What Does It Mean To Be A Successful Author?

The other day, I was watching a movie and a character referred to himself as a “failed author.” In the context of the film, it was clear that he meant that his book hadn’t sold well. But it got me thinking about what “success” means as an author. After all, my book isn’t exactly topping the best seller lists. Does that make me a “failed author”? Considering the fact that when I published Beautiful, I expected to sell about three copies total, I’d say no. I don’t know what the character in the movie was expecting or hoping when he published his book: it was never made clear. But when I decided to publish Beautiful I was very clear about what “success” would mean to me with this book: if people (any number of people) read the book and got some enjoyment out of it, I would consider it successful. I’ve gotten some really nice feedback on the book. More than I expected! It’s encouraged me to move forward with publishing a follow up and building a career. So in that sense, I absolutely consider myself a successful author.

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But let’s rewind a moment: before I published Beautiful, I had seen writers in books and films say similar things about their books quite frequently. Even then I would roll my eyes a bit at it. These people had not only had the stamina and dedication to sit down and write a book (and  presumably edit and revise and rewrite it) but they had the confidence and perseverance to publish it. That in itself is a win! A lot of people say they want to write. Of those very few make it through the first draft. At each stage a lot of people give up. I would say that people who have the perseverance to write a book, and the courage and confidence to publish it, are successful regardless of whether it sells a single copy!

In fact, book sales are a fairly arbitrary indicator of success. Yes, having money is nice, I certainly don’t deny that! But how many brilliant writers throughout history sold very few copies of their work during their lifetime? Even my own criteria for success don’t hold up under that lens: many great authors were mocked and derided initially by readers and critics and only appreciated by posterity.

Given the fact that popularity and monetary rewards aren’t always indicative of success as a writer, the only way that a writer can be assured of a chance of greatness some day is to finish that book, and publish it so that people can read it. Maybe it’ll sell a million copies when if first comes out, be made into a forgettable movie and make the writer financially comfortable for the rest of his or her life. That’s certainly a kind of success. Maybe it’ll sell a few copies but be loved by readers and inspire future work. That’s a  kind of success too. Maybe it’ll be enjoyed by those who read it and then forgotten as they move on with life. I’d argue that’s success too. It might be helping those people as they struggle with something. It may take them away from their trouble for a few hours. To me, that’s success regardless of whether or not its remembered later.

I would argue that the only way to fail as an author is to not write and to not let people read what you’ve written. That’s the only way that it has no chance to make an impact. But if you write, and you share your writing, then you’re successful, whether or not you recognize it.

2020 New Year’s Resolutions

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It’s time for my annual New Year’s Resolutions post! Take a look back here to see how I did with last year’s resolutions.

  • Publish Frozen Heart. I plan/hope to publish it in late 2020 due to a wintery theme.  Also publish a few other pieces.
  • Volunteer to support Democratic candidate for president. I try to keep politics off my blog when I can, but I feel very strongly about this. While I like some of the current contenders more than others, I would rest easily if any one of them were president as opposed to what we have right now. I don’t know what will happen with the next election. But regardless of the outcome, at this time next year I want to feel like I did everything that I could to bring about something better.
  • Continue to be vocal about issues of importance, and call my reps regularly.
  • Be more social. Make more friends, and continue to make an effort to speak/see friends.

 

What are your new year’s resolutions?

Regardless of your goals, I hope that 2020 brings joy and good fortune to all my readers.

Evaluating Last Year’s Resolutions

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Every year I write down my New Year’s Resolutions to stay accountable. I find I’m more likely to keep them that way. In the week before the new year, I look at them and reflect on how I did, and what I’d like to change in the new year. So how did 2019 go?

  • Finish writing, and publish Frozen Heart. Also publish 1-2 other pieces during the year. Keep getting my work out there.

Well I finished writing it, and it’s in the editing process. I plan to publish it in 2020. There was a point in 2019 when I realized that I could rush the publishing process for Frozen Heart and get it out before the end of the year, or I could take it slower and and take care and pride in my work. It went into some thought about the kind of author I want to be. Do I want to compromise quality for quantity? At this point the answer is no.

I did publish an essay about self publishing in Unread Magazine and a short story called Snow Sister in Enchanted Conversation.

So overall, I’ll give myself a check mark on this one and I’ll put the publication ofFrozen Heart on my 2020 list.

  • Continue to be vocal about things that I feel are important. This means calling representatives, writing letters, protesting, donating to causes I think make a difference and anything else I can do.

I think that I’ve continued to do this in 2019. I call my representatives regularly and try to share resources so that others can do that too. I’ve attended protests, though they often frustrate me because I feel like they’re more a way for people to feel like they’re doing something and less about actually getting things done. I still don’t have a lot of money to donate but I use Charity Miles to contribute to causes that I feel are important and I try to educate others who may be in a similar position about ways they might want to contribute.

  • Try to spread happiness and positivity when possible. I feel like so much of what we’re faced with on a daily basis is bleak and hopeless. But I also think “seek and you shall find.” So I’m going to seek things that make me (and others) happy. I think just exposure to more positive things can break down the hopeless feeling that we can get.

Again, this is a work in progress. When I encounter something that others may enjoy I try to share it, so they know about it, but I also think that pushing positivity can be just as toxic as negativity if it’s done in the wrong spirit. So it’s something I’m figuring out.

  • Figure out my career path. It’s in flux at the moment and is fairly confusing!

Another work in progress. But I’ve made some strides here. I have a better sense of what I want and I’ve gotten some more experience in 2019. So hopefully that’ll lead me somewhere good in 2020!

  • Be more social. Don’t just fall into the staying inside and reading/writing/watching trap. Stay in communication more with people.

I’ve done this but it’s something I’d like to continue to work on in 2020.  I love my friends, but I’d also like to get to know more people in the next year. That way if someone isn’t available to do something I can have other options.

  • Don’t feel guilty for reading/writing/watching and staying in sometimes. In fact, don’t feel guilty about what I like/enjoy. Don’t apologize for liking, wanting, or consuming things that make me happy.

I think that I’m doing better with this. I don’t feel guilty if the things I like aren’t highbrow. Life is too short to worry about that! But I do sometimes feel guilty if I’m enjoying something silly when there are important/serious things happening in the world. I know there’s a balance to be found between enjoyment and engagement. I just don’t know if I’ve found it yet.

Stay tuned for my 2020 resolutions post!

 

 

 

I’ve Been…

  • 410quprawjl._ac_uy218_ml3_Participating in Classical Carousel‘s House of Mirth read-along. We’re reading and discussing the novel over the course of six weeks. I’ve been trying to stay on schedule and read it slowly. I read House of Mirth in college, and that initial read took me a few days, because we had one or two class periods for discussion before the class moved on to other material. I feel like the leisurely pace is allowing my a different perspective and I’m picking up a lot more. I’d encourage anyone interested to join in.
  • Toying with the idea of releasing a collection of short fiction. I have a lot of short stories that I’ve written over the years that I’ve never really been sure what to do with. Most of them are inspired by other stories, mythology, fairy tales, folklore etc. Some follow the source material closely others give it a mere nod before going off in their own direction. I would probably have to go through them and decide on a direction for the collection and what to include, but I’d like to get a very general sense of how much interest there is. So if you think it’s a good idea, like this post!
  • Writing a whole looong blog post about the Sarah Dessen/Common Read/grad student twitter hoopla. Then I decided not to post it. It seems like emotions on all sides are very high and people are very quick to take offense. Chiming in at such moments doesn’t strike me as the best idea because words are easily taken out of context leading to more offense and hurt feelings. But I do want to say, independent of all this, that twitter by it’s nature often takes things out of context (it’s hard to include context within a small, character limited, tweet!) so when something is discussed in a tweet, it’s important to seek out that context before we react, especially when emotions are running high. Also remember how easy it is to react to things in the space of a tweet. We can delete the tweet but if someone screenshots it, it can live forever. Think before you tweet.

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    All the Common Read books for the last decade. American News photo by Katherine Grandstrand

  • 81hkqvsgyl._ac_uy218_ml3_Reading Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea. Like The Night Circus, it’s a book whose setting stands out over other elements such as plot and character. But there’s an intricacy that The Night Circus lacks in that the setting and the plot are inextricably linked and fitted together like a puzzle. As I read it, I’m wowwed at the complexity of what Morgenstern managed to do with the multiple stories that make up this novel. Each one becomes a nest for the next one. I can see why this took her years to write! It’s rare that a highly anticipated novel manages to live up to expectations. I can see where some readers my be frustrated by the Chinese box of narratives that make up this book and want more traditional storytelling,  but to me, it all unfolds like a beautiful, mysterious magic trick. I haven’t finished it yet though. The complexity means that it’s not as “quick” a read as most, and I’m also a bit anxious. I’m afraid that Morgenstern won’t be able to maintain this spell all the way through to the end.

Greeks Bearing Gifts

interview-with-madeline-millerI read the Odyssey in high school and bits and pieces of the Iliad in high school and college. I read some Greek drama over the course of my education and I’m familiar with the usual mythology. But in general it was never my thing. I’m totally a mythology and folklore junkie but for some reason the Greco-Roman variety never really spoke to me.

When I fist heard of Madeline Miller’s work I wasn’t particularly interested in it. Sure I remember the figures of Achilles and Circe from the Iliad and the Odyssey respectively, but I had no desire to revisit them. However when I saw both novels praised extensively by reviewers who also professed to have little interest in the Greek Classics I became slightly curious, but I still had the sense that it would end up being the kind of thing that I’d  end up being disappointed in due to overhype.

Well, I admit it. I was wrong. I actually read Circe first. It comes second chronologically but since both books are essentially stand alone, it doesn’t really matter which you read first. I found that Miller had told a very human story featuring witches, gods and monsters. Song of Achilles focus more on “human” characters (with a few exceptions) but turns the Trojan war into the setting for a beautiful love story between the titular hero and his longtime (male) companion Patroclus.

After reading these books I did what I always do after reading something great: I googled the author.  I discovered several essays that she wrote, including one about adapting existing works. Though in the essay Miller writes about adapting the Greek Classics, I think that what she says encompasses everything from classic literature to mythology and folklore. She writes about feeling like writing adaptations is cheating somehow:

When I was a teenager, the thought of a classical story being rewritten sent me into a rage. I cherished the ancient Greeks’ myths deeply, and adaptations seemed like nothing but assault: an unnecessary adulteration of something that was already perfect. Why rewrite Homer, I thought, when you can re-read the original? Adaptations were an admission of artistic laziness. Couldn’t these authors find something original to write about?

 

She started to write Song of Achilles while she was directing a production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in college. The play is Shakespeare’s take on the Trojan war,  so Miller figured it was permissible for Shakespeare to adapt,  because it was a play: it was being retold for a different artistic medium. But seeing it acted made her think about the voice of a character she hadn’t heard from and she started to write. She was embarrassed by what she was doing: her (now ex) boyfriend contemptuously called it “Homeric fan fiction.”
This struck me because I had a similar feeling when I was writing Beautiful. I felt like because I was retelling the Beauty and the Beast story, I wasn’t original. I was tackling a story that had been retold so many times. But like Miller, I felt like I had something to say about it.
As she wrote, Miller discovered other authors that had written innovative work adapting Homer:
Not one of these authors seeks to supplant Homer, but to engage and illuminate him. They do what adaptation does at its very best: stand brilliantly on its own, while inspiring a fresh look at the original. And there is absolutely nothing lazy about any of it – all those works show how the authors steeped themselves in the source material, and how thoughtfully they approached it. Besides, if I had been thinking straight from the beginning, I would have realised that some of my favourite ancient authors are themselves adapters – Virgil’s Aeneid is based on the Iliad and Odyssey, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses draws on everyone from Homer to Virgil himself.
I think that while Greek Classics are never going to be my favorite genre, this author sees  and understands what’s beautiful about literary adaptation. To me that’s something exciting. I’m eager for her future work.

In Response to “That Publishing Article”

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About a week ago, author Heather Demetrios published an essay called How To Lose A Third of A Million Dollars Without Really Trying. The response from the writing community was swift and varied. It was also emotional because a lot of the writers who reacted to things that Demetrios was saying as well as their own perceptions and experiences which they projected onto her.  Things got emotional and muddled and I think it’s worth taking a few moments to think through because, while I don’t always agree with everything she says, Demetrios makes some interesting points and has some good ideas to help writers in the future.

In the piece, Demetrios discusses her publishing career. Early on, Demetrios got two six figure book contracts. For a kid who spent her childhood on food stamps that was exciting to say the last. When she signed the first she tried to keep her head: she kept her day job.  But when the second check came through she figured that this change in fortune wasn’t temporary.

It had happened twice in a row, these six-figures: Surely I had somehow become one of the chosen few. After years of research and struggle to break out in such a ferociously competitive industry, I’d somehow come out ahead.

So Demetrios quit her day job and fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving to NYC to write full time. She traveled, treated herself to concert tickets, shoes, $15 cocktails etc.  Her books were published to critical acclaim, but they didn’t earn out that six figure advance. So the next contract was lower: only $17,000 for her next book, because that was what her last book had made. With a very supportive editor on her side, eventually that was negotiated up to $35,000. When that book didn’t earn out either the next offer was $25,000. Demetrios found herself panicking and in trouble. She couldn’t afford to sustain her lifestyle.

Now a lot of other writers felt that she came of as “entitled” in this piece and that she didn’t do the necessary research to learn about sustainable financial management in publishing. That’s true. She made a lot of mistakes (something she admits). But she also feels that there should have been greater transparency within the industry:

Did anyone working with me — agency, publishing team — tell me that a sumptuous advance was not something I should depend on or get used to? Or that, in fact, it’s extraordinarily common in the publishing industry for untested debut writers to be paid large sums that they may never see again? No. Did anyone in the publishing house take me under their wing and explain to me how the company made decisions about future book deals? No. Did the publisher tap a more seasoned author on their list to mentor me, as many major corporations encourage within their companies? No. Did the MFA in writing program that I was part of, in any way, arm me with the knowledge to protect and advocate for myself in the publishing world? No.

Yes, all of that is information that she could (and yes, should) have sought out with research. But she also has a point in saying that traditional publishing could be a more  sustainable industry if there were more attempts to educate new writers about the realities of the business.  Writers would be able to make better choices if they had support. With the financial aspects more transparent, they would have more freedom to focus on the creative sides of their work. They could focus their promotional efforts on things that they knew had proven success. All those are good points that could benefit the industry as a whole.

The indie authors who responded with comments like “I wish I could get a $17,000 advance. Be grateful!”: I get it! I’d love a $17,000 advance. Hey, I’d love a $17 advance! But I (like you) made the decision to publish my work this way.  While we don’t get the advances we get to keep most (usually about 70%) of our royalties. Traditionally published writers don’t. We also (usually) don’t have to pay 15% to an agent. Most of us made this decision after researching the traditional publishing world as well as indie publishing.

Should Demetrios done that same kind of research about the traditional publishing industry? Yes. But unlike indie publishing, traditional publishing has the resources to put together established structural support. Doing so has few down sides.

Since I wrote about the way our society pays artists in What’s Your Day Job  I wanted to respond to this because it looks at some of these issues from another angle.

What do you think? Did Demetrios come across as entitled and privileged? Did she make valid points? Or both?

Making Introductions

*Warning: Spoilers possible for the books I discuss*

I’ve come to believe that there are two kinds of readers: those who read the introduction (if there is one) before the book and those who wait until after. I read it before. My logic is that if it were intended to be read after the text, it would be included as an afterward, not an introduction. Also, I find it can be helpful in getting my mind ready for what I’m about to read.

a1x0awyh35l._ac_uy218_ml3_But there’s an inherent danger in reading the introduction first: will the writer give away spoilers? If so, will they be major. Years ago, I read Anya Seton’s novel Avalon. I enjoyed it, which surprised me, because Philippa Gregory’s introduction gave me the impression that it wasn’t a very good book. She warned that Seton stuck too closely to the facts in this historical novel, and didn’t provide a resolution where she should have, because there’s no historical evidence of such a resolution taking place. As a result, I didn’t expect a resolution when reading, and I wasn’t disappointed by its absence. I was able to take the text as it was, and not judge it based on what wasn’t there. Should Seton have taken some artistic licence and resolved the story line even if it wasn’t historically accurate? That’s open for debate. But because I wasn’t expecting it, I wasn’t disappointed in that element. In that sense, even though the introduction included spoilers, it helped me to enjoy my reading experience more.

51mw0x9so4l-_ac_us218_More recently I read Gwen Bristow’s Celia Garth, which had an introduction by Sara Donati. In her introduction Donati says that the novel, which was published in 1959, and is set during the American Revolution, has a problematic depiction of slavery. All the slave characters in the novel are depicted as happy, well treated, and loyal to their master’s side in the conflict. The title character never questions the morality of the institution, nor does she ever wonder how the slave characters might be feeling. Since I’m sure there were people like the title character, I can’t fault the author’s depiction of her. After reading that introduction, I mentally prepared myself to read a book with some significant flaws and blind spots, with a character who I may not like. Again I’m OK with that. I don’t have to like a character to find him/her interesting. Unfortunately, when reading the book, I felt like Donati downplayed the character’s unlikeability in the introduction, and that the book expected me to like her and depended on that. For me, the problem was that Celia wasn’t just blind to the evils of slavery, she was complicit. I don’t hold Donati responsible for that. Her introduction warned that this aspect of the plot and character was problematic. How problematic it is might vary from one reader to the next. That’s why we read the book and not just the introduction!

81lrqhg4fgl._ac_ul320_ml3_I just recently finished Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, with an introduction by Hilary Mantel. In her introduction, Mantel tells us about the character of Angelica “Angel” Deverell, writer of trashy, turn of the century, romance novels. Mantel tells us that the character comes from humble beginnings and fantasizes about Paradise House, where her aunt works as a maid. She also tells us that Angel will later purchase this house once she’s made her fortune, and remodel it. But, Mantel warns us, in doing so, Angel is building her own prison. World events, changing literary tastes, and her own ego mean that Angel’s books don’t sell as well as they once did. Angel and her few companions eventually become recluses, financially trapped in a rotting Paradise House. In this case I felt like Mantel gave away too much in her introduction. She should certainly introduce the character and explain that the book is a rags to riches character study. She might also hint at the fact that Angel will ultimately be the architect of her own destruction. But to tell use how it happens, and how it ties into Angel’s childhood fantasies robs the reader of a sense of pleasure (albeit a somewhat sadistic pleasure) in discovery.

So where do you stand on introductions? Do you read them first? Do you think that an introduction has the responsibility of warning the reader of potentially troubling plot points? If so, are spoilers a concern?

How Prolific Do I Want To Be?

Lately I’ve been wondering what kind of writer I am. In some ways the answer to that is obvious. I’m an indie author. I write fantasy. But in some ways I feel like I don’t measure up to other, “similar” authors. I put similar in quotes because these authors are also indie/self published who write fantasy in the same sub-genre but they write a lot more than I do, and seem to do it more professionally.

thumbnail_Elle s mIt took me about four years to write Beautiful, and another year to publish it. Some of that was because I had to figure out elements of publishing for myself, while working full time.  Now I’ve been working on the follow up, Frozen Heart, for about three years. It’s pretty much written, in that I have a manuscript with a beginning, middle and end. I’m somewhere between the second and third drafts  right now. I’d like it to be ready by early 2020. If I’m not able to manage that I might have to wait until the end of 2020. Beautiful was published in July 2018.

Indie authors usually try to write at least a book per year, preferably more. I’ve seen authors publish as many as three books per year. A lot of the research I did before publishing Beautiful actually recommended waiting until you have several publish-able manuscripts before publishing your first, so you have more ready to go. I decided not to do that because I wasn’t sure if/when I’d have a ready follow-up and I felt ready to send Beautiful out into the world. I don’t think that was a mistake but I don’t think I’ll ever be a writer who can publish one book a year.

I read a blog post once by an indie author who said she writes only one draft of each novel before having an editor look it over, making a few, small tweaks, and then publishing. I can’t imagine doing that. My first drafts are a mess! My second drafts are a little bit better, and so on.

I’m not criticizing anyone who can turn out great work on the first try! I’m envious! I don’t think that will ever be me.

Maybe as I go on, I’ll get better at self-editing. Already, I’m noticing improvements between my first book and my second. When I wrote Beautiful, I would see something in a draft that didn’t quite work but I’d stubbornly hold onto it until several beta readers had told me it didn’t work. Now I’m quicker to kill my darlings.

But I want my published novels to reflect my best work. In order to do that, it takes me longer to write a book than is generally recommended for indie authors. Obviously the more I publish the more opportunity I have for sales, but right now, compromising quality doesn’t seem worth it to me.

Do you prefer authors to be prolific or careful with what they publish? Does it have to be an “either/or” situation?