Sunday, July 25, 2010


So I’ve been having a totally unexpected reaction to signing my first book contract: pure, unadulterated terror. For the first, oh I’d say, four or five days, I was riding a wave of absolute bliss, but once I got down to work with my editor, the fear began to set in. My deadline for having the final draft in the hands of the Editor-in-Chief is only two months away. I know I can do it—and, in fact, that I will—but I feel terrified that the stories won’t be as good as they could be and that any readers that I can actually convince to buy the book will read it and hate it and never want to read anything by me again.

I’ve spent more time in my life than I’d like to admit daydreaming about what it would feel like to get a book published, and the way it actually does feel never once entered into those fantasies. I think my fear comes, somewhat, from having read so many books in my life that I felt needed further revision, or that I felt had some strong elements and an equal number of weak ones. I don’t want readers to read my book and wonder, “How the hell did this win First Prize?”

Part of it, too, is that I’m addicted to revising. I’ve never looked at a story and felt absolutely, positively certain that the story is as good as it could be, that this is the final draft. It’s one of the main things I struggle with as a writer: how do you know when something is done? And yet in two months, I have to be sure about an entire book’s worth of stories. Even though about half of these stories have already been published in journals, I’ve revised most of them since their respective publications and probably would have continued to revise them forever, except that having them out there as a book feels very final to me. I could continue to revise them after the book comes out, I suppose, but there’d be no point. This is it. In two months, I’ll hand in the final draft of the manuscript, and, with the exception of proofreading, that draft will be the one that readers read for as long as the book is in print.

But now for the upside: I’ve decided to embrace the fear, to let it push me to really whip this book into shape. I’ve gotten some excellent feedback from the press’s fiction editor, and I’ve enlisted the help of a few friends to give me more. And then there’s my husband, who is diligently going through the entire book with me line-by-line, in spite of having read and given feedback on most of these stories before. I’ve put all of my other writing projects on hold for now and am focusing as much energy and attention as I can on trying to polish this book until it shines. And maybe this will be good for me: to be forced to call something officially finished. Maybe this is a leap that all writers must eventually take.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


This post to the MFA/MFYou Newsletter, which is usually full of my own rants and reflections on all things writerly, will actually be a genuine newsletter. First of all, Issue Four of MFA/MFYou is up on the website, and it’s a good one. The MFA/MFYou website has officially been up and running for about two years now, and sometime soon I plan to talk here a little bit about some of the trends I’ve noticed in our MFA versus non-MFA submissions.

However, I’d like to put it out there right now that our MFA/MFYou experiment has pretty definitively proven, from my perspective anyway, that whether a writer has gone through formal MFA training or not doesn’t make any significant difference in his or her writing abilities. This is certainly not to say that I’m no longer an advocate of the value of the MFA. I still fully believe that going through an MFA course of study is extremely beneficial. My point here is that there are other ways to achieve that training, and what might work for one writer might not be right for another. As long as a writer is really working at it—is studying the craft, taking revision seriously, and seeking and openly receiving feedback from trusted readers—that writer will, I believe, continue to improve and eventually get published.

Yes, that’s right. I said it. I don’t think natural talent counts for much. If you want to be a writer, it’s all about working at it and working some more and working yet more still. And then, when you think you’re finished, go back and work even more. I believe that most people—I suppose I should qualify that and say most people who are fairly intelligent, and who like to read and write, and who are actually willing to acknowledge that their first drafts aren’t golden—have the ability to become published writers. The real question is, which people are going to stick with it and put in all the work necessary to actually get there? Most of the people who fit into that first vast group will taper off somewhere on the road to the second, and those of us who are left are the ones who get to be “writers.”

And now some more news . . . I’M GETTING MY FIRST BOOK PUBLISHED!!!! My short story collection Peter Never Came was awarded first prize in the Autumn House Press Fiction Contest, and the book will be published by Autumn House next spring. This is a huge and important step in my career as a writer, and these next few months as I work with my editor ("my editor," how good it feels to write that!) to get the manuscript ready to print are going to be some of the most exciting of my life, I bet. I’m also already thinking ahead, trying to plan out how to get copies of this book in the hands of as many readers as possible. I’m well aware that getting a book published is really only the beginning of a huge marketing process—after all, it doesn’t really count for much if you publish a book that nobody buys.

In the coming months I’ll be able to bring some new experiences and perspectives to the table here in the old MFA/MFYou Newsletter, and I hope you’ll all stick around for the ride.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Self Publishing Part 2: A Calculated Risk

At the Columbus Writing Works Conference this year, one of the presenters was a novelist who had self published a handful of books and had finally landed a real publishing contract for her next book. She was doing a talk about marketing yourself, and she was urging writers to consider self publishing “a calculated risk.” She didn’t seem to have much faith in anyone’s chances of getting a real book deal for their first book, and felt that, as long as you’re willing to do all the legwork yourself, self publishing is a good way to get started as a writer.

Her lecture, for me, was the real low point of the conference, as I didn’t feel that she had a very firm grasp of the way the industry actually functions. Her history as a writer was strewn with what I would call mistakes (getting suckered in by a fake agent, for example, and publishing twice with Publish America). This would be fine if she was telling us about her own mistakes so that we might avoid making them for ourselves. The problem was that she didn’t seem to understand that these had been mistakes. In fact, she didn’t seem to understand that Publish America was a vanity press!

At any rate, she did successfully get me thinking about what benefits self publishing may offer the writer who doesn’t want to go the traditional route. Now first of all I think it’s important to make the distinction between the writer who can’t get his or her manuscript accepted by a real publisher and the writer who doesn’t want to publish with a traditional publishing house. If you can’t get a book accepted for publication, you should probably take that as a warning sign that there may be something wrong. The book might not be ready; it might not fit into the current market (which means, no matter how good it is, you’re going to have trouble selling it); or it might just not be any good. You need to realistically evaluate your manuscript and your goals as a writer before you even think about self publishing, in my opinion.

However, if you do decide that you’d like to take the “calculated risk” of self publishing, it is possible to make some money if you’re really able and willing to do some hard work. The lady at the conference, for example, did make a few hundred dollars a month from selling her self published books. In fact, Steve Almond’s account of the money he made from self publishing in the recent Poets and Writers article compared pretty closely with this random do-it-yourselfer’s financial gain from self publishing. The trick is that you have to get out there and really sell that book.

This lady did several readings, book store signings, etc per month. She actually retired from her full time job as an English professor to have more time to devote to really selling her books. She sets up tables at farmers markets. She does presentations at relevant museums (her books are historical in nature, but this might not work for everyone). She even does readings at cafes—she says that these places are usually willing to let you read if there is no cost to them and all you ask in return is that they let you sell your book. Her marketing savvy may well have contributed to her finally landing a book deal with a real publisher—publishers love writers who know how to get out there and market themselves. Many small presses these days even ask you to submit a marketing plan along with your query, so this sort of self publishing experience may look good to some publishers.

Some writers talk about self publishing as being more profitable than going the traditional route (unless you’re lucky enough to land a book deal with a major publisher, of course). As the writer, you see a very small percentage of the book sales if your book is published by someone else, but in self publishing the amount you take home for each individual sale is much higher. If you publish with a tiny publishing house, for example, and get say a $1000 advance, there’s a good chance that that’s all you’ll ever see. If you self publish that same book and really get out there and sell that thing, you could stand to make substantially more over time.

Now let’s not kid ourselves here. Self publishing is not considered reputable, it just isn’t. Virginia Woolf aside. However, if you’re willing to do all the work yourself and you don’t mind the stigma, self publishing may be right for you. It has opened doors for some writers (emphasis on the some) who really got out there and worked it and then turned the experience to their advantage, but please don’t forget that self publishing is not a free pass to a successful career. Proceed with caution, my friend. Make sure you calculate that risk.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Self Publishing Part 1: Think Before You Drink . . . er, I Mean, Self Publish

Let’s have a chat about self publishing, shall we? But first of all, a disclaimer: I am not considering, nor do I think I would ever consider, self publishing a book. However, my lack of interest in the self publishing game does not mean that I don’t believe that self publishing is a viable option for some writers—it just isn’t right for me (in large part because I make the majority of my money from teaching rather than writing and I want my writing credits to count for something on my CV).

This discussion will have to be a two parter, and I think I will begin with the downside of self publishing. I believe self publishing can be—I’m going to go ahead and say it—dangerous, for a number of reasons. I’m going to lay out my biggest problems with self publishing here, although there are probably many other potential risks that I’m not touching on.

First of all, to state the obvious, if a traditional publishing house—even a very small press—agrees to publish your book, that carries a certain amount of weigh to it. There are numerous presses out there willing to publish a wide variety of books, so it can look bad for you if you weren’t able to get your book accepted by one of the many options out there. It may mean that your book simply isn’t that good, and you need to try to be objective about your work and face that possibility. It may also mean that you yourself don’t have a complete understanding of how to really market your book to a prospective publisher, and if you don’t know how to do that, how do you expect to market your book to your readers without the help and credibility provided by a publishing house?

But let’s assume that your book is good and let’s assume, also, that you do know how to market your book, but you’ve chosen to go the self publishing route for other reasons. Usually, when a book is accepted for publication by a real press, an editor will then give you feedback so that you can revise and strengthen the manuscript, make it the best it can possibly be before it actually gets printed. While you can pay for editorial services on your own, it seems to me that the feedback coming from someone who you have paid to give you editorial suggestions would be different from the feedback coming from someone who actually has a financial stake in the outcome of the revision. I’m sure there are some professionals out there whom you can pay to give you solid feedback, but I still feel that this is a risk worth considering if you’re thinking about self publishing.

I think a lot of writers these days think that they can kick-start their careers by self publishing a first book. They assume that the public will immediately see what great writers they are and their careers will be set. The danger here is that without good editorial feedback and a definite stamp of approval from a publishing house, you may be attaching your name to something that is actually going to kill your career before it even gets off the ground. You may genuinely have a good book on your hands, but if you send it to press right now without revision it’s going to read like exactly what it is: a draft. Great books are not the product of the writer alone, but are the result of a collaboration between the writer, the editor, and often the agent or other trusted readers.

The reading public, of course, doesn’t really realize that, at least, not consciously. When they read a book that wasn’t ready to go to print, they just assume the writer isn’t a good writer, when in fact, the truth may be that the writer didn’t have the help that he or she needed to turn the book into what it had the potential to become.

This may all sound like I am absolutely against self publishing. I’m actually not. I think it’s a risk, but it has proved to be beneficial for some writers and should not be, I believe, entirely eschewed. I’ll talk next time about some of the pros to the self publishing game.