The Proof is in (the) Pudding
As a writer, the part of the creative process I like least (after publicity) is proofreading. I realize going through multiple layers of editing is necessary, but the nuclear reactor of energy that drives me to write for eight hours a day for four weeks straight does not take kindly to the constant pruning and polishing required when revising a text.
To me it seems being asked to drive an exotic sports car (a Lamborghini, if you’ve got a spare one in your garage) for a week, with two days spent setting speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats and the remaining five puttering around town to get groceries or go to Target. The first part is fun, but the latter seems like a waste of time and energy.
In writing, however, the best part comes not in the initial creation, but in the refinement. I was very fortunate for Running to have an editor who is good at her job and wanted my work to be the best it could be. It didn’t hurt that she has a great sense of humor to boot.
This time around I also secured a proofreader who has an eye for detail and caught things that were missed in previous rounds of editing. They all were small mistakes, but they added up to the work being less than what it could be. In the process, I have learned to love the end result of editing, so I am willing to work through the monotony of it.
Besides, it’s worth it to avoid the really tragic (and possibly wildly inappropriate) mistakes that can occur when you’re not careful.
Riding the Waves
A few weeks ago, my wife and I saw the film Authors Anonymous. As budding authors ourselves, we weren’t sure if the story was cute, fascinating or just plain sad (I voted for sad). If you’re a writer, this is one of those “inside baseball” type movies you totally will understand. If you aren’t a writer, you might not get why we put ourselves through all this torture.
Don’t worry — I often wonder that myself.
For those of us who haven’t yet established a beachhead in the land of literary success, the challenge is that our writing careers tend to bob among the waves of a very large and seemingly solitary ocean. We sometimes find fellow travelers who are treading water in the same seas and share with them hopeful tales of those who have reached the shore and are exploring this wondrous land of opportunity (When you’re a not-yet-successful writer, you tend to spend weekend mornings coming up with over-extended metaphors while waiting to hear back from editors, agents or your friends on social media).
Recently, I had a solid lead on getting a dust jacket blurb from a highly successful author in my genre. Having laid the ground work over several months, I shipped out a copy of my work with eager anticipation.
The author, a very kind and gracious soul whose writing I absolutely adore, was so generous in declining to endorse my work that I felt uplifted by the rejection. He spoke of his own struggles in getting published and how he took these early challenges as an admonition to improve his craft. In closing, he said the following: “I implore you to look beyond the one story, and strive forward towards greatness. Our community needs writers like you.”
Some might reasonably argue that he was trying to let me down gently, knowing that it's bad form to be mean to under-performing kid in class.
But instead of being cynical, I decided to take his counsel at face value. So I sent portions of two manuscripts to contacts who might be able to help me out and spent the next Saturday starting the arduous process of looking for agents in preparation for when the next edit of my manuscript is complete.
In my home office I have a file with at least 50 rejection letters in it. On the bookshelf about a foot and a half away sits my first novel. Am I willing to go through the cycle of eagerness, hope and rejection all over again for the possibility of publishing the sequel to the manuscript that took 15 years to get into print?
My Apollo 13 Moment
Being a child of the 80s, I am, at heart, a space buff. I poured over my kids’ science magazine detailing the Space Shuttle's specifications. I was devastated when Challenger exploded in 1986 and Columbia did as well in 2003. Then when Atlantis landed for the final time in July 2011, I was saddened we had lost something as a country. Our collective drive to discover, I suppose.
Although the Apollo 13 failed lunar mission took place before I was born, I watched with fascination many years later the Ron Howard film of the same name. I knew from history that the crew lived, but I was riveted to the screen as astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise scrambled to cannibalize their supplies in order to limp back safely to earth. They realized they had to give up on their dream so they could live to fly another day.
As a writer, I have discovered that the writing, pitching, publication and sales of each book seem almost as complex as a space mission. There are so many items on the checklist and if any of them go wrong, the entire project can crash and burn. For full-time writers, such failure might mean less food on the dinner table. Thankfully, that’s not the case with me.
On a recent book project, I realized I had to jettison my plans and disassemble the component parts. The manuscript, which was written as much from my heart as my imagination, was good but not good enough. I was passionate about the tale, but those I trust broke the news to me it wasn’t as well crafted as I thought. After the first person told me this, I dug in my heels and refused to listen to the sage advice for months on end. It took some deep reflection, insight received at a recent writers conference and the counsel of another close adviser before I knew for sure the project needed to be shelved.
Now, all is not lost. Parts of the book may find their way into future projects. They will need to be re-tooled to be sure, but like Lovell, Swigert and Haise, I am not willing to lose sight of the greater mission. Being a writer has never been just a passing fancy for me, so I won't end my career because of one shipwreck. I’m taking what I can from the experience and moving on.
One of the space-related groups I was part of as a teen had the following motto: ad astra per ardua (to the stars, with effort).
With a little effort, I am hoping to soar to reach my own stars.
The Hidden Rooms of the Soul
If you’re like me, you probably have a favorite author or collection of authors you like to read. Right now I am in the middle of a series about time travel written in a style that reminds me a bit of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This author is well known for his mythic fiction, so this series is something different. As an established author, I imagine it was easy to sell this concept to his agent and publisher, since they both know people will pick up his work based on name recognition alone.
For those of us who are not “internationally acclaimed” authors, we have a harder time when we switch gears in our writing. This summer I was planning to write the sequel to my first novel. I had done some research and even worked out a secondary plot line with a book editor. But then I was inspired to write a practical non-fiction title that has received some early positive feedback but has put me on the hunt for a new agent because this work isn’t in his area of expertise. I am having to rebrand myself a bit and counting on the same people to buy my second book is much less of a sure thing.
The real problem comes when you start talking about my third book. Several years ago I wrote a short story that scared me so much I shoved it in a drawer for a year. It was creative, but it touched on themes that were surprising to say the least. After a writers’ conference where the keynote speaker talked about “going to the dark places” and being willing to pull our inspiration from such journeys, I retrieved the story and made it the foundation for another novel. The initial response for the piece was not as positive as was my first book, so I put it away again. I am taking it out a third time and passing it around to a couple of friends to see if these initial impressions were right or if I need to try harder to revise and sell this project.
The biggest worry I have is one of creating a consistent reader base. People who liked my first book want a sequel, which I plan to write next summer. But will these same people buy a book that is a bit experimental in both form and content? Will an agent who knows what I have written before want to take a chance on something different? Since my first work was self-published, will a traditional house be willing to make the same “gamble”, especially considering how risk-adverse the industry has become?
I don’t think publishing is a charitable pursuit, nor do I think authors should blithely ignore the conventions of branding and marketing, but if writing comes from the soul, then sometimes we need to open rooms others would leave closed and compel readers to take a look inside. For what is hidden in the secret places often reveals who we are or who we may become.
Wanna peak? I’m hoping you do.
Write, Edit, Repeat
Now that I have finished writing the core of my latest manuscript, the time has come for the editing process. Several friends are reviewing the work to offer their critiques and then 2–3 rounds of editing will occur. While this step may sound boring, and a few years ago I would have agreed, I have come to enjoy the editing process.
The most important reason editing is necessary is to improve the quality of the work. When I write, I do so quickly, performing scant editing along the way. Some days I feel like a 5-year-old trying to paint a house. I probably used the right color, but you can be sure there are several spots that need to be redone before I show my work off to others. Similarly, to get the best manuscript possible takes time and, quite often, the insight of others. In addition to removing the grammatical and typographical errors, I want to cut out extemporaneous verbiage and rework tired phrases. My question is not “Did I say it well?” but “Is this the best way to say what I have to say?” Obviously, these queries often elicit radically different responses.
Roman poet Marcus Fabius Quintilianus spoke to this issue in AD 65 when he said: “Prune what is turgid, elevate what is commonplace, arrange what is disorderly, introduce rhythm where the language is harsh, modify where it is too absolute.”
One of the hidden benefits of the editing process is it reminds me I am not as good a writer as I imagine myself to be. Revising a work again and again is an exercise in humility. Your initial thoughts may have been sounded good in your head, and seemed fine upon early review, but when you look at a work again and again you learn how much you have to grow, as a writer and a person. You have nightmares about mistakes infesting your work like termites in an old attic. Not surprisingly, Quintilianus had something to say about this as well.
“The best method of correction is to put aside for a time what we have written, so that when we come to it again it may have an aspect of novelty, as of being another man’s work; in this way we may preserve ourselves from regarding our writings with the affection we lavish upon a newborn child.”
I suppose there is another similarity between writing and newborns – both need to be changed from time to time to keep them fresh.
While I may be a Southern California native, I am not, nor have I ever been, the stereotypical surfer dude. Some experiments at boogie boarding in my adolescent years is as close as I came to riding the waves. I would like to blame my flawed eyesight for this, but I suspect I also was never good at reading the signs.
Now I am trying to ride the waves again, metaphorically speaking. As a writer, I enjoyed some early success with my first book, but then there was a lull in the waves, as it were. Sales dropped off and I was left with the question of how to make them rise again. But one thing I have come to learn about the world of publishing is that it is more like a water park or swimming pool—you have to make your own waves.
So here I go with my latest attempt at boosting interest, and sales. I am distributing copies of the book strategically and the next big wave is coming: a bargain basement sale on the electronic version of Chasing Deception. While I don’t expect sales in the tens of thousands, I am learning this is a step-by-step process. We’ll see how far this wave carries me before I plan my next move. I also have two other writing projects in the works, giving me a chance to get better at making, and riding, those waves.
Olympics Lessons for Everyday Life
Among the many things my wife and I have in common is our love for the Olympic Games. The pageantry, athletic skill and raw energy, plus a latent desire to travel the world, all capture our attention. While it is easy to reduce the Games to a medal count and a highlight reel of celebrations and crashes, there are universal lessons that shine as brightly as the Olympic Flame.
First, the key to success is preparation. Several vignettes and even commercials emphasize the years of practice, sacrifice and determination it takes for athletes to reach the top of their sport. When I think how the characters in my book have been “maturing” for the last 15-20 years, I get a small sense of the focus needed to strive for greatness.
Second, the support of friends and family is vital. When you hear about parents and siblings who gave up countless evenings and weekends while the athletes trained and spent thousands upon thousands of dollars to travel to events around the world, the crucial nature of communal support becomes apparent. I know I am so thankful for the friends who write positive reviews at Amazon or Goodreads, encourage their friends in person or on Facebook to purchase Chasing Deception or even buy copies to give away. The vast majority of any success I have achieved is because of their effort.
Third, the Games are about more than winning medals. People come from all over the world, often at great expense economically, politically and physically, to do the best they can in their chosen sport. Most of them will go home without a medal, but they still will be filled with the satisfaction they were part of something greater than themselves. In my own writing, I am not expecting to “medal”, but each time someone picks up my book I hope they will be entertained for a while and, if I’m fortunate, discover how some of the larger themes I address might be applicable to their own lives.
And like the Olympic Flame, I hope the power of those lessons never fade away.
For Christmas, my wife bought me the DVDs for the one-season cult classic “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.” Now the show itself, a parody of classic westerns, offers a mostly harmless way of filling a free hour or two on a weekend afternoon, there are larger themes just below its campy surface.
Throughout the story, which takes place at the end of the 19th century, the protagonist is eager to find out about “The Coming Thing”. This drive taps into the collective sense of anticipation that engages the populace every decade, century or millennium. We all peer into the future with a mixture of emotions and for many, these are feelings of anticipation and hope.
For myself, my eyes have been opened to a book-writing career that has just begun. Having sold my first 100 copies, my free time is filled with building my platform and expanding the markets for my work.
This lesson transfers well beyond the world of writing. We all have a “Coming Thing” in our lives. Whether we are deciding to get a new job, return to school, start a new relationship or travel to an exciting or exotic land, our lives are filled with opportunities for change.
Too often we shrink away from these opportunities in fear and trepidation. We loathe change because it means adding some chaos and unpredictability into our well-ordered lives. Even if things are going rather poorly, at least we know what to expect from the future.
I say we should seize the spirit of the new year and embrace the idea of change and discovery. I have learned that even when I take a wrong turn on the way to my destination, at least the scenery usually is interesting. Perhaps it’s time to enjoy a bit of the scenery life has to offer.
So, what’s “The Coming Thing” in your life and what are you willing to do to make it a reality?
Sounding My Barbaric Yawp
Some events in your life are watershed moments and this, for me, is one of them. Today I became a published author!
After 15 years of earnest faith slipping into ragged disbelief turning back into faith again (the latter primarily because of the unflagging support of family and friends), I can say with a strong, proud voice that I have done something I have dreamed of for years.
The feeling of euphoria coursing through my veins seems to have negated the few hours of sleep I logged last night waiting for this moment. It is a birthday present coming two days late and a Christmas gift arriving 25 days early.
When all the technical aspects were said and done, in the spirit of Walt Whitman, I did “sound my barbaric yawp”. To be fair, since it was 7 a.m., the yawp was somewhat restrained so as not to wake the neighborhood.
The best part of this moment is that it is perfect. I am not concerned about royalties, critical reviews or typos. I am not hungry, tired or stressed. All that will come in due time, but not yet.
In my mind at this moment I am enjoying a beautiful sunset at the beach with a gentle breeze tempering the warmth of the day but not yet bringing forth the chill of evening.
Worry not, as I’ll get back to promotional postcards, book signings and other marketing devices soon enough.
Right now, I’m just enjoying the view.
Entering the Arena
As a child, I fell in love with the places books could take you if you were only willing to dedicate a little imagination to making the journey. Being so passionate about reading, I soon was bitten by the writing bug. My first efforts, not surprisingly, were childish as I copied what I had seen and read rather than created original work of my own. And, while my ability to write journalistic stories grew in high school, college and beyond, my short stories remained slight twists on my own life or ideas from others.
In the summer of 1998, I began to work on what would become my first novel. What I thought was a pretty good product was, in reality, a very rough draft that needed much more work. Foolishly discarding wise counsel, I rushed my story to agents and publishers expecting a book contract in short order.
Instead of instant success, rejections quickly filled an ever-expanding file folder. All aspiring writers have visions of royalties and recognition coming at the end of a long road of struggle. People whose oft-declined manuscript goes on to eventually become a best-selling novel inspire us all to keep writing, submit to agents, grieve over the rejections and submit again.
Many drafts later, I had reached the dreaded milestone of receiving more rejections than there are states in America. That’s when I decided to take a new path, one that would lead me out of this literary wilderness. While tempted to simply give up, I realized I had come too far to abandon the dream that has grasped my soul so many years ago. I tell my students every day not to give up on their dreams, so how could I throw away on my own and not be seen as a hypocrite in their eyes?
A few still may frown at those who take the self-publishing route, but sometimes you just need to move forward in faith and boldness and see what happens. President Teddy Roosevelt famously tipped his hat to the man waging battle in the arena willing to fight with all of his might and “if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
Win or lose, I am happy to finally be stepping into the arena.
I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.