Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What I’ve learned

Way back in time, 1990 to be exact, I had an epiphany while sitting on a hillside above Porlock, Somerset. My wife and I were on our first real vacation (twenty years into our lives together!): three weeks of walking, camping and sightseeing all over Great Britain. We’d bought a venison pie from the local butcher, some fruit from a greengrocer and we’d spent the morning wandering the woods above the town. Towards noon, we’d come out of the trees onto a meadow and to the west we could see the Bristol Channel opening below us. The sun was warm (as were we) and we sat there munching and taking long sips of water from our canteens. It was heaven.

There on that hillside, I realized that something was wrong with my life. I needed to find another path, something that didn’t involve teaching music to classrooms of kids, many of whom had little interest in what I was offering. That was my epiphany: my life was going in the wrong direction.

A number of months later, I was still casting about for what it was I was supposed to be doing. Almost as an afterthought, I began writing a short story about a minor league baseball team. I really enjoyed it creating it. Some friends read it and thought it was lovely. They were very kind friends. Even I could see that it was a dreadful story.

But some of the prose showed promise, so next I began a crime short story. Five months later, it was over 350 pages long. Obviously, I wasn’t cut out for short stories. Still, the writing was getting better and the plot wasn’t half bad, so I began to polish it. The result was my first novel, Knock on Wood, and I was off to the races. When it came out in 1992, self-published because I just couldn’t wait around for the molasses-slow publishing world, it was a pretty amazing day and I knew I was thoroughly and completely hooked on writing. Trouble was, I really had no idea what good writing was or how hard you had to work to perfect the craft.

Seven books and a hell of a lot of rewriting later, I’m beginning to get a handle on this writing gig – when I enjoy a good day. Having self-published two novels and then getting re-involved in graphic design (I grew up running around and helping in my dad’s photo engraving plant), I learned the production end of publishing pretty well. I can’t devote the time I’d like to the actual writing of my books because I have to help put food on the table, but I do what I can. The graphic knowledge has proven very helpful.

So I’ve been publishing novels for twenty years now and have only managed to produce eight novels. On the surface, that’s much less output than I would have expected when I started out, visions of authorial fame dancing in my head. But I’d also had delusions of rock and roll stardom as a young man, and we all know how that turned out.

What have I learned?

I’ve learned that, ultimately, you can only rely on yourself. Many people will offer help, some will actually come through for you, but you can’t depend on anyone or anything – even if the people are getting paid to help you. I’ve made that mistake and paid dearly for it. Never again.

Would I go back to self-publishing? Perhaps. It’s certainly a lot easier and cheaper now. If I had the time, I would republish as e-books the three books whose rights I control. Trouble is, I’d want to rewrite them first since all have shortcomings that need fixing. Since time for me is in such short supply: sadly, mañana.

There is a real community among crime writers, folks who will offer help and usually deliver. They’re encouraging. They understand and are willing to share the good times and bad. Many will even buy a round at the bar. I’ve made a lot of life-long friends in this game.

There are too many writers. On the surface this comment looks pretty bad, I know, but there really are too many people who are getting published who shouldn’t be. They’re not ready. Heaven knows I wasn’t ready when I self-published my first two novels. I’m sure there are some who would say that I’m still not ready and many, many times I still feel that way. When I see the number of crime fiction novels that come out every year, I just wonder how many are good. On the other hand, if someone wants to put in the time and effort to produce a novel (whether published by a third party of self-published), then I say, God bless ’em. I’m only making this statement because it makes it so difficult to get noticed. Promotion has always been difficult. Now it’s damn near impossible.

Being a good writer isn’t enough. There are a few talented (and lucky) sods who have a publisher four-square behind them from the beginning. They just write and someone else does all the promotion stuff for them. For the rest of us, there’s reality. If you want to sell books, you have to learn how to be an author (there’s a difference), a personality, someone who attracts attention and knows how to present themselves effectively. It’s difficult to do for most of us. I’m really rather shy and retiring, truth be told. I can hear the guffaws as I say that, but I learned as a struggling musician, that presentation, not talent, is most of the battle. Get good about presentation and you’re more than halfway there.

Learn as much as you can about publishing. Like any other “entertainment” business, publishing is full of BS. They have a job to do, and many in the industry find that writers only get in the way – at least that’s their perception. So they feed you a line of BS whenever they want to move the conversation on. Now my initial statement is not made so that we writers can stand our ground and call BS for what it is. I say it in the spirit of you need to understand what’s involved in publishing your book. The more you know, the more you can be a team player – even if you’re gritting your teeth while you do it. With my new publisher, I want to be seen as a source of solutions, not a source of problems. (That also doesn’t mean that I’m going to be a push-over, either.)

Keep your published books close to you when you’re writing. I know some darn good and very successful authors who have been summarily dumped by their publishers. It’s a devastating blow. I take heart in that when I’m on the receiving end of bad news. But even as you get that phone call or email, or open that letter that’s filled with gut-wrenching news, you can look up and see your novels sitting on the shelf above you (in my case). No one can take those away from you. That’s helped me carry on more than once…a lot more than once.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Rick--a great post on the many, many difficult processes involved in learning to write. This is no arena for the faint-hearted.

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