How self-publishing is like American Idol

I don’t sing, and the only thing I know about music is what I like, but I’ve realized something by watching American Idol. From auditions to finalists, the singers are a lot like self-published authors.

Some authors don’t care much what anyone thinks of their books. They publish just for the fun and thrill of it, like the guy who auditions for Idol in a hula skirt and coconut shell bra. Some publish because they erroneously believe they’re great writers, deluded either by self or family and friends. Those authors would be like the hopefuls who never make it past the audition round. The rest of the authors can write to varying degrees, like the singers who get a ticket to Hollywood.

Just as in traditional publishing, the degree of sales success reached by each of this last group of authors is not easy to predict. Sometimes the story outweighs the skill. Sometimes the author’s personality enhances the sales. Sometimes the author’s connections triumph all. Sometimes the author has a combination of two, three, or all of these factors.

Which author type am I?  I’m not publishing just for the fun and thrill. I work hard to produce the best product I can. And I’m not deluded; I can write. I’ve been judged in critique groups, and my writing has made it through the auditions and earned my place at Hollywood week. Now it’s time for the elimination rounds. My book is about to step out on the big stage. The reading public gets a chance to vote. I hope to be setting on the couch after the results are read.

Going Indie has given me that chance.

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Best laid plans vs. vacation

I’ve been too busy with two little charmers to write a new post, so today I’m serving up a re-post from one year ago. It’s a topic of continued relevance to me and, I hope, of some interest to you.

Blue-toed tree frog.

I apologize up front because I might step on some toes today. Just know that mine are black and blue too. I am in editing mode—again—and I’ve recently discovered John Gardner’s book On Becoming A Novelist. I shared a passage from that last week and will share another below. Gardner has been stomping all over my writing toes.

I confess I’ve been a “literary” wannabe. In editing my work, particularly the passages that haven’t changed since the first version, I find a tendency to overwrite, to use ten-dollar words or syntax that only complicates the reading, not deepens the meaning. Or, when writing in a poetic character’s point of view, to let myself get carried away with imagery. Possibly the line drawn between good writing and overwriting is quite fine. Or else, I just leapt right over it.

John Gardner

Gardner writes:
“… as a rule, the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance—at least not brilliance of the showy, immediately obvious kind—but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do.”

Anne Tyler

If you’ve been around this blog for long, you know that one of my favorite writers is Anne Tyler. I’ve always thought of her writing as beautiful, but when I examine it, I see that rarely does she call attention to her word choices or phrasing. By this, I mean, not often do I stop reading to admire her clever writing. I admire her talent at story telling, her fleshed out characters, her ability to draw me into her fictive dream, which means she’s an excellent (Pulitzer Prize winning) writer, but she’s not a show-off.

I’ve read books in which it seems, as Gardner says, “the writer cares more for his language than for other elements of fiction.” I don’t enjoy those books as much and little of them stays with me. If those writers attempted to create a fictive dream, I’m too aware of their writing to fall into it. Obviously, there are people who read such books, literary critics generally love them, and creative writing classes teach them. I believed that I should aspire to become one of those “important” writers. But I’ve changed my mind.

I just want to tell the best stories I know how with beautiful, but understated, language to people who want, for a while, to dream of a different life, or place, or time.

I asked a question and … POW!

Last Wednesday, I asked if you had given any thought to INDIE publishing. I expected I might get a few comments. What happened? Despite NaNoWriMo, despite Thanksgiving, we had the best discussion this blog has ever seen!

Surprisingly, there were more yeas than nays. (I don’t know how to count the many who read the post, but remained silent.) And several comments, on this blog and in private, revealed that I’m not the only one who has considered that option. At least one person definitely changed sides. The number of responses amazed me. And I loved that!

I also dreamed about it. Not the post, or the comments, but the two choices. Whether ‘tis nobler to publish traditionally or go Indie. I can’t quit thinking about it, weighing the options. Since this is my blog, I’m going to let you in on some of my thoughts, pro and con. This is a pro Indie day.

Going Indie assures publication. I could seek trad-pub for years—and years—without success. Then again, I could write the perfect query letter, send it to the perfect agent, who sends it to the perfect publisher, who will say, “Yes! We want it because this is a book that will SELL.” Because, of course, only the big name publishers know what readers want.

Or do they?

If the major NY houses truly know what sells, how could any book they publish ever fail to earn out? Surely they’ve never paid a ginormous advance to a celebrity and then seen the sales of that book fall embarrassingly short of expectations. Surely it’s just a myth that twelve publishers rejected the first Harry Potter book.

And they know good writing when they see it, right? You’d never read the latest, hottest, bestest seller and think, Really?! You’d never be disappointed by a boring plot, or bland characters, and definitely not by poorly crafted sentences because these books have been vetted by those powers that be.

Traditional publishers are the standard bearers, the gatekeepers of literary quality. They have declared it so. And that makes it true.

Right?


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Mistakes I’ve made as a writer … so far

Today, I’m going to swallow my pride and make an admission. I’m not perfect. I know. Hard to believe, right? But it’s true; I’ve made mistakes in my writing life. Some were minor, some not. Here’s a few biggies.

My first mistake was joining a critique group. Not really. The group was fine; it was the critique I didn’t know how to take. My previous work wasn’t written with an eye toward publication. Two years ago, that changed, and I decided I needed feedback. Inexperienced, I assumed every member of the group knew more about writing than I did. I took every bit of advice to heart and edited accordingly. Eventually, I learned to evaluate the feedback and use only what I felt made my work stronger.

My second mistake was in thinking my book was finished—again and again. Almost exactly one year ago, I thought I had finished at 69,000 words. Then, beta readers said, “Think again.” They were right. So, I edited and revised, finishing again at 82,000 words. I was embarrassed to think I’d quit 13,000 words too soon, but it was done for real this time. Right? “Not quite,” said one final beta reader. Dang. But she was right too. Back to work. Finally, at 84,000 words, I was truly finished. Or not. Something still didn’t feel right to me. I’m now working on another chapter, which will add at least 4,000 words more.

You can probably guess where my “finishing” too soon mistake lead. I also queried agents way too soon—and with a query letter I wasn’t crazy about. So, I guess that’s two mistakes in one! I think the only thing I got right at that point was my 2-page synopsis.

At least some good has come from these mistakes; I’m learning to trust my instincts more. If a suggested change doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t follow it. No matter how much I want to be done with a story or novel, unless I feel deep down that it’s finished, it’s not. And if I’m not confident a piece is my best, it’s not ready for submission.

Your turn: I’m sure you avoided these mistakes, but do you have one of your own to share?

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But will they understand what I’ve written?

Recently, sweet Karen Schindler, sent me a link to a video of Jon Bonjovi singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and that reminded me that I’d heard the song covered by others. I would be surprised if you haven’t heard some version of the song. As I found out, it’s been covered over forty times. I’m not familiar with all those versions, but I’ve heard enough to know that some who sing it, judging by their emotionless rendering, apparently don’t really listen to the words. Yet, of course, lyrics are open to interpretation.

Cohen is quoted as saying he’s written “about eighty verses” of the song. He recorded only four of those for his album Various Positions in 1984, and then three different verses, plus one from the first set, on a live album in 1994. In other live performances, he may add another verse or switch the order—he interprets his own song. If you compare, you’ll notice that others who perform the song also pick and choose from these seven verses, often changing a word or two to fit their own interpretation.

Hallelujah is a “catchy” song. But it’s not a happy love song. Nor is it a religious song, despite the chorus with it’s repetition of the title word, a word with religious overtones. In my opinion, however, it is a spiritual song. It speaks to the human condition. It expresses the pain and bitterness of life and love, but underneath it lies understanding, acceptance, victory. Hallelujah, I’m alive! Hallelujah, I’ve survived.

For me, the singer who most does justice to the song, is k.d. lang, whose performance of it brings tears to my eyes. Cohen himself, seeing her performance of the song, said: “Well, I think we can lay that song to rest now! It’s really been done to its ultimate blissful state of perfection.” You can watch her performance at the 2005 Juno Awards by clicking at the end of this post. And if you’d like to read all seven verses of Cohen’s song, click here for the 1984 version and here for the 1994 version.

When thinking about these differing interpretations of one song, I can’t help applying that to my writing. In critique groups, I’ve experienced someone reading into my work something more than what I intended or failing to get the meaning I did intend—both instances frustrate and disappoint. But the game will really change once my work is published. I’ll still have control of copyright, but I can’t control how people interpret what I write. If strangers misinterpret my meaning, I can’t do much about that. If someone slams my novel at places like Amazon or Goodreads, I won’t like it, but they are entitled to their opinion.

I guess the best we can hope for is that the majority of readers out there will be “k. d. langs” who really get our writing.

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