Sunday, October 02, 2011

Why We Write and Other Intellectual Meandering

In between teaching, writing for the local print media, finishing up a contract, running a household and launching a non-profit, I've been thinking about my writing, particularly since the galley of my novel has been dropped in my inbox and I will start reviewing it this week to make sure everything looks the way I think I want it to look before it goes to print.  I say "I think" because I know that no matter how many times I review a piece, upon print, I will look at it and say, "This could have been better if..."  The reality is, though, that first, at some point an author has to put a piece away and call it "done," and that second, publishers don't care a whit about an author's neurotic compulsion to edit interminably.  If you want to keep a publishing contract, you best not submit endless changes prior to the release.  If you find yourself wanting to change your manuscript that much, your best bet is to withdraw the submission if possible and re-write.  Your publisher is not there to hold your hand through the revision process.  By the time your work reaches the galley point, you should be comfortable enough to say, "This is okay to go as it is. It's not perfect, but I will never be completely satisfied with my work because I'm an artist who understands communication, self expression and meaning are living things.  Thus, what I write today will most likely prove lacking tomorrow."  After five revisions or more, I say, let's just go with what I have today.

There's a practical reason for this approach as well--other than the fact that publishers won't put up with artistic vacillating.  Making last minute changes is expensive, and making changes post publishing even more so.  I've learned this the hard way, having had to make changes to my other two books through Amazon.  Every change puts me more financially in the hole.  The sooner you learn that, the sooner you learn why your editor has a fit every time you decide your book doesn't meet your own artistic standards.  I say again--if you think you will have to make that many changes by the time your novel is approaching print, withdraw it.  You clearly have not finished your own editing process and you do not have the right to inflict your process on anyone else's dime. That may sound harsh, but it's the reality of the biz and, while we authors live with at least one foot in imagination, we must keep the other foot firmly grounded if we want our work to be distributed to the public.

I'm not degrading the artistic process in the least.  I began my novel draft in 2006 through National Novel Writers Month and didn't do much with it until 2008 when I added a bit to it.  In 20009, I added a great deal to the plot and character development.  From there, the novel again sat on my hard drive until an editor friend told me it had merit and deserved my attention.  So in 2010, I gave it the additional, extensive attention it warranted, and she kindly edited the format, which was a mess.  No credible publisher would have given my book a second glance had my friend not offered her professional services.  When I get rich (or at least make some money), she will be the first to benefit.  I figure I owe her at least $10,000. 

My point is, I had to go through many revisions, many sessions of feedback and many mental processes before I decided the book was mostly where I wanted it to be and was, indeed, the most it could be.  I have to edit some more during this galley phase, but I can tell you I won't be editing very much because if I start doing that, I will have to carry through all the changes which will cause me and the publisher great angst.  I'm not into pain, and I sincerely doubt my publisher is, either.

Here's another reality--getting a book out to the public is hard work that often feels unrewarding, especially when you want to be writing and not marketing.  But if you approach marketing in another way, you can make the experiencing meaningful.  First, you have to challenge yourself--or find a publisher who will.  My publisher expects me to sell at least 500 books, and I aim to meet that challenge. But that's not all I aim to do.  Through my non-profit, I aim to raise money for charities by selling my books and highlighting the books of other authors who are also trying to raise money for charities.  This venture is good for everyone--authors, charities and small publishers.  I am focusing on authors who are still largely unknown because well known authors, while they may have more capital, aren't as needy as us newcomers.  And while a well-known author might be able to contribute more to charities, there is something to be said for the widows' mite.  A good, charitable organization will recognize that.  The fundraising might be slow, but it can be long-term, which does add up.

I will not pretend my motives are completely altruistic, even though I know I won't earn much more than my overhead.  I want my work out there.  I think what I have to say through my writing is important, and I want people to get the message.  While I try not to be too didactic in my creative writing, lessons certainly can be learned through the characters, plots and themes, but I believe any good piece of literature should leave the reader with something to think about.  If my readers finish my books and toss them, I know I have partially failed, not because I think we should cater to the lowest common denominator, but because ultimately, we should be communicating through our self expressions.  So that has become another mission for me, which makes marketing meaningful.

Another selfish motive I have is being given the opportunity to chat with writers and readers at public events--for free.  There's nothing better than exchanging ideas in a dynamic setting while selling books.  Writers can always learn from one another, and they should always listen to their readers, whether the readers are offering negative comments or not.  How else will we know how we are being interpreted?  Listening to negativity is not easy to stomach, and every writer feels to defend his/her own work, but that doesn't mean we should dismiss the reader.  We have to sell books, after all.  Readers are our customers.  Back to reality--we can't forget who our customers are.

I don't think writers are inherently customer service oriented.  We tend to be introverts who are proud of our efforts and who want to be respected for our talents.  It's our beastly nature.  Chatting with customers goes against our nature and puts us out of our comfort zone, but if we want to reach the public, we have to be able to relate to the public, or at least a portion of that public.  It's good to find a niche, but don't we want to reach out even more?  For example, an academic writes a book about anthropology.  Other academics say "wow," and the book helps the author keep his/her job.  Okay, but where does it go from there?  Will the book reach an audience of students?  Can the theories be explained in a way that makes sense and makes a difference to the rest of the world?  We authors don't have to be immortal, but I think we should have higher goals than just selling or making ourselves feel good, especially since most of us will not end up rich or famous.

I am probably being very preachy in this post, but I am also driven by some higher motives. I don't like to waste my time with the superficial, and I do think patting myself on the back for publishing is mostly masturbatory.  Look, if you want to have an orgasm, you should go all the way and make love, really connect.  Life isn't about the quick and easy.  At least that's what I think.
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