My Path to Publication (so far) by guest blogger Thomas Norman DeWolf

/jpeg-of-toms-cover.jpg/jpeg-of-toms-cover.jpg/jpeg-of-toms-cover.jpg/jpeg-of-toms-cover.jpg/jpeg-of-toms-cover.jpg

Today, I am pleased to present the last of my holiday treats for all of the members of the Author! Author! community, and let me tell you, it’s a peach. Longtime blog reader Thomas DeWolf, whose fascinating book, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History will be coming out January 9th (congratulations again, Tom!), has graciously given into my blandishments and agreed to share his experiences with us. He has even — brace yourselves — agreed to give us an author’s-eye view of what happened when throughout the publication process.

Pretty great, eh?

A couple of years ago, Tom was precisely where so many of the members of our little community are: he had a good manuscript to pitch, but was new to the publishing industry. Through a willingness to learn the ropes, persistence, and having a heck of a good story to tell, he was able to bring his book to publication.

He is living proof, in short, that it IS possible — and Tom has very kindly agreed to take the time during the INCREDIBLY busy last weeks before publication to tell us about it. (To give a tangible sense of just how busy he must be right now, and thus what a kindness this is: I have it on pretty reliable authority that Amazon has already started shipping the presale copies.)

So please join me in thanking him for joining us. Take it away, Tom!

/photo-of-tom.jpg/jpeg-of-toms-cover.jpg

Thank you, Anne, both for announcing the upcoming publication of my book, Inheriting the Trade, and for inviting me to write this “guest blog” for your site. Based on your message that your readers appreciate hearing about the post-contract phase of the publication process, here’s the condensed version of my experience so far:

For several years, as I dreamed of holding a hardbound book with my name inscribed on the cover and spine for the first time, I did my best to figure out how others successfully navigated the confusing, sometimes twisted path to publication. I attended trade shows to rub elbows with authors. I went to author readings and watched them on C-Span’s Book TV. I read about them. I asked for advice. I tried not to be too obnoxious, but occasionally probably was (sorry about shoving my children’s book manuscript into your hands, Richard Bach, I trust that the bruises have healed…).

My path over the past couple of years included attending both the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ annual writing conference in New York in April 2006 and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s annual conference in Seattle in July that same year. I couldn’t afford it. I went anyway. Prior to PNWA I found Anne Mini’s blog through her “resident writer” posts on the PNWA website. In addition to the helpful hints on writing in general—and my focus on query letters and book proposals specifically—I paid close attention to her profiles on agents. Based on the subject matter of my book I felt that about a dozen agents scheduled to attend the upcoming PNWA conference might be interested in my work. Rather than wait to approach them at the conference or after, I sent a query letter to each of them two weeks in advance of the conference. Approximately half of them responded to me before the conference began! All but one eventually asked to see my book proposal.

July 2006: At the conference, I took advantage of the Pitch Practicing Palace (sorry to learn it is no longer available), met every agent I could, or at least attended workshops where they were on the panel so I could confirm my impressions of their suitability for my book. I rewrote my book proposal for the umpteenth time and, after I returned home, sent it to the dozen agents who requested it.

September 2006: Within two months (and 16 rejections) after the conference, I received a call from Lauren Abramo, an agent with Dystel and Goderich Literary Management in New York who had attended PNWA. She offered to represent me (a moment’s pause while I relive my joyful scream… Yahoo! Okay, continue…).

After revising my book proposal to fit DGLM’s standards, Lauren sent copies to twenty publishers. In March 2007, I signed a contract with Beacon Press in Boston (pause again, more briefly due to looming deadlines… Yee-HAW! Okay, back to work…) and immediately began working with my editor, Gayatri Patnaik, to revise my manuscript. I understood that the typical publication timeframe, from contract to bookshelf, was at least 12-18 months. Beacon’s commitment with me was to have my book published in 10 months so that Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History would be available in time to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the United States (which occurred in January 1808).

My completed manuscript ran approximately 450 pages. My contract called for no more than 350 pages. Though I agreed to the page limit, I’d already pared it down, over many, many rewrites and edits, from my original 1500 page manuscript (I know, I know, ridiculous, huh?), and couldn’t see how I could remove another 100 pages without cutting the heart out of my story.

March 20, 2007: Eleven days after reaching verbal agreement on a contract with Beacon Press (and one day after actually signing), I received the first half of my manuscript, along with comments from my editor, Gayatri. I actually didn’t even freak out. Yes, I realized, she’s cut a third of the first half of my book away. Yes, some of my favorite moments were gone. But I could see where she was headed. She has a vision for my book. This is going to work, I thought.

Then I received the second half of the manuscript with the rest of her comments. Now I freaked out. Key sections were eliminated. My last chapter, my favorite chapter in the whole book: gone. We talked. Gayatri explained that my book is her baby now, too. I need to trust her. She knows what she’s doing and part of her job is to protect me from myself. I had to think about that one for a bit.

Over the course of six weeks, we went through three complete revisions. Initially, first-timer that I am, I feared that the role of an editor was to simply take my work, cut-fix-shift-add-revise-submit-print it, and I would lose control over my work. That was not the case at all. I did as much writing in those six weeks as I had done the previous six months. Gayatri didn’t rewrite my manuscript. She told me what I needed to do to make the story work effectively. We cut sections, rewrote others, and added new ones. My 450 page manuscript that I agreed to cut down to 350 became 272. To this day I remain amazed at how that happened without my realizing it until after the fact. And even with all my “babies” we killed, I am pleased with our final manuscript.

May 2, 2007: My talk-every-day-sometimes-several-times-each-day routine with Gayatri abruptly halted. She handed me over to others for the next phase of the process and she moved on to other books. Copyediting is something completely foreign to me. Grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure are not my strong suits. But I’m learning. The manuscript was sent to the copyeditor hired by Beacon Press. She would copyedit the entire manuscript, and I would get it back, within three weeks. I sent the un-copyedited version of my newly revised (and incredibly thin!) manuscript to five others who are close to the project for their final input and fact-checking.

May 23, 2007: I received the copyedited manuscript and was given two weeks to review it, accept or reject proposed changes, and resolve any queries from the copyeditor. This would also be my last opportunity to make other necessary changes before the book was to be typeset. I read the manuscript three complete times, focusing on different aspects of the story each time (first, simple flow; second, making sure story arcs and character actions are complete and questions raised are all answered; third, nit-pick the details). I also learned a trick while reading Neil Gaiman’s website. He’s a heckuva blogger. I did a word search to check for “ly.” Most adverbs end in “ly” and this is a great way to locate and destroy them. The two new red pencils Beacon Press sent me to mark up the manuscript ended up as nubs. I returned the marked up (so much red; felt a bit like blood) pages to Beacon Press on June 6.

July 18, 2007: The fully-designed, typeset galleys for my book arrived via FedEx. I spent all day, every day for the next two weeks, proofreading my book. Four others agreed to proofread it as well and let me know what they found.

July 31, 2007: I returned the galleys to Beacon Press with approximately 55 proposed corrections and/or alterations that I felt were important and necessary for my book. And that was it. Other than responding to a few specific questions that resulted in a few more minor changes, I was finished writing my book.

August – October, 2007: I was surprised when my agent called to tell me she had sold the audio rights to Inheriting the Trade to Brilliance Audio (third brief pause to celebrate… Yippee!). Since my book is a memoir, I didn’t want anyone else’s voice narrating it but me. Brilliance agreed to allow me to audition for them. I downloaded some recording software to my computer and narrated the preface and first chapter along with an introduction that explained why I was the only logical choice to narrate my own work. Brilliance agreed and flew me to their studios in October where I worked with a director and an engineer to record my book over the course of three days. The audio version of Inheriting the Trade will be available at the same time the hardcover hits bookshelves in January.

The vast majority of my time since July has been dedicated to the business side of my book’s publication. I work closely with my publicist at Beacon Press to coordinate my book tour With strong support from James Perry, one of my distant cousins and fellow travelers in this journey who also happens to be quite savvy with computer technology (a trait I completely lack), we created a website and blog. I’ve read books on publicity (The Savvy Author’s Guide to Book Publicity and Publicize Your Book), media training (Media Training A-Z), and “buzz” (Unleashing the Idea Virus and Building Buzz).

I’ve made contact with people in the media I know and have asked friends and colleagues to send me contact information on reporters they know, all of which I pass along to my publicist as she prepares to send press kits and review copies of my book to media outlets, large and small, around the country (with emphasis on cities I’ll visit on tour). My publicist is working to set up television, radio, and newspaper interviews wherever she can as soon as the book is published. I’m working on an Op-Ed that she wants to submit for publication. The variety of ways to publicize my book seems almost endless.

I’ve heard stories quite different from my experience. Working with Beacon Press has been as close to perfect as I can imagine. I have received support and advice from other people in this industry (including some gracious agents and editors that rejected my proposal) that has proven quite valuable to my journey. I’ll do my best to share more about my experience (as it unfolds) on my own blog and hope that it will provide those who share the dream of getting published with a few tidbits now and then that I hope will prove useful.

One additional thought for writers and aspiring writers: part of the business of writing is finding ways to raise the visibility of your work and you. If someone asks you to write a guest blog, and it is appropriate to your work or subject matter, you graciously comply. Then you provide a link to your own blog. And you write a post in your own blog that links to the guest post you’ve written. Hopefully, other bloggers will then write about your “guest blog” on their own sites; all of which contributes to increasing the visibility of your web presence and spreads the word about your book while also helping raise the visibility of the blogs you’re linking to. If you are learning about me and my book, Inheriting the Trade, for the first time here you’ve just experienced all the evidence you need that what I’ve just explained works.

Thanks again, Anne. It’s been great reconnecting. I wish you all the best and send kudos your way for keeping up your amazing blog that helps other writers in so many ways.

Thanks, Tom, and best of luck on your book!

/jpeg-of-toms-cover.jpg/jpeg-of-toms-cover.jpg/jpeg-of-toms-cover.jpg/jpeg-of-toms-cover.jpg/jpeg-of-toms-cover.jpg

A few words on feedback, or, a proposition to which you should NOT say yes on New Year’s Eve

I’m posting late today, I’m afraid — the news about Benazir Bhutto, while not exactly a surprise, left me very much saddened. I have been following her career since I was in college; we share an alma mater, and my work-study job involved maintaining files on the doings of alumnae. (Yes, in the 1980s, Harvard did not house the men’s and women’s files together, nor did male and female undergraduates receive the same diploma. You’ve come a long way, baby!) Her story was so interesting that I kept an eye out for her even after it was no longer my job to do so. The world is less fascinating without her in it.

Back to business. I may be jumping the gun on the parade of virtue that prevails in early January, that period when folks are still adhering to their New Year’s resolutions, but as many writers have a day or two of vacation right around now, I thought this might be a good time to start talking about the revision process — and its ever-helpful first cousin, useful feedback.

To clarify the timing: we DO all know better than to send off our queries and submissions during the first three weeks of any given new year, right? Half the writers in the English-speaking world bravely embrace SIOA (Send It Out, Already!) as their New Year’s resolution.

The result: Millicent and everyone at her agency is swimming in exponentially more paper at that time of year than at any other — and in the U.S., agencies are required to get tax statements about the previous year’s sales to their clients by the end of January. The combination of stressors tends to make ‘em a mite grumpy — and, believe it or not, even more eager than usual to reject.

So in case I’m being a bit too subtle here: if you can’t get requested materials out the door this week, hold off until after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Trust me on this one. The average New Year’s resolution lasts a touch under three weeks (one of the many reasons that I deplore them), so the influx of paper calms down pretty quickly. You can afford to wait until it does.

And while we’re waiting: it’s revision time! Hooray!

I heard that giant collective guffaw from my long-term readers. “When,” you are asking yourselves, “does Anne think it ISN’T a good time to revise a manuscript? Or, at the very least, to scan it for common mistakes and deviations from standard format?”

Okay, you’ve got me there. I have been preaching that particular gospel quite a bit this month, and with good reason: it is absolutely vital to clear your manuscript (and query letter, and synopsis) of spelling and grammatical errors, pronto.

Or at least before you send it out in a few weeks, after all of those resolvers have gotten it out of their systems. Because you, clever homework-doer that you are, know that there is more to landing an agent than making a single push: success comes to those who keep trying again and again.

And since agency screeners tend to stop reading after just a couple of spelling or grammatical errors, giving a book an honest shot at getting picked up means taking the time to create clean copy. This is not a business where good enough is in fact good enough; technical perfection is expected.

Sound like familiar advice? It should; both of the successfully self-published authors in my recent interview series said precisely the same thing — it’s worth your time to rework the manuscript until it fairly shines. Which just goes to show you that the standards of excellence prevailing in the world of traditional publishing may not be as far from those of the self-published world as one may have heard.

Either way, the author is generally held responsible for mistakes, so you’ll want to minimize them.

Because technical perfection is so important, I implore you, DO NOT rely upon your word processing program’s spelling and grammar checker as your only source of proofreading. As any professional editor will tell you, they tend to be rife with technical errors — mine, for instance, regularly tells me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re — and it’s far too easy for a slip of the mouse to convince your dictionary to accept “caseless” when you mean “ceaseless.”

Spell check, by all means, but there is no substitute for the good ol’ human eye running down a PRINTED page of text for catching errors.

Why not proof on your computer monitor? Because, as those editors to whom I referred above will happily tell you, the screen is not the best place to proofread, even if you read every syllable aloud (which I recommend, particularly for novels that contain quite a bit of dialogue). It’s just too easy for the eyes and the brain to blur momentarily in the editing process, sliding past an error unseen.

Yes, even if you have a simply immense computer screen — this is an instance where size truly doesn’t matter. (And the masses rejoice!)

Since I edit professionally, I have a monitor that could easily balance a small litter of puppies on it. But I ALWAYS use hard copy for a final edit, both for my work and for my clients’. As my downstairs neighbor would, I’m sure, be overjoyed to tell you, if a deadline is close, I’m going to be sitting in my library, reading the relevant manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, out loud.

I’m funny that way.

After you have proofed and poked the slower movements of your text, I STRONGLY urge you to have at least one third party reader take a gander at it. At the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, it is NOT the best idea in the world to be the only eyes who see your work before it lands on an agent’s or editor’s desk. (Or the press, if you are intending to self-publish.)

Gaining some outside perspective, via a trustworthy first reader, has many benefits. Most notably, good pre-submission feedback can enable you to weed out the rookie mistakes that tend to result in our old pal Millicent the screener’s choking on her coffee and reaching for the form rejection letter.

Like, for instance, misspelling your own name or address on the title page – which happens more than you might think. Hey, people are in a hurry.

Other than the simple fact that other eyes are more likely to catch mistakes than you are the 147th time you read a text, there is another reason that you should run your work by another human being before you submit them. I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM.

The result, of course, is that the agent’s feedback is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.

And, as those of you who have submitted to an agency lately know first-hand, that feedback is usually either minimal or non-existent. Or so generic that it could apply to any manuscript Millicent saw — remember, just because a rejection letter or e-mail is personalized with your name doesn’t necessarily mean that it was written freshly in response to reading your book. Stock phrases like I just didn’t fall in love with it, this is a tough market for fiction, and it doesn’t meet our needs at this time have graced rejection letters for many years; they’re not intended as meaningful feedback, but as a polite negative.

It does not, in short, tend to be feedback that’s likely to help a writer improve his work before the next round of submissions. Your writing deserves feedback with content you can use.

Now, there are a lot of places you can receive such feedback. You can ask a professional freelance editor, as I described a few weeks ago; you can join a critique group; you can exchange with another writer. No one method is right for everybody, so you may need to experiment a little before figuring out how you most like to receive feedback.

But remember just before Christmas, when I was preparing you for that inevitable moment when some well-meaning co-celebrant leans over to ask, “So, dear, how’s your writing coming? Published anything yet?” No matter how sincerely this person asks to read your work, no matter how flattering her request may be, no matter how much she swears that she would love nothing better than to read it and tell you what she thinks — if this person is a close friend, lover, would-be or ex lover, or — sacre bleu! — a family member,

DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE THIS PERSON THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

Long-term readers, chant it along with me now: the input of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover (s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs. No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.

Far be it from me to suggest that anyone who cares about you might be sweet and generous enough to lie to spare your feelings, but frankly, it happens. Be grateful that you have such supportive folks in your life. Cherish them; appreciate them; cling to them with the tenacity of an unusually insecure leech.

But DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READERS OF YOUR BOOK.

Get other first readers for your manuscripts, because a first reader who does not have the objectivity — or, often, the reading experience in your genre — to tell you the truth about your manuscript is simply not useful for a writer.

The closer the tie, the lower the objectivity – and no, smart people who read a lot are not exempt from this rule. Even if your father runs a major publishing house for a living, your sister is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback.

Why? Because they like you.

Don’t fault them for that. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself – or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns. So when your Aunt Ermintrude says she’d just LOVE your manuscript (and trust me, at some point, she will; everyone likes the idea of getting a free advance peek at the next big bestseller), I give you my full permission to use me as your excuse for saying no.

Do it politely, of course, as if you were acting upon medical orders. “I’m sorry, but I’ve been advised by Dr. Mini that until I find an agent, I need to limit myself to objective readers,” or “I’d love to, Aunt Ermintrude, but I have a writing group for feedback — what I need you for is support!” tends to go over MUCH better than, “What, are you just trying to get out of buying a copy of the book?”

No one likes getting called on that. And, let’s face it, when you do have a book coming out, you DO want your Aunt Ermintrude to buy it — and to talk all of her friends into buying it.

If you think that professional writers don’t cadge on their relatives this way, think again; most of the pros I know keep mailing lists of everyone who has ever cut their hair, cleaned their teeth, listened to their son’s book reports, etc., to send a postcard the instant a new book of theirs comes out.

And for those of you who already have agents: break yourself of the habit NOW of promising free copies of your future books to your kith and kin. Since authors now receive so few copies – and are often expected to use those for promotion – it’s really, really common for the writer to end up having to BUY those promised freebies to distribute.

Yes, you read that correctly. Now picture everyone who has ever said to you, “Oh, you’ll have to send me a copy when it comes out.” It can be costly.

Promise to sign it for them instead. Get Aunt Ermintrude — and everyone else who loves you — used to the idea that supporting you means being willing to shell out hard cash for your book.

But DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

So on New Year’s Eve, should you find yourself wrapped in the arms of some charming, well-meaning soul who whispers those words that make the average aspiring writer melt like butter, “I’d LOVE to read your book,” you’ll know hat to say, right?

Right? Stop fantasizing about meeting a gorgeous stranger who wants to read your book and concentrate. Trust me, it will be better for both your book and your relationships with your loved ones if you thank him/her/them profusely — and say no.

Ditto with loved ones of every description. My mother is one of the best editors I’ve ever met, and naturally, she is eager to read my work, but we’ve both been in this business long enough to know that giving birth to a writer pretty much automatically disqualifies a reader from being particularly objective about that writer’s work.

I can feel that some of you still aren’t convinced. Perhaps you have kith and kin who just adore giving their unvarnished opinions to you, ostensibly for your own good. “Is it really worth worrying,” I hear voices out there saying, “The cousin who told me I looked stupid in my prom dress will be afraid to tell me that Chapter Three doesn’t work? Since Grams has no problem telling me that she hates my husband, why should she hesitate to rip my novel to shreds, if it needs it?”

This is the other primary reason not to ask your loved ones for feedback, even if they are noted for their blithe indifference to any pain their truth-telling might cause to others: if you care about the advice-giver, it’s hard NOT to be emotionally involved in the response.

Ponder that for a moment, and you’ll see that it’s true. If your favorite brother critiques your book, rightly or wrongly, it’s probably going to hurt more than if a member of your writing group gives precisely the same advice. And by the same token, the emotional baggage of the relationship, even if it is neatly packed and generally non-obtrusive, may make it harder to hear the advice qua advice.

Also – and I hesitate to bring this up, because, again, I’m sure your kith and kin are marvelous human beings – but all too often, critique by loved ones often runs in the other direction, particularly if you happen to be loved by the type the psychologists used to call passive-aggressive.

I have had many, many editing clients come to me in tears because their significant others have pounced on the first typo of the manuscript as evidence that the writer should never have put pen to paper at all. Long-repressed sibling rivalries often jump for joy when they see a nice, juicy manuscript to sink their teeth into, and are you quite sure that your best friend ever forgave you for the time that your 4th-grade soccer team beat hers?

What you need is feedback on your BOOK, not on your relationships. Or, at least, that’s what you need in order to improve your book. (The state of your relationships is, of course, up to you.)

Which is why (hold your ears, because I’m about to start shouting again) YOU SHOULD NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, MAKE ANY OF THESE PEOPLE THE FIRST READER OF YOUR BOOK.

Often, too, when you’re dealing with people unused to giving feedback, being overly-judgmental is not even a reflection of their opinions of your book: in many cases, being vicious is what people think giving feedback means. (And if you doubt this, take a gander at the first efforts of most movie reviewers – or, heck, if you happen to live in the Seattle metro region, at the majority of film reviews in the local free paper THE STRANGER, where most of the contributing writers evidently believe that the title “critic” means that they should never, under any circumstances, say anything positive about a movie that might, say, induce a reader to go and see it. Given their editorial philosophy, I’m surprised to see any starred reviews at all in that paper.)

I’m not saying not to show your work to your kith and kin — if it makes you happy, do. But even if your Aunt Mary won a Pulitzer in criticism last year, you probably should not rely solely upon her critique of your manuscript.

Yes, I know: finding good first readers is a whole lot of work, especially if you live in a small town. But, at the risk of wearing out the record, if you are going to be called on a mistake, it is FAR better to be a little embarrassed by a good first reader than rejected by a hyper-critical agent, editor, or contest judge.

That way, you can fix the mistakes when the stakes are low – and, frankly, you’re far more likely to get usable feedback. If you are one of the many too shy or too busy to show your work to others, yet are willing to send it out to be evaluated by grumpy literary assistants hyped up on seven lattes before lunch, consider carefully whether you really want your first reader to be someone who does not have either the time or the inclination to give you tangible feedback.

Because, really, will We’re sorry, but your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time tell you whether that orgy scene in Chapter 8 is the problem, or if it’s your constant use of the phrase, “Wha–?”

Trust me, you need first readers who will tell you PRECISELY that.

Next time, I shall talk about strategies for getting the kind of good, solid feedback you need without treating your first readers like mere service-providers. (Hey, if you want to do this without engendering social obligations, you really should be working with a paid professional freelancer, rather than your friends.)

Until then, keep up the good work!

So you’re considering self-publishing, part V: a few more practical details

marys-cover-jpeg.jpg smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg marys-cover-jpeg.jpg smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg marys-cover-jpeg.jpg

I’ve taken the last couple of days off, not so much in recognition of the holiday associated with the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (a.k.a. Santa) as in response to the fact that in these dark days, long-term illness is apparently not generally regarded as sufficient excuse to absent oneself from festivities. At least, not if one has established a reputation as a good cook.

In other words, there’s no place like home for the hollandaise. (If you decided to co-opt that groaner, please give me credit. I’m rather fond of it.)

But now I’m back in the saddle, eager to polish off our special holiday treat, a discussion about self-publishing with two authors who have taken the plunge this year, fellow blogger and memoirist Beren deMotier and novelist Mary Hutchings Reed. Today, we’re going to dig our teeth into the meaty issues of inspiration, promotion, and just what happens after an author commits to bringing out her own work.

So please join me in welcoming back both. To begin, let’s remind ourselves what they have published and where an interested party might conceivably go to buy it.

marys-photo-jpeg.jpgMary Hutchings Reed, if you’ll recall, is the author of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, which is being described as the ONE L for women lawyers. It is available on Amazon or directly from the author herself on her website.

marys-cover-jpeg.jpg

Courting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

image001.jpg
Beren deMotier is the author of THE BRIDES OF MARCH. It’s available on Amazon, of course, but because I always like to plug a good independent bookstore, here’s a link to the book’s page at Powell’s, too.

smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg

The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage is a lesbian bride’s eye view of marriage at a moment’s notice, with a bevy of brides, their coterie of children, donuts, newspaper reporters, screaming protesters, mothers of the brides who never thought they’d see the day, white wedding cake, and a houseful of happy heterosexuals toasting the marriage. But that was only the beginning as these private declarations of love became public fodder, fueling social commentary, letters to the editor, and the fires of political debate, when all the brides wanted was the opportunity to say “I do” in this candid, poignant, and frequently funny tale of lesbian moms getting to the church on time in Multnomah County.

Anne: One of the aspects of self-publishing — or private publishing, as you like to call it, Mary — that most appeals to aspiring writers is not having to compromise one’s artistic vision (or political vision, or style, etc.) in order to adhere to someone else’s standards. The other, I think, is the comparative speed with which a writer can see one’s work in print. After you committed to your press, how long was it before you actually held your book in your hand?

Mary: I was in the hands of a pro. (Suzie Isaacs at Ampersand.) The process was fast and smooth — I think less than 75 days.

Anne: I remember being stunned at how quickly the book showed up on my doorstep — and how spiffy the production values were. What about you, Beren? From how well put-together the book is, I would have assumed a lengthy turn-around time.

Beren: It was really fast. I think I submitted it on about March 2nd, and it was listed online on April 25th.

Anne: Criminy! Is that a normal turn-around rate for iUniverse?

Beren: I’d asked for an expedited schedule so that I could submit it to the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, and iUniverse worked with me to make it happen. Of course, that meant that I had to do my part of the bargain quickly, too; if there were proofs to check, I did them right away.

Mary: There’s no reason, in private publishing, for there to be any delays. Suzie believed in the book and that it should be published, and she kept my spirits up. Every time you write a check—and my total, including 2000 copies, bookmarks, cards, advertisements, posters, etc. was around $20,000 — I needed her affirmations!!

Anne: That sound you just heard was half of my readers’ jaws hitting the floor, I suspect. How close to the actual printing date were you able to make changes?

Mary: On the galleys…I think I had the books two weeks later.

Beren: For me, it was about ten days. I was waiting for a blurb from a famous comedian and hoped it would come before publication. It did, and was able to be fitted on the cover with days to spare.

Anne: Oh, the very idea of that makes me drool. I’m used to dealing with traditional publishing houses, where it’s a year, minimum, between commitment and being able to put one’s hand upon a physical book — after weeks, and often months of discussion between departments on everything from the title (which, for a first book, the writer rarely gets to set) to structure to content. It was especially weird with my memoir, where I kept receiving editorial memos telling me that this or that part wasn’t important enough to include, but that I should add a lengthy section on something that didn’t particularly interest me. It felt as though my life were being edited, not just my book.

What was the editorial process like for you? Were the decisions entirely yours?

Beren: Ultimately, the decision is mine, but they have the right to not brand it as one of their better books should they choose. If I wasn’t able to get positive book reviews, the book wouldn’t be eligible for becoming an Editor’s Choice or Reader’s Choice book, which leads to standard wholesale terms.

Anne: That’s interesting. So if they like it enough, it’s more like going with a traditional publishing house.

Beren: So either it has to be darned good, or you have to pay them big bucks to edit it for you, which takes weeks.

Anne: What about you, Mary? Who got to decide on the book cover, typeface, final edits, et cetera?

Mary: All decisions were mine, but I’m glad that she engaged a top-notch designer who proposed several appropriate options. As to the cover—she did ask what concept I had in mind, and I was a little stuck. My husband came up with dressing up the Lady Justice statue in heels and pearls—the first draft was a bit Betty Boopish, and the graphic designer responded with the modern, sleek image that now is the cover.

I have to say I love the cover, and it does help to sell the book. Yes, people judge the book by its cover, and in this case I really hope they do!

Beren: I’m happy with the outcome, too.I did a lot in creating the look of the book. My spouse took the photo on the cover, and I was able to influence the design, font and colors used in the final product. It became a group project when we shared the photo and necessary copy with friends who all had an opinion on how it should look.

Anne: Did you find having so much control over the final product more empowering or stressful? Or did it depend upon what day it was?

Beren: Hmmm, how about both empowering and stressful?

Certainly knowing that the book would rise or fall based on my work and almost solely my work was a lot of pressure, but I went into it knowing what to expect and had educated myself about the expectations. I feared that the final copy would look photocopied and kind of pathetic, but that didn’t happen.

It seems like it would be nice to hand over a manuscript to a publisher and get a lovely book in return, but I know it isn’t that simple. However, that is my goal—I do want to have a traditional publisher for subsequent books so that there is immediate distribution potential to brick and mortar stores. I consider this my “spec” book, one that I can point to as an accomplished work, as well as eventually sell to a traditional publisher.

Mary: It’s a bit stressful. Even on the galleys, I found a place where I think I had the character approaching the court twice in the same scene.

Anne: But that happens in traditional publishing, too.

Mary: How many people over the years had read these couple of pages, including professional editors, and not noted that? It could drive you crazy. You do need to adopt a certain tolerance for imperfection—we call it being human.

What was the most stressful, however, was the worry that in my acknowledgements I may have failed to mention someone who thought they were important to the work. (I think I did get everyone—at least no one has complained yet.)

For me, the other stress factor is the “autobiographical” accusation: naturally, the book draws on my life experience, but there is no one-to-one correspondence between me and Kathleen Hannigan or any other character and any of my present or former partners or associates.

Anne: And then when you write a memoir, people want to believe that you made things up. It’s as though the fiction and nonfiction labels get mixed up.

Let’s move on to the next stage of the process. Most of us have heard that the biggest hurdles a self-published book has to overcome lie in distribution and promotion. Is that true?

Beren: Yes, I’d say those are the toughest parts. While most self-publishing companies have wholesale channels like Baker & Taylor and Ingram, bookstores are much less likely to buy the book if it isn’t returnable or on standard discounts.

Online, however, the book was readily available fast. It was on Amazon three days after being published, and more online bookstores keep adding it.

Mary: Ampersand set up the Amazon.com, Borders.com and Barnesandnoble.com distribution. I joined the National Association of Women’s Studies Programs in order to have the book listed on their website (and their click-through to Amazon, which benefits the Association if someone buys through that portal.) I also fulfill orders through my website.

Anne: How widely are your books available in bookstores, and how hard was it to set up those venues?

Beren: Locally, I was able to get about six bookstores to carry it, which is a good beginning. The local library bought 13 copies and it has been getting multiple holds.

Anne: Oh, just in case some of my readers are not aware of it, librarians will often order a book if it is requested often enough. I grew up around many, many well-respected authors who would recruit their kith and kin to call their local libraries using different voices to request their books.

I just mention. It also really, really helps authors if enthusiastic readers write reviews and post them on Amazon and B&N. Or in bookstores, to turn the books face-outward, rather than spine-out; a browser is far more likely to pick it up.

Now that traditional presses have shifted so much of the responsibility for promotion onto the author, I’ve been wondering how much more work you’ve had to put into promotion than an author of a similar work at a traditional press.

Mary: I put a fair amount of work into it. I’ve taken charge of sending out free copies to “opinion makers”—something which maybe a traditional publisher would do. I set up speaking engagements, with some help from my publisher.

I have a friend at the Star magazine, and he helped me get listed as the HOT BOOK in one of the October issues. That was a great boost to sales!

Anne: Are you solely responsible for the promotion of your book, or has your press helped you?

Beren: I am solely responsible for the promotion, though occasionally I get offers to pay for co-op advertising through iUniverse, or for them to feature my book at an event. So far, I’ve turned the offers down.

Luckily, my book does have current event appeal, so I’ve been able to get reviews online and in newspapers and magazines. (Gaywired, Mombian, About.com, Just Out), plus a couple of interviews in print and on the radio.

Anne: I’m glad you brought up reviews, Beren, because that’s something that agents and editors always bring up as a serious drawback to self-publishing: most print periodicals in the US, including the vast majority of daily newspapers, have policies that preclude reviewing privately published books. The Internet has really been a boon in terms of getting the word out there.

Your book has also been reviewed, hasn’t it, Mary?

Mary: I was featured in an article in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, and will be featured in a special Leading Lawyers publication of women lawyers in Illinois.

Anne: Have you come up with clever ways to promote your book that you
might want to share with us? No matter what press produces your book, ingenious marketing always helps.

Mary: Every time I sell a book, I include 3 postage-paid postcards (of the cover of the book) with a little sell copy on the message side, and ask readers to sign them and send them to 3 friends who might be interested. It’s my version of a viral marketing campaign.

I’d love a couple things: for Hillary or Michelle to carry it around (and I’ve put it in their hands through friends); for women’s studies programs to pick it up for a course on women in the professions—I sent it to Anita Hill and proposed a reading for the National Association of Women’s Studies Programs; for law schools to do the same.

I’ve sent it to some book club leaders, hoping they would recommend it. And a friend is working on the movie option. I sent it to the abovethelaw.com blogger, hoping he’d get interested (he’s a Yalie also). I’ve volunteered to speak at a Brown colloquium at my 35th reunion in May.

Anne: So you’ve been very proactive. What have been your clever promotion schemes, Beren?

Beren: Gosh, well, getting to know cool writers like Anne Mini is always helpful!

Anne: Shameless friends who love one’s writing belong in every writer’s toolkit. I’m constantly being asked by bookstore staff to stop moving my friends’ books to the bestseller tables. But seriously, what else?

Beren: I think contests and awards are a good bet for many writers. I’ve entered about nine for this book, so we’ll see in the spring if it turns out to be a good investment of time and money. With the contests, it involved a lot of copies sent to judges; I just have to trust that they will pay off eventually through wins, word of mouth, getting on the used bookshelves or sheer karma.

I sought out every review I got. I aimed for the specific markets that I knew would be interested in my book, and sent review copies out first thing when I got my 30 free copies. I used every single one for promotion. Eighty percent of those will never be reviewed (and there is a thriving used copy market thanks to me), but enough have that it has helped establish creds for the book, and jumping-off points for other avenues.

I also did a reading and talk at the local library, which was heavily advertised by the county library—there’s nothing like walking in looking for a book on tape and seeing your face in front of you on a poster. I also send out regular e-mails to friends about events and readings.

I did get contacted by an OPB radio interviewer and that was a thrill—she tried to find me!

I could do a lot more, but I’m also balancing freelance work, portrait painting, and raising three kids (two teens and a preschooler with special needs), so I’m kind of busy, though I count my blessings that I’m not also digging ditches eight hours a day on top of it all. I suspect that with a traditional publisher I’d have to do just as much, if not more, but that there would be more tools in place for contacts.

Anne: I’m perpetually in awe of writers who can be productive while caring for small children — possibly because I was for many years a small child being cared for by writers.

Beren: I’ve read several books on finding time to write as a mom, but one of them should address how to stay sane and really write when you’ve got a kid who can’t be out of your sight for a second, really can’t “play quietly” while you type away, and takes every ounce of creative energy to keep growing up uninjured! I’ve yet to read one that recommended a daily dose of Nyquil for the active, irrational tot. Maybe that’s my third book.

Anne: So you don’t have time to have writer’s block? Rats — I was going to ask about your strategies for overcoming it.

Beren: Oh boy, writer’s block — and I just gave up Diet Coke, too, so I can’t recommend guzzling it while at the keyboard. (Have you ever seen a room full of screenwriters at a conference? They all have a can of Diet Coke at their elbow.)

I helped myself get over writer’s block by creating a column with a deadline. It was great training. You have to edit yourself down and cut out your darlings, and you can’t just wait for inspiration to strike.

I do have a fair amount of discipline because I have to to be a writer. Choosing to have three kids and be a writer means jumping in whenever you have the time, or getting a lot done in a short time or taking opportunities as they arrive. These days I sit in my car and write while our youngest is in preschool for 2 hours four days a week, and get up at five for an hour or two before the mob is up.

Admittedly, I’m ready to collapse at eight o’clock at night, but that is how it has to be to get anything done. I’m hoping to have a social life in about five years.

Anne: At the risk of swerving into trite interview territory, what gives you the most inspiration as a writer?

Beren: Well, it is inspiring to know that my grandfather, David Duncan (best known for his screenplay for the 1960 The Time Machine), supported his family of five as a writer.

Anne: That’s a real advantage to being from a family of writers: knowing first-hand that it IS possible to make a living at it. It’s just rare. (And that was a very good screenplay, too, I thought.)

Beren: I also think of author Alice Bloch, who gives herself half an hour a day before working as a technical writer, and got a memoir done that way. I’ve read (Anne Lamott’s) Bird By Bird several times, and love Writing the Memoir, From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington.

Sometimes you care about something so much you have to write about it, and other times (like after walking through a bookstore full of other writers’ work) pride keeps me going: “If they can do it, so can I!” I also keep a file full of nice comments about my writing so that I can look them over if I’m feeling like chucking it in. Every positive thing about my writing that comes my way I grasp onto, to keep me swimming until the next buoy.

Mary: There are, of course, writers I love, but the best resource for me is life itself. I love being active, encountering new experiences, meeting new people, sharing with other writers. I think I actually get the most inspiration from my fellow writers—people like you, Anne, and my friends Julie Weary, Patricia McMillen, Lucia Blinn…the list goes on—all of us next to make it big in the commercial world.

Anne: Oh, I agree 100%: having writer friends in whose work you believe is SO important to keeping yourself going. You can get an incredible boost from a friend’s progress, and you can talk about the hard parts with people who honestly understand. If you don’t share your hopes and fears, they can so easily turn into the demons of self-doubt.

Which leads me to ask a totally unfair question that I think will be wildly interesting other writers: what was your biggest fear in embarking upon self-publishing, and did it actually come to pass?

Beren: That bookstores would laugh in my face if I came in with my book to sell on consignment. It only happened once (she didn’t actually laugh, but the condescending note was very present), though after talking about it with her, she admitted it might be a book they wanted to carry and took one new copy. Since then, they’ve sold several used copies, and carry it online.

Anne: I love it when the fears turn into triumphs. What about you, Mary?

Mary: My biggest fear is that I would end up with a living room full of boxes of books—that my friends would each buy one and that would be it.

I never expected that at a reading someone I’ve never met would march up to the table and buy 10 copies for her friends—and be sending them to friends in India and Pakistan and England! I do have a few boxes in my living room, but sales have been brisk.

Anne: So your demon of fear mutated into a triumph, too. That’s great.

Mary: I was also afraid that people would assume that because it was self-published, it wasn’t any good. But people don’t “get” that it is self-published. They just know it IS published.

Anne: That fascinates me, because we’re so often heard the opposite asserted at writers’ conferences. But then, I suppose agents and editors at traditional publishing houses don’t often have much contact with self-published authors — or at any rate, didn’t until fairly recently. I’ve keep meeting authors who published their own first books and were picked up on their next because the first sold so well.

Okay, I’ve been holding off on this next question, because I try not to deal in superlatives; life’s all about the gray areas, after all. But here it goes anyway: so far, what has been the best thing about the self-publishing
process for you?

Mary: It’s been fun! I’ve heard from people I’ve lost touch with—like I hadn’t spoken to them in 12 or 13 years, and they’d write and call and thank me for writing the book and say that they could totally relate to it.

Beren: The best thing was that it was fast, and I learned a lot about book creation and publishing. The more I know about the artistic and business aspects of writing, the better I will be (I trust), and no effort was wasted.

Anne: What has been the worst part?

Mary: The worst — sorry, N/A.

Anne: I’m really pleased to hear that.

Mary: My own worry, my own bruised ego.

Anne: Which are endemic to the querying and submission process, too. What do you think, Beren?

Beren: The worst part is that there are limitations to a self-published book in terms of wider wholesale distribution unless you self-publish yourself as a small press, or sell a certain amount of copies already (as in the case of iUniverse). Getting books in bookstores on a big scale is challenging.

Anne: I already asked Mary this last time, but if you had only a minute to give advice to someone who was thinking of self-publishing, what would you say?

Beren: Do your research, know your goals for publication and work very very hard at making your manuscript the best it can possibly be. On one writing weekend, after the book was essentially finished, I worked at making it the very best it could be, sentence by sentence, word by word, and in two long days I got forty pages done. But they were much better pages.

Work with the editor at the press or hire an editor, take your work seriously. It is important work.

Mary: Yes, invest in a manuscript editor so that you will have the confidence that your work is ready and deserving of being in print.

Anne: To sound like an agent for a moment, congratulations on your current success — what’s your next project?

Beren: I am currently gathering a collection of humorous stories about life in the lesbian mom trenches, reworking some old favorites and putting them together as a book I’m calling Maggots Before Breakfast, and other Interesting Adventures in a Cozy Liberal Enclave.

Anne: Literal maggots or figurative ones?

Beren: There is a story about maggots, and the original piece is on my website. I plan on pitching it to traditional publishers, using the kudos The Brides of March has garnered, as well as the platform I’m building through appearances, blogging, and articles.

Mary: I have a shopping bag full of novels. My most recent was a short-list finalist for the William Wisdom/William Faulkner Prize, and I am actively looking for an agent for that one. I do think it would be harder to self-publish a novel that is “just a literary novel” which is less directed to a particular audience. I would self-publish again, if it comes to that.

My most immediate “next writing project” is the made-for-television version of my musical Fairways, which will require some rewriting for the pilot (to be filmed in April/May), and finishing the script for my next musical, “We’re Cruising Now, Babe!”

Anne: Well, please come back and tell us all about these projects down the line.

I can’t thank you enough for sharing your insights with us — I’ve truly enjoyed hearing aobut your experiences. Best of luck with your books, and as we like to say here at Author! Author!, keep up the good work!

smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg

Beren deMotier has written humor/social commentary for Curve, And Baby, Pride Parenting, Greenlight.com, www.ehow.com, as well as for GLBT newspapers across the nation. She’s written about same-sex marriage for over a decade, and couldn’t resist writing the bride’s eye view after marrying in Multnomah County. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her spouse of twenty-one years, their three children, and a Labrador the size of a small horse.

marys-cover-jpeg.jpgmarys-cover-jpeg.jpgmarys-cover-jpeg.jpgmarys-cover-jpeg.jpgmarys-cover-jpeg.jpg
Ever since turning 40 a few years ago, Mary Hutchings Reed Mary has been trying to become harder to introduce, and, at 56, she finds she’s been succeeding. Her conventional resume includes both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Brown University (both completed within the same four years, and she still graduated Phi Beta Kappa), a law degree from Yale, and thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.

For many years, she has served on the boards of various nonprofit organizations, including American Civil Liberties
Union of Illinois, YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Off the Street Club and the Chicago Bar Foundation. She currently serves on the board of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (and chair of its fundraising committee); Steel Beam Theatre, and her longest-standing service involvement, Lawyers for the Creative Arts.

smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg marys-cover-jpeg.jpg smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg marys-cover-jpeg.jpg smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg

So you’re considering self-publishing, part II: how does one go about it, anyway?

smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg marys-cover-jpeg.jpg smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg marys-cover-jpeg.jpg smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg

Yesterday, I began a discussion about self-publishing with two authors who have taken the plunge this year, fellow blogger and memoirist Beren deMotier and novelist Mary Hutchings Reed. Both are prolific, award-winning writers who have been fighting the good fight along with the rest of us for many years, so who better to ask the question that has been on so many writers’ minds over the last couple of years: what precisely is it like to self-publish?

Today, we’re going to discuss the practicalities of self-publishing, particularly how one goes about finding a reputable press. But before we get started, please help me welcome back our panelists. And because they are, after all, doing us a great big favor here, let’s recap what they have published and where one might conceivably go to buy it.

Beren deMotier is the author of THE BRIDES OF MARCH. It’s available on Amazon, of course, but because I always like to plug a good independent bookstore, here’s a link to the book’s page at Powell’s, too.

image001.jpg

smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg

The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage is a lesbian bride’s eye view of marriage at a moment’s notice, with a bevy of brides, their coterie of children, donuts, newspaper reporters, screaming protesters, mothers of the brides who never thought they’d see the day, white wedding cake, and a houseful of happy heterosexuals toasting the marriage. But that was only the beginning as these private declarations of love became public fodder, fueling social commentary, letters to the editor, and the fires of political debate, when all the brides wanted was the opportunity to say “I do” in this candid, poignant, and frequently funny tale of lesbian moms getting to the church on time in Multnomah County.

In addition to her fine memoir, Beren also has written humor/social commentary for Curve, And Baby, Pride Parenting, Greenlight.com, www.ehow.com, as well as for GLBT newspapers across the nation. She’s written about same-sex marriage for over a decade, and couldn’t resist writing the bride’s eye view after marrying in Multnomah County. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her spouse of twenty-one years, their three children, and a Labrador the size of a small horse.

Mary Hutchings Reed, if you’ll recall, is the author of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, which is being described as ONE L for women lawyers:

marys-photo-jpeg.jpg marys-cover-jpeg.jpg

Courting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

In addition to a writing schedule that would make most of our heads spin, Mary has spent the last thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service (BUCKETS of it) and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.

In short, in addition to being good writers brave enough to publish their own work, these are two incredibly busy people, so many thanks to both for taking the time to let me pepper them with questions. Let’s leap right into the nitty-gritty:

Anne: Last time, we talked a little bit about why each of you chose to pursue the self-publishing route, and what kinds of specialized obstacles your unusual subject matter placed in your books’ paths. Since so many of our community here at Author! Author! can identify with the experience of sending out query after query, let’s take a moment to talk about how you went about marketing the book to agents before you made the choice to self-publish.

You’re both very experienced, professional-minded writers — is it fair to assume that you went about it in the traditional way? I always like to ask this, just in case some brilliant soul has found a clever way to bypass this often drawn-out process. You’re shaking your heads and laughing — no such luck?

Beren: I used the Guide or Writers Market

Anne: Ah, the sacred texts.

Beren: …after checking online to see if the information was still accurate. If they wanted a one-page query letter, I sent that; if they wanted a book proposal, I sent that. Often, a query would lead to chapters and chapters to the whole manuscript, but not to a book contract.

Mary: I went to workshops and learned how to meet agents; I sent a lot of queries.

Anne: So you both went about it the right way. Given the original nature of your story and how evident it was that your book was going to stir up some pretty strong emotions in readers, were you were you surprised at the responses you received from agents and editors?

Mary: I was surprised more agents didn’t see right away that career women in book clubs would love Courting Kathleen Hannigan. But I didn’t get much advice from them, and not useful. The comment “in the end I failed to connect to the material” isn’t very helpful.

And don’t forget I did have an agent for Courting Kathleen Hannigan (here in Chicago), who worked with me all of 2002 to get it where she wanted it for publication, and then she died in early 2003.

Anne: I remember when it happened: one day, you had a great agent, and the next day, you didn’t have one at all, and had to start the whole process over again. You bounced back really well, though, as I recall.

Mary: It was a shock, and I put the whole selling thing on hold for a while. I got involved with other projects and only gradually got back into trying to interest an agent in this work, and then moved on to trying to sell my next works.

Anne: That’s one reason I really wanted to interview you here; we writers are so conditioned to believe that once we land an agent, we don’t need a Plan B. But that’s not necessarily the case, no matter how talented a writer you are — so much of this process is out of our control.

Before we talk about Plan B, though, I want to ask a follow-up about submitting to agents. How much feedback did you actually get, and was any of it helpful?

Beren: There was a wonderful agent who gave my book three chances—she looked at and read three incarnations, which is a lot of time to give a project, but ultimately her comment was, ”You’d have a better time selling this project if you were an alcoholic single mother.”

Anne: Oh, that’s very helpful. I know perfectly well that agents usually say things like this not intending them to be taken seriously as revision suggestions, but to excuse their passing on a well-written book, but don’t statements like this just set your mind whirring with the possibilities? Surely, she wasn’t actually suggesting that you add false memories to your memoir to make it easier to sell, any more than she was suggesting that you should look into alcoholism as a career-enhancing move, but I have to say, those comebacks certainly would have occurred to me.

Beren: She felt that there wasn’t a big enough “problem” in the story—no one died, no one went to jail—and so she couldn’t sell it. I had some similar reactions from others, and it was shocking to me that being denied one’s civil rights and getting constitutionally designated as unworthy of marriage (and all the bitter pain that involved) wasn’t a big enough “problem.” I wonder if they had read the whole book, because the ups and downs aren’t apparent in the beginning—perhaps that was a mistake—but I wanted to tell it as it was experienced.

Anne: In other words, as a memoir; as a memoirist myself, I completely get wanting to tell the story from the inside-out, to place the reader inside a world s/he has never experienced before.

What about you, Mary? Any useful feedback?

Mary: The most helpful advice from any agent, of course, was from Jane Jordan Brown before she died. That was to get it down to 300 pages.

I got a ton of feedback from Enid Powell, from my workshop fellows, from a couple different paid services (as I recall) and then from my non-writing, women-lawyer friends. All feedback is helpful, either to confirm your confidence in your own work or to give you insight into what can be done better or more clearly.

Anne: I’m about to ask a totally insensitive question, but one that I’m sure many of my readers are going to be too polite to write in and ask. Did you ever consider just giving up on this project, when it did not receive the response from agents and editors that it deserved?

Beren: Oh yes, I did consider just giving up. Especially since writing about same-sex marriage for a couple of years kept the pain of having the marriage annulled alive, and kept me conscious of every mean letter to the editor or hopeful legislation. Partially what kept me going was a stubborn streak and pride, to give up would have been to admit that I thought the project was unworthy of publication or readership.

There were times I closed up my files and left my desk to collect dust between query waves, but even one positive thing kept me going—a compliment from a friend on the book, a nice note at the end of a rejection letter, the publication of one of my editorials on the subject. Keeping a lot of balls in the air about the book kept it a live project, even when I thought I was done with the actual writing.

Anne: It’s SO important to keep moving forward. If I hadn’t had a novel to revise and a blog to write after my memoir was hit with the lawsuit threats, I can’t imagine how I would have coped. Work can be a positive blessing in the midst of book turmoil. That, and reminding oneself that a setback on the road to publication doesn’t necessarily mean that the book doesn’t have an audience waiting out there to be moved or helped by it.

Mary: What keeps me going is the pure enjoyment and satisfaction I get from writing. It is, for me, soul-making.

Anne: What a nice way to put it. That scratching sound you hear is me writing that down, very possibly to steal it for my next class.

Mary:In a sense, I did give up on finding a commercial publisher. I published it privately because I finally got my own ego out of the way and the time felt right. Some part of me also wanted to be able to give it to my librarian-mother, who was losing her memory. Even though we published it in about a 75-day turnaround, she unfortunately didn’t quite get it, even with my picture on the back. But the nurses in her Alzheimer’s unit loved it!!

Which was a gift—convincing me that there was an audience way beyond just “lady lawyers.”

Anne: Which to my eye, it very clearly does. I don’t understand why it wasn’t obvious to agents in both your cases that people like me — who read a great deal by living writers, but who are neither likely to be practicing law in a high-powered firm or marrying people of the same sex — would be the audience for these books. I already know about people whose experiences are just like mine — I want books that will introduce me to points of view other than my own.

Somehow, I doubt I’m the only habitual book-buyer in North America who fosters that preference.

Let’s talk about your segue into Plan B. What were your feelings about self-publication prior to this project? Had you ever considered it before, and do you think your advance impression of it was accurate?

Beren: I did think of self-publishing as vanity publishing until recently. And to vanity publish would have been a shameful thing to me, an admission that I couldn’t cut it. So yeah, I had baggage.

Mary: My impression was that–as they say in the books—it’s all about the writing, and if the writing is good, you’ll get published—so I thought of self-publishing as a failure. That good writing will always get published commercially just isn’t true. I got lots of compliments on my writing, from lots of highly-regarded agents and publishers—but they didn’t know how they would “sell” my work. They apparently don’t find it all that easy to sell plain old “good writing.“

Anne: There have been plenty of periods in publishing history when it has been pretty darned hard to sell plain old good writing. Just ask anyone who tried to sell a memoir just after the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal. It’s just one of the facts of the business.

Beren: I’ve wanted to be published since I was ten; my grandfather was a successful novelist and screenwriter, so I’ve been aware of the business side of writing from an early age. This wasn’t the first book I queried, and with those others I considered self-publication, but wisely knew it wasn’t the right time or the right project. They weren’t good enough.

Mary: Several friends of mine self-published and had fun with it. One sold 4000 copies by hand in less than two years.

Anne: Wow — that’s practically unheard-of. I’ve always heard that most self-published books sell under 500 copies ever. You’re talking about Erin Goseer Mitchell, right?

Mary: Yes. Her book, Born Colored. is about growing up in Selma before Bloody Sunday—she knew her audience, and wanted to tell the story of the strength and dignity of the black community which made the civil rights movement possible.

In the same way, I thought I knew my audience, and that I should be able to sell a couple thousand copies. If I don’t believe I can, why would a publisher believe they could?

Anne: That’s an interesting way to think of self-publishing.

Mary: I don’t exactly use the words “self-publishing.” While I financed the publication and am primarily responsible for marketing, my publisher, Ampersand, Inc., doesn’t publish everything they are asked to publish. She picks and chooses the products to which she will lend the Ampersand name. We’ve coined the term “privately published.”

Anne: I like that; it sounds very Edwardian.

Let’s talk about how one goes about getting a book privately published, then. How did you go about finding a press to use, and why did you pick your press? What did it offer you that others didn’t?

Beren: I did quite a lot of research on self-publishing before committing. Looking at writing books and online reviews of publishing companies, it was clear there were some that rose to the top of the list, including iUniverse and Infinity Publishing. Amazon.com had just started publishing books, too, through Booksurge, and it had a lot to offer—it was a hard decision between iUniverse and them.

Ultimately, iUniverse offered the chance to have a book distributed on standard wholesale terms basis if you sold 500 copies, and I was pretty sure I could do that, plus the initial cost was much lower. Booksurge is astoundingly expensive compared to some POD publishers, but they have a lot to offer.

Mary: My friend founded Ampersand. She’d been in publishing all her life (as president of an educational publishing company), and had turned out highly professional projects for a couple other people I know. It’s more expensive than publishing on demand, but the product itself and the marketing materials have very high production values. I may have been able to figure out how to put together a book, and go to a printer and get my own ISBN and all that, but the physical product would not have been nearly as professional and classy as the one Ampersand produced. Plus, it’s a better use of my time to do what I do—practice law—and pay her to do what she does.

Anne: It’s great that you had someone you already knew you could trust.

Mary: I’m suggesting it’s not a matter of printing or finding a good press or the right print-on-demand. I think it’s finding a publishing professional, like Susie Isaacs at Ampersand here in Chicago to make the product indistinguishable from a commercially-published book.

Anne: Not having that advantage going in, Beren, what criteria did you use to decide which press to select?

Beren: I looked at how the books were distributed (wholesalers and online stores), author discounts (very important if you plan on selling books at conferences, library events and directly to local bookstores), the “look” of the books that press had produced—did they look professional, could you pick them out as a self-published book?—and the timeline from submission to publication. I needed the book out sooner, and not at an outrageous price.

Anne: It’s SO interesting that you both mention the importance of the end product being indistinguishable from a traditionally published book — it hadn’t occurred to me to think about in those terms, but now that you mention it and I look at the volumes in front of me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference without looking at the press’ name.

Which makes me doubly eager to ask my next question, because you’re both so well-versed in this: What questions should someone thinking about going this route ask a potential press up front?

Beren: I think it is worth finding out how many of their books actually sell more than five hundred copies. I use that number because that is the number by which iUniverse decides it is worth investing its own money in a book, by redesigning the cover, any additional editing services free and by selling it at standard wholesale terms.

Anne: I wasn’t aware that they did that. I’m so glad that I asked.

Beren: Of the thousands of books iUniverse publishes every year, only about twenty sell over five hundred copies. I think that Infinity has returnability, and for a fee, the Amazon company, Booksurge, has returnability, but it doesn’t advertise that fee. Booksurge has the highest royalties for online sales, which might work brilliantly for some kinds of books. Their turnaround is quick, too.

Anne: Are there pitfalls writers looking into it should avoid?

Beren: Beware of editing costs—iUniverse has a reputation for suggesting huge edits before awarding a book Editor’s Choice designation, which it must have to eventually become available at standard wholesale terms.

The recommended services for my book would have cost about $1400, far more than the $695 original price for a publishing package. The edits weren’t that extensive, either (and the recommendations were done very well by a professional who really liked the book) so I did them in a twelve-hour editing spree and was able to get the Editor’s Choice designation after receiving two positive reviews post-publication.

Mary: I know some of the self-publishing or print-on-demand companies have packages that offer listings in ads they place in media like the New York Times. I can’t imagine that most fiction benefits from that. So, I’d say, don’t pay for mass marketing. Do invest in good cover design and bookmarks, but don’t pay for advertising that’s not highly, highly targeted. (I bought ads in my Brown alumni magazine and in the Chicago Bar Record.)

Don’t think that the publisher will do your marketing for you, though. They won’t.

Beren: One thing you must do as a self-published author (if you don’t want to pay big bucks to someone else) is to write your own promotional materials. It is hard enough for most of us to write a query letter or a proposal, writing book jacket copy, getting blurbs, and providing advertising copy is a different type of writing for most of us. I worked really hard on mine, and it was a good education.

Anne: I’m glad you both brought that up. What do you think are the biggest differences in authorial responsibility between a self-published book and one handled by a traditional publisher?

Mary: My responsibility is to turn out the best book I can.

Anne: But isn’t that always the case, no matter who publishes our work?

Mary: I fantasize that I would have more confidence that I’d done that if a traditional publisher gave the book its imprimatur.

Anne: I suppose I have an unusual view on that, having sold a book to a traditional publisher that didn’t come out. I can’t say that experience exactly bathed me in self-confidence.

Let me turn the question around for you, Beren. What did you have responsibility for that you wouldn’t have if you’d gone with a traditional publisher?

Beren: I did a lot in creating the look of the book. My spouse took the photo on the cover, and I was able to influence the design, font, and colors used in the final product. It became a group project when we shared the photo and necessary copy with friends who all had an opinion on how it should look.

Anne: That was a great day, opening my e-mail and finding the photo of the cover there.

Beren: I’m happy with the outcome. The questions iUniverse asked me about the book provided their designers with enough to make it look right. I did pay extra for this option; self-publishing with all your own design work is much less money if you have the expertise, which I do not.

Anne: One hears that a significant advantage of self-publishing lies in not having to revise a book to match — how shall I put this? — the sometimes arbitrary or misguided editorial standards authors sometimes encounter at traditional publishing houses, where the writer doesn’t have much say, if any, over title and book cover design, not to mention issues of content and style. Did you enjoy that freedom? How much control did you have over the final product?

Beren: I had a lot of control over the final product. If it had gone to a traditional house, I would have had to write it as fiction and have an alcoholic single mother as the main character! Or gotten divorced and developed a drinking problem!

I did have a lot of control, and iUniverse provided a lot of information on the book publication process. They send all prospective authors their book, Getting Published, which is a comprehensive guide to traditional publication and getting published through them. I used it a lot.

Mary: I’d be happy to revise if Simon & Schuster or Random House wanted me to. With an advance in hand, I could probably see my way clear to making changes…

Anne: Okay, okay, you have a point — and I don’t think I could hope for a better exit line than that, so let’s stop for today. Thank you both again for being generous enough to share your experiences with us.

Happy holidays, everyone, and keep up the good work!

marys-cover-jpeg.jpg smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg marys-cover-jpeg.jpg smaller-bom-jpeg.jpg marys-cover-jpeg.jpg

See for yourself, part VI: but wait, there’s more!

I was all set to clamber onto my moral high horse again and dispense more of yesterday’s philosophy, honest — but then sharp-eyed long-time reader Janet caught, as is her wont, the missing puzzle piece in my illustrated romp through standard format. So I’m sliding elevated ethical questions to the back burner for the nonce and diving right back into practicalities.

As Janet so rightly pointed out, I completely skipped over one of the more common first-page-of-chapter controversies (and yes, in my world, there are many from which to choose), whether to place the title and/or chapter designation at the top of the page, or just above the text.

To place the options before you, should the first page of a chapter look like this:

/snapshot-2007-12-19-20-40-58.tiff

Or like this?

/snapshot-2007-12-19-20-42-20.tiff

Now, I had been under the impression that I had waxed long and eloquent about the side I took in this burning debate, and that quite recently, but apparently, my eloquence has been confined to posts more than a year old, exchanges in the comments (which are not, alas, searchable, but still very worth reading), and my own fevered brain.

So let me clear up my position on the matter: the first version is in standard format; the second is not. No way, no how. And why do they prefer the first?

Chant it with me now: BECAUSE IT LOOKS RIGHT TO THEM.

Yet, if anything, agents and contest judges see more examples of version #2 than #1. Many, many more.

Admittedly, anyone who screens manuscripts is likely to notice that a much higher percentage of them are incorrectly formatted than presented properly, this particular formatting oddity often appears in otherwise perfectly presented manuscripts.

And that fact sets Millicent the agency screener’s little head in a spin. As, I must admit, it does mine and virtually every other professional reader’s. Because at least in my case — and I don’t THINK I’m revealing a trade secret here — I have literally never seen an agent submit a manuscript to a publishing house with format #2. And I have literally never even heard of an agent, editor, or anyone else in the publishing industry’s asking for a chapter heading to be moved from the top of the page to just above the text.

Oh, I’ve heard some pretty strange requests from agents and editors in my time, believe me; I’m not easily shocked anymore. But to hear a pro insist upon placing the chapter heading where you have to skip down a third of a page to read it…well, that would have me reaching for my smelling salts. (Do they even make those anymore?)

But clearly, somebody out there is preaching otherwise, because agents, editors, and contest judges are simply inundated with examples of this formatting anomaly. We see bushels of ‘em. Hordes of aspiring writers are apparently absolutely convinced that the sky will fall in if that chapter heading is located anywhere but immediately above the text.

In fact, it’s not all that uncommon for an editor to find that after she has left a couple of subtle hints that the writer should change the formatting…

/snapshot-2007-12-19-20-56-36.tiff

…the subsequent drafts remain unchanged. The writer will have simply ignored the advice.

(Off the record: editors HATE that. So do agents. Contest judges probably wouldn’t be all that fond of it, either, but blind submissions mean that a writer must submit the same chapter two years running to the same contest, have the entry land in the same judge’s pile — in itself rather rare — AND the judge would have to remember having given that feedback.)

This may seem like a rather silly controversy — after all, why should it matter if the white space is above or below the title? — but sheer repetition and writerly tenacity in clinging to version #2 have turned it from a difference of opinion into a vitriol-stained professional reader pet peeve. (See earlier comment about how we tend to react to our advice being ignored; it isn’t pretty.)

Which, unfortunately, tends to mean that in discussions of the issue at conferences degenerate into writing-teacher-says-X, editor-at-Random-House-says-Y: lots of passion demonstrated, but very little rationale beyond each side’s insisting that the other’s way just looks wrong.

However, there is a pretty good reason that moving the chapter heading information to just above the text looks wrong to someone who edits book manuscripts for a living: it’s a formatting tidbit borrowed from short stories, whose first pages look quite different:

/snapshot-2007-12-19-20-58-59.tiff

There, as you may see for yourself, is a mighty fine reason to list the title just above the text: a heck of a lot of information has to come first. But that would not be proper in a book-length manuscript, would it? Let’s see what Noël’s editor has to say, viewing this as the first page of a book:

/snapshot-2007-12-19-21-02-21.tiff

Ouch. (That last bit would have been funnier if the entire page were readable, by the way, but my camera batteries were running low.) But as Millicent and that angry mob of pitchfork-wielding ignored editors would be only too happy to tell you, short stories don’t HAVE chapters, so who on earth are they to be telling those of us in the book world how to format our manuscripts?

Stick with version #1.

While I’ve got the camera all warmed up, this would probably be a good time to show another ubiquitous agent and editor pet peeve, the bound manuscript. As with other ploys to make a manuscript appear identical to a published book, binding the loose pages of a manuscript for submission will NOT win you friends in the publishing world.

Why? Not only does this not look right (I spared you the chanting this time), but it seems so wrong that Millicent will be positively flabbergasted to see a submitter to do it.

Seriously, this is one of those things that is so engrained in the professional reader’s mind that it seldom even occurs to authors, agents, or editors to mention it as a no-no at writers’ conferences. Heck, I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned it once within the last six months — and by anyone’s standards, I’m unusually communicative about how manuscripts should be presented.

So pay attention, because you’re not going to hear this very often: by definition, manuscripts should NEVER be bound in any way.

Not staples, not spiral binding, not perfect binding. There’s an exceedingly simple reason for this: binding renders it impossible (or at least a major pain in the fingertips) to pull out a chapter, stuff it in one’s bag, and read it on the subway.

Hey, paper is heavy. Would YOU want to lug home ten manuscripts every night on the off chance you’ll read them?

In practice, I’m sorry to report, a bound manuscript will seldom survive long enough in the screening process for the chapter-separation dilemma to arise, because — and it pains me to be the one to break this to those of you who’ve been submitting bound manuscripts, but if I don’t tell you, who will? — those pretty covers tend never to be opened.

Remember that immense pile of submissions Millicent has to screen before going home for the day — and it’s already 6:30? Well, when she slits open an envelope that reads REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside, she fully expects to see something like this lurking between the cover letter and the SASE tucked underneath:

/snapshot-2007-12-11-01-28-43.tiff

But in the case of the bound manuscript, she instead sees something like this:

/snapshot-2007-12-19-21-05-59.tiff

Kind of hard to miss the difference, isn’t it? And unfortunately, nine times out of ten, the next sound a bystander would hear would be all of that nice, expensive binding grating against the inside of the SASE.

Honestly, it’s not that she is too lazy to flip open the cover; she just doesn’t see why she should. Her logic may not be fair or open-minded, but it’s a fairly common argument throughout the industry: if this submitter does not know this very basic rule of manuscripts, how likely is she to know the rules of standard format? And if she does not know either, how likely is she to be producing polished prose?

Yes, this logic often does not hold water when it comes down to an individual case. But from her perspective, that matters less than we writers would like — because, as unpleasant as it is for aspiring writers to realize, her agency is going to see enough technically perfect submissions this week to afford to be able to leap to unwarranted conclusions about this one.

Don’t waste your money on binding.

Now that I have depressed you all into a stupor, let me add a final note about learning to conform to these seemingly arbitrary preconditions for getting your book read: any game has rules. If you saw a batter smack a baseball, then dash for third base instead of first on his way around the diamond, would you expect his home run to count? Would an archer who hit the bulls-eye in her neighbor’s target instead of her own win the grand prize? If you refused to pay the rent on Park Place because you didn’t like the color on the board, would you win the Monopoly game?

I can go on like this for days, you know.

My point is, submitting art to the marketplace has rules, too, and while your fourth-grade P.E. teacher probably did not impart them to you (as, if I ran the universe, s/he would have), you’re still going to be a whole lot better at playing the game if you embrace those rules, rather than fight them.

You’ll also, in the long run, enjoy playing the game more.

And remember, you’re playing this game by choice: you could, after all, make your own rules and publish your book yourself. Weigh the possibilities, and keep up the good work!

What to give a writer for Christmas, Part III —- and what writers can give themselves

The basement is fairly dry now, thanks (see my last post for why that is news), so I have turned off the ShopVac, turned on the fan (it’s about as humid as a New Orleans August down there), and at last have time to write a proper post. And some people say there’s no such thing as progress!

Last time, I lingered on the desirability of making physical space in your home — or somewhere else, if you can afford separate office space — specifically dedicated to writing. Like playing the same music every time you sit down to write, lighting your desk area more brightly than the rest of the house in midwinter, or painting your kneecaps bright green as a pre-writing ritual, setting aside a space where you do nothing but write can be very helpful in fending off writer’s block.

Why? Well, like the other sensual cues I have mentioned, being in a special writing environment makes the transition from mundane (non-writing) time to creative time clear to not only your daytimer, but to your body. You can TELL your body that it’s time to write until you’re blue in the face, but let’s face it, we’re animals at base, and creatures of habit to boot. Just as nice, clean towels coming out of the dryer tell my cats that it’s time to curl up and have a nap, walking into my writing space tells me that it’s time to get to work.

You’ve probably noticed the stimulus-bodily reaction phenomenon in less positive ways. The body’s no fool. When you have a job you hate, merely walking into the building raises your stress levels markedly, doesn’t it? The smell of baking bread or cookies cheers most people up, regardless of what else is going on, and incessant Christmas music following one from store to store so stuns the nervous system after a while that one begins to buy frantically in self-defense, just to get out of there.

(No one can tell me that last effect isn’t calculated. I was in a children’s choir for many years, doomed to wander puckishly from rest home to shopping mall to stage to insane asylum all throughout the holiday season, piping carols at the top of our childish voices. The sounds we were yelping were generally considered high-quality, but let me tell you, spectators’ eyes glaze over like Santa’s swimming pool before the end of the second verse.)

Having a dedicated space usually helps with that other common writerly tendency, jumping up after only a minute or two to do something else. The less comfortable your writing area, the more likely that urge is to overwhelm you.

(Confidential to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: have you considered giving an office chair with really good back support? Not a generic office chair, but one that fits the writer’s body specifically?)

A solid fit between computer user and furniture can help avoid all kinds of writing-delaying problems, as many of us know to our cost. When I was an undergraduate, my college saw fit to equip each and every dorm room with large, square wooden desk chairs emblazoned with the school’s insignia — so, you know, if we forgot the school’s motto, we could just turn around and read it. My friends who happened to be 6’2” hockey players claimed that the chairs were most comfortable. Everyone else ended up with sore backs and overworked arms.)

Once you have established a space, song, lighting condition, specific chair, etc. as THE signal to begin serious writing, our body will understand that it’s time to stop distracting you with minor matters like the desire to eat, sleep, or have meaningful human contact and get down to work. Perhaps equally importantly, having a dedicated space — particularly one with a door that closes firmly on loved ones’ noses — tells everyone else in your household that you are not to be disturbed.

So it’s not only your habits that we’re hoping to recondition here.

Having grown up in a family of writers, I can tell you with absolute confidence: when intensive writing schedules work, EVERYONE in the household is cooperating to make that happen, starting in babyhood. A professional writer’s kid learns to go to sleep by the sound of typing (and actually, speaking of conditioned reflexes, the sound of a manual typewriter still makes me sleepy). To this day, I seldom raise my voice above quiet conversational level, lest there be someone writing in the next room. It’s habit, like everything else.

It’s also absolutely necessary, incidentally, for the household of a writer working on a deadline — and lest your kith and kin have any illusions on the subject, the more successful you are as a writer, the more deadlines you are going to have. It’s just a fact that at some point, no matter how nice a successful writer is, s/he is going to have to say to loved ones, “My writing needs to be my #1 priority right now.” And mean it.

Did the last few paragraphs make you a trifle uncomfortable? If so, you’re certainly not alone: many writers are too sweet-tempered or too responsible or too habit-bound to expect their family members to change ANYTHING about THEIR schedules in order to make room for Mama or Papa or Sissy’s writing.

Since this is the season of giving, may I suggest that this would be an excellent time to reexamine that attitude just a little? Or, to appeal to the Furtive NDGG’s sensibilities, why not give the writer in one’s life the gift of TIME to WRITE?

A few hours a week is a gift that even fairly small children could give to an overworked writer parent. Maybe Santa could be induced to whisper some suggestions during that usually one-way communication on his lap; I know many, many writers to whom a pack of hand-made gift certificates, each good for an hour of uninterrupted time, would be the best stocking-stuffer EVER.

However, as lovely as it would be if one’s families, roommates, and friends would spontaneously cry, “You know, honey, I’ve been thinking, and you would have two and a half hours of clear time per week to work on your book if I did the grocery shopping for the next six months. Please let me do this for you!” it doesn’t happen all that often. (For the benefit of any Significant Others who may be reading this: an SO who DID murmur such words — and mean them — under the mistletoe would be exceedingly likely to find by spring that every writer of his/her sweetie’s acquaintance is bright green with envy.)

So instead of relying upon your loved ones to realize that you could use a bit of extra time, why not come out and ask for it? Or — don’t faint on me here — decree it as your holiday present to yourself?

Your writing is important to you. You are NOT being selfish to ask for time to do it.

Before you tell me that you are far, far too busy for this to be practicable — I can tell which ones you are by the loud guffaws of disbelief and tears of mirth running down your faces — let me hasten to add that I’m thinking about some fairly small increments of undisturbed tranquility. What if, say, you were no longer the one doing the laundry? Or your teenager cooked dinner twice per week.

Or — stick with me here — you opted out of hosting your thirty-person family’s holiday dinner this year? How much time would that free for your writing?

If you (or the members of your household) find this notion a bit difficult to imagine in practice, take a week and keep a meticulous record of how all of you spend your time. Think of it as a time budget. Where are you spending it, and would you prefer to invest elsewhere?

Then try breaking your normal routine for a week or ten days, to get a clearer idea of what is and is not immutable in your usual schedule. Switch around chores with your spouse; if you pick up the kids after school, try rearranging your carpool so you drive them there in the morning instead; it may well be that this will leave you fresher for evening writing. If you always do the dishes or laundry in the morning, do it late at night; maybe it will turn out that early morning is your prime writing time, and if so, do you really want to fill up that time with housework?

In short, just how much of that cast-in-stone schedule is actually cast in stone?

At the end of your week or ten days of messing with your schedule, after your routines are good and disrupted, look back over your account of how you spent your time. What worked and what didn’t? Where could you fit in chunks of solid writing time on a regular basis?

Could you use this information to rearrange your life so you could get more writing done? You bet your nose, Rudolph.

To minimize the resentment of the rest of your household, as well as to gain a more accurate sense of how you would use your untrammeled time, I advise your going on a media fast for that week or ten days when you begin the new Schedule of Joy. It won’t hurt your worldview to turn off the TV and radio for that long, nor to skip the daily newspaper.

Not only will this allow you to assess just how much time every day you are currently spending being entertained and/or informed, to see if you could purloin some of that time for writing, but it will also help you get back into the habit of listening to your own thoughts without distraction.

I go on one of these fasts every year, and it honestly is amazing how much it calms the thoughts. It also arouses the pity and wonder of my household, and reminds my kith and kin just how important it is to me to have inviolate writing time. It reminds them that they, too, are contributing to my success, if only by remembering not to telephone during my writing time. It reminds them that they can actually LOOK for a stamp when they need it, rather than asking me.

And it reminds them why I am so strict throughout the rest of the year about not wanting to hear what is happening on the currently hot sitcom. For me, getting sucked into an ongoing plot line is a big dispensable time waster. I have seen a grand total of one episode of FRIENDS, two SEX AND THE CITYs, and no Seinfeld at all, but I have written several pretty good books.

I’m not sure that I could pick Jennifer Aniston out of a lineup, though.

Yes, this is hard, but anyone who ever told you that being a writer is easy was — well, let’s say inadequately informed. Still, the rewards of self-expression are massive and ongoing. It is well worth reassessing your schedule to make room for you to try.

Or so says the person who just spent a working day bailing out her basement; who knew I had time in my busy schedule for THAT?

As Emily Dickenson wrote so charmingly, “We never know how high we are/till we are called to rise.” Or stoop, as the case may be. Keep up the good work!