Saturday, April 26, 2008

lessons, confessions, and retractions: a publishing intensive

Oh man, I am so fried. And it's only 1:15.

I attended a 3-hr publishing intensive workshop this morning. The key word here is intense. We had a small, yet diverse group of writers, ranging from nonfiction to children's fiction to my chick lit. And Zelda (our fearless facilitator) was excellent in giving people a forum to speak and ask questions and share experiences.

Where to start? I learned so much--not necessarily all *new* information, but I certainly had some awakenings and massively had to humble myself. I suppose the most important one was the follow-up to the lightbulb moment a week ago.

There is another side to the craft of writing: the business of writing. And it's so easy to get caught up in the creative process, and to see the creation like a child w/out a single flaw. It's easy to get so caught up in the "please read this and like it" that you forget about those things you would apply to any other job situation: do your research; persuade an agent and a publisher that you're going to make them money; show off your credentials (first, get some!); make connections; and so on.

My first humbling moment was, thankfully, a private one. I'm not doing enough of these things. Not nearly enough. Or I'm doing them and I'm not doing them well. And I can. Thankfully, I believe that much.

On self-publishing: Here's where my retraction comes in. I've gone back to my original position, which is that self-publishing is not right for me. And this is coming from a business point of view. I didn't do enough research. I didn't have all the facts (or, at least, enough of them). And now that I do (and know where I can go to get even more), I'm certain that my reasons for having made the announcement that I was going to were not good enough -- they weren't sound business reasons, although I thought they were at the time. Pride-swallowing moment number two.

And then, I really went and did it when I offered up my query letter for critique and feedback. And I admit: when I was barraged w/ critiques and questions, I went on the defense -- not angrily, mind you, but I just wasn't ready for it. But Zelda did what a good teacher does: she intervened, and gave me a moment to figuratively breathe. She invited me to *listen* and then told me to pick up my pen and write down what my co-participants were telling me (she said it like that, too: "pick up your pen and write what we're telling you." I so needed that!). And then I let down the wall and listened. I was ready. I asked for more. And their comments and suggestions helped me to cut the cord from my letter that I had read and re-read and re-wrote umpteen-thousand-million times and see/hear it from the point of view from the agent who wants to know how this is going to make her/him money.

Isn't that something? I teach audience and purpose for a living. I conduct workshops in which I ask my writers to do the difficult task of stepping into the shoes of their intended readers; and yet, I barely knew my audience here. I was talking around them, over them, at them, underneath them. Everything but to them. Each agent may as well have been that ambiguous "general public" or "anyone who is interested in reading this" that my students so often mis-identify or characterize.

Perhaps the most humbling moment of all was when Zelda recommended that I stop the query process for awhile. It was tough for me to hear that for a few reasons: 1) Because she was right and I knew it, 2) because I felt like I had just stumbled to the bottom of the hill again, 3) because I have this looming sense of urgency, that the more time that slips by, the farther into obscurity I will fall.

The last two are fear and ego-driven, of course, and thus not valid. All three are ego-driven, in fact.

And so, to avoid staying in the ego trap, let us call it like it really is.
Here's where I'm at:
- I've got a kick-ass first novel that still needs another 20K words, sequel or no sequel.
- I've got to hold myself to the same expectations of thorough research that I hold my students to when it comes to knowing the market, knowing as much as I can about an agent, knowing what's gonna make money, etc.
- My query letter is not sufficient.
- I've got to explore and aim for other publishing options (magazines, literary journals, other kinds of blogs, etc.)
- I've got to attend to all of these things before I can resume the query process.
- I've got approximately three months to devote my full time to it, come May 3rd.
- I can do it.
- Urgency is bullshit.
- I am a writer.

I suppose then, that a fitting end to this post is that when I came home and checked my email, I found an attachment from my PIC of our latest exchange of ideas and drafting. For one thing, it was a loving reminder of why I bother w/ it all. Without craft, without process, without creation, there is no business, no product, no market, no query. Without joy, there is no will.

That one humbles me enough to make me a little verklempt. (ok, a lot verklempt; I'm tearing up so much that I need to get a tissue...)

I could really use a Caribou fix. And some student papers await grading. That might actually clear my head. And awwwwaaayyyy we go!

thanks, Zelda.
namaste, writers.


Stacey Cochran said...

For what it's worth, I don't agree with the strategy to stop querying altogether. I think it's wise to take a step back, from time to time, and revise... but I wouldn't lay off more than about a month.

Your novel is good enough to publish.

My opinion (and it is only that) is that every rejection letter makes you stronger. Or more precisely, every rejection letter followed by some proactive action as a response to rejection, makes you stronger.

Every time someone tells me "No, thanks" and I bounce right back and send out another in good faith and with a positive attitude, that process makes me stronger.

I've been sending out work for 13 years now, and it's that repeated process year in and year out that gives me the ethos (or belief in myself) to schedule and moderate panel discussions at stores that draw 50+ people, to get in front of a TV camera that reaches 90,000 people, to travel from city to city, bookstore to bookstore, to work with the head of Borders National Events on a national campaign, to work with one of the heads of Lulu publishing... and to do all this without buckling.

It's the very persistence of constantly querying, constantly writing a new novel every year, constantly going to writers conventions and meeting editors and agents that makes you stronger.

Advising someone to take 6 months (or more) off of the querying for a novel that they've worked on for 3 years without offering any suggestions of things to do proactively to move your career forward is bad advice.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what she was saying to do.

My belief is that a writing career is like a global war. You have to fight on every front imaginable, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, relentlessly... for life.

The Purple Panda said...

Perhaps I didn't clarify or follow through on that. It wasn't just stop querying--give up. The recommendation was to lay off the querying for the sake of submitting work to magazines, literary journals, etc. in order to "beef up" my publishing credentials and thus have a better shot of getting an agent's attention.
Additionally, I can work on those aspects of my novel that the agents responded to (namely, word count) and do the work I need to do to spiff up my query letters.

So, as you can see, there are plenty of proactive measures. Maybe six months is a bit excessive. Maybe I can do the journal submissions *and* query agents.

And, like you, I believe that the rejections serve as a strength builder.

And Stacey, I bow down to you for the career you have built, and your dedication to serve other writers through every panel discussion, workshop, tv show, writers group critique, etc. You have mentored me through this entire process, and if it weren't for you, I would've have even had the opportunity to do the publishing intensive. I owe you a lot!