Sunday, August 26, 2012

I Believe I Am Really a Writer



I am not a number! I am a free man! 
– The Prisoner



Back when I was learning this stuff, this writing craft and business, I devoured books on writing and the contents of two magazines, The Writer and Writer’s Digest. I always plucked something useful out of all of them, every single one, and once I read something that was put in as magazine filler, written by the English novelist Malcolm Bradbury. I liked it so much I cut it out and pinned it to my bulletin board. It’s from his memoir, Unseen Letters: Irreverent Notes From a Literary Life:

I believe I am really a writer. I write everything.  I write novels and short stories and plays and playlets, interspersed with novellas and two-hander sketches. I write histories and biographies and introductions to the difficulties of modern science and cook books and books about the Loch Ness monster and travel books, mostly about East Grinstead….I write children's books and school textbooks and works of abstruse philosophy…and scholarly articles on the Etruscans and works of sociology and anthropology. I write articles for the women's page and send in stories about the most unforgettable characters I have ever met to Reader's Digest….I write romantic novels under a female pseudonym and detective stories.…I write traffic signs and "this side up" instructions for cardboard boxes. I believe I am really a writer.

I thought of this quote the other day when I read a now infamous article wherein one Ewan Morrison laments the new paradigm of self-publishing, which he calls a “classic race to the bottom.”  To quote the article:

Many will cheer, Morrison admits, including the more than one million new authors who have outflanked traditional gatekeepers by “publishing” their work in Amazon’s online Kindle store. “All these people I’m sure are very happy to hear they’re demolishing the publishing business by creating a multiplicity of cheap choices for the reader,” Morrison says. “I beg to differ.”

Feh.
I was more impressed with another writer quoted in the piece, Jake MacDonald. “My ecological model is the raccoon – a diversified survivor,” MacDonald said. “I’m always writing, but the survival plan continues to evolve. I’m surviving as well as I ever did, but in completely different ways.”
Hear, hear! MacDonald is a guy who gets it. It’s the Raccoon Way or the highway, my friends. Adapt or die.

Not long ago I was talking to a traditionally published author who saw what I was doing—stories, novellas, novelettes, non-fiction, backlist (all in addition to my trad books)and wondered if I might be spreading myself too thin. 

It’s precisely the opposite. I’m spreading myself thick. I’m making honest lettuce every month by writing what I want, finding readerships for each item (which makes for cross-over to my other works), adding to my platform and making business judgments accordingly. What is wrong with this picture? Nothing, if you are a writer who thinks it’s okay to make money off your writing.

So I, too, believe I am really a writer. I write full length thrillers and crime novellas. I write short stories about a boxer named Irish Jimmy Gallagher, and novelettes about a martial arts nun named Sister J. I write “how to” articles and books on the writing craft, and a treatise on law for California lawyers. I write historical romances and, in my spare time, zombie legal thrillers. I write blog posts and writing tweets, emails to my fans and journals to myself. I make up more stories than I’ll be able to write in my lifetime, and choose the ones that excite me most and write those.

Traditional publishing needs to embrace this model. It needs to understand that a self-publishing writer who follows “The 5 Laws” is building a solid platform because it’s based on readership. Publishers inside the Forbidden City should now see themselves less as potentates granting approbation, and more as “creative partners” with enterprising writers (see my Declaration of Indie-Pendence).

And any writer entering such a partnership must be willing to do what’s best to support the traditionally published books––by not competing with them and not being a ratfink to the publisher. This is all worked out in what is called negotiation. Which, I hasten to add, is supposed to be two-sided and win-win.

The bottom line is there is no bottom line. There is no one way to go about any of this. And even though that’s causing indigestion in Manhattan board rooms, the Alka-Seltzer of the new reality is just a plop plop, fizz fizz away. Drink of it!

I am a writer, so I write. And continue to read books on writing and review my binders of articles on the craft, because this is what I do. I’m never going to rest or just “mail it in.” I’m going to write as long as I can, as well as I can, until they find me with my cold, dead fingers poised over the keyboard, hopefully after I’ve just typed THE END.

I am a writer.

I believe it.

What do you believe?

21 comments:

  1. I love MacDonald’s image of a diversified survivor.

    I am a community journalist. We, too, are learning new ways to survive. First off, we’re no longer just writers. Now we must be photographers, paginators and marketers as well.

    To survive, we write an insightful feature story or a hard-driving investigative expose ... plus take classified ad orders, report on the new burger joint, photograph high school sporting events, write obituaries, design ads for the local drug store and politician, slap labels on newspapers and scrub the bathroom.

    In this brave new world, we also post to our website, shoot video, host a conversation on Facebook and Tweet.

    What’s the new economic model for success? I don’t know, but we sure won’t find it if we stand still and mope.

    BTW, I love Kill Zone. In my spare time, I’m writing a mystery. Sure, I hope to sell it to a traditional publisher. But if that doesn’t happen, I now have options. My mom and 50 cousins and friends who buy my book won’t care that I self-published. Heck, they’ll be impressed that I even designed my own cover. And I won’t leave an unpublished manuscript in the desk drawer when I die.

    Thanks for inspiring us wannabes.

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  2. Your twist on the cold dead fingers hovering over the keyboard, I can feel that.

    It's fresh, and exciting.

    And, it's inspiration like this post that keeps me motivated and keeps me smiling and keeps me writing.

    Writing is what I do.

    Happy Sunday,TKZ!!

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  3. I'm a raccoon. Yep, I've always loved those critters. Thanks for another inspirational post, Jim.

    I think Ewan Morrison doesn't get that publishing starts with the writer. Publishing isn't an industry that can stand on its own without a mutually beneficial & sustainable relationship with writers, where both can flourish. If there is an undermining influence to publishing's static industry, it is CHANGE & technology, something we've all had to deal with. It's cheap shot easy for Morrison to dismiss indie authors as being responsible for "demolishing the publishing industry." His time would be better spent evaluating how to adapt a publishing business model going forward that takes technology, industry competitors, & the changing habits of his target market (readers) into account. Morrison slamming people with a dream to write is ridiculously off target. It would be like funeral homes complaining about doctors, who help people live longer, as ruining their bottom line.

    And thanks to you too, FL! I hadn't thought about the changes happening in journalism until now. Best wishes with your writing. Now you'll get to make decisions about what you'll write & tap into the passion that brought you to journalism in the first place. Win, win.

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  4. I think people threatened by the deluge of self published books are sort of missing the point.

    I was in Barnes and Nobles yesterday. Every time I go into a bookstore I either methodically walk through all of the aisles if I have time, or my favorite sections if I don't, and by the end I have an armful of books. Then I have to start culling the herd because I've far exceeded my book budget.

    Even if they let me live in Barnes and Noble, it would take a long time for me to read all the books, and I am a fast reader. That's just one location. That's not including my Amazon wish list that has 11 pages filled with books, or the other five or so bookstores in my general area.

    There are already more books published than any one person can read. Eventually time and/or money is going to be a factor. Adding ebooks into the equation means there's more books vying for a reader's attention, sure, but it's not like if you were traditionally published there were any guarantees of being read.

    Ebooks give us options. Options are always a good thing. Novellas, short stories, short nonfiction, niche market novels--it's all back in play.

    The future has never looked brighter.

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  5. It exhausts me to read about all the things you do. You must be a fast writer! But you're absolutely right in all your assertions. We have so many choices today. We're still writing stories, but the means of delivery may differ from the past. And hey, this is a business. We're in it to make a profit.

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  6. This is such an encouraging and fun post, Jim. I just read your blog post, Declaration of Indie-Pendence and it's so freeing.

    Book 3 in my contracted series releases in January. I want to decide, along with my agent, what would be best to pursue for traditional publishing next but also have ideas for non-fiction, a mystery series, more historical romance, and am now reading Stephen King's, Different Seasons exploring first person pov.

    I also devour the contents of The Writer and Writer’s Digest. I've learned a lot about publishing through these past 3 novels, both good and not so good. I'm excited all over again though about possibilities. However, with so many authors and so many books I still wonder how to get noticed in the overwhelmingly crowded bookstores, both brick and mortar and electronic.

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  7. Yes, yes, yes. You made my day.

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  8. With respect, I don't think you're being fair to Morrison's argument at its face. At the Edinburgh International Book Fair, Morrison said (http://tinyurl.com/3as79aq),

    "Let's abandon the romantic myth that writers must survive in the garret, and look at the facts. Most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage: they include Dostoevksy, Dickens and Shakespeare. In the last 50 years the system of publishers' advances has supported writers such as Ian McEwan, Angela Carter, JM Coetzee, Joan Didion, Milan Kundera, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Norman Mailer, Philp Roth, Anita Shreve, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark and John Fowles. Authors do not live on royalties alone. To ask whether International Man Booker prizewinner Philip Roth could have written 24 novels and the award-winning American trilogy without advances is like asking if Michelangelo could have painted the Sistine Chapel without the patronage of Pope Julius II. The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart."

    I think the Michelangelo analogy is particularly interesting. I can't speak to the clarity of his crystal ball--mine shows a future far less bleak than his in part because I don't buy that past is precedent, and because I faith faith in dynamic fair market practices. But the non-sound bite version is pretty compelling stuff.

    All too often, this indie v. traditional debate is driven from the point of view of writers who feel shut out of the system, or by readers who want more for less. That's fine. Everyone has their own oxen to protect from goring.

    I don't think that Morrison is being judgmental of quality, and I don't think he's vilifying writers who choose one path over another. Instead, he's lamenting the death of the pure artist among writers--those who are not entrepreneurial or born marketers. In his view, as I interpret it, they will not be able to survive on their art, and they will therefore abandon it. Consequently, we will all be intellectually poorer.

    He uses other examples in his Edinburgh argument of other segments of the arts where the digital age has wrung a death knell. Imagine the plight of the studio musician--the backup oboist who stitched together a living going from one recording studio to another--who now has to swing a hammer now to feed his family because that work has dried up. There's nothing wrong with swinging hammers, but his self-fulfillment as an artist is a dead dream.

    Will it go the same way for writers? I don't know. This is also why I always bring the discussion back to individual artists' visions of success. For some, the goal is to have a story in the marketplace where people can find it--often free of charge. The new world of publishing is nothing but upside to them.

    For those who write books to support their families yet have not a single strand of PT Barnum's or Zig Zigler's blood in their veins, these are scary times. For many writers, the market conditions that Morrison projects (and defends convincingly) spell the death of everything they've known.

    We're talking artists, here, folks, not dinosaurs. I think we need to spend more time respecting that and less time dancing at their misfortune.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  9. I definitely agree with diversifying.

    I've been making my living as a professional writer for 13 years, but I've never published a novel or written a magazine article. I'm "just" a copywriter.

    When considering an income stream I'm surprised how few fiction writers consider applying their talents in areas other than fiction.

    Or when they do, they only consider doing freelance magazine articles, or poor paying online work, and the like.

    Don't forget the business world which is in constant need of content producers and pays well. I started out at $25 hr working as an assistant to another business writer/editor (drafting pieces and doing admin tasks).

    A couple of years later, I went solo and now make more than triple the hourly wage I started at. And I'm considered reasonably priced in my field.

    Word of mouth has saved me from having to make cold calls or do other unpleasant tasks to market myself over the years. I've never even had to set up a website or print business cards.

    I still get to work in my PJs most days. I estimate I attend probably 6 on-site business meetings per year. Most of my research and interviews are done over the phone.

    Yes, the downside is that some days I don't have any more creative oompph left to work on my stories. But there are also many days I can schedule an hour or more during working hours -- sometimes a whole week -- to focus only on my own stuff.

    I've even managed to throw a bit of subcontract work to a couple of writers I met at the Surrey Writers Conference.

    If you've worked in the business world and have expertise, experience, or insight to bring to the table along with your writing skills -- it's worth considering business copywriting.

    Over the years I've written, press releases, website copy, training and HR manuals, employee newsletters, online courses, video scripts, presentation materials, speeches, brochures, white papers...

    Is it always exciting? Of course not. But I've had the opportunity to hone my skills and develop a voice (that's the word of mouth part - even in copywriting, you get known for your voice)and have made a decent living while doing so.

    Because I'm a working writer, who gets paid, no one gives me flack about what I'm doing in my basement office for hours at a time. I can hire a sitter/nanny and no one wonders why I don't just take care of my kids myself if I'm home along all day "doing nothing"...you know what I mean.

    I'm "legit" in the eyes of my friends and family which helps a lot to squelch stupid questions and comments. :-)

    Always enjoy your Sunday posts, Jim, and am inspired by your productivity.

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  10. I've been writing for over 10 years now. I love taking courses at Gotham Writer's Workshop and attending writer conferences. I never considered publishing any of my work, but last month I did self-pub a short story.

    I needed the experience and so I chose my favorite to publish. It wasn't my husband's favorite, but I didn't care. If it was going to be my first, it was going to be something I was proud of. :)

    I am a writer, but currently, my day job as a software developer pays the bills and so takes priority. Also because I only sold 8 copies of "Lethal Injection, The Seed" @ $.99. Not even enough to get a first royalty check.

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  11. Nothing like a post on self-publishing to smoke out Brother Gilstrap!

    Thanks for posting more of Morrison's words. I've read his article, of course, and I understand where he is coming from. He wrote a lament about the way things are and what he thinks the future will be like. But I note he offers no solutions, except to read his article and be “troubled” by it.

    Well, I'm troubled by THAT answer, which is no answer at all.

    Whether he’s right or wrong about the future, that’s no reason not to make writing for all you're worth now, and laying a foundation for brighter times should it turn out he IS wrong.

    But I also have to question some assumptions re: a “rich, literary tradition.” Outside of a very few A list writers, how many truly are able to support themselves with advances? Especially among those who write so-called “literary” fiction? (Please note that Charles Dickens was a commercial writer, and earned his money by writing books he knew would sell).

    I can probably count the literary writers who make a living from writing alone on one foot. That’s because books that get nominated for things like the National Book Award usually sell under 5,000 copies. There are many who attempt to write such books, but they are not supported by them. They have jobs. Some teach, some dig ditches, some have supportive spouses. But it’s not the publishing industry that’s putting food on their tables, by and large.

    So are we really losing a rich literary tradition because of self-published ebooks? We will perhaps lose a small number of writers, but will gain many more. In fact, there will be greater opportunities for a self-published literary writer to get her work out than ever before.

    But what if she’s not “entrepreneurial”? Well, not much has changed. She can do what a publisher would want her to do anyway, get social, and eventually, if the work is good, build word of mouth. Just like it is today, she probably won’t sell as much as the genre writers. But she will still be better off, on average, publishing her own work in the future. Why? Because the odds of getting published under the old system are stacked against her, especially if writing literary. How many MFAs are out there now working in some other division of the publishing industry, or in a college classroom? They certainly aren’t being supported by the traditional model.

    (On a side note, where was it ever written that artists were owed a living? Everyone who goes into the arts is taking a flyer.)

    And let’s be clear about one thing, for me at least––I never dance at another artist’s struggles. Indeed, I am all about helping writers survive and thrive.

    Yes, there are self-published writers out there who are lighting torches and grabbing pitchforks outside the gates of the Forbidden City. But I’m not one of them.

    Nor am I a prisoner inside those walls.

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  12. Diane: Congrats on testing the waters. But don't lament too soon. You've only had your story out ONE MONTH! I'm not sure what you were expecting, but a 35% royalty on a 99¢ story is not going to buy a Lexus after a month, or probably ever.

    But it's a start. And as I lay out in my book, SELF-PUBLISHING ATTACK, you now have to build volume if you expect to see steadily rising income.

    I'd also suggest: check your cover design. It's hard to see in thumbnail. Take "by" off before your name. The book description is too brief and not alluring enough. And it's extremely short, only 7 pages. Most stories that sell well at 99¢ are upward of 40 pages. (I cover all these subjects in the book, which I mention only because it's very helpful).

    But here's the good news. You've reached 8 more people than you would have not publishing.

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  13. If you write for the simply the art of writing then making money isn't your motivator and when you don't make you shouldn't lament.

    If you write solely for the sake of making money then you are going to be stressed to the gills until you figure out this game or get lucky.

    If though you write as if you're building a career step by step and write and keep writing till you figure it out and then figure out how to sell it you might find one that after a dozen or so novels, shorts and whatevers that may or may not have made you much whether self pubbing or traditional pubbing (or ale pubbing which is often part of the profession) you suddenly discover that you've hit on something and folks sit up and cheer and "Wow, where'd this guy come from, outa nowhere and blamo he's great."

    check out my newest Alaska based thriller, MIDNIGHT SUN only $3.99 at Amazon and help me off to that "Wow where'd he come from" status.

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  14. Thank you, Mr. Bell! I shall press on to the future with high hopes. You're right, that's eight more than I had. :)

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  15. That's the ticket, Diane. I believe you are really a writer.

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  16. I have found that I can't NOT write. I'm miserable when I don't spend time each day crafting or learning the craft. I am a writer AND I'm doing the things that make me a better writer. Publishing venues or not, I will keep writing cause it's what love to do.

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  17. I’m a writer because:

    --I feel unaccomplished unless I’ve written at least a 1000 words a day in my new novel (if this goal is good enough for James Scott Bell, it should work for me, and it does.) Today I’m happy because I wrote 1400 words with ease. (The only drag is that I have not spent an hour today on promoting my published book…yet.)

    --Before I leave for my daily walks and swims, or pick blueberries in the wilderness, I enjoy mulling over writing ideas, especially the next chapter in my book. When a great idea comes to me, I smile, and I can’t wait to put it down on paper.

    --I am absent-minded because my characters control my mind. I try to transfer their urges onto the paper as soon as I can. They want ACTION, and I had better let them act more than they think.

    --I aim to entertain my readers. If I don’t, why should they spend their hard-earned cash and waste their valuable time on reading my fiction? My goal is not to receive accolades from supreme judges of literature for my innovative verbosity, or to “touch people’s lives,” (as another writer hopes to do). Just let me entertain. Knowing the craft is essential, and it pleases me to improve.

    --I love to read good writing, and I am currently soaking up P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. If only I could acquire his vocabulary, and his insights, and use them so well. He inspires me to be a better writer, and that’s enough for now and forever.

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  18. Alicia and Sella, I believe that you are really writers.

    Don't stop.

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  19. James,
    Thank you very much for your encouraging reply, for the invaluable books you have written for writers, and for your thought provoking blog posts.

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  20. It took me a long time to believe I was a writer. Even thought that's my day job too - a software technical writer.

    I hope I'm a raccoon too. And I'll be picking up SELF PUBLISHING ATTACK just as soon as my kids stop spending my money. =)

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