Monday, March 26, 2012

Crossing Over

When does a writer start being a writer? From the minute she drafts a few lines? From the minute she is finished with a novel? When she decides she isn't quitting? When she is published? I have no professional test to take, no sweating out the LSAT, no intense medical board interview. I simply must show up. Press keys on an instrument or scrawl pen across paper and create a story/poem/essay to read. Oh, that makes it sound so easy. The real hurdles are everywhere, especially in my mind.

I've resisted calling myself a writer; I've been a journalist. Up until a few months ago, I didn't answer "I'm a writer" when people asked my occupation. But then I sent a revised/revised/revised manuscript to an agent, and seeing it stacked on my dining room table, a heap several inches thick, the visual struck me. Then I sent another manuscript to readers; again, the weight of the pages was proof. Yes, I am a writer.

Still. Am I a writer? Do I have to make money at it? The writing gurus say I need to write and persevere. And I do write. A lot.

Today, I spoke with David Biespiel of The Attic, an adviser at an educational center for writers in Portland. I took advantage of a free one-on-one consultation. I hadn't sent David any background on what kind of writing I do, so he let me prattle on. Basically, after I told him the projects I'd started and the progress I'd made and the groups I'd hooked into, he said, "Sounds like you're doing everything you're supposed to." And, he's right.

I study; I practice; I practice some more. I read work in front of friends and send it to editors; I critique and get critiqued. I read books of all kinds. I lower my expectation. I shoot for higher ones. I fall flat on rejections and get back up and retool. The hardest part is convincing myself to keep on--that it'll all pay off.

Or not. But that's business. I've felt like I started this writing life in a haze of delirium, excited about a daydream, and I just kept paddling. I've been in fog and still waters. Now, I see the other side, and over there, onshore is the treasure that got me in the boat in the first place. The words. They keep coming, and the bank is closer than ever.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Self-Publishing Debate and the Clock

One of my chief principles is never to make a serious decision without giving it three days of consideration. It's the Three Day Rule. I'm making an exception concerning my decision of how to publish. Instead of three days, it's three years.

The flux in the publishing industry is maddening. The speed of change has everyone on edge. I ran across this great transcript of four hardcore insiders talking about traditional publication. If you decide to read it, better to do so with: a) alcohol handy; b) an hour set aside for vigorous exercise afterward; or c) a baseball bat. What struck me the most is how subjective the traditional route to publication can be. Of course I knew that, but I didn't want it to be true. (BTW, I chose b, but c was a close second.)

Then there is the ever-raging conversation among writers about going indie. Why and who and when and what for, on every blog (now this one, too.) Trish Gentry posted a recent essay of her thinking behind the self-release of her work. The piece also opens a dialogue about whether Amazon should charge indie authors upfront to upload books.

Gentry's post made me want to assess my own feelings about this issue. My emotions are mixed. Every writer wants validation somehow, whether by attracting an agent, publisher or readers. How I become published may boil down to why I write. In my better moments, when I write for joy, then my ideas about how to publish lead me in one direction (let it live, I don't care how). If I want outside validation and the potential for greater commercial success, I stay the traditional course.

But time is becoming more of a critical deciding factor. There’s a point of diminishing return, both financially (how long can I take myself and my family down this path) and emotionally (how long can I take myself and my family down this path).

I believe traditional routes to publication suffer because the process takes much too long to discover, edit and publish books. The decision-making is also highly subjective (again, see baseball bat post), and although many high-quality books come out of it, traditional publication is by no means the stamp of quality 100% of the time.

For me, it's boiling down to a question of tolerance. How long do I keep pursuing the brass ring? I have to ask myself: "Why not self-publish if I believe in my work, have vetted it thoroughly (at my own expense) and take responsibility for good/bad reviews/sales?" At times, the alternative route doesn't seem so distasteful. Quite the opposite, self-publishing looks idyllic.

How much longer should I wait it out? That's complicated, too. If I use the Three Year Rule, is it three years from the point I began querying or the point I began writing? Either way, the clock is ticking.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Smallpressapalooza #PDX

It's a rare occurrence to be able to hear the work of a dozen outstanding writers for free in one night. Smallpressapalooza, held Monday at Powell's City of Books in downtown Portland, kept a nice-sized crowd happy for four hours. Poets, memoirists and novelists traveled from as far as Kansas, Illinois and NYC to celebrate Small Press Month, a loosely promoted awareness campaign by the nation's tiny publishers.

Kevin Sampsell, the avowed "small press champion" at Powell's, organized the fifth annual event, to promote small presses and their talent. He works double time, no, make that triple time, by running his own small press, Future Tense Publishing, and by writing. His lineup of writers was noteworthy, at times hilariously odd and often, moving.

Although a champion for the little guy, Sampsell has earned success as a writer with a memoir published by Harper Perennial, A Common Pornography. He's working something else up while he juggles his duties at Powell's and Future Tense. He says Future Tense tries to put out about 3-4 works a year, and he is actually discouraging submissions right now. But, he does find good stuff in the slush still. (I recommend checking the website. It's cool even if you aren't submitting.)

The lineup of readers offered a lot of variety. It included several who began their publishing debuts in zines, including Elly Blue, who publishes palm-sized chapbooks and writes a blog about bicycling with a feminist twist. A little flushed, she read a section of one of her books about how women should care for their vulvas as cyclists. It left very little to the imagination. But, hey, where else can a female biker find guidance like that?

I'll mention three others who stood out for me during the evening. I attended with a friend and didn't know whether we'd stay all evening but ended up revved to the last reader. My friend had different favorites, but here are the ones I'm still thinking about four days out:

Diana Salier is a poet who just moved from San Fran to Portland two weeks ago. She read from a book of poetry called wikipedia says it will pass and a new one, which was delayed at the printer. I'll admit, I flipped through the royal-blue chapbook before she read and didn't get the same hit as when she spoke. She was very powerful. Blunt and chunky poetry. Her brief bio on her webpage gives the flavor: "diana salier is a musician // person who writes. she wrote wikipedia says it will pass and letters from robots. she is wearing striped pajamas."

The next author, Zach, published under the name Anonymous, read from his book called Love is Not Constantly Wondering If You're Not Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life. It is a pick-your-own-adventure book, whereby the reader is offered choices at the end of each section to progress. Its subject matter is a relationship crumbling because of a girlfriend's alcoholism. I approached Zach after his reading because the work was so moving, I wanted to tell him. He didn't want his name on the book because he was afraid his mom (he's from NY) would find out and be disappointed in his own choices. But the work is good and nothing to be ashamed of (Zach's mom: If you ever find out, don't worry. Your son's got talent). He's sold 500 books so far and is working on something else. Don't let the cover of the book under-represent the contents.

Finally, Randy Blazak rounds out my top three, partly because his reading was pretty hilarious and he looked like he had probably been a hair-band groupie at one point. Needless to say, his novel, released last November, Mission to the Sacred Heart a Rock Novel, is about an obsession with ELO, Electric Light Orchestra, and the churnings of a young Portland sophisticate. ELO is cool, so I could relate. He was animated and disarming, as was his writing. Nothing like the dry persona his bio suggests, a PhD in sociology who teaches at Portland State.

I feel fortunate to live in a place that nurtures and celebrates talent in all corners. I'm looking forward to next year.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Writers Write Here, There, Everywhere

Writers write. But how much and how often are questions new writers want answered by the pros.

I've absorbed many stories of writers' "practices." Looking for the one that fits you? Well, you'll have to figure that out solo. Here are some of the more interesting ones I know (I usually forget which writers they apply to):

At a conference, one author, who was writing before a panel, said that he wrote whenever he had 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes, that's all. Whenever the opportunity popped up. Add the minutes over the course of a day, and bah-boom, a book is drafted in a few months.

I heard a novelist speak recently who is a "marathon" writer. Sits and writes for 16 hours straight then takes a few days off. She's finished with a book in about three months.

Stephen King, I've heard tell (could be specified in his book about writing), is a 4/4: four hours of writing paired with four hours of reading each day. He took years (something akin to a decade or longer) to write his newest book, 11/22/63: A Novel. On again, off again, and the job eventually gets done.

One of the biggie names in romance closets herself off from fall to spring, not even bothering with the clock. She takes the summers off. Another biggie writes every day, eight hours a day, and never takes a day off.

Then there is the writes-rather-than-sleeps crowd. Up at 2, write until 5, 6, 7. Or something to that effect. Do it over again in the morning. Honestly, I'd bust a blood vessel and forget my name.

Yesterday, I saw a post about Jonathan Franzen. He hasn't written in 26 months. Ouch. But, he can afford it.

Me? I write when I get the urge and can't set it aside. It comes pretty often. I'm glad for the gift. Long-hand or computer, either will work. I wish I had more time, but bills, kids, life in general, has an insideous way of distracting me.

What about you?

(psst--Any errors of fact are my own. Corrections are appreciated.)