Writer Beware: Don’t Quit Your Day Job

My first romance novel (first novel, actually) was published two years ago. I was absolutely certain by this point I’d have a best seller and be raking in the dough.

Guess what? I’m not.

We writers tend to believe in our own brilliance. If we don’t, who will, right? It’s important to keep believing in yourself. It’s also important to be realistic. Today’s writing world is tough. It’s competitive, and it’s crowded. Everybody has a story to tell, and chances are, the literate ones are writing it down. And there are a number of schemers out there ready to take advantage of that.

I recently heard about a man who had a successful business. He also wrote a book and got it accepted by a publisher. Banking on his success in the writing world, the man planned to quit his day job and write full time. When I heard about this, I looked up the publisher. Turns out they charge writers for the publication of their books, for the editing, for the cover design.

In other words, it’s a scam. Yes, they’ll publish your book, but it’s a vanity publisher. Maybe your books will sell when published through a vanity publisher. We all know the success story The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans. But that was in the early days of self-publishing. Before everyone started publishing their stories themselves.

I am often asked for advice for writers starting out. I want to be encouraging. I never, ever want to take away anyone’s belief that their story is going to be the next rising star on the literary front. I still maintain a tiny flame of that hope myself. Every time I finish a project or have something accepted for publication, I fan that flame a little bit, keeping it alive. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m a stay-at-home mom who has no intention of quitting her job as a stay-at-home mom, even if “it” actually happens for me. I’ll continue to steal my moments of creativity when I can, in between working my 24-hour “day” job.

But for those writers starting out out there who have day jobs, I have to say my best advice is don’t quit ’em. Self-publishing is a real and rapidly becoming more acceptable way of telling your story, but search for the right way to do it. Don’t buy thousands of copies of your book yourself and hope they’ll sell. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. A better avenue is to e-publish. It costs less (sometimes just time), and your book can be made more widely available.

An even better avenue to explore first is to do some research. Submit your manuscript to legitimate small publishers who won’t charge you for editing or publishing or “marketing”. They are out there and they are looking for the next rising star in the publishing world. Maybe it’s you.

But please don’t fall for the scams and schemes. Those people will talk a good game and then they’ll take your money and squash your dream right under their feet as they walk away. And they’ll piss me off in the process.

Embrace your velvet-cloaked vampire: Go ahead and publish that book

I just read an article in Forbes called Don’t Publish That Book. It’s worthwhile reading. The author Suw Charman-Anderson publishes a Twitter conversation she had with authors Steve Mosby and Lou Morgan in which the authors bemoan their early stories, one of which was evidently about a vampire in a velvet cloak.

I enjoyed the article. It encourages writers to write until they’re good enough to be noticed and not to rush to self-publish. Charman-Anderson seems to indicate that if you get multiple rejections, there’s probably a reason for that. She’s probably right and I agree with her. Too many self-published books are published before they are ready. Please, please copy edit. Don’t rely on spell-check. It’s not infallible. And let a manuscript sit for a few weeks after it’s done, re-read it and then decide if you want to publish it. You might be surprised by the answer you give yourself. My self-published book Weeds and Flowers sat on my hard-drive for years before I got the go-ahead from my inner editor.

With that said, I will also add that we all have our stories about vampires in velvet cloaks. C’mon, if you’re a writer who started publishing within the last fifteen years, you have that story. That one story that’s still floating around in the ether somewhere waiting to come back and bite you in the ass. I know where mine is. Do you?

My point is that we live and publish in a different time. A new age for publishing. An age in which our mistakes and growing pains may make it into “print”. Yes, we need to watch ourselves, but we also need to embrace this new age. Imagine if we could read Stephen King’s first stories. I’ve heard Nicholas Sparks say his first novel was a horror novel. Now that would be some interesting reading.

One of my favorite books on my bookshelf is A Whisper in the Dark: Twelve Thrilling Tales by Louisa May Alcott. Of course, I don’t love the tales so much as I love the book. You see, Louisa May Alcott was my inspiration for becoming a writer. I loved all her books, read all of them, but my favorite, of course, was the semi-autobiographical Little Women, in which Jo, the character Alcott based on herself, writes “sensational” tales for the paper. The first time I read Little Women when I was about nine or ten years old, I couldn’t imagine what “sensational” meant. Later I got the idea that they must have something to do with sex, especially since Jo destroys them all in a fit of shame in the book. I read A Whisper in the Dark much later as an adult, and I wondered what on earth Alcott was talking about. They’re corny by today’s standards, and probably pretty dark and risque in the nineteenth century, but not the awful stuff I’d half been expecting.

Only now as I begin (notice I said “begin”) to reach my own maturity as a writer do I understand where she was coming from. But as a writer, I’m grateful not all of Alcott’s early works were lost. It makes some of my own early growing pains easier to bear.

Even now when I look back on Secrets of the Lotus, published almost exactly two years ago, I see things I would do differently. The same for Winter Solstice. If I’m fortunate enough to continue growing and developing as a writer—and I hope that will be a lifelong process—in five years I may reread Where the Heart Lies with tolerant disdain.

It’s a process. So whether an editor or publisher will take the time on your work or you self-publish it, you have to know that if you are one of the lucky ones, you won’t like what you write now in five years.

Slacking off: Writing is hard work!

The New York Times published an article recently about the amount of productivity being required of authors in the digital age. At one time, the article said, a book a year was considered enough, and any more would glut the market. However, with the advances in e-publishing and the other demands on readers’ entertainment time, much more was required of authors to keep their audiences. James Patterson, it was pointed out in the article, produced a book a month with the help of co-authors. Another author interviewed said she writes 2,000 words a day, seven days a week.

The article sparked a tidal wave of discussions on writers’ websites and blogs. How can you maintain quality when so much quantity was required? Aren’t writers supposed to have a life? Writing is hard!

And the grousing continues. Yes, it is hard, and if you’re a good enough writer, when your publisher comes to you and says “I need you to produce a book a month,” you can just say no. Seriously. If you’re a good enough writer, then when your next book is ready, the publisher and your audience will be there. The critics will love you for not giving in to a system attempting to squeeze literary juice out of very sour turnips.

Look at J.K. Rowling. What if someone had gone to her and said, “Okay, you’re going to lose your audience if you don’t turn out the next six books in your series within the next year. I mean, if you put out a book a year, by the time you’re done, your audience will have grown out of Harry Potter.” What would her reaction have been? I can imagine.

I encourage writers to do what I plan to do. Write true. If that means writing a book a year, good. If it means you can turn out a book a month that you’re proud of, do that. But don’t fall into the trap of killing yourself to write trash. (Funny, that, coming from a writer of trashy romances, huh?) But seriously, writing is a journey when you do it right. Your characters take you on that journey and if you try to rush them, you’re going to get a badly written, sketchy travel plan.

I’m going to swipe a quote from the article from author Steve Berry, with whom I once discussed cheesecake while riding on an elevator in New York City. He said, “You don’t ever want to get into a situation where your worth is being judged by the amount of your productivity.” Write on, Steve! (But take a breathing moment every now and then…)


Congratulations to my friend A.J. Brown, whose story collection ALONG THE SPLINTERED PATH is available in ebook form today from Dark Continents Publishing. I’ve never put together a short story collection, so I got A.J. to tell me a little about how it’s done. Welcome, A.J. Brown!

BREATHE: First off, congratulations on your new book! This has been a long time coming, and I know I’m not the only one of your readers who’s thrilled about it. Tell us a little about the stories in ALONG THE SPLINTERED PATH.

A.J.: Thank you, Michelle and I’m happy you’re as thrilled as I am.

During the summer I submitted a few stories to Dark Continents Publishing. Though they didn’t accept it at that time, they liked one story in particular, “The Woodshed”. Then in early December I was contacted by DCP about submitting for an e-book release slated for early January, either a novella length story or several stories totaling around the 20-30 thousand word mark.

I submitted four and they took three of them. I think they chose the best three. They all seem to fit together in one way or other. I’m excited to see what the readers are going to say about it.

BREATHE: Two of your stories (“The Woodshed” and “‘Round These Bones”) have already made the journey into the published world but you chose to rework them for this collection. What do you think it was about these stories that made you pursue them?

A.J.: Actually, only “The Woodshed” has been published, but I still reworked both of the stories. Many people thought “The Woodshed” was good when it was published. It received some really good reviews. That was in 2008 and I’m a much better writer now than I was then. To be honest with you, I think everything I wrote before this year is crap.

What made me rework these stories (and about six others as well) was reading Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s not your typical writing tips book. It has an intimate feel to it. It has a challenging feel to it. In On Writing King mentions telling the truth in your lies, in your fiction. Not only that, he also said that the journey for the writer should be the same as the reader (per se). In other words, if I don’t enjoy the journey, then neither will the reader.

That went hand in hand with what I’ve always felt about writing: let stories breathe and they live—literally live—and the reader can feel those stories and get lost in them. I hate the cookie cutter stories, where everything is tried and true and no one is willing to take chances. So, I went back and looked at “The Woodshed”, saw holes in it, saw a lack of emotion and character and I felt like the very thing I loathe: cookie cutter writers.

I went back and rewrote the entire story, keeping parts, scrapping others. Then I did it again and again and again until this version came out. Even then, I had missed something crucial that the editor pointed out to me in the editing phase. Thankfully, we got that sorted out.

As far as “Round These Bones” is concerned, it was bad. Really bad. It was barely alive when I read it. I cringed and hoped I could make it better. I got rid of ninety percent of the original story and completely rewrote it. I let the story lead me instead of me leading the story. It was fun revisiting it and discovering where it should have went to start with.

BREATHE: How does “Phillip’s Story” fit with the other two? What made you choose it to complete the anthology?

A.J.: “Phillip’s Story” is a completely different piece. It’s really two stories in one and actually has a somewhat happy ending to it. It’s also a story that I wrote in one sitting and the first original I wrote after spending three months rewriting several pieces. It just took off and then the idea for the second part came to me and it went from there. It’s my favorite piece in the collection.

BREATHE: Tell me about the process of putting together a story collection. Did you choose a theme for it?

A.J.: When determining the stories for this collection I narrowed it down to six that I really thought were good and that could fit together as a group. I whittled that down to five and had several readers take a look at them. In the end, I went with the four I thought were the strongest and DCP picked up the three best ones.

As far as a theme, I didn’t realize there was one until my friend, Paula Ray, mentioned it. I had completely overlooked a crucial element of the collection: a title. So, when I was asked for a title I drew a complete blank. I have a title in mind for a future collection, but it is definitely theme oriented and I didn’t want to use it for this one.

I gave a synopsis of all the stories to a group of my writer friends and Paula immediately came back with the stories having one common connection: torment and discovery. Then she added, “How about Along the Splintered Path?”

I’m not going to lie, I have sweated about this since the offer came to submit again. I want this to be great. I want the readers to enjoy it. You understand how that is, Michelle. The readers are the most important people in a writer’s world—without them, we are nothing. Period. So, having the opportunity to do this is huge for me.

BREATHE: You know I have to ask: Are there any particularly interesting character names in these stories?

A.J.: Michelle, I’ve been following your blog and I see that you’ve done another Rose is A Rose series—I think you should do one of these each year to see how things change for writers.

As for my characters, there is definitely an importance to Phillip’s name. It was the only name that felt right. The same goes with Hollis Williams, one of the other characters in “Phillip’s Story.” To me Hollis was the type of name that said he could be a big fellah, maybe a little goofy or not all together there, which is what I was going for. The tragedy that is Hollis Williams is a vital part of the story and I gave his name a lot of thought. Of all the characters in the collection, those two names are the most important.


Type AJ Negative

Making a Joyful Noise…Good News!

I got some great news today.

Carina Press, the digital-first imprint of Harlequin (!!!!), has accepted my book THE SIXTH FOLD (don’t get attached to the title, because it’ll probably change). I am thrilled, to say the very least

It’s on days like this that I think of my favorite Bible verse: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord…” Well, you probably know it. Not that I’m a Bible thumper or even a dedicated reader of the Bible (you wouldn’t have guessed that from my Sunday School choice of verses would you?). In fact, I tend to think of the Bible as a guidebook to be referred to when I’m feeling lost. It’s always there to help me out.

Anyway, whenever I read that particular Psalm of David’s I think of him on top of a green mountain, probably surrounded by sheep, yelling a hymn at the heavens. I think he’d probably just received some good news, because that’s how I always feel when I get good news.

The news about Carina Press is that kind of news to me. The kind that takes your breath away, makes you want to jump up and down and then quiets into a breathing moment, sort of like a stone being thrown into a pond. I’m breathing now and reflecting on my good fortune. It has to do with my career and how I now believe I’m on the right track. I’m not just whistling the day away when I steal three hours away to write.

I’m enjoying it.

HONEOWP Update: I got a nice bump in sales from WINTER SOLSTICE last month, so Rainbows International got a little donation. This month’s HONEOWP charity is one of my favorites. Toys for Tots never fails to bring tears to my eyes. The thought of real heroes playing Santa for children who wouldn’t otherwise have a Christmas…well, the romantic in me responds well to such things. You can donate directly by clicking on the link (above and under HONEOWP Charities to the left) or by purchasing one of my books. All my royalties for November will be donated to Toys for Tots.

Save the Trees. Or, Bestsellers Only, All Others Go in the Back Way

I’ve been reading a lot about how the publishing world is changing, and, wonder of wonders, decided to share my thoughts on the subject. I mean, why not?

I practically lived in bookstores when I was growing up. Two in particular. The first was a used bookstore right down the road from the public library named The Book Nook. I loved to browse the shelves of old books and breathe in the tiny particulates of decaying paperbacks. You could trade books at The Book Nook, but I bought most of mine. I had a hard time parting with my books. I’m pretty sure I bought my first teen romance there. I know I bought my first hardback book there. I still have it and probably always will. Black Beauty and Other Horse Stories. It cost $15 and took me almost a month to save up for. And it’s one of my most prized possessions, although, sadly, The Book Nook has long since closed its doors.

The other bookstore introduced me to my love of science fiction and fantasy. I was a little older when Highland Books opened up. It was a little further away, not quite an easy walk for me, so I either had to beg my mother to take me there (and she usually did since she was as much a bookworm as I am), or wait until she had an errand to run nearby. Fortunately for me, when I was a young girl, my mother got a job at the dry cleaners nearby and I often walked from there. In Highland Books I fell in love with Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern. I remember how excited I got whenever a new Pern book came out, and I still have most of those dilapidated paperbacks, too. Right next to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, which I also purchased from Highland Books.

With all that said, you can tell my love of books runs deep. I have a degree in library science, for heaven’s sake. So the idea that I would abandon my dream of having a book published with my name on its silky cover is absurd, right? The very idea that I would be content to have my books published electronically! That I would accept that the changes in the publishing world are not necessarily going to fit in with where I want my career to go…well, it’s not even to be thought of, correct?

Not so. I’m seeing writing on the walls of every bookstore I go into. That writing says plainly, “We stock bestsellers. All others need not apply.” And who can blame them? Bookstores sell books, and bestsellers sell. How long before publishers go the same route? How long before bestsellers are the only books they are willing to put out in hard copy and the rest of us are relegated to e-publishing? I think it’s closer than we’d like to believe.

I don’t think bookstores are going anywhere. I anticipate a change, however, and those who don’t adapt to it will be smooshed under the weight of the biggies. I foresee a bookstore with fewer shelves of books. Maybe some local interest, a few history and plenty of stacks of New York Times Bestsellers. Interspersed in these shelves, which are really more for background than for sale, will be cushy couches and chairs and maybe even a few beanbags. I foresee people with their eyes glued to their Nooks and Kindles and smart phones (and all the other e-readers), browsing the exclusive electronic content available only in the store. Perhaps a whole magazine or newspaper or the first three chapters of a featured book.

Am I selling out by allowing my books to be electronically published first? Or am I embracing an inevitable future that, much as it might pain me, is probably inexorable? Well, at least I can say I’m saving trees.