Recently, author and novelist Dixon Rice asked fellow writers on Face Book to share their views about writing, getting published, and what makes them choose to read and/or buy one book rather than another. Dixon’s blog about the writing process, craft and getting published: http://www.wredhead.blogspot.com. I tried to address each of Dixon’s questions. He posted my responses on his blog in the form of tips over the course of several weeks. But you can read my entire “interview” here.
What I write and getting published:
Until just a few years ago, my writing was entirely academic – sociology, economics and education. One book I wrote dealt with graduate schools’ prestige rankings and their alumni career success. It’s not exactly a topic primed for the NY Times best seller list!
I’ve noticed that books based on academic research, especially dissertations about controversial topics, have a reasonably good chance of finding publishers if they stick to university presses. But a major problem with academic presses is that their print runs tend to be very limited - maybe a few thousand copies, if that.
Self-publishing is becoming a realistic option for writers who haven’t been able to secure agents. I’ve been watching industry trends and talking to fellow writers about that. It looks as though the financial success and media attention self-published books are getting really is skyrocketing. Clearly, increased access to internet based public relations and on-line self-publishing sites are a huge benefit to writers willing to pursue non-conventional paths to get their work out there.
Some up-sides: buzz is easier to obtain, more accessible, vastly less expensive or free, and fast. The bad news: the internet medium is becoming increasingly more competitive by the hour!
My first NON-academic book, The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, was published by a conventional press but that was a fluke and I didn't have an agent. I researched, rewrote and edited my mother's true story, a holocaust memoir,18 years after she died. Betting it published was a perfect example of following up with someone I met who knew someone who was related to someone at Penguin Berkley as well as at G.P. Putnams and Sons.
The experience underlined a key point to me: you can and should tell anyone who will listen, that you've written a book (that is, only if you’ve really finished it or are almost finished). If anyone says to you, "I know someone who’s in publishing,” or “a friend of mine has an uncle who’s a literary agent,” or who claims to have a friend whose cousin is roommates with an editor, etc., - follow up with them and promptly. I almost let my opportunity drop!
When I think about how lucky I got and that it really was because I did follow up, I also had to think about the reasons for my reluctance. In all honesty, I think I worried about coming across as overly aggressive or making a nuisance out of myself - really lame reasons. Also, I considered it could be a waste of my time, possibly with people who really weren’t able to help -another pretty lame excuse. Keep in mind the reality of the adage: You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find one that turns into a prince or princess.
Now I look back and, after a fair amount of soul-searching I think there was that worry most writers have: what if I gave my manuscript to a “contact" and that person read and hated my work?
During that time I created a very precise "elevator speech" about my book. You have to be able to tell anyone exactly what the book is about in 2-3 sentences, i.e., before those elevator doors open up again! My husband impressed the importance of that ability on me, a lesson he'd learned the hard way in business. No one wants to listen to some long song and dance about your writing even though you’re intrigued by it. Others don’t necessarily share your enthusiasm.
Other paths to getting my work published include taking classes at professional writing conferences, carrying my business cards, collecting cards from anyone who might be a good network member or who’s had their own work published and submitting shorter essays and stories to literary journals. I find that reading advice articles written by literary agents and publishers give me additional insight.
I do work at improving my craft. That requires tremendous self discipline especially when life gets in the way. The most effective way for me is to write is to work on something every day. Going back to it a week later and reading what I wrote and editing has really helped me improve my self-editing skills.
What I read:
I read a great deal and select books for some very specific but diverse reasons; they're in my field, they're on the bestseller list, I’ve had some contact with the author, a friend raved about the book to me, everybody seems to be reading it, or the book is a classic that I totally didn’t “get” when I was in school and it was required reading. Sometimes I’ll read a book because it’s a huge intellectual challenge to me. I need that sometimes. I've started to keep a reading journal, making notes about some of my favorite books and the reasons they ranked high for me.
Finally, I've been collaborating with 3 other women writers on an interview project. This past August, I attended a writers' retreat at Ghost Ranch, NM along with 93 other women writers. Four of us decided we'd try to interview each attendee regarding the writing process, her difficulties, insights, etc. It's proving to be very enlightening. So, all up, I hope my comments and views help you out.
Read interviews with a few of the retreat writers at: http://arohospeaks-writertowriter.posterous.com/ .