Off the grid, away from writing … and surprisingly happy about it

couch dwarf So I had a chunk of time off this holiday season, but I knew one thing about this extra time -- it's very deceiving. Extra time off doesn't always translate into more time for yourself.

How did I spend some of this extra time? I ran errands. Endless errands. I spent more hours at the grocery store than I ever wanted to … and picked up a fender-bender in the parking lot from someone looking more overwhelmed than me when we got out of our cars and assessed the damage (very minor).

The home dynamic, as you probably know, is also different -- everyone's there, 24-7. No pockets of stillness. Visitors coming by at all hours. Too many TV marathons to catch up on.

During the holidays, what's usually haunted me more than Marley's ghost is John Gardner's rule: you must write every day, no matter what. It just never happens.  This season was no exception: I read very little and wrote even less… even though my novel is waiting for me to make some time-sensitive revisions.

But experience has taught me that the usual result of such a situation is only frustration. So, what did I do?  I chose to do something else.

I restrung one guitar, I raised the action on another and gave it an open tuning (and learned to play "When the Levee Breaks," ah yeah), I hung Xmas lights outside that were so artfully and sturdily anchored that an F-5 tornado couldn't rip them off.

In other words, I was creative … even though I didn't create anything on the page. I was channeling someone else instead of Gardner: Louis De Bernieres, one of the finest novelists around. When he was once asked by an interviewer about writing daily, he said he didn't, but he made sure that he was creative every day even if it wasn't with words.

What was more important to him was to feed the soul with satisfying activity, not a word count.

I'm off to a nice start with those revisions I mentioned earlier, but I don't think I'd be in this pleasantly settled state of mind if I hadn't avoided writing for a while. As we look ahead to 2015, my friends, this little lesson is what I want to share with you: Don't beat yourself over the head with Gardner's commandment, but give your soul some space if there's just not enough time to write.

Go string up a guitar instead … or knit a quilt … bake cookies .. buy flowers for the kitchen sill … and all of it will help the writer in you to take your next step (whatever that is) when the time is right. I have faith in you.

Onward and upward, my beloveds… always upward!

Self-publish? Of course! The pros

She's so relieved by your decision.  

Why should you self-publish?  To answer that question, you need to answer another question first.

Why are you a writer?

If you're in it for fame or money, well…  You might receive one of these -- maybe even both -- but I think you're better off getting a real estate license or starting a Youtube channel to reach those goals.

Good grief, I'm about to do the thing that I usually can't stand: preach.  For anyone who doesn't want to hear this, kindly exit the church while I'm climbing into the pulpit...

What I've learned from my own continuing journey is that writing a book requires willingness to be genuinely vulnerable.  In the past, my fragile creations have been handled by publishers with less delicacy than a UPS guy  in a hurry.  I didn't think I could survive it.  It hurt immensely.  But I'm still here.  Still struggling, still working like all of you, my best beloveds, to give expression to my narrator's experiences of  1880s London and the far edges of Europe.  I crave the work.  Every day.  And when I'm not at it, I get grumpy, like an ex-smoker on Nicorette.  That's why I write. That's why I labor by singing light.  So…

If you can secure a deal with a big official firm for your manuscript, by all means go for it. But remember: self-publishing shouldn't disqualify you from the traditional route in the future.  For some, I think, it's a way station until the big deal happens -- a first step, a chance to see their work in another light, all dressed up, ready for the show.

Most people's perceptions of self-publishing are still very immature. But all of that is changing. Who knows? You might be one of the people who leads the change, if you're willing.


Here's something else to consider: Have you heard about what is happening between the conglomerates? Did you read anything about the big, ugly war this past summer between Hachette and Amazon? In these battles, authors' works have been moved around like pawns on a chessboard.  You read about that big full-page ad from writers against Amazon in the New York Times, right?  (Writers used to band together to free Soviet bloc dissidents, didn't they?)  Self-publishing provides a measure of control and independence in an environment that's increasingly devoid of both.

Call of the Siren's previous post on self-publishing ("Self-publish, are you crazy? The cons") presented some of the biases and criticisms that continue to persist -- but every position has its opposite, of course, and I find far more persuasive reasons to consider self-publishing than not -- or, at least, to keep an open mind as you seek an agent.

One of the most persuasive cases for self-publishing, for me, comes from author Jim Rossi, who isn't trying to market literary fiction -- his manuscript examines solar energy and its future implications (usually, self-publishing seems to be the resort of fiction writers).  He has a simple desire: He wants to reach readers.  That desire makes sense to me -- nothing feels better than good exchanges with other bloggers in the WP universe.

So what do you do, as in Jim's case, if a publisher wants your book, but doesn't want to provide any kind of digital version to reach those readers?  Before the advent of the internet, you took the card you were dealt.  You were stuck.

Next: More responses to the cons.

George R.R. Martin: A great summer placeholder

park gates Many of my Wordpress friends are on hiatus until September -- they were nice enough to post something that tells everyone why their blogs are quiet.

I'm not nearly so courteous ... I've been on an accidental hiatus created by what affects everyone else: family, vacation, start of school ...

But something George R.R. Martin recently said, in an interview in The Independent, was too provocative to ignore. It forced me to carve out some time to share it with you, friends. It also made me choose the picture above, which shows us a slightly open gate in a lush green park.

Recently, Call of the Siren started a small dialogue on the issue of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. The occasion was prompted by a former colleague, Jim Rossi, who has decided to take the self-publishing route for a forthcoming book even though he received an offer from a legitimate publisher. If you missed it, Jim explains why in "Why self-publish? Your book's a startup company, that's why" here at the Call.

Coming soon, the Call will provide a brief index of recent articles about the pros and cons of self-publishing that have been percolating during the summer months.

Until then, here's what Maester Martin had to say about the cons of self-publishing in his interview:

The world is changing, I will admit. I am old enough and now very well established so the changes don't affect me so much. But with the rise of the internet and self-publishing, we are seeing people who are trying to reach the readers directly and bypass traditional publishing and bypass the editors. It is really too early to tell where that will lead but I am not necessarily sure it will lead to a good place. I do think the function of editors as gatekeepers is a valuable and worthy function – they do save us from reading a lot of crap!

I'm of two minds on this. I get his point; my other reaction is, "Easy for you to say, George!"

Staying up late with A.L. Kennedy

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 4.45.09 PM I've mentioned before how much I adore A.L. Kennedy's columns on writing in the Guardian. There are many people who post items on this topic, and not very many are successful at it. Either they sound too academic or preachy or remote from anything that we care about.

But not Kennedy -- her pieces have always managed to blend the personal and the practical in a way that leaves you feeling inspired, and realistic, about the tasks ahead of you.

And I've been dealing with withdrawal symptoms ever since they stopped appearing last year.

What did I really expect? That she would want -- or need -- to keep dissecting aspects of her experience as a writer for my benefit forever? Did I think she'd forsake her fiction just for that (her new book, by the way, is the story collection "All The Rage.")

Oh, c'mon now.

Instead, the Scottish author's ken has gotten much wider with a new piece that appeared in the past week at the Guardian. With "Insomnia and me," she talks about something that troubles plenty of people at bedtime.

Her writing life is still there, skirting the edges of the column and informing much of what she says. In a short space, she also offers some affirming perspectives that sound like they've been truly hard-won, not platitudinal:

…[T]ime alone in bed with an unreliable mind is still a battle. When I can't sleep I recite the fears that would harm me most: harm to the man I love, or my mother, ill health, bad ill health, penury, death. It's horrible and pointless. So now I try to use the inventory to rehearse my appreciation for the good I have about me, to promise I will seize the day. What we love can be lost, so why not love it a lot while it's here?

In the end, this column, like all the rest, reminds us that what the best pieces do is communicate and connect us. And the best writers, like Kennedy, very rarely stay settled in one space, one topic, when their curiosity is too great and their voices are pulling them somewhere else.

I'm just glad she's back.

For more of Kennedy, find the link in the blogroll here at Call of the Siren.



Books, glorious books ... and A.L. too

A worn-out, old book is a well-read, old book (image supplied by Lin Kristensen) I've recommended that working writers should read A.L. Kennedy's columns on the writing life in the Guardian -- if you haven't already, start immediately.

The Scottish novelist has a wonderful ability to write about her own concerns and personal situation without sounding self-indulgent (not easy to do as any of us on WordPress know).

And she got me to thinking about books again, about why we love them so much, and why a Kindle or Nook can never replace them.

In a paragraph from a recent column she describes her satisfaction at (finally) having all of her own books shelved instead of stored in boxes:

From here I can see the spine of The Wind in The Willows  – the same volume I read in bed when I was a child. It has been my friend for more than 40 years, there for me, a kind light. Here is the volume of Raymond Carver I threw across the room when I was a student because it was so amazing, so tender with broken people. Here is Alasdair Gray and his mind-blowing Lanark, which taught me the courage inherent in thinking and creating when I had no courage of my own. Here is my library.

How many of us can say the same? Let's see a show of hands. Quite a few.

It's not the number of books that you've read that matters--it's the depth of the reading, right? Kennedy doesn't sound like she has an inordinate number of books, but a special, carefully-selected collection. When she says, at the end of the graf, "Here is my library," what she really means is, I think,  "Here is my family."