Tuesday, July 7, 2009
“Want to know what I tell aspiring writers?” Terry Kay’s eyes twinkled as he surveyed his audience. He paused to let us fill with expectancy. I can’t remember if this was one of his many book openings I attended, or some dinner meeting where he was the keynote speaker, but there were a number of unpublished hopefuls there, as well as lots of people who just loved to read. Even I, a veteran of four novels, was on the edge of my seat. Because Terry, not only is he the author of many novels, bestsellers I should add, but he’s also been a newspaper reporter, he’s written screenplays for a couple of his novels which have been made into movies, he’s been a writer for a television series, and the leader of countless workshops on the craft of writing.
“Run!” he answered at last. “Do anything else!”
Now, that’s a paraphrase as it’s been awhile, but you get the gist of it. I remember being both a little amused and a little shocked at him, thinking to myself, “Yeah, right. Then why have you stayed in the business so long?” (Terry was 70 or so when he said this. I know because he was in my Mama’s class in college.)
I think he was teasing with us, in a fashion. Maybe he was feeling momentarily frustrated, letting out a little of his frustration with this ‘advice’, but I know he couldn’t have really meant it deep down inside that heart of his, because the man is STILL at it, and it’s been four or five years since he said that. In fact I saw an article in my local paper just this past weekend, inviting people to sign up for one of his writing workshops.
But I have to be honest. I understand where he was coming from. Writing is a hard business to be in. It’s a solitary job for the most part, the checks aren’t regular, and you have to be your own boss which can be a lot harder than you’d think. It takes self-discipline, pig-headed persistence, and a huge dose of optimism to sit down day after day at a project you haven’t sold yet, especially if you’ve got another job, a family, and friends calling you up tantalizing you to go out and do fun stuff. Plus, writing is a career where it’s necessary to develop a thick skin so you can handle rejection, because it comes to all of us writers at some point or another - even if it’s just a disgruntled reader who feels compelled to give you a review of your latest novel.
There are plenty of careers where you’ll probably make more money, get better benefits, and have work associates to chat with at break time. I know plenty of fellow writers who feel cursed by their obsession/possession to write. If you talk to them when it’s been several years between book sales (read, paychecks), or when a long-labored over manuscript has been rejected, or when they worry about having nothing in their retirement account, you’ll hear a bit of disgruntlement (is that a word?).
“It’s not fair!” they’ll say.
But I can’t act all high and mighty, because I hold pity parties, too, with this little tape playing in my head, saying, “What if I’d put all this blood, sweat, and tears into something like learning to be a nurse, or a professor, or a carpenter, or even a librarian! Why, I’d be RICH right now. I know it. I’d have absolutely no worries! I’d be happy!”
I remember one day I was taking part in an Atlanta book festival, sitting at my little signing table, probably moaning about my lack of book sales, and some woman grabbed my arm, and said, “Now, Honey, just LOOK at all the joy you’re able to give to people when they read your books! Think about what a priceless thing that is!”
I’ve thought about her plaintive face a lot over the years. She’s right about some things being priceless, like the joy of reading. I know the giddy anticipation I have when there’s a book waiting on my nightstand. I’m one of those people who can fall in and actually get lost reading a book. There is a joy in that lostness I can’t put into words.
There is joy in writing a book, too. I literally get lost in my own stories. And if you were bitten by the writing bug, as I was from the time I could string words together, you may have no choice but to write. (Well, you do have a choice. You could bury your dream, your desire, but on some level I believe you’d be miserable.) Believe me, there’s nothing like the euphoria, the rush of creating. It feels a bit sacrilegious to say this, but sometimes I feel it must be an eency-weency tiny bit how God feels when He creates something. It’s beautiful. Incomparable. And it’s addictive. This makes me keep on, even when the going gets tough.
Another thing that helps is getting emails or letters from people my books have touched. It makes me feel I’m doing what I was made to do, called to do. But writing is a business, too, and on that note, I must dispense some advice from my experience in the publishing world:
* Read Read Read. There’s no other substitute for this, and most likely you do it naturally anyway. If you have the desire to write books, I’m betting you enjoy reading them. I’m always in the middle of a book. Even when I’m writing a novel. I cannot help it. Sometimes I’m in the middle of two or three. I read them for the pure pleasure, and rarely study them for the author’s sense of characterization, or premise, or point-of-view. But I’m sure I pick these things up on a subconscious level.
* Study your craft. I’ve got shelves of How-To-Write books. All the way from plotting to character to how to write a novel in one year. I read them over and over, consult them often. I’ve heard it said that novelists must spend no less time studying their craft than brain surgeons do studying theirs.
* Write Write Write. Do this regularly whether you feel like it or not. I try to write every day but Sunday. When I’m writing a novel I like to write a minimum of a thousand words per day. A lot of them end up getting deleted along the process of editing, but out of them springs my story. Even when I don’t feel particularly creative, I sit down and write. The words always come. I’m a morning writer, before anyone else is up I like to jump in. Summer is hard because my youngest child is home and he’s eleven and still likes me as a playmate. I know that all too soon he’ll be a teenager...
* Keep a journal. This is about being conscious. I keep a Flora and Fauna journal throughout the year. Today I’ll record how the poke sallet is higher than the okra in our garden, and how every night at dusk, the bats circle just over our heads. I use this stuff in my books. You think you won’t forget what’s blooming when, what the sunset looks like, but you will, and if you have a journal, there it’ll be. I also write down real-life scenes, ideas, and bits of life. It’s about being conscious. I’m heightened all during the day as I catalog stuff in my brain to record later. It makes me so much more aware of things; like the expression on the cashier’s face at Publix or the overheard dialogue of a couple at Taco Bell.
* Enter contests - I did get my share of rejection slips early on, but I feel indescribably blessed to have won a short story contest sponsored by a local entertainment magazine and a publisher. To make a real long story short (if you want to read the whole story you can do that on my website - http://www.juliecannon.info ) I ended up getting a publishing contract with Simon & Schuster, then an agent, and another contract with Penguin from winning this contest.
* Learn how to speak/entertain in public. This is really important if you want to help sell your book. Countless times you will be called on to speak to a group, to give a reading, and you want to be ready. I actually had to take a course through the University of Georgia’s Continuing Education on being a dynamic public speaker. Now I really enjoy it and get paid to do it.
* Be a self-promoter. Go walk around a Barnes & Noble one day, and while you’re there take note of all the zillions of book titles and authors you’ve never even heard of before. Only a tiny fraction are well-known. But the rest of those authors poured their blood, sweat, and tears into their words, too, and they had hopes for their book, yet so many of those end up being lost in the shuffle, remaindered by the publishers. Many are wonderful books. But it seems to take a kind of alchemy to get a best-seller, and hopefully, when you do land that book contract, your publisher and your publicist will put all their might behind you and your glorious creation. BUT, and this is a big but, you’ve got to do your share of promotion, too. You’ve got to do those radio shows, those blogs, the interviews with magazines and newspapers, visit book clubs, visit libraries and bookstores, etc. etc, etc. I don’t have space to elaborate here, but there are plenty of books on this subject as well as stuff available on-line.
Now, go pour that beautiful story out onto paper. You won’t regret it.
Julie L. Cannon is the author of the Homegrown Series, a trio of books celebrating the enormous healing power of the Southern garden, as well as The Romance Readers’ Book Club, a Target Book Pick. You can learn more about her by visiting http://www.juliecannon.info