis. I’ve exorcised the demons of my father’s suicide and my mother’s alcoholism by writing them into my fiction. As I said, when the spoken word fails me…

How I Got Started

I started writing stories in elementary school with my weekly list of spelling words. You remember–the exercise where you had to use each correctly in a sentence. My sentences comprised a story, usually about horses.
One year for Christmas, I got an alphabet, rubber-stamp set, and I set about printing a newspaper for my neighborhood–based on what I heard my mother and her friends talking about at the kitchen table. I hand-printed, letter-by-letter, a half dozen copies and left them on doorsteps. Needless to say that didn’t go over well with my mother because I’d essentially repeated her gossip. The rubber stamp set mysteriously disappeared.
In high school, my English teacher caught me writing fan fiction in her class. She confiscated my notebook but gave it back to me the next day. “Keep writing,” she said, “just not in my class unless it’s an assignment.” My very first spy story she accepted as an assignment for class. My first book of short stories, Rarely Well-Behaved, I dedicated to her.
In college, I was the first non-English major to be published in the literary magazine–my first published sci-fi story. (It sucked, as I discovered when I found it thirty-plus years later.)
I had a break in writing after college when I taught school for a few years. I got a job as an editorial assistant for an aviation insurance consortium, and that led to my dream job writing about airplanes and aviation for the FAA. While I wrote articles and briefing papers and white papers and studies and regulations and manuals and congressional Q&A, I still wrote fiction at home.
But it was a long, long drought of having my fiction published–more than thirty years. So, I decided it was time to retire and write for myself.

The Big Mo Builds

That first year after retirement, nothing got published. I remembered how much I disliked those rejection notifications, but I kept at it. First came a story in a start-up lit mag; then, another. Publication in an anthology. Placing well in a contest. Another anthology. More lit mags. Another contest.

In between were agent rejections, self-publishing some short story collections, small publisher rejections, and a few more agent rejections.

Still, all this has made me feel I’m on the edge of something I’ve wanted my whole life, something that’s about to happen. I’ve always said if I could simply get my stories in people’s hands they would find something to like about them, that they would want more.

In the midst of all this, I stopped being the writer others said I should be and became the writer I’m supposed to be.

Why do I Write?

Because it lets me be vulnerable and forces me to be authentic.

What more can you ask of life?

NaNoWriMo Let-Down?

Counting today, five days remain in National Novel Writing Month. I finished my first draft (65,000+ words) about a week ago, and I think the writing adrenaline left me then.

NaNoWriMo involves a lot of build-up in the month of October, rolls along at a fever intensity for the thirty days of November, then you have a writing crash. Holiday shopping and other preparations intervene, and December can easily become a Month of No Writing.

(And here, I’d like to give a shout-out to my regional NaNoWriMo group, Shenandoah Valley and Winchester Wrimos. The administrators–Susan Warren Utley, LaMishia Allen, and Rebecca Postupak give plenty of encouragement and become your personal cheerleaders through their in-person and on-line events. Great group and great folks.)

I have a personal rule about a NaNoWriMo draft: I put it aside for several months, just to move it from the forefront of my writing brain, and work on other things. After finishing the first draft on November 20, I really had to resist going back and beginning to edit the draft right away. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Not enough distance yet between the first draft and the need to revise. For me, at least, I need to clear that first draft away and forget about it for a while. Only then can I come back and take a “fresh” look at it.

The professionalism of the people who run NaNoWriMo means they don’t encourage you to run out and self-publish that first draft, and to further encourage our success, their web site includes a list of NaNoWriMo-ers who have had their NaNoWriMo novels published. When you study this list, you’ll see that, for those who’ve had their novels published in the traditional manner, it was the novel from two or three years before, i.e., after likely several rounds of editing and revising.

So, if you’re not revising that newly minted NaNoWriMo draft, how can you keep from getting a post-NaNoWriMo let-down? First, who says you only have to start a new novel in November? Start a new novel, work on revising a short story, edit a previous NaNoWriMo work, write a piece of flash fiction–the writing possibilities are endless.

I’m “lucky” in that I have all these manuscripts sitting around in various stages of completion. There’s always something for me to work on, and it’s not like I have to force myself to write. The issue for me has always been treating writing like what it now is–my work, my career. I mean, I took Thanksgiving Day off and felt guilty about it. I guess my pre-retirement, Type A work personality just shifted to my new job. And that’s a good thing?

The only let-down from NaNoWriMo for me was not working on something new and different from what I usually write. With my writing, though, in more ways than one, there’s always work to do.

How about you? What do you do after you’ve finished a project? Do you take a writing break or start right in on the next project?

Stirring the Pot

Over the weekend I stirred a small controversy when I replied to a post on Facebook. It was a link to a blog post by someone (and I’m leaving out the names to keep the guilty from suing me) who extolled “unedited self-publishing.” This phenomenon, the person indicated, was fresh and new, and this person preferred the name “alt fiction” or “alt lit” for such work. The important thing, the blogger indicated, was that more people were getting published and essentially thumbing their noses at traditional publishing.

Now, I’m all for making traditional publishing reconsider itself (I have self-published and will probably do so again.), but I commented on the Facebook status that I hoped the blog was a parody because reading unedited writing was a waste of my time and energy. Calling it “alt fiction” was just an excuse for not knowing how to write.

I got a long dissertation from someone–not the blog writer–about how narrow-minded I was. Didn’t I know language evolved? Didn’t I know grammar changed over the years? What followed was several paragraphs, un-punctuated and full of typos by the way, about how I was behind the times and too rigid. The whole “write as well as you can and use an editor” thing was a condescension to traditional publishing and why would we want to be like them anyway?

Okay, that’s a possibility. I’ll acknowledge that I’m pedantic about spelling, punctuation, and grammar because I don’t want to read crap. Experiment with language all you want, but if you have an entire book that is essentially a mis-punctuated, misspelled run-on sentence, you’re not breaking etymological ground. Call it “alt lit” if you want, but your readership will be small; and you’ll be lonely in your self-satisfaction.

And, yes, I’m aware grammar, usage, and punctuation evolve. I taught English lit, for Pete’s sake. However, evolution takes time and has to gain almost universal acceptance for real change. I mean, we’re still debating the Oxford comma.

The thing that gets me is that the resources to assure your writing is grammatical, properly punctuated, and makes sense are plentiful and cheap. Not wanting to use them is just laziness and marks you as uninterested in perfecting your craft. And that makes me uninterested in reading what you’ve “written.”

Believe what you will, but I still consider a poorly written, unedited work dreck, not “alt lit” or any other appellation attached to it as an excuse for, well, not knowing how to write.

Rarely Well Behaved, Adieu

Little did I know when I casually entered a writing contest in early 2000 that by the end of the year, I’d have a book published. The winner of the contest got the trip to New York to meet an agent, and the rest of us slobs who were runners-up got the opportunity to claim a $99 printing contract with a relatively new print-on-demand publisher named iUniverse. The “claim it” window had a fairly short fuse, and if you claimed it, you had to get a manuscript submitted also in a fairly short amount of time. To “qualify” the manuscript had to be longer than 110 pages.

The $99 contract (which is now unheard of at iUniverse, with the minimum contract now close to $1,000) was bare bones–no editorial review and you had to correct the proof, but if your corrections numbered more than 200, you got charged for author’s alterations.

I decided I would give it a try. Yes, it was self-publishing, but I could justify doing this by the fact my story was good enough to be a runner up and get the consolation prize. The problem was, I didn’t have enough short stories lying around to constitute 110 printed pages. I started writing and/or finished a few pieces that I’d started and never concluded. I spent most of a night proofreading the manuscript and made the deadline for submission. I figured I could fix any typos or obvious editorial gaffes when I got the proofs.

The proofs arrived, and it didn’t take long for my corrections, i.e., edits, to approach the magic number of 200, and I had to go back and decide which were the most important–typos, obviously, and as many edits as I could get in under the magic number. The proofs went back, and a few days later came the cover for my approval. It was one of those seminal moments when you wish every loved one who had passed on was there to see such a beautiful thing. I had given a very vague suggestion for the cover–a house, a woman in old fashioned clothing, and a fence, which was based on one of the stories. The cover was perfect. I’ll let you judge for yourself:

I approved the cover, and about a week later came the proof copy of the book. That was another seminal moment, and I couldn’t help but be sad that my father, who was always amazed by what he called my “way with words,” wasn’t there to see it.

After the proof approval, here came my box of complimentary books, ten of them, and I had the pleasure of going on Amazon.com and seeing my book for sale. iUniverse at that time had an agreement of sorts with Barnes and Nobles book stores, and I used a couple of the free copies to hand off to events managers at the stores near me. That resulted in my books being on the shelves of a book store, several book signings and readings over the next year, and a guest speaking engagement on the benefits and pitfalls of self-publishing.

The biggest pitfall for me was the fact I had to do my own marketing while working a full-time job. I managed to score a couple of radio interviews, but this was in the days before the current social media. If I wanted press releases to go out, I had to create them, stuff the envelopes, and mail them. iUniverse gave you free marketing materials, i.e., graphic files of bookmarks, postcards, and small posters, but I can to print them and distribute them.

But that’s no different from what many authors published by small presses experience. I was lucky that I had media and professional contacts I could use. In fact, the organizer of a large aviation conference gave me time at the conference book table even though the stories (except for one, peripherally) had nothing to do with aviation. I sold thirty-six books in two hours.

In the twelve years since its publication Rarely Well Behaved enjoyed very modest success, but to me any sale was a success. A couple of years the royalties were less than $10, but the sales were consistent.

Yes, it was a self-published book, but I was damned proud of it. Still am. I’m a much better writer now than I was twelve years ago, but the stories still resonated. When I moved to my new hometown, I ended up being able to put copies in a local bookstore and a museum shop. At a book event in 2010 I sold eleven copies of it, more than any of the other authors there. I got e-mails and Facebook posts from people who told me what the stories meant to them.

My book may not have met the criterion for a New York Times bestseller, but it was my own bestseller.

When the time came to consider making Rarely Well Behaved an e-book, I gave it considerable thought and decided now was the time to improve those stories. I gave each of them an overhaul, but I vowed the central plot and characters of each wouldn’t change. I did combine two into a single, long story, almost the length of a novella, but each story is crisper, better honed, and contains fewer -ly adverbs.

Since I was doing that, I decided to break the one print book into two e-books, so that the  espionage stories could be in a volume to themselves. Fences and Blood Vengeance were published in April, a few days before my birthday, and that was the best present. (You can see the e-books in the sidebar to the right. Just one click, and you can own them. No, the marketing never stops.) Then, I made the decision to take Rarely Well Behaved out of print. Mostly, I didn’t want people to buy all three books–and some did–only to discover the, well, similarities.

On May 26, Rarely Well Behaved went out of print, and I was a little sad; but I was also very grateful for the opportunity to hold in my hands a real book with my name on the spine.

Virginia Festival of the Book – Fourth and Final Day

It seems like yesterday when I attended my first panel at the 18th Virginia Festival of the Book, but here I am done at last and eager for next year.

Today was “Pub Day,” with panels focused on all aspects of publishing from eBooks to agents. Running concurrently were “Crime Wave” panels, featuring authors and publishers of crime fiction, mysteries, and thrillers. I picked some from each.

My first disappointment in a panel for the entire festival was “Pub Day: eBooks,” so I won’t list the panelists. When the first question from the moderator to the panel is “What is an eBook?” and the answer from a panelist is, “It’s a book without pages where the text flows,” you know it’s a waste of your time. I’m certain the vast majority of attendees at the Festival were aware of what an eBook is, given the number of Kindles and Nooks I saw about. Add in the fact that the opening panelist hemmed and hawed and even asked the audience for the word she sought, I decided to leave and prowl the Book Fair.

“Pub Day: Making the Breakout Book” was an interesting offering. On the panel you had Robert Goolrick (A Reliable Wife); his agent Lynn Nesbit; his editor and publisher Chuck Adams of Algonquin Books; and his publicist Kelly Bowan, also of Algonquin Books. This was an in-depth glimpse to the entire process of querying a book, having your agent sell it, editing and revising it, then having it marketed.

I broke away from Pub Day to go to “Crime Wave: Thrilling Me Softly,” which featured four authors of successful suspense, mystery, or thriller books. Jane Bradley (You Believers) based her novel on a true story–after a visit from the dead victim in a dream. John Milliken Thompson found the idea for The Reservoir while researching Richmond, VA’s Civil War history. Gary Kessler also drew on a real event and some local Charlottesville history for What the Spider Saw. John Gilstrap writes a series of books featuring a hostage rescue team, the latest of which is Threat Warning. All four had lots of good tips about pacing, and though there was a difference of opinion about the importance of characters versus plot, each had good suggestions for doing your best on both.

It was back to Pub Day for “Agents Roundtable.” Three agents–Erin Cox of Rob Weisbach Agency, Byrd Leavell of Waxman Agency, and Deborah Grosvenor of Grosvenor Lit–gave a frank and detailed talk about how to approach an agent, how to query them personally, and to “match” your work to a specific agent. The most interesting aspect of this was none of them indicated they would be deterred by a query from someone who had self-published. Each of them stated that with the publishing industry in such turmoil right now,  they couldn’t ignore a prospect from any source. That was more open-minded than I had expected.

And, the day was done for me. It’s hard to believe that this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book was over so quickly. Even though it’s not particularly craft-focused, I got a wealth of helpful information in bits and pieces. I’m glad my Commonwealth supports creativity in this way. I’m already looking forward to next year.

As each of the moderators said, the Festival is free but it’s not free to produce. Please consider going to the Web site and contributing to a great way to bring writers together.