When I was facing some stubborn obstacles writing my book, Lisa Romeo coached me through them and made me a stronger, more skilled writer. She teaches and coaches other writers as well, and writes delightful, touching essays herself. When she invited me to write a guest post on her blog, Lisa Romeo Writes, which gives "Tips, advice, and resources on the art, craft, and business of writing and the writing life, via personal experience, author interviews, guest bloggers, link round-ups, and more." I skimmed off some of the best advice I had given my freshman students at Montclair State University, and wrote a flimsy post which was not meaty enough for her robust readers, most of whom are writers themselves. So I wrote about the unexpected and unintended consequences of getting published, and that post appears here: http://lisaromeo.blogspot.com/
After publication, an author enters into a satellite world with a new set of concerns and projects. It is an unwelcome diversion from the devotion of writing, but in order to be a professional author, you have to encourage the sale of your books. So you can write another one. When I was wallowing in innocence, I took seriously the advice from those “10 Ways to Sell A Million Books” articles. From this vantage point, five months after the release date of my book, most of those articles are looking ridiculous, or maybe “craven” is the better word. Below are my reflections on what works and what doesn’t, but I will give you my final conclusion first. The world has not changed as much as we think it has. People buy a book because they hear good things about it from people other than the author. As my good friend, the author Joan Price puts it, “People hear about you once, twice, three times, and finally say ‘Hey, I have to get that book.’’” So if you are on seven radio shows, make a dozen bookstore appearances, and have five or six articles about you, that may be just the first few touches. The best results will always come through people telling their friends they liked the book. The most fruitful place for connection for me has been Facebook. The first thing I did was narrow down the focus of my contacts. I wanted to be sure that I really wanted to hear what each contact had to say. So now I have more contacts, but they are more interesting and productive. The author page is even further focused. I feel free to indulge in more purely literary discussions and post things of interest to bibliophiles. On Facebook I can comment on other peoples’ work and help and encourage them in their projects. I can provide information and updates, and in return can ask for information or advice myself. The Facebook community flows in two directions. Not as many salespeople try to “friend” me on Facebook as try to “follow” me on Twitter. Most Twitter “follows” are people who offer to provide a marketing service. Most “friends” on Facebook have something in common. I have dismissed the advice to “post often.” One fellow author sends me two or three notifications per week on Goodreads or elsewhere. It feels like harassment. I have subscribed to a publicist’s once-a-week posts, and they have become predictable and repetitive. They do usually have a morsel of good advice, but I have to balance the value of that morsel against the time it takes to read introductory paragraphs about her dog, her recommendations of Webinars by fabulous presenters who (I have learned, after following her leads) bore me to death before I reach the useful nugget. She is probably making a cut of what the presenter makes, so all of her recommendations ring hollow. Then, finally, I get some useful information. On the other hand, there are some people, like my fellow author N. West Moss (blog, The Writing Life) whose posts are rare and wonderful. Every time she writes, she has something to say, and says it beautifully. Amazon reviews don’t appear to have lifted sales. I have to play the Amazon game up to a point, but the game itself is smoke and mirrors. I give credit to Amazon for being one of two sources which give an author an idea of how well the book is selling. The other source is NovelRank.com, which will inform you how many books you have sold on Amazon. Amazon itself will only tell you where you rank among other authors in your category, not how many books you have sold. Ranking high in a small category means you are selling far fewer books than someone who ranks lower in a larger category. I am a few weeks away from my first royalty check. Until I receive that, I will not know how many people have wandered into book shops across the country and bought this book, or bought them on Barnes & Noble, Kobo, or sites other than Amazon. At the moment I am left ruminating upon the fact that my book is number 24 in its category on Kobo, while I am 1,034,000th among overall books on Amazon. What does that mean? One day I was 1,335,00th overall on Amazon. Then NovelRank indicated that I had sold one book, and the next day I was at 335,000th. That math is just weird. I feel more than ever that one must just do good work, follow the bread crumbs, and enjoy the journey.
Yesterday, my writing group broke up. C. is traveling much more than before; C2. is more active in church life; P. finds more support for her poetry writing in another writing group -- she'd continue but is not left stranded; M. is disappointed at the rejection of a memoir which we had been discussing, M.'s wife, B., is happy we won't be coming to her apartment any more. She had written some witty things, but health issues have intervened, or maybe sharing her personal trials and views was too much for her. Several years ago M2. died. That leaves me. I am writing my next book and need a writing group for support, critique, and camaraderie. Writing anything without the benefit of other sets of eyes is almost never done. Things which are familiar to you are not familiar to others, and since keeping your reader aware of what time it is, and who is where, it is critical that you pass your work around a bit so you can test whether you have given enough information to the reader. You may think you are making one point, but your readers will tell you that you are making another. A guideline suggested by Writer's Relief is that if three different people perceive that same defect in your work, or if it is rejected three times, you had better go back and do some more work. In my first efforts to find other minds to read my work, I came across two unsatisfactory kinds of reader: 1) "This should be a comma, not a semicolon," and 2) "I like it" readers. Since writing is hard work, and since finishing work by the deadline of one of our meetings is sometimes stressful, there must be a seriousness of purpose about a writing group, which suggests a certain level of experience with writing and editing. For me, somebody who "has an interesting story and has been thinking about writing a book" is not the right person. That person does not understand how difficult it is and is not committed enough to the process. Theoretically, having someone who was only a reader but did not bring work for review would be okay, but that person has nothing on the line, so the confidentiality and the struggle does not mean the same thing to him or her. It was common in my group to bring in old work if no significant progress had been made in time for the meeting. Discussing old work is also interesting; it provides a measuring stick to compare your present work with. The issue of hosting is a problem. We have been meeting at M. and B.'s apartment for several years because B. hasn't been getting around well since her health problems began. So M. has to rustle up some cookies, cheese, crackers, fruit, and coffee/tea for us. From time to time I felt bad about that, but, as she pointed out, "you've traveled all this way to get here. I don't have to leave home." So you can measure up the quid pro quo and decide whether to have revolving meeting places, or meet in a church or school which one of you is a member of, meet in a hospitable cafe, or share the hosting in other ways. It is, however, important that the host welcomes you. At our exit meeting yesterday, we all reflected on what we had gained from meeting all these years. When it came to B., M.'s wife, she said "It's been an.......a learning experience. It's been...informative. Um. It's been interesting hearing you read your work and comment on it and spew out whatever else." "B., could you change the verb from 'spew' to something else?" I teased. "You know me. I say what I mean." I don't want to visit her house again. I would not feel safe expressing the sensitive intimacy of writing in a place with those vibrations bouncing off the walls. Of course you have to put up with the conditions of your meeting; the talk about the host's cats, and maybe it's a little difficult to get there. But disdain does not belong in a writing group. We know how bad first drafts are. We know how you forget to tell the reader how such and such a character (or you) felt about something that happens in the story. We know that the fact that something "actually happened" doesn't make it an affecting part of your story. We know how it feels to be rejected by agents, theatre groups, publishers, and friends. We know the risks you run being a writer -- you might grievously offend people with your truth, for example. We know we have to be gentle with each other because draft after draft a beautiful thing can be wrought from a lousy first draft. If somebody wants to snark off on something you're working on, your forward progress can be stunted, shifted, and the final product compromised. We have to let each other be. The camaraderie is important for several reasons. Some catchup on our lives and a couple of cookies and tea is a way to ease into our work. Learning about each other's history and family problems can help with the story -- maybe you see a connection between something that happened and the point that the writer is trying to make. You can loosen up each others' brains and hearts as they go deep. A friend of C.'s was the caretaker for a dear friend dying of cancer, and for several months she didn't have the energy or time to work on her stories, but she still came to the meetings because nobody knew as much as we did about what she was going through, and it kept her writing aspirations alive. Writing groups are not only desirable; they are indispensable. Maybe you have a professional editor who can serve the same purpose, but that's only one mind. It's better to have more than one. The 2014 National Book Award winner, Phil Klay, has two and a half pages of Acknowledgments at the end of his book, Redeployment. Some of his thanks went to other authors who wrote books about war before him and informed his own writing, but most of it is people who shared the process of getting this book together. They helped him know what to leave out and what to add, how to keep the voice of the writer consistent, where he was boring or unclear, and what was funny. Nobody gets to the end of a book without a lot of help.
One amazon reviewer compared my book, DARING TO DATE AGAIN, with EAT, PRAY, LOVE, so I read it. Each is the story of a woman disappointed when her efforts to fit into traditional expectations (marriage) fail. The book WILD has the same theme. In all three books, the authors’ first step is to remove themselves from the major source of their discomfort – sexual relationships with men. The second step is to remove themselves, either physically or otherwise, from a culture that has not served them well. The third step is to develop a spiritual structure capable of supporting them; for Elizabeth Gilbert it was Buddhism and Yoga, for Cheryl Strayed it was Nature, you might call it Pantheism, and for me it was Unitarian-Universalism. I have heard it said that Buddhism, Pantheism, and Unitarian-Universalism are “not religions.” These three books beg to differ. All three of us are modern feminists. The old feminism was combative and political…and thank you to the women who took on those challenges, from Susan B. Anthony to Gloria Steinem. The modern feminist is a philosophical pioneer. She does not follow the path of women such as Anaïs Nin or Virginia Woolf who were rebels, squirming within the bonds imposed on them from birth. She is untethered to a husband (though she may be married), able to support herself, and unafraid to speak her mind even if her ideas differ from other women’s. She does not view men as the enemy; there is not a whisper of male-bashing in these three books. She is what happens when feminism becomes normalized. After the laws are passed and the cultural norms adjusted, individuals have to figure out how to use the social and political victories to craft a life in a new world. I took EAT, PRAY, LOVE as a religious book. The takeaway is that life is full of blessings, but you have to make yourself ready to receive them. No matter who you are, that’s hard. I was annoyed in a couple of parts, and some of that is my fault because I generally don’t enjoy being around people who are self-destructive, hysterical, and blotto with sobs, as Gilbert is in the first part of the book. As a reader, there is nothing one can do to help her, so I emotionally turned my head away. It got better quickly. This hysterical phase was something Gilbert, and the reader, had to work through. This is a beloved international bestseller, so who am I to quibble, but her metaphors are poorly executed. They are meant to be funny, but often miss the mark. Some are, in my opinion, okay: "I like to think of the 109th bead as an emergency spare, like the extra button on a fancy sweater, or the youngest son in a royal family." Some are too cute to be effective: "…a great lake of tears and snot was spreading before me…a veritable Lake Inferior." Some are almost clichés: "…that deadline of THIRTY had loomed over me like a death sentence." Some are sophomoric "The mother carries this plastic bag of water away with her…; it looks like she has just won a goldfish at the state fair, only she forgot to take the goldfish with her." It made me aware of how difficult it is to fashion effective metaphors and reminded me to pay attention when I make up my own. The voice in the book is loving, humorous, and warmly academic. Gilbert gives the reader a trove of information about the cultures she visits. Everybody in the world has a story, probably an interesting story at that. Gilbert knows that just recounting her adventures is not enough; she must put her personal experience into a context which will include the reader, and there she hits a home run. I understand that her next book, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS, sets a higher literary standard for her. It will be hard to get more heartfelt, honest, and warm than EAT, PRAY, LOVE though. I take a liberty comparing my own book with hers, and with WILD, but the arc of experience in both books was so familiar that I could not resist. We shared our stories because, well, we’re writers, but I sense that we all want to invite other women to shuck their historical shackles and step out into the sunlight. We make our new-fangled lives one by one, using the resources we’ve been raised with. It isn’t easy, but that’s how you get to a happy ending.