Measuring your career and profitability: Live-blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 15 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-14 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“When your book hits a major best-seller list, it does create a meaningful ripped effect—more people hear about it, more sales get triggered…and you’re likely to get more invitations to do media or to speak.” (pg. 220)

“It’s important to see and track where the work comes from as well as the profitability of the work.” (pg. 229)

These two quotes come from two different sections of Friedman’s book. The first is from a chapter on book launches, and the second is from a chapter on making a freelancing career.

I see them as being related. My book career is, more and more, related to my freelance writing career, and I am looking to streamline this even more, as I get older and, uh, mature in my career.

Hopefully you’ve seen by now how a lot of writing actually mirrors a lot of the way we would work in any other career: tracking your successes, doing your research, training for success, making sure you have the right resources to succeed, are all par for the course, just as they are in any other field. This is as it should be.

For today’s post, we’ll talk a little bit about what it was like for me before and after my book was published.

My book was published in 2016. Before then, I was doing a lot of marketing writing and content creation. I still do this, because I really enjoy it, but the bulk of the things I was hired to do was either pitched magazine articles or corporate work. A large part of this is not only my actual qualifications, but where I felt most comfortable offering expertise. Even while I was in the process of getting published—a long year, because that’s how long it takes in the traditional publishing world—I didn’t feel quite comfortable talking about what it was like to write fiction or publish it.

Most of my speaking gigs and teaching gigs up to then leaned on my expertise as an editor for the Tahoma Literary Review: I would come into classrooms and talk about things like working with an editor, what editing careers look like. I focused more on the broader field of publishing, since I had a lot of experience in that already, on both the publishing end and the editing and writing ends, as a freelance writer.

After I published, though, it was like a switch flipped in my head. I could see the various options that were open to me more clearly, and, probably most importantly, I felt confident in my offerings. Here’s the key, though: Nothing had changed in terms of my expertise at writing fiction, but the book—that product in my head—gave me key currency with which to trade.

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu debuted at number 5 on my distributor’s fiction bestseller list. And it crawled its way up to number 3, and then eventually fell off the back end, after eight long months. And although this is not one of the major best-seller lists that Friedman refers to, it gave me even more of a leg to stand on, if only in my own view of my career as a published writer.

After I published, I felt much more confident pitching magazines with articles on the art of publishing and the craft of writing. And even the nod I got from the Thurber House (Marty Wu was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize in American Humor) gave me the added emotional impetus I needed to pitch and write an article on black humor, a topic I’ve always wanted to cover.

This where tracking the profitability of these ventures, though, becomes paramount. It’s very easy to lose yourself in the headiness of chasing after speaking gigs and teaching opportunities, or penning blog posts and interviews. And, because much of this work is done with no immediate financial return on time investment (no, you do not usually get paid for doing Q&As about your book), it’s also easy to fall into the trap of justifying this time spent as moving towards more book sales and more speaking gigs.

But you have to work to balance these out. You must acquire paying gigs in order to offset the “free” work you’re doing in order to promote your book and its work.

Pre-publication, that work looked like marketing work for me. Post-publication, it’s paid articles about writing and publishing. It’s also adjunct work.

When I visit college classes, students often ask me if it’s “still possible” to earn a living off of writing books. I tell them yes, but that it’s time to expand the definition of what that means: “Being a writer” means, to me, sharing what I have learned with others. It means building on the capital I’ve acquired and leveraging that.

I mentioned tracking your profitability in the headline of this piece, and I think, the things I mention above are all parts of that puzzle. But one tool you must use is a time tracker and invoicing service. I have used Harvest for many years, thanks to my colleague at TLR, Ann Beman, who introduced me to it ages ago. It comes with a built-in set of parameters that include billable and non-billable hours, so that I can see where my time is spent. I have a complicated formula in my head that allows me to “weigh” what I’m doing against its inherent value, which I’m not going to share with you here because it is too involved—and frankly, I’m not 100% sure of what it actually is.

But I do value the work, on both a practical and an emotional level. And in our society right now, which is based on money exchange and not on, say, the barter system, well, measuring your profitability is the only way I can see of being sure that we are valuing our work on the same level everyone else does.

Here are some tips for you:

  • If you’re doing work for free, be sure you offset it with plenty of work that pays well.
  • Measure or track your time. Be clear about this; no wishy-washiness. You need to know where your time is going.
  • Find your own sense of worth and value around your work. Experience counts, so you can’t expect to command top dollar if you’re just starting out.
  • Finally, don’t underestimate the emotional value of a hard piece of “currency,” whether that be your published book(s), articles you’ve written, or your degree. I mean this mostly from an emotional standpoint. And if you don’t feel ready to make an offering because you haven’t published or are mid-degree or whatever, that’s okay, too, but be realistic about it: many great writing coaches don’t have MFAs, but you may not feel comfortable stepping into that field without one. Everyone is different, and respecting your own parameters is good. But so is pushing your own limits.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Great Literature Events: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 14 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-13 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Unless you’re a household name as an author, you need to think carefully about how you’ll structure your reading or event. What will be instructive, entertaining, or delightful for those who turn out? Readings have a tendency to be dreadfully boring, with audience members wondering when they will end..” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 214)

In my work as a disaster relief volunteer, we have the end user of our aid always in mind. The end user in our case are the families receiving our aid, so everything we do must in some way contribute to a good result for them. This kind of thinking–asking ourselves who we ultimately serve–makes everything easier, by way of allowing us to benchmark: Does this course of action serve the families who receive our aid? No? Then let’s pursue another solution. Yes? Okay, let’s follow this road and see where it takes us.

I think folks who hold readings must also consider carefully who their end user is. Often, writers run into the question of why they’re having a reading or event, and the answer isn’t always, “oh, to sell more books.” Your experiences may vary, but for me, the end user is always the reader, and the reason I make appearances is to win people over, to keep them reading me.

The why of being a writer is about the readership; the why of why I choose to put pen to paper is about the readership. For me, then, the why of readings and events is also the end user.

Years ago, when I was involved in marketing for the MFA program I graduated from, I was asked to produce an event at AWP, the biggest writer’s conference of the MFA’s year. As part of our sponsorship of the conference, we had access to a space that we could use for a cocktail party. We wanted people to socialize, but we also wanted them to get something out of the event. My only tenet going into the planning of the event was that I wanted to make it an event that people–our end user, the attendees of the party–would have fun at, would get something out of. I wanted them to be impressed with our graduates and walk away with a bright, warm spot that they would associate with our MFA.

We had readings, sure. But they were pop-up readings. Our meetings at the MFA were called to order with a big ship’s bell, so we used that to “ding” the room into order whenever a reading was to start. That kept people on their toes. And after every reading—thirty seconds max, I think it was—the person who was reading drew from a big hat of raffle tickets and someone would win a prize.

There were very short speeches. But mostly, it was a packed, rowdy room full of people who hadn’t seen each other in awhile, and people who had wandered in to see exactly what the hell all the dinging and laughing and cheering and ruckus was about. Members of the board of directors for the conference stopped by. They said they had never seen such a turnout for these value-added events before

It remains, by far, one of my most memorable and happy professional experiences, and it was all down to making sure we kept the end user in mind.

When my book was published and I started to plan readings and events, I remembered how well that event had worked, but I don’t think I saw much in the way of possibility to recreate that kind of event. The closest I came was helping to put together a panel discussion between myself and two other writers at a New York City bookstore. We all read from our works, very briefly, and then we had a robust conversation about the state of diversity in literature. It was a great evening. I really enjoyed myself, but I was pretty clear that was because I felt like the audience was walking away with some solid information under their belts, stuff they could feel happier about having learned. I recently participated in a similar event that had the same structure, and I was so happy to be asked to join in.

I love events with other writers. Two or three or four heads are always better than one, and the energy in a room is so much better when you can bounce off of someone else. But even if you’re doing a solo event, there are ways to make it feel like someone else is up there with you, and ways to promote other writers: One writer I know, Kaitlin Solimine, buys copies of books by people she knows, and raffles them off at the end of her events. She also printed pre-stamped postcards with her book’s cover on them, so that we would almost inadvertently spread the word.

Probably, for me, the best thing ever is getting a chance to promote someone else’s work. I love the sensation you get of using your success, however limited it might be, to bolster someone else’s work. We see this in our opening event for the invitation-only (for now) twice-yearly writer’s retreat, too. Twice now we’ve given the faculty members the option of just doing a reading or opting into a discussion with one of our retreat’s staff members as moderator, and both times they’ve opted for the moderator.

This might be for the simple reason that three people makes for better dissemination of nervous energy. Or that it’s just easier to talk to a moderator whose job it is to see the connection between two vastly different pieces of work. In any case, it’s preferable.

You may not come to the same conclusion as I did about who my end user is. That’s okay. But you should know, at least, who you’re aiming to reach, and build your strategy around that.

And now, your tips!

  • Each event may be different. Ask yourself who’s likely to be there, and what they may expect out of it.
  • Don’t be afraid to show your personality. I’m loud, so when even me at the mic couldn’t make the room hush up during the big event I mention above, I started to sing The Carpenters’ “Close to You.” Pretty soon, the whole room was singing, and it’s easier to make everyone stop singing than it is to make them stop talking to people they really like. And at the very first reading I ever went to, the author only read for a little bit before he said that he didn’t really like long readings, and he pulled out his steel guitar and started playing for us instead. I don’t know how many instant fans he made that night. I was one of them.
  • Do ask other writers to join in. This is one thing that never, ever fails. I love spending time with other writers, and this is such a great way to support each other. Share the love!

What were the best readings or literary events you’ve participated in or attended? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The E-mail Newsletter: Live-blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 13 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-12 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

So what should you put in this newsletter? The only limit is your imagination, and while the intent is to keep your name and work in front of people, you also want to keep it interesting—which means trying to provide value or otherwise focus on other people or quality content. (The Business of Being a Writer, pp. 191-193)

I’ve just sent out the latest copy of my newsletter. I try to do one once a month, but every once in awhile I slip up, and actually, I wish I’d started this whole newsletter thing a lot earlier. As has been previously discussed on my social media, I love letters, anyway, so what took me so long?

I thought for this post, we’d dissect my own newsletter, and then I’ll tell you about a few I really like, how’s that?

The first thing people see is the subject line. For awhile there, I had a cutesy name for my newsletter—Yi Shun’s MiscelLAIney—but I abandoned that quickly. I’ve never been known by my last name, really, and nothing in my name loans itself to a cute pun or moniker, so I just started titling it by whatever month it was. (“July News from Yi Shun,” say.) I’m not thrilled with this, but for now, it is what it is, and I’m okay with it.

The second thing folks see is a banner photo. I try hard to choose one that’s different each time, but lately I’ve been finding myself gravitating to the same style of banner photo–a bunch of fruit or a big swathe of something or another, like trees or blue sky, and that’s okay; I just need to be better about making sure I take one of these photos at least once a month, so I have a ready stock to choose from, and a photo that makes me feel good. What is the point in struggling when I can make it easier on myself? And I really enjoy the act of putting together the newsletter, except for when I struggle for one reason or another—like hunting down a stupid banner photo. Meh.

The second thing is the headline. This sets the tone for the whole newsletter. In my template, the headline reads, “You guys it is over 100 out,” or something colloquial like that. I like the chatty tone, but I have got to be better about crafting these headlines. They do not stick, and I’m not sure they invoke people to reading these newsletters.

After the headline, they get to the chatty intro paragraph. I think this is just a hangover from regular letters for me. It’s a certain amount of throat-clearing, but I like to see it as a little thank you and a tiny catch-up, the “So…how are you?” part of the newsletter. Whatever you call it, I’m going to hang onto it, for now. It seems weird to start any correspondence without it. I’m going to fine-tune it sometime in the near future, though, and play with some anchor links to the different sections of the newsletter, so people can jump quickly to those sections.

The first real section is the list of books I’ve read since I last checked in with my newsletter readership. These are preceded by a little paragraph, and sometimes a photo, of an indie bookstore I visited in the preceding month. Sometimes I don’t get to visit a bookstore, then that’s sad. I write a little something about the bookstore and I like every picture of a book cover to that book on the bookstore’s web site itself, so people can buy it. I don’t know that anyone’s done this yet, but I like this part of my newsletter and it’s not likely to change. The notations about the books themselves are typically capsule reviews. I feature three books, usually.

The next section is a relatively recent adjustment. It’s there to provide a little glimpse into my personality. It is Quotidien Object I Love. I pick an everyday object and tell people why I love it. It’s a break from the info-dump a newsletter can be, and it tells my readers a little something about me. This section—the Funny Little Thing About Yi Shun section—was always there, but it was previously an ArtFail. Like, a shit drawing or watercolor. The thing is, that title was mean to be self-deprecating, but I don’t actually believe much art is failure. I think it’s just nice to put pen to paper. So that section wasn’t ringing true at all. Out it went.

The final section is back to business. It’s Where to Find Me, and it tells people about any events I’m appearing at and what I’ve written and published recently. This section serves the obvious function of telling people where to read me and meet me, but it also serves the secondary function of making me feel like I’ve actually done something in the past month.

I used to end with a section called The Last Word, but I like to save things I actually have anything to say about for my actual web site, so I dumped that section too, recently, and just closed with something simple, like “See you next month.”

What am I doing right?

  • I am leaning on the things I like anyway—reading and chattiness and ordinary objects—and this loans the newsletter an element of authenticity.
  • I am trying to provide value, by way of sharing the books I read and the events I’m going to.
  • I am trying to be regular about this newsletter. It is not without fail. But it does appear mostly regularly, and it does get a good number of opens, although that number has been dropping over the months.

What could I be doing better?

  • I would like to provide more value. Maybe something like a writer’s tip or a tip from the editor’s side of the desk, or even a roundup of things I’ve found on the web that I really like.
  • I would like to be more germane to my work. Since I do teach writing for a good chunk of my work, maybe something unique to provide would be an exercise. Or I can draw from my personal desire to see writers draw more lessons from other fields, like business or visual art.
  • I would like to be better about marketing this newsletter overall. Things like tracking the number of opens and dialing in to see what I can do to improve that would be worthwhile uses of my time.
  • I’d like to drive more engagement as a result of, or as content on, this newsletter. Maybe this will take the form of asking more questions and posting people’s answers, or hosting some other more interactive feature.

Now. Here are some newsletters I really like:

  • Aspen Institute’s Five Best Ideas of the day. It is short and sweet and makes me feel smart.
  • Submittable’s Submishmash Weekly. Publishing opportunities and good reading for the week. I get a lot of good out of this one.
  • Erika Dreifus’s The Practicing Writer. Here, too: Useful, concise, and friendly.

I see there are no visual art newsletters that come to mind. This is too bad. Could it be that I am not subscribed to any? Meh. If you think of one you think I’ll like, please let me know in the comments below.

Now. Here are your tips, or rather, some best practices, for starting your own newsletter.

  • Really think about what and who you already do that you can offer via a newsletter. This will add to your enjoyment of the thing. Presumably, you do a thing because you like it; if you make it a component of your newsletter, you get to do this thing at least whenever your newsletter comes out. Really, the reason to do this is because you are what will make your newsletter great, and compelling.
  • Plan your newsletter, each time you write it. Do not do the thing I did for the first year or so where I just willy-nilly sat down and wrote the thing because I was on deadline. Inevitably I’d forget something. Or it would be riddled with typos. Don’t do that.
  • Ask yourself who your target audience is, and what you’d like to accomplish. Friedman’s book has some good ideas for content and some questions you may want to ask yourselves.

Right! That’s enough for this list-heavy, no-graphics-whatsoever post. If you have a newsletter, tell me what the favorite parts of your newsletter are in the comments below!

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Finding Your Fingerprint: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 12 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-11 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

Sometimes ‘platform’ is used as shorthand for a writer’s celebrity factor…Think of your platform as a fingerprint: your background, education, and network affect what your platform looks like in the beginning…platform can’t be built separate from your creative work. (The Business of Being a Writer, page 173)

I met Friedman while I was a student at my MFA program. Her talk to us was the first time I had ever heard the phrase “platform” used with regard to a writer’s resume; and, at the time, I just filed away my notes from her talk and logged the phrase in my head.

But I was coming to an MFA from a different perspective than many MFA students do, I think: I was already an established writer and editor and had credits and a publishing history to speak of. In short, I already had a “platform”; I’d just never referred to it as such.

But as I gain more distance from my past as a writer, I am beginning to realize that maybe I never did really have a platform that I could really call consistent. For a long time, I specialized in writing about the outdoors and the environment. (I discovered the personal essay around this time, too, and have never really left that behind.) Then I realized I wasn’t very good at reporting, so I went into marketing and copywriting, and actually, I’d write anything if it kept me in funds while I was working on my novel. I stayed there for awhile, but I found I missed editorial, so I went back to dabbling in that by way of some freelance writing in the environmental world and eventually found a home in editing and critiquing longer work.

I once heard a respected businesswoman say that she believed you should reinvent yourself every six or seven years. She said she based that on some biological fact about people’s cells: every six or seven years, we get a whole new set of cells–by then, everything should have turned over. Okay, I buy that. And it’s kind of nice to believe so.

But how are you ever to build a platform if you are, like me, perpetually curious?

Well. You can specialize–really dial in to one thing or another. That wasn’t something I was really willing to do. I’m interested in too many things to confine myself to studying one thing. Or you can do what I think of as layering. I’ve pulled the lens way out on myself, and if I were to envision it, my platform would now look pretty broad.

I’ve been called a “renaissance” type of person, and while I don’t exactly love that idea–jack of all trades, master of none, is the impression I get from that description–the truth is that sometimes, your personality is what ends up defining your platform. And at the end of the day, what feels right is sometimes just plain right.

Here’s what feels right to me right now:

“Hi. My name is Yi Shun. I’m an expert in working with words.”

Here are a few things to consider for when you start thinking about your own platform:

  • Consider what fires you up, what makes you lose time when you’re working on it.
  • If you’re stuck, go back to the basics that Friedman lists: your education, your background, and your network. What do these things say about you?
  • Whatever your platform is has to jive with your personality. For instance, I know a friend who loves to write about outliers, and that’s because he has aspirations to be an outlier himself, although he’d never abandon his family to do so. Another friend is fascinated by extreme sport, and so his professional life has tinges of extreme thinking in it–he regularly pushes and challenges his team to go outside of their comfort zones.

What would you say your platform is? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Getting Creative with Audience: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 11 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-10 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

In a section on Building a Blog Readership, Friedman posits a few methods. One is “Create Guides on Popular Topics,” and in it, she writes,

“If you’re a nonfiction writer, then this probably come s naturally. Put together a 101 guide, FAQ, or tutorial related to your topic or expertise…If you’re a novelist, this strategy may take some creative thinking. Consider a few examples…”

Friedman then goes on to list a few tactics, including a travel guide if your book is strongly regional, a list of favorite reads by genre/category, or an FAQ around a strong “avocational pursuit” that influences your novels.

Please indulge me while I do a little beating up of myself. For bucket’s sake, my novel is based in Taiwan. And Las Vegas. And New York. My character is obsessed with self-help books. And diaries. 

Listen. You are never going to be able to hit all the marks when it comes to marketing your own books, or building your own platform. Someone somewhere is going to look back on your marketing efforts and see big, black, gaping holes, and if you’re very unlucky, that someone will be yourself, say, two years after your book has been published.

Woe. Oh, woe.

Listen. This is why they created the Internet, so that we can correct our own mistakes. And now, I would like to tell you a little bit about Marty Wu’s Taiwan, or, rather, the Taiwan that *I* know, which made me feel like my heroine needed to go there.

Taiwan 101, for those who might someday want to visit

Nomenclature

My mother calls it “Our Little Sweet Potato Island.” This image has stayed with me for so long that, whenever I look on a map for Taiwan now, I half-expect to see a tiny orange blob in the middle of the ocean, Not only that, I expect to see little tendrils of roots, sprouting into the water on any map.

My late dog used to lie on his belly on the floor, one leg tucked in and the other–*sproing!*–canted out at an angle. From above he looked like Taiwan, and thus like a sweet potato.

Black-and-white dog lying on belly with one foot out

Do not call Taiwan the sweet potato island when you visit. No one will know what you are talking about.

You might see it on older maps as “Formosa.” This is the name the Portuguese gave it in 1542. It was named this for a very long time, well into the 20th century. Although it carries with it a lot of baggage, my parents, at least, never seemed to mind it being called that, since it translates to “Beautiful Island.”

Language

“I speak only Taiwanese, not Mandarin,” is a common refrain for me when I go back home.

The people who have come over from the mainland to make their homes on Taiwan are usually perplexed. “But…are you uneducated?” one said to me. Silly cow,** I said back, this is Taiwan.

In the south, more people speak Taiwanese than in the north. In Taipei, the capital, you will find people who speak English. And most signs are spelled out in both phonetics and Mandarin, although Taiwan seems to have not decided on a system of romanization of the Mandarin.

Ah, the Mandarin. Yes. This is the official language of Taiwan. This is a hangover from the many years we were occupied, and then, the post-war years, when we were under martial law. Also, Taiwanese can be written, but it doesn’t have a strong written tradition.

Which I kind of love. Hearing a story told in my native Taiwanese is probably close to one of my top ten experiences.

Weather

Hot. Sticky. Rainy in the afternoons, providing brief respite from the humidity. Winter is the best time to visit Taiwan, hands down. We took a November visit one year, and although it rained a fair amount, it was still utterly beautiful. I’ll always aim for a winter or late fall visit. I’ve also been in December, and I loved it then, too, although the humidity made it feel like it was summer.

Bring layers. Light sweaters are a good thing.

Geography

In the mountains, there is coffee and bamboo.

There are hot springs in vinegar distilleries, at which you can taste the produce.

In the fine, fertile fields of the west, you’ll find such fresh vegetables that you’ll never want to season with anything but a little bit of salt, ginger, and garlic ever again.

Further southwest, mudflats are everywhere, and so are oyster beds. Have some oyster and dried-radish omlette; you’ll never be the same.

In the woods, out on the flats, in the cities–wherever  you go, eat the fruit.

Cuisine

Oops. See “Geography,” above.

Places I have Been and Loved

Anping Fort, or Fort Zeelandia: I love it because it is the last memory I have of my second uncle before he passed away. You will not have these memories, but you will find it very weird that there is a Dutch fort in the middle of Taiwan. Also, around the fort there are people making candy and you should buy some and eat some.

Kaohsiung: I love this city. Another uncle teaches at the medical college there, and my cousin teaches Mandarin for foreigners at yet another university. My aunt, an artist and loosely the inspiration for Marty’s aunt in the novel, had an exhibition at the art museum here. You will not have such memories. But you can walk along the Love River, and go to the wonderful department store, and have good coffee and a kick-ass Taiwan breakfast, all within just a few miles of each other.

Taroko Gorge: The waters through this gorge used to run so clear and so blue, but then there was an earthquake in 1999, one that really rattled the entire island. Since then, the locals say, the waters are still blue, so deep is the gorge, but they are very, very cloudy. It doesn’t matter. This is an extraordinary place and you will walk away knowing there’s nothing else quite like it in your recent history and probably in your near future.

TouLiu: This is home for me. It means nothing to you, except we grow great fruit and coffee. If we go together, though, I will make you visit. There is a street here called “Taiping Old Street” which is…I don’t know. It’s the place I eventually set some key scenes. But it’s also a place of great pain: the Japanese occupied Taiwan for a very long time, and this stretch of shopfronts has been preserved to recall this era of architecture and history. How strange, to remind oneself every day of this period, while you are going about your daily marketing.

japanese colonial architecture on Taiping Old Street in Taiwan

Anything else you need to know

Call me. I will talk your ear off. I will show you my photos. The place will steal your heart, and then some, and you will be happy you went.

Mostly, though, you are likely to be interested because you know me. Maybe you have read my novel, and you are a little bit interested in the things that drive Marty.

What drives us to visit a place, after all, but the stories we’ve heard about it, and the stories we hope to find for ourselves?

I do have tips for you:

  • When you get an idea for anything tangentially related to your book, write. it. down. You do not want to be kicking yourself for later.
  • Don’t forget to review this sheet of paper on which you will write things down. Do not pull a me.
  • Think of your book as a reader might. What things will this reader discover in your pages that would make them curious, or want to Google something or another?

What exciting things can you think of to do with the book you’re working on, or the books you’ve published? Tell me in the comments below.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Idea Generation: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 10 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-9 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

Oof. I am all kinds of behind this week. And I have missed the regularity of writing these posts. I have also already broken one of Friedman’s rules for building platform (more on that a little later in this series) but totally reneging on the schedule I built for myself.

Welp. If it helps any, it is partially because I went to the dentist. I believe that is all that needs to be said on a variety of levels.

But I digress. This week’s post almost came without a quote from Friedman’s book, because the information was so broad. What you need to know is that writing for magazines and periodicals—what Friedman terms “traditional freelance writing” is the subject here, and that

“By studying a publication carefully across two to three issues–or the span of a few weeks online–you can get a sense of what material is written by editors and what’s regularly assigned to freelancers.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 150.)

Friedman then goes on to list thirteen categories—types—of articles that might be assigned to freelancers over three pages. Over my career, I have pitched or written-for-hire all thirteen of these categories, and reflecting on those had me falling down a rabbit hole of nostalgia in which I remembered the era of my career when I spent entire days coming up with article ideas and then crafting pitches around them and landing some of them.

That time was, by far, one of the most productive of my life. I don’t do this any more, for a variety of reasons, the most significant being a change in the things I wanted to spend my time doing, obviously, but I honestly don’t think my brain has ever been happier. I look back now, me with my hyper-organized (by some measures) mock traveler’s notebook and my tri-color pen and my time tracker, and I wonder, how the hell did I do it?

Let me introduce you to the Fat Li’l Notebook.


First, a caveat. This is not the exact model I used back in my heyday. The one I prefer is actually called The Fat Li’l Neatbook, and it is so rare now that Amazon has it listed at nearly $6, whereas its cousin, this thing with the spiral binding and the therefore-raggedy pages when you tear them out, is just $3.

But you want to know what I did with this notebook. Well, let me tell you. I would take it to the Barnes and Noble, and I would sit down with it and get a stack of magazines that interested me, and then I would page through them all, loosely, and just let my brain run wild. Every time I got an idea for a story or a feature or whatever that might be good for a magazine, I’d write down a capsule description of the idea, and then I’d notate somwhere the magazines that idea might be good for.

I used one sheet per idea. Whenever I found sources or tangents that would add to that idea, flesh it out more, I would add it to that sheet of paper. Eventually I had something I could pitch, and then I would put together a few pitches and send that idea out.

And when I had completed an assignment or at least pitched it, I would either rip it out or cross out the page (I can’t remember which I did. There must have been a reason I preferred the version of the notebook without the spiral binding, but that could be either because I hated the feel of the thing OR because I tore out the pages; I don’t know.)

This method did two things: One, it allowed me to never run out of ideas; two, it made me feel smart whenever I paged through it. It made me full like I had a full, functioning brain.

This is not something that cannot be overstated.

See, some creatives are very, very good at beating ourselves up. We might have produced something lovely at some points in our lives, but there are the days when whole hours will go by, and we feel like we have done nothing. Hell, there may be weeks that go by without us feeling as if we have done anything worthwhile. And so, seeing a fat little notebook with something written on each page is a very valuable thing.

I don’t know what I did with that original notebook. I know there were still ideas in it that I hadn’t written up yet.

In fact, now that I’m remembering it, I may go back to this methodology. I get ideas for essays, short stories, things to pitch to outlets, all the time. But I’m no longer storing them anyplace, which means if I don’t find time to act on those ideas in a reasonable time period of having an idea, well, it just goes into the ether. This is not a good thing.

Anyway. I’ve digressed a little bit, but I do have some actionable tips for you:

  1. Write your ideas down someplace. (Duh.)
  2. Read widely. You never know which publication might jar an idea in you.
  3. Read the publications about the things that interest you. Your interests can easily become the areas in which you become an expert.
  4. When you come up with ideas, don’t overthink them. Just jot down things that interest you. Consider a good exercise for your brain.

That’s it for this week! On Friday, look for another post from this series.

What’s your favorite method of keeping track of ideas? Tell me in the comments below.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On a Writer’s Responsibility: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 9 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-8 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Whatever deadlines you’re given, respect them…authors are notorious for missing their deadlines…The worst thing you can do is let a deadline pass by in complete silence or avoid contact with your editor.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 129)

Dear Reader,

It. Is. Confession. Time. I have never, ever told this story in public, and I have never actually even told it out loud, I don’t think. It is the most mortifying thing to ever happen to me, and I did it to myself. I have zero excuses for it, but I lived to tell the tale so you don’t ever–ever–do something this stupid, this disrespectful, to anyone else.(Also, I should say that Friedman is specifically talking about working with book editors; this post is about working with a magazine editor, but it still applies.)*

It was 1999. I was 25. It was my first foray into freelancing, both writing and editing, and I had landed an absolute dream: a part-time editing job with a very well-respected trade publication, in a field I really cared about. The hourly rate was good, the hours were 20 hours a week, exactly what a young freelance writer needed to get her legs under her, and I had a lovely office to go to, with a cohort of people whose faces I still remember today.

I did a good enough job that when my contract ended, and the in-house editing team needed someone else to continue editing a specific section for the publication, they asked me. I said yes. I left the office feeling pretty good about myself.

And then the wheels fell off the goddamn wagon. I can’t really remember what my life circumstances were. I’m sure they were what any 20-something-living-in-New-York’s were: random parties accompanied by random hookups, probably a breakup somewhere in there, parental units 3,000 miles away wanting to know what the frick this “freelancing” was anyway, and where was the husband that would save me from my peripatetic “career,” whatever. I am sure I felt “overwhelmed” and like I warranted some “self care.”**

Whatever the hell it was, I then proceeded to do this:

I blew it off.

But Yi Shun, you say, gently, because I maybe look like I am about to throw up recounting this thing to you, Yi Shun, what do you mean you blew it off?

I mean exactly that. I full-on ghosted the assignment, ignored the deadline, did half the work, whatever.

It was awful. Every time I walked in from whatever it was I was doing (not editing, obviously), I avoided looking my answering machine in its little red blinking eye. I knew it would be my editor, with his gentle voice, asking to speak to me. And I can still picture him to this day: gentle voice, sad, downward-at-the-corners eyes, deeply understanding. If I had had my head screwed on straight, I’d have gone into the office, talked to him, told him I was unfit for the gig and to hire someone else.

If I could go back, I’d tell 25-year-old me this.

To this day, every time I see his last name (it’s not an uncommon one), I flinch a little.

I can’t remember exactly how we ended the relationship. I’m sure it ended badly for me. I don’t remember how I felt. I don’t remember if I actually completed the assignment, no matter how late it was.

Worse, although I never made this particular mistake again, I made a mistake similar to it later: I took an assignment I knew I wasn’t ready to take. That ended badly, too.

Since then, though, I haven’t done anything like either of these two circumstances. I’ve worked hard to overcome that memory of myself, although the experience of writing this has proven I’m not quite over it. The experience has also shaped who I am. If anything, I’m an overcommunicator now: if a thing *smells* like it’s going to be late, even, I ping my editor. And I expect the same of both my clients and the people I manage: if it *looks* like it’s going to be late/go off the rails, I want you to tell me.

This experience has also likely shaped me in a positive fashion, although I wish I’d learned this lesson in a way that didn’t come at the expense of someone else. The lesson I learned is this: Whatever it is, it is fixable. Whatever it is, we can make it work. Whatever it is, it will be okay.

I also learned this: If you feel like you can’t do something, it’s okay to pass it on to someone else. Spread the love. I do this a lot now, too.

I guess I’m okay, in the end. I do still wonder, every once in a while, what my career would look like now if I had done the right thing back then. But you could say that of a lot of choices I made in that early part of my working life. I think immaturity had something to do with it. But I’m glad I’m here to tell you about it. I’m glad that I can share this story with you now. I’m glad you are there to read my work, even though I was young and stupid and dangerous.

We’re almost at the end of this post. It has been the hardest 1000 words for me to write in a very long time. I’m not sure how I feel now that I’ve told you. I see my editor at this trade publication is still working in this industry, and when I’m done here I may write to him and point him to this post and tell him how sorry I am, and how glad I am that he is doing the work he does now. He was nice. When someone does something stupid to make me angry and I have to remind myself to be nice, I channel this editor. And that will kick off the list of takeaways I have for you this time:

  1. Be nice. Niceness is underrated. Not everyone will remember you for it, but some people will, and in some cases it will change their lives.
  2. Be prepared to take a hard look at yourself. Whatever work you are being approached to do, be honest about your skillset and your capabilities and time commitments, even if it means losing the assignment.
  3. Be ready to pass the work onto someone else if you can’t complete it. Build a bank of people you trust whom you’re ready to pass the work onto. Offer your managers/editors a chance to get to know another great editor or writer.
  4. If you have to push back a deadline, communicate that. Give your editor plenty of time to act on this new deadline.
  5. Bonus lifeskill: Be considerate. I know, this sounds like People 101, but remember that every action you take is likely going to affect someone else. I don’t even want to know what knock-on effect my f*ckwittery had. I know it probably made some people’s lives harder.

Okay. That’s it for now. I am going to go open a box of Cheez-Its and inhale it. Thanks for reading. On Friday, come back for a peek into my freelancer’s brain, as we explore part of Friedman’s Chapter 17, “Traditional Freelance Writing.”

*Just to give you an idea of how awful this is, I have taken many breaks between the writing of this post’s title, and completing the post, and it will have been an hour since I wrote this first paragraph. Loathing. I am loathing this task. You want to never feel like this. So don’t do anything even remotely approaching this thing I am about to tell you/have told you about.

**More likely I was just arrogant.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Great Book Hooks and Query Letters: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 8 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-7 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

Figuring out what’s truly special about your story, and expressing that ina compelling way–this is the toughest part of writing the query. I recommend you start with one of the following prompts:

  • What does your character want, why does he want it, and what keeps him from getting it?
  • State your character’s name, give a brief description, describe the conflict she faces, and convey the decisions she has to make.”

(The Business of Being a Writer, page 108)

For this post, I’m going to try an experiment, and then I’ll give you an exercise. I’m going to de-engineer my debut novel into a query hook. The book’s been out for over two years now, so I’m at the point where I’ve forgotten some of it, maybe enough for me to approach the thing with fresh eyes. I’m not even going to reference the jacket cover. And then I’ll decipher what’s working and what isn’t working for each of the things I’ve written.

watercolor of bear fishing, using a book on a line as bait.

Looking for an agent? You’ll need a good query, with a great hook.

Really? *Rolls up sleeves*. Here we go.

“What does your character want, why does she want it, and what keeps her from getting it?”

Marty Wu wants to open a tiny costume shop of modest bearing, just to see what it’s like to have something of her own, but even though she can front the shop by herself, even in rent-crazy New York City, her desire to be a good daughter and do something her overbearing mother is proud of is smack-dab in the way. Before it’s too late, Marty must find a way to bridge the gap between what she wants and what she thinks she should do: Stuck as she is between two cultures, there may not be a middle ground for this heroine.

“State your character’s name, give a brief description, describe the conflict she faces, and convey the decisions she has to make.”

Marty Wu is a hot mess. She’s making bank at a job she hates, but her utter terror of upsetting her overbearing mother prevents her from making any significant moves. Her dream of  opening a boutique costume store seems far out of reach. But when a bad career mistake jeopardizes the only livelihood she knows, Marty must make the choice between what she’s always been told is her filial duty and what she really wants, and she must take the right steps before her dream slips away from her entirely.

What’s working?

In the first selection, I use a lot of specificity. As I noted somewhere before, specificity is king no matter what you’re doing. It adds texture, color, access to emotions.

In the second selection, I mirror the style of the actual book much more closely. There’s the “hot mess” reference–I have yet to meet a person whose lips don’t quirk upon hearing that phrase–and “making bank,” and there’s also a hint of added tension here, as I give the reader something to worry about, with the added hint of drama and a bad career move.

What’s not working?

In the first selection, there isn’t a whole lot to worry about. There aren’t any stakes, to use a common term in fiction: there isn’t anything for the reader to concern herself with. Will she, or won’t she? It’s hard to care, since Marty doesn’t seem to be fighting against anything but an idea.

In the second selection, I can hear the voice of the movie-trailer voiceover guy with every sentence. In short, it all seems very dramatic, but really there’s a lot of grey area: She needs to “find the dream she wants to pursue.” Here, some more specificity would allow me to up the ante quite a bit.

What’s the answer?

In this case, I think a nice blend of the two would work well. And here’s what my publisher came up with, for the back cover blurb, which, essentially, is what you’re writing:

 

Here, you can see my publisher came up with a succinct listing of all the things that are in Marty’s way, and also plays on Marty’s biggest obsession–her self-help books–to help get readers interested in her journey. She also underpins the book’s dual existence–Taiwan and America–and gives us a hint that things may not work out entirely well for Marty.

Instead of some tips this time around (Friedman’s questions are a great place to start), let me suggest this exercise:

Pick one of your favorite books, one you know well. Write both versions of Friedman’s prompts, above, for the book. Don’t cheat by looking at the back cover. Now do the same for a recent read, one you’ve just now gotten to know. Compare your version to the back cover of each, and see where you deviated and where you met up with the eventual back cover. And dissect each, based on what’s working and what isn’t. 

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Shade Mountain Press, on Small Presses: Live-Blogging The Business of Being a Writer

This is Part 7 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-6 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“If you undertake the submission process without an agent, you’ll have to evaluate the qualities of small presses, and look for signs that they will be a good business partner and likely to produce a successful book….Here are some questions to ask when researching small publishers or digital-only presses.” [The Business of Being a Writer, page 102]

Friedman lists some very good questions to ask of any small publisher, and I thought this would be a great opportunity for you to hear from an actual small press, and one I have some experience with. I asked Rosalie Morales Kearns, the publisher of Shade Mountain Press, to weigh in.  (Shade Mountain is also the publisher of my debut novel.)

watercolor of brown tree with red books as fruit.

Here are Morales Kearn’s answers to Friedman’s questions.

Where are [the press’s] books distributed?

Our distributor is Small Press Distribution (SPD), which sells its titles to “independent book stores, chain stores, other wholesalers, jobbers (who sell to libraries), libraries and on-line booksellers” (this quote is from SPD’s handbook for publishers, available online).

Does the publisher invest in a print run or use print-on-demand only?

We do print runs, for several reasons. We had to have finished books, not advance review copies, to show to our distributor when we applied to be added to their list. Also, the problem with using a typical print-on-demand (POD) purveyor with distribution through Ingram, for example, is that many bookstores simply won’t stock POD books, because (1) there are issues with returning unsold books; and (2) there’s a perception that POD books simply aren’t the same quality (in terms of layout, paper, printing, and binding) as more traditionally printed books.

For digital-only publishers, what value do they provide that you need?

I would advise authors to think long and hard before having their book published in ebook format only. Many review venues and literary awards simply won’t consider books that are ebook-only.

For the author, there’s really no down side to having a book that’s both ebook and print, but a very small operation like Shade Mountain press may find that the record-keeping tasks become onerous after the first year or so. This is why I’ve given the ebook distribution rights of our earlier titles back to our authors.

What’s the publisher’s editing process like? Will you be assigned an editor?

This is a good question, but I’m not sure how informative it will be to get an answer. What a publisher thinks is adequate might not be the same as what an author thinks. It’s pretty common for small presses to do very minimal editing, and the expectation is that the author is responsible for the proofreading stage, and possibly all the stages, of the editing process beyond some light feedback. Since I’ve been a freelance copyeditor for more than two decades, I do content and copy editing myself, and hire a professional proofreader.

I definitely don’t expect my authors to catch the mistakes that are still on the page. That’s just not realistic.

What marketing and promotion do your titles receive?

This is probably the most difficult part for a first-time author to understand. And some small-press publishers don’t have a firm grasp on promotional matters either. For some small presses, promotion tends to be as minimal as editing, and if you’re lucky, your publisher will admit to that up front. But your publisher may think that what they’re doing is perfectly adequate, and won’t spell out what you as author can do to participate in promotional efforts.

Try to get clarity from your publisher about when they send out advance review copies (ARCs), and in what format. The major pre-publication review venues want that ARC at least four months in advance of the pub date, and preferably earlier than that. Many others want a similar lead time, and won’t consider publishing a review of a book anytime past its pub date. Also, in my experience, most reviewers still prefer hard-copy, not PDFs.

If your publisher says they’ll send out ten or twenty ARCs at their expense, ask whether they can print a larger number at your expense (if you can afford it). You will need to start researching at least six months ahead of time, preferably longer, to find out what reviewers and what venues are publishing books like yours—meaning literary work from small presses by writers with not a lot of name recognition. Then get the contact info for those venues and ask the publisher to send press releases to those venues.

There are some small presses who do the minimum in terms of sending out ARCs, and they fully expect their authors to do most of the effort (creating a press release; drafting queries; finding venues and contact info; paying for extra ARCs). If that’s the case, it’s important that they communicate that clearly to the author.

Same thing with literary awards. Often the author needs to do the research on deadlines and requirements, and also to pay the submission fees, postage costs, etc.

For each book, Shade Mountain Press sends out queries to over a hundred editors and reviewers, and mails out about 50 or 60 ARCs, most of those going to editors/reviewers who have specifically requested them. I do the market research for both reviews and awards. I definitely don’t expect my authors to do it. By the same token, that workload is partly the reason why I usually publish only one title a year!

How can [the author] terminate the deal?

This varies by publisher, but there should be some provision for this in the contract. Make sure it’s there.

Can [the author] speak to recent authors?

This is a great question, and the answer is yes, especially if you can talk with a writer whose book has been out for a year or more. Ask them how many reviews the book has received, and of those, how many were a result of the publisher’s efforts. Same thing with awards.

And one more thing…

One general thing I would add is that if your manuscript has been accepted by a small press, bear in mind that you’re not dealing with Random House, Simon & Schuster, etc. Chances are that the founders and editors are literary authors just like you, whose books have been published by other small presses. They’re not necessarily experts in publishing, but by the same token, they’re not doing this to get rich—or in many cases to get ANY income at all. They’re trying to expand the boundaries of literature, draw attention to work the mainstream overlooks, etc. They’re trying to participate in and give back to the literary community. So please don’t approach the contract discussion with an attitude of suspicion, as if these are people who are looking to rip you off.

Thanks, Rosalie! Myself and all the women under Shade Mountain’s aegis are so proud to call you our publisher. And now, some takeaways from my own perspective of working with a small press:

  • Always ask to speak to prior authors. These interviews are invaluable, for so many reasons. (I made a friend out of mine!)
  • Know and understand the contract offered by each publisher before you sign. Do not get all willy-nilly excited and sign shit. (This is probably #lifelessons, actually.)
  • Pay attention to the rights you can assume if they’re not spelled out in the contract. Mine gave me audio and film and TV rights, and now, ebook rights. Pretty cool. Think of all the ways to be creative!

What things do you want to see in a relationship with a publisher? Tell me in the comments below. And next Monday, keep an eye out for a post on your MC’s motivations, part of how to pitch your book. 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Word Count: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 6 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-5 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Publishers think about the books they’re considering in terms of word count…The average book in today’s market is 80,000 words…If you have a manuscript that’s between 20,000 and 40,000 words, you haven’t written a book. If it’s fiction, you’ve written a novella.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 89.)

The agent, whom I already really liked as a person, and whom I really, really wanted to like me, leaned across her wine glass. “I need you to write 6,000 more words,” she said, all wide eyes and guilelessness.

Four and a half years later, I still admire the way she delivered this news. Calmly, evenly, as if there were nothing to these 6,000 more words. I like to think that I reacted with just as much calm and guilelessness, but on the inside, I am pretty sure I was screaming, to paraphrase a friend, “OH SURE LADY I’LL JUST WRITE THOSE WHILE I’M POOPING, SHALL I?”*

What the agent was trying to do was get my book into saleable condition. See, the thing sat neatly at 55,000 words, which is neither novella nor novel.** She knew this was problematic. I was beginning to know it. What I didn’t know was that adding those 6,000 words, which would stretch into 7,000 (about 25, 28 pages), would change some crucial things about the novel. All I could hear was that without these 6,000 more words, this novel would be a no-go.

I had gone to grad school to fix what I knew was a key flaw in my writing. For the longest time, I couldn’t put a solid finger on conflict, and page-turnability. I learned a lot while I was in classes there, but while you can fix a thing academically, you’ll never really know or understand what the solution looks like until you test it in the real world. My thesis, which was the book I was pitching, had passed muster for graduation purposes, but I had queried a number of agents already, and despite high personal response rates to both query letter and sample chapters, I wasn’t getting the solid bites I wanted.

This agent, though, had actionable advice. And it was time for me to put practice to work and get the book into a form an agent could work with.

How was I going to add 6,000 more words, though? Where would I put it? I knew this wasn’t going to be the kind of change that involved more character descriptions here and there, more little personality quirks or long passages of lyrical description of setting. In the first place, my character isn’t the type to wax lyrical for very long, and since the book is told in diary format, that wasn’t going to fly. Second, the character’s a little self-centered, so she wasn’t going to do anything that involved a whole lot of descriptions of other people.

What I ended up doing was introducing a whole new character, an archetypal bad boy for my character to be distracted by. And even though he started out being a distraction, the introduction of this character, just a little less than halfway into the book, had serious ramifications for the rest of the novel.

Most importantly, the addition of this character added depth to my own main character, my protagonist. She was forced to make some choices that didn’t even exist before, thereby granting her an agency she didn’t have before.

And, of course, the addition of this character allowed me to reach the desired word count.

I no longer remember the book as it was without this addition, and I’m reasonably sure I couldn’t stand to look at it if I dug up an old draft.

I didn’t end up going with this agent, but I will always be grateful for the advice she gave me. It may not seem like much, but I’m sure she knew that asking me to add that many more words and pages would force my character into a situation that would give her more to do.

Takeaway tips:

  • Be open to advice from people whose job it is to sell your book. Assume good intention, always.
  • If you ever do find yourself in a position to need to add words, don’t look to tinker. Look to revise.
  • In my editing for clients, I often see a lack of conflict. If you’re looking for places to ramp up the story, look for places where your character lacks agency or where conflict is lacking.

What’s the biggest revision job you’ve had to do? Tell me about it in the comments below.

The next post in this series will occur at the end of next week, as I’m deployed for ShelterBox USA, a disaster-relief agency, for the rest of this week.

*I really, really wish I remember who gave me this line. Whoever you were, thank you.

**I also wish this could be a post on how frustrating it is that there is this weird no-man’s-land between 40,000 words and 60,000 words, where no one actually knows what to call your book in terms of length. Alas, it has no answers in this regard. Sorry.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.