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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Writing as Career

Bits and Pieces of Scheduling


I hung one of those academic-year wall calendars on the door to my office because, whether I'm in a classroom or not, my whole life has been attuned to starting a new year with the start of school.  I can take big blocks of summer to laze around and do things on impulse, but when the first leaf turns, I start to chart my time. 

So I'm sitting here looking across the room at that calendar and trying to future out what all those blocked-out periods of travel are going to mean to my book production schedule. Here's what I see: 

1. I have three weeks coming up during which I should be able to work on the first draft of "Damed Yankee." The third week has the potential to be super-productive because my husband has jury duty, entailing him leaving the house by 7:00 AM every morning. Since I'm not going to want to tackle that rush-hour traffic twice a day, he'll be taking the car and leaving me effectively house-bound. That's OK, though.  That's how I get work done.  I also expect the first proof copy of "Left by the Side of the Road, 2nd ed." to arrive and demand a careful line-edit. 

2. Labor Interruptus: Between September 13 and October 7, I only count eight days when I will not be traveling, and of course they come as individual dates, not strung together in one work period. Those trips promise visits with many old friends, so I want to be free enough to enjoy them without work-guilt. My eight free days will be filled with all the pre-publication stuff that has to happen between the first proof and books hitting the shelf. So, new writing? Probably not. But thinking, planning, and making notes to myself? Absolutely.  That's how I fill  interstate miles. 

3. October is "Nose to the Grindstone" Month. From October 7 on, I see only three evenings booked--two meetings and a wedding. My days are free (so far) to accomplish the following:
  • Official publication of "Left by the Side of the Road" in trade paper and text conversions to adapt it to Kindle and Smashwords.
  • Creating pre-publication hype for "Damned Yankee," scheduled to make its debut sometime in the spring of  2014. That includes posters, a trailer, pre-pub postcards and other handouts to be used in  conjunction with book talks to audiences that may be interesting in what is coming next.
  • Estimating future book sales and ordering copies to take on a book tour coming up in November.
  • Planning the presentations for each of those book talks. For various reasons, they cannot all be the same.  Different venues have asked for different topics.
  • And, of course, writing. Right now I have good intentions of finishing the first draft of "Damned Yankee."

4. Hell month (otherwise known as November): From the very first day through Thanksgiving on the 28th, we have ten days at home, again scattered across the calendar and likely to be consumed by laundry for the next trip. We're on the road every weekend, and I have five book talks scheduled on the weekdays in between. 

5. After Thanksgiving comes one last chance to find some productive writing time, either finishing first draft of "Damed Yankee" or starting a full rewrite. Then on December 12th we hit the road again, managing just two days home  before Christmas. (I'm betting there will be no fruitcake and no Christmas cookies baked this year!) 

So, think retirement means boredom and sitting on your hands with nothing to do?  Think again. So you want to be a writer? Better think that one through again, too.  Want to make some real money? Try being my cat-sitter. As for me? Back to work!



Self-Publishing Is Not for Wimps, Part 1


More and more frequently I am reminded that, of all the qualifications a self-publisher needs to have, none is more important than developing the hide of a rhinoceros.  For the next few days, we'll take a look at some of the reasons. 

Your first clue lies in the deceptive word "self."  In my book, The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese, I argued that every self-publisher needs a staff.  I wrote, "You cannot hope to sit isolated in your little home office and do everything yourself, no matter how talented you may be. The success of your book will depend upon how well you assemble a team of assistants.

I then compiled a list of all the people who had helped me with the publication of my books. Even I was surprised at how many there were: travel agent, mail clerk, photographer, design artist, layout expert, production company, printer, web host, banker, credit card manager, professional promoters, financial advisor, accountant, lawyer, sounding boards, manuscript readers, salesmen, and cheerleaders. Each of them deserved partial credit for any success my book had achieved.


Despite the arguments I made in favor of a staff, the simple truth is that in self-publishing, everything boils down to you.  Are there spelling errors, grammatical bloopers, punctuation flaws in your new book?  Who made them? You did.  Who failed to catch them? You did. Did your interior design team, or your cover designer, or your content editor mess up? Well, who hired them? You were wrong if you made mistakes.  You were wrong if you didn't hire an expert to do what you couldn't handle yourself.  And you were wrong if you didn't second-check the experts.  Each member of your staff deserves partial credit for any success you achieve. But the ultimate blame falls on you.


2. Not only are all the mistakes your fault.  There isn't anyone else to clean up after you.  You're all alone with the mess -- thus the need to develop the hide of a rhinoceros.

What Is It You Are Trying To Accomplish?

You’ve listened to varying advice about what to do with your writing.  Now it’s time to make some decisions.  Let’s start with question 6:
 
What is your ultimate goal?
·      The satisfaction of completing the book(or essay, or poem, or collection)
·      A book I can pass on to my friends, my family, and my neighbors.
·      A publishing contract with a well-known publisher
·      A published volume sitting on the shelf of my local library and/or bookstore
·      A review of my book published in the local newspaper
·      Best-seller status on Amazon
·      Making the best-seller list in The New York Times
·      Royalty checks coming in every month
 
If you are satisfied to settle with the first two, you’re almost ready to stop reading and start writing.  The satisfaction of knowing that you have finished what you set out to do is enormous, no matter how large or small the original goal.  So if you want to write down the family legends to pass to your grandchildren, or compile a cookbook for your club members or neighborhood, or collect tips on sightseeing in your hometown, go ahead and do it.  You have a computer, a printer, and/or access to someplace like FedEx/Kinko’s, that can put it all together for you. Your friends and family will be impressed, and you will be proud of yourself – no small matters.
 
But if you’re hell-bent on writing a book that becomes a best-seller, you have some other decisions to make. Do you want to try to find an agent and a publisher to take your raw material and turn it into a book?  It can be done, although it may take years to get there.  There are skills to be learned, many of them having to do with things like query letters and synopses, and I’m not going to try to offer advice on  them.  It’s been years since I traveled that route, and the publishing world has changed a great deal in the interim. 
 
I abandoned the traditional publishing route in 2007, after I had spent 3 years knocking on doors without success. Publishers didn’t want to waste their shrinking resources on someone who was already eligible for Social Security and Medicare – not a good future prospect, it seemed. And I, too, had to face the fact that if I wanted to publish my books, I needed to do so quickly.  At age 68, I didn’t  have all that many productive years left – certainly no time to waste. At that point I needed to consider all the options.



Are You in the Business of Writing?

Oh, dear, the question of what makes a writer is really complicated, isn’t it? If you want to talk in terms of semantics, then anyone who expresses a word by making a mark or using symbols is a writer.  But in terms of the question above, a writer is someone who makes those marks in order to communicate with someone else. And for the purposes of the following discussion, I would add, “to communicate with people (plural) the writer does not know.”
 
With that distinction in mind, look at question number 1: What kind of writing do you do?  The first three suggestions do not fit that definition of a writer.  They represent me, the maker of marks, talking to myself. I may be a diarist, a journal-keeper, a chronologist,  but not a writer – not yet.  Nor will I qualify if I add another category – a writer of letters to friends or family.  That simply makes me a correspondent. No, I won’t become a writer until I produce a collection of writings,  or a poem, or a short story, or a textbook, or a scholarly essay, or that novel. And the most important word in the preceding sentence is “produce.”
 
What does it mean to produce something? It implies creation, and it implies a product. And products? They are the building blocks of business.  Think of it this way:  I could build a bird house in my garage, knit a scarf in my living room, or construct a boat in my basement.  But the bird house, the scarf, and the boat don’t become  “products” until I get them out of the garage, or the living room, or the basement (Good Luck with that one!). They become products when I can make more than one. They are products when I offer to sell them to others instead of just using them myself.  Until I do so, I’m simply indulging myself with a hobby or just giving away homemade gifts.
 
Here’s where working on my income tax return converged with the question of what makes a writer. The IRS asks for one’s occupation, not what one does with one’s spare time.  When I list “Writer” as my occupation, I’m telling them something very specific.  I’m saying that I write as a business.  I produce pieces that others can read – whether short story, poem, essay, instruction, or novel.  I make those pieces of literature (my products) available to others. And I charge for them.  I sell them, expecting to make a profit.
 
The question at the beginning of the tax form matters because later, they will ask if I want to take a deduction for my business.  If I knit scarves and hide them away in a bottom drawer, I don’t have a business.  Nor do I have a business if I give those scarves as Christmas presents or donate them to a homeless shelter. But if I knit scarves and offer them for sale on Etsy, I have a scarf-producing business.
 
Why is this so important? I know several people who write pieces of literature, but dismiss them as something they “don’t expect to make any money on.”  In most cases, that’s not just altruism, or false modesty.  It’s self-doubt. The statement says, “I‘m not really a writer.” I’ve been working with one person like that right now, and sometimes I want to shake him.  I want to say, “Of course you are! Stand up and admit it. You’ve produced something that is really very good.  Claim it. Quit giving it away.  Start charging for it. This is your product, and you’re in business, like it or not.  Be proud of it.”
 
Now ask yourself that first question again.  What kind of writing do you do, or do  you want to do? Are you a writer?  Do you want to be a writer? Then let’s get on with it. You have a business to create.

There's a Right WayTo Do Everything

After talking about the kinds of advice writers hate to hear, it seems only fair to give equal time to the other side.  So here's a column that originally appeared HERE.  Jane Finnis is an English writer of Roman mysteries, and she is particularly clear-headed about giving advice. Here's what she has to say about "The Right Way To Write."

I’m not all that keen on laying down rules about writing. You know the sort of thing: “Ten golden rules every author must follow.” Hmmm…rules, as Lenin almost said, are like pie-crusts, made to be broken. When people ask me if I have any writing tips, I find it very flattering, but I must begin my reply with a warning. I haven’t (obviously!) found the secret of mega-success. I’d love to think I could simply follow a list of do’s and don’ts to produce sure-fire best-sellers, with film companies competing for my rights while I’m alive, and universities fighting over my manuscripts after I’m gone. Wouldn’t we all? But I do know the kind of books I want to write, a
and I’ve accumulated some guidelines – I’ll put it no stronger – that help me give my best shot. They may help others, so here goes:

1. Write about what interests you. Don’t be tempted by something that doesn’t, even though other people tell you it’s commercial, fashionable, “a sure winner.” With luck it may turn out to be any or all of the above, but only if you are interested and can make it interesting for your readers. Writing a novel is hard work and it can take years from creation to publication. If you’re bored at the start you’ll be brain-dead by the finish. Your prose will probably be dead too.

2. Once you begin on a novel, write regularly. I’m not saying every day; that would be nice, but may simply not be feasible because that pesky factor known as Real Life gets in the way. Work on it more than once a week. If you don’t keep up the momentum, you may lose interest, however fired-up you were when you started.

3. Have some kind of a plan, don’t just launch yourself into the wide blue yonder without any idea where the book is heading. How detailed the plan is depends on you; there isn’t a right way for everyone, you’ll find the method that’s best for you. Some authors prepare very full chapter-by-chapter plot outlines and stick to them; others (like me) just write a skeletal framework, a note or two about the beginning and the end and a few key items in between. Then as I write, the details emerge gradually and I go with the flow…but I do know where I‘m flowing to. I call this the Colin Dexter method, because he claims it’s how he wrote his Inspector Morse books: he says it’s like driving from London to Edinburgh without a road map. You know the general direction, and you’ll find the exact route as you go.

4.  Try and keep your writing fresh, with a newly-baked feeling about it; not stale or hackish. (My spell checker thinks I’ve invented a new word. But you know what I mean.)  Steer clear of obvious pitfalls: avoid clichés like the plague…OK, an old joke, but nonetheless true. Don’t slow down the action with pages of laborious description. Again I’ll use the B-word; if you read over yesterday’s creative output and it’s boring, don’t let it stand. We all have off-days, but we needn’t inflict them on our readers. Delete it and do better.

5. Don’t give up. However hard it is, however long it takes, if you have a book to write, persevere till it’s done. Whether it eventually gets published, whether it sells millions, that’s harder to predict. But if you’ve completed a first draft, you’ve achieved something important, and you can be proud to call yourself a writer. So stick at it. That’s the only truly unbreakable rule.