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!

On writing: Thank you, Ursula

Though the American holiday of Thanksgiving is long past, there's still a reason for many writers to be thankful, and it has nothing to do with Pilgrims, pumpkin pie, or U.S. history. It's a message for struggling writers, especially those dedicated to fantasy, the supernatural, and all related genres.  Next time you feel a pang when you hear that some high school sophomore has had her first book, about young lovers in a war-torn dystopian world, optioned by Paramount after publishing a few chapters on Wattpad … take heart.

Let Ursula Le Guin slap some sense into you with the speech she gave at the recent National Book Awards ceremony.

Neil Gaiman with Ursula Le Guin at the NBAs

"Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art," she told the audience.  "Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit … is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship."

You can read more of her incandescent plea that's directed at you -- yes, at you, my friends  -- by following this link to the virtual pages of The Guardian.  It's not a long piece, but it packs a powerful, inspirational punch.

And when you're done, I'd ask you to think about that sharp pang of jealousy/frustration that you felt over someone else's incredible luck.  Why does it bother you so much?

Think about what Le Guin says.  Are you part of someone else's marketing plan, or are you a writer?

Do you want a big payday from your writing -- if you do, why not try something else?  Go into real estate … build a stock portfolio … write a TV sitcom… success is more likely in one of these areas.

As for the rest of us, we embrace the scrivener's craft, as A.R. Williams nicely puts it in her recent post here at the Call, to find the grace inside the madness.

And when we manage to find it, there's nothing quite like it in the world.

Onward, my dear friends. Take good care.

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.

Leisure reading: A handmade reblog

leisure reading A little manually-reblogged information for you, my friends.  You don't have to live in France to know what's going on there -- you can read a news-wire, or the very fine blog by Kai Maristed, Pointe De Vue Paris.  Her latest post is up. Check it out.

And while you're at it, she reviews Daniel Kehlmann's latest novel for Fuse Book Review.  Kehlmann was one of those continental writers who used to earn full-page play in Sunday book sections all the time... until they started giving up more of their space to silly little items to lure more readers.  Kehlmann deserves good attention, and Kai gives him plenty.


On writing: The cautionary example of Alan Moore

What are you looking at?: Alan Moore (credit: The Guardian). When I think of George R.R. Martin, I can't help thinking of Alan Moore, too.

Both have been wildly successful in popular genres (fantasy, graphic novels). Both are old guys. Both don't know how to trim their beards.

They're opposite sides of the same coin.

Martin writes novels accessible to wide audiences (they couldn't get any wider), he likes his fans and likes mingling with them, and in photos he usually has a friendly grin on his face.  If he ever stumbled into Dr. Jekyll's lab and mistook a potion for a good black lager, I could seem him gag and cough, drop to the floor, roll around in agony for a while, then stand up … as Alan Moore.

Moore's disdain for popularized versions of his work is legendary. His avoidance of fans and the marketplace is so un-Martin-like. In photos there's usually a scowl or a perplexed look on his face.

But here's another thing they have in common: Moore, like Martin, is inspiring to any and all writers out there.

The Guardian gave readers an update last week that Moore's million-word novel about a small postage stamp of London earth, "Jerusalem," has been finished. "Now there's just the small matter of copy editing," quipped his daughter in a Facebook announcement. When I read that line, I couldn't help thinking of another incredible understatement, from the movie "Jaws," about needing a bigger boat.

I don't envy the editor of that book, but I do  admire Moore.  In the end, you know he'll successfully publish his behemoth with a solid publisher, he'll receive many reviews, he'll get sales because we're curious — even though he doesn't care for any of it.

During his career, he's layered a cocoon around himself that's a good cautionary example for any writer, I think.

What does his example teach us? Write for yourself. Write what pleases you.

But don't misunderstood this message. It doesn't mean that you can get lazy and do anything you want. Don't indulge in bad habits. Don't settle for writing that's "good enough" when you know you can do better.

I'd add -- not to aim for a million words, either: If you haven't published a novel yet, a big book is anathema to most publishers. Especially by an untested quantity. (An earlier version of my novel, a big fat padded thing, made the rounds and received a bunch of rejections — many commenting on its length .)

Ok, but… if your narrative can't help growing to an enormous length and that growth is truly organic, truly necessary …. well, then just hope a sympathetic editor finds you and is willing to make the case for you.

Such questions have been on my mind a lot lately, my friends, as my own book finally approaches (yet again) its completion -- but in a state that satisfies and pleases me.

So in the weeks and months ahead, I think I'll mostly be dedicating Call of the Siren to aspects of my experience, and my preparation to run the gauntlet again. I hope that's ok with everyone. It's where my mind is.

Maybe I'll also let my beard start growing again. Stop trimming it, too.