Monday, August 29, 2011

Writing about what?

Like most writers, I like to read about other writers, even writers whose work I don't read. One example is Stephen King. If you're looking for a great book about writing, I highly recommend his book, On Writing, even though I have never read (and will probably never read) any of his horror novels. His advice on writing, however, is rock solid. And why wouldn't it be? After all, he is one of the most successful writers alive today.

Anyway, I want to reiterate an excellent tidbit from the book that popped into my head recently. He said that a lot of people ask him if he's afraid he'll ever run out of ideas, and his answer is, "No." Even though he is writing horror, he gets his ideas from things that happen to him every day. One example he offered was when he stopped for gas in the desert. While his car was filling with gas, he went to look into the canyon behind the gas station and lost his footing. He nearly feel thousands of feet to his death! Obviously he was totally fine, walked back to his car, and continued on his trip. But like most of us who have a scare, he couldn't stop thinking about what had happened. And one thing that he wondered was -- what would the gas station attendant have done if no one had ever moved his car? And that is where he got the idea for his From a Buick Eight novel. Of course, he threw a scary spin on the deserted car in his novel, but it all started from something that happened to him in his daily life.

The only novel that I ever wrote started as the result of a friend telling me a tragic story about her life. Although her life turned out okay, I couldn't help but think what would have happened if she had not been blessed with a supportive and loving husband. Her story would have ended very differently. And my imagination turned my friend into a fictional character who started telling me her story, which I had to write. Get the idea?

Yeah, but what about non-fiction? Well, this is why I thought about Stephen King. I'm sure he wasn't expecting a gas stop to net a new story idea, just as I didn't expect to come up with a new book idea last week when driving my car. I was listening to an author being interviewed on the radio, and I got an idea for another book. It has absolutely nothing to do with the book on the radio, which was about spirituality, but in my brain, one thing led to another, and suddenly I realized I was formulating an idea for another book on sustainable living. With non-fiction, the challenge of writing a book is not coming up with ideas. Most non-fiction authors are full of ideas we want to share! The challenge is figuring out how to make those ideas accessible to readers. And as I was listening to this other writer talk about how he wanted to help people live a more peaceful life, I started getting ideas about how to package my thoughts on living a more sustainable life. This is one reason it is absolutely necessary for writers to read.

I hope it seems really obvious that the more you read, the better writer you will become mechanically. But the more you read, the more you will learn about expressing yourself too. When you read a book that you really like, ask yourself what you like about it. And when you read a book that you don't want to finish, really ask yourself why. I am currently reading a book that I am rapidly losing interest in, and I'm getting a better understanding of how much personal information in a book is too much. I've always enjoyed books that made me feel like I was getting to know the author, but there are some things that I now realize I really don't want to know!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rejection dejection

"After rejection — misery, then thoughts of revenge, and finally, oh well, another try elsewhere." -- Mason Cooley
If you are going to write for publication, rejection is part of the game. Because I'd been writing for magazines since 1989, the rejection letters didn't usually bother me, but there was a time when I didn't handle it very well. No, I didn't write a snarky response to an agent or editor. I just completely gave up.

In 2005, I had sent out a non-fiction book proposal to five publishers. One sent a form rejection, which is no big deal since those are routine. Another rejection was personal and said that books on that topic were not selling at the time.

But the other three rejections were so close to success, it killed my enthusiasm for the writing life. One editor called and began praising the book proposal. "It's well organized, well written ..." He could tell I was getting excited, and said, "But I'm not calling to tell you that I want to buy it." Actually, he did want to buy it, "because this would be a great book," but his company wasn't taking on any new books and he was being laid off next week. He was just calling to tell me that he'd like to take my proposal with him, and if he got a job at a house where they published books on writing, he'd contact me.

The fourth rejection came from a publisher who kept the proposal for several months and then sent me a detailed letter about how it was well written and well organized, but selling it would be a problem because defining the audience was tough. But the letter ended, "I hope to work with you in the future."

And the final rejection was a form rejection letter attached to my proposal, which would not have been a big deal except that notes had been erased from the top of my cover letter. It said, "Check Amazon and then accept." Sounds like I got really close with that one, but there must have been something on Amazon that made them decide against it. I had done a thorough market analysis, but I checked Amazon again to see if I found anything else. Nothing jumped out at me.

I went through the same thing with a memoir. About 80% of the rejections were personal and said that it was a great story. "You should have no trouble finding representation." But no one ever agreed to represent the story. I even got an email from one agent two years after I sent the query letter. She said, "You're probably happily published by now, but if not, send me an email and let me know what you're working on." After a couple emails, I never heard from her again. She didn't send me a rejection; she just didn't respond to my last couple emails. In the back of my head, this little voice said that I must have written something so terrible in one of those emails that she couldn't even figure out how to respond, or maybe she felt I didn't even deserve a response.

I felt so beaten down after those rejections that I quit writing and decided to get a graduate degree and begin a new career as a college professor. But after two years of academic life, I was eager to get back to the real world of writing. And that's where the real story of my success begins.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Finding time for writing

One of the questions I'm often asked is how I find time to write. Between running a farm and cooking from scratch and the rest of daily life, I am a busy person. However, finding time to write is not a challenge. A bit of advice that every writer has heard is to write what you know -- and more importantly -- to write what you are passionate about. The reason usually given for writing about your passion is because your passion will show through in your writing. If you aren't passionate about the topic, then how is the reader supposed to get excited about it?

I have another spin on writing about your passion though. If you are passionate about your writing -- whether it is fiction or non-fiction -- you won't need to find time. If it is fiction, those characters will haunt you night and day, and you will be turning on the computer at crazy hours to write their story. If it is non-fiction, you will constantly be thinking about the topic, asking yourself questions, sneaking away to the computer to do additional research, and writing notes to yourself when you are away from your computer.

As I wrote in my last post, a writer writes. It doesn't matter if you're famous or whether anyone has ever paid you a dollar for your writing. You write because being a writer is part of you, just like your eye color and whether you are right-handed. My problem is not really finding time to write. My problem is remembering to eat when I'm writing. My problem is not being able to fall back asleep in the middle of the night when I wake up and start thinking about my latest article or book. We all find time for what we love. As much as I love eating and sleeping, I suppose I love writing even more.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Why write?

I've had a writer's website since the late 1990s, but I just created this one in May. I like the idea of having a blog site because I can add things to it that would not necessarily fit on a regular website for a writer -- like I can tell you about the writing process and speaking, and I can write posts that might help another writer, either by offering encouragement or real life suggestions for getting published or becoming a better writer.

So, why has this site been sitting here without a post for three months? Getting started is the hardest part of any project, and I suppose this blog is no different. Two months ago I wrote this post and decided no one would want to read it. But giving it a fresh look today, I suppose it is not such a bad place to start.

In the beginning . . . I've been a writer for a very long time. Being a writer isn't a job. It's like being Scandinavian or a Pisces -- you just are. And you have to write, like you have to eat. In fact, sometimes when I'm writing, I forget about eating. When I'm not writing, I'm thinking about what I'm going to write. I'm not even sure how long I've known I was a writer, but as a freshman in high school, I took typing because I knew reporters and authors had to type everything. I worked on my high school and college newspapers and earned a degree in English -- and then I had a severe case of self-doubt. Who would ever hire me?

So, I never even applied for a job as a reporter. Instead, I tried something even more difficult and ego-deflating. I became a freelancer! Like everyone who decides to attempt freelancing for national magazines, I got a lot of rejections. But eventually I started getting published a little. Within a few years, I had a decent list of credits, including several articles in Baby Talk. I finally applied for a job as a newspaper reporter 12 years after graduating from college, and I was hired. But before working as a reporter, I decided I wanted to write books. One of these days, I'll write the whole story, but I had probably written more book proposals than anyone who didn't have a book published -- or at least it felt that way. 

I suppose one of the things I want to do on here is to encourage writers to keep trying. We've all heard stories of people who had dozens of rejection letters or spent years trying to get published, but when I heard those stories, I always focused on things that didn't apply to me. One author had more than 100 rejections on a single manuscript. Well, I'd never sent out a single manuscript that many times, so obviously I had nothing to complain about. A novelist wrote seven or eight novels before getting one published. I'd only written one novel, and a book proposal isn't nearly as much work as a novel, so she was obviously more persistent than I was.

Until I had a signed book contract in my hands, I had never allowed myself to do my own math. I'd been trying to get books published for 20 years.

Writing that sentence still makes me stop and stare. 20 years! For their entire lives, my children knew me as a person who was always trying to become a published author. From a variety of how-to books to memoirs, they were rejected over and over again. It seems amazing that I kept trying. But then, I'm a writer. A writer writes. It really is that simple. When you love something, when you live for something, you just keep doing it.