Brain Strain, Best Intentions and “Five Minutes”


Yesterday was a testament to the foil of the best-laid plans.

I’d been feverishly at work on the finishing touches to The Camille Chronicles. My rationale: I was THISCLOSE to finishing, then I would be free to concentrate on my commitments to the Clarion Write-A-Thon and Camp NaNoWriMo.  The sooner I finished, the more time I’d have to work on those other two projects.

Yeah, right. Man plans, God [or whatever deity you prefer] laughs.

I worked on tightening up the story, collaborated with my graphic designer on final touches to the cover, and then back to the story.  Then my eyes started getting droopy around 10 p.m., and I was so tired. I’d gotten a decent amount of sleep the night before, but I couldn’t deny that my eyes were starting to burn like they did during final exam times in college. So I told myself that harmless phrase of self-delusion: “I’ll just close my eyes for five minutes.”

I woke up around 3:45 a.m. :/

In retrospect, I should have worked on The Camille Chronicles for a while, then forcibly stop myself and move to the other projects. This is what I’ve been doing for the past few days. But then, I would just continue to string along three unfinished projects instead of focusing to give the attention to finishing one, so I could move on to the others. It’s like the process of getting out of debt: you pay off one bill, then take that money that would normally be used to pay that bill and contribute it to another bill, and keep that cycle going until everything is paid off. In this case, the currency would be time instead of dollars. I didn’t do that for the past few days. I kept paying the minimum balance, if you will, and carried three balances instead of working to get all of them paid off.

This also made me wonder about brain strain. Writing is a very mental exercise, as is anything that requires more thinking than physical labor. I used to get a similar fatigue when I was a full-time editor, poring through manuscripts and advertisements line by line for typographical, grammatical, punctuation, and subject/verb agreement errors. If an athlete can overtax him or herself to the point of straining a muscle, then it stands to reason that I overtaxed my brain to the extent that it was strained. This reminds me of a line from one of my favorite books, Firestarter by Stephen King: “The brain is the muscle that can move the world.”

I will catch up on Clarion and Camp NaNoWriMo this weekend, and I will finish The Camille Chronicles by tomorrow. And I will rest my brain by taking a walk to the farmers’ market later on today. I just have to keep reminding myself that accountability and pushing oneself are one thing; pushing oneself beyond reason is quite another.

Thanks for stopping by.

From “Like” to “Legend”: The transformative power of literary fame

Acclaimed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni recently celebrated her 71st birthday. This was the same day of the funeral service for the late, great, Maya Angelou (Ms. Giovanni even wrote a lovely poem in memory of Ms. Angelou).  While updating my Facebook page with a link to Ms. Giovanni performing one of her most famous poems, “Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why)”, I went to bookmark it so that I can revisit it later on. My dilemma came when I went to select the appropriate folder for the bookmark; I hesitated on “Authors” before deciding on “People”.

My choice gave me pause. Yes, Ms. Giovanni is an author. She has penned many critically acclaimed collections of poetry, the most recent being Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid. She is a contemporary of poet activist Sonia Sanchez and literary novelists Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Yet she is also a Person. By dint of the popularity of her writing among fans and critics alike, she has gone beyond being just an author. Indeed, her name is spoken with the same reverence as those of Angelou, Morrison, Walker, Sanchez.  She is no longer Nikki Giovanni, poet and activist. She has become NikkiGiovanni (one word), or sometimes just Nikki, literary icon.

What is it about our literary folks that propels them from the pool of mere mortal authors into the stratosphere of literary royalty? What gets them to the level of one-name-only recognition? Much as those who are familiar with movies and TV automatically know to whom is referred when the names Oprah, Denzel, Gwyneth, Charlize, Angelina, Brad (other than their occasional uniqueness) are uttered. So does this occur in the literary realm, except there are few first-name-basis authors. Instead, we meld their first and last names into a litany of fervor, to be repeated ad infinitum–or until they fall off in their writing quality.

NikkiGiovanni. SoniaSanchez. MayaAngelou. AliceWalker. ToniMorrison. StephenKIng. JamesPatterson. DavidBaldacci. NoraRoberts. ChimamandaAdichie. EricJeromeDickey (okay, he has three names).

What these authors all have in common is not only reign on the New York Times best seller list, among others, but also lots of sales in general. And book awards: Pulitzer, National Book, National Book Critics Circle, PEN . These writers are practically guaranteed to hit the NYTBL upon publication. Their advances are gleefully handed over by their respective publishers, because the publishers will earn it all back within the first week of sales.

Perhaps it is the lot of writers that we have to rely on first and last names due to relative lack of visibility; when was the last time you saw an author’s face splashed across promotional material as a focal point? Most marketing tools showcase the book cover (because that’s what the reader is most interested in), and leave the author pics to websites and the like. That being said, readers are much more likely to remember the book rather than the person who wrote it. No one usually geeks out and says, “Oooh! XYZ is releasing their latest book today!” Since book titles are promoted months in advance of publication, it’s more common for readers to say, “Ooh! This New Title is being released on this date!” Supplantation of the author by his or her work is the nature of the beast, and lends to the reinforcement of identity via the use of whole names. We’re glad that you like our work, but authors are people too: check out the person behind the curtain. This requires authors to have personality. For those on all-one-word basis, they also have the persona that engages readers during book signings, and this in turn encourages readers to keep up the fandom (people buy from people that they like).

Perhaps that’s the magic ticket: sales plus sparkle. It’s a good start for those seeking to transcend the boundaries of mere book sales.

Thanks for stopping by.

Resistance is Futile: Amazon and the Strong-Arming of Corporate Publishing

There has been much ado about Amazon‘s attempts to get Hachette Publishing to lower their book prices. Some come squarely down on one side (Yay, major publishers!) or the other (Yay, Amazon!). Most don’t really give a flying fig, unless they are authors of the books being “delayed”, or people trying to purchase said books; the only concern is their God-given right to discounted prices.

[Still wondering what’s going on? Here’s a quick recap of this publishing “Clash of the Titans”]

A friend of mine emailed me to ask where I sat on this whole issue. Having had my own tangles with mainstream publishers, and knowing of others who have as well, I’m rolling with Amazon at the moment. Granted, Amazon will eventually turn to a less-benevolent form of operation (corporations being what they are), but right now, they are the BFF of a writer. Why, may you ask? Get comfy, and I’ll tell you. 😉

As an author, I have long been dismayed with the direction of the major publishing houses. I know plenty of authors (especially those of color) who have left major houses and mainstream publishing contracts, in order to self-publish. Publishing houses don’t do what they used to; they don’t throw their resources (PR, editing, marketing, etc) behind authors (especially new authors) unless you are a Stephen King, Eric Jerome Dickey, James Patterson, Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, Bill O’Reilly, or a big name that is guaranteed to earn back the six- or seven-figure advance given.  Some new authors aren’t given an advance at all or if they are, it’s relatively paltry. And, the mainstream publishing industry has a long-standing practice of showing preference to white authors, with the lucky Asian slipping in to give some diversity. This is a reflection of the people who make the decisions as to who and what will be published.

Amazon makes it very easy to get a book out there, as there is no one (usually a clueless , sheltered someone who believes in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of book sales/procurement) to tell an author that their work isn’t good enough to be published. Granted, that leaves the door open for books ranging from extremely crappy (by that, I mean disjointed plots, remixed plots, typos, grammatical errors, etc.) to very good to hit the market, but the purpose is that anyone can put their book out there, no matter how bad or good it is (“good” and “bad” being subjective terms. One’s man’s trash, and all that)
Now, Amazon has its own way of slipping a noose around an author’s neck. Case in point: CreateSpace  is the self-publishing arm of Amazon, where you can publish your books via e-book or physical book. When a book is published, it is assigned an ISBN (International Standard Book Number–the long number on the back of the book, right above the barcode). The barcode is associated with that ISBN, and that’s how book sales are tracked in stores. A true self-publisher will buy their own ISBN (you can actually get this through CreateSpace for an extra $10, or purchase it from Bowker [the company that distributes ISBNs] for $250 each, or a block of 10 for $325); this enables YOU to get the profits and sales records in YOUR name. You use a different ISBN for each book format, even if it’s the same title: an e-book will have one ISBN, a regular book will have another, an audiobook will have its own as well.  One can pay the $10 through Amazon and retain rights to use that ISBN wherever, because you are the publisher. Or, for those who have already purchased ISBNs, they can just add their own and still publish through Amazon simply because it’s so easy to get those books out there and ready. BUT…Bowker (the ISBN people) is just inflating the price in an effort to get people to buy in bulk: $250 for ONE ISBN, vs. $325 for TEN (which then comes out to $32.50/ISBN). They are counting on most people saying, “Wow, I might as well buy ten.” But for those who don’t have $250 or $325, Amazon is the best option (no one else is offering ISBNs for $10…as long as you publish through Amazon).

Another temptation for Amazon authors: the book can be for sale within 24 hours of uploading the PDF file of the book. Compare that to waiting nine months (at least) for publication through a traditional/mainstream publisher, or a few months for an independent publisher.
The kicker: most self-published authors are all about minimizing costs. They will take the free covers offered by CreateSpace, and the free ISBN provided (which makes Amazon the publisher, not you). When you do this, though, that ISBN can ONLY be used via Amazon; you can’t list your book on Ingram (which is the go-to and largest book distributor in the world; all bookstores are hooked into it, since that’s how they order books), can’t sell it on your personal website unless it links back to Amazon. So Amazon created this easy, comfortable space for authors, and many are content to swim in that comfort zone. Another way Amazon locks authors in is royalties. Right now, authors get 70% of the royalties from sales of their book through Amazon, but that will probably change. Still, it’s better than what an author (especially a first-time author) will get from a major publishing house. And, like I said earlier, a lot of the authors on Amazon either have gotten shot down by a mainstream house, or figure why should they do everything and let those publishers get most of their money? In this way, Amazon is garnering a lot of loyalty.
So both sides have their issues, but right now self-publishing is the way to go, and you’ve got to give it up to  Amazon for its hustle and one-stop publishing model. I encourage anyone seeking to write a book (any kind of book) to do for self, and Amazon just may be the easiest way to get your foot in the door.
Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments below.
Thanks for stopping by.


Taking the Plunge: An Initiation into the Writing Life

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been asked a lot of questions by people who are interested in writing a book. They range from tire-kickers to hard-core committed, but they all have one thing in common: fear.

One of the main questions was: how do I get started? Most of my clients have day jobs, and writing tends to take a backseat after dealing with long days of corporate shenanigans. Plus, there is this big myth surrounding the writing life, that a mere mortal can’t get a book written. Granted, it takes a lot of focus (and prayer) to get a book put out there, but no more than it would for someone to work toward a promotion, or earn a college degree (at any level), or raise a family. And with the ease of self-publishing these days, it’s really not that hard to become a published author. Still, people freak out about the very act of getting started.

Folks, there is no magic formula to writing a book. The only thing you have to do is: write.

(Publishing is another matter, but let’s just focus on actually having something to publish, for now.)

“But…but…I don’t have the time,” you may wail. “I have a job/kids/bowling/errands/pets; when am I going to find the time to write?”

Answer: you will find the time when you make the time. As with most goals in life, it all comes down to desire: how badly do you want it?

We all make time for things we want to do. If writing is what truly lights you up inside (as opposed to something you see solely as a means to make money), then carve out the time to do it. Wake up earlier to get some writing time in. Use your tablet/iPad/smartphone to get some writing in on your lunch break. Write before you go to bed.  But most importantly, write.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Baby steps. Writing for a short time a day, or a few pages a day, when done consistently, will yield a book. A book can range anywhere from 150-350 pages, on average, depending on the type of book you want to write. Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) has a good solution to the “I don’t have time” conundrum. Try it and see if it works for you.

A book that I highly recommend is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (yeah, that Stephen King).

On Writing S. King original  On Writing 10th anniv edition S. King

The popular author of bestsellers such as Carrie, Cujo, Pet Sematary, The Running ManThe Shining, and short stories/novellas that became movies (The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me were originally published in a collection of short stories, under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) wrote a very comprehensive guide to writing that is part autobiography, part writing boot camp. (did you know that he actually threw the manuscript for Carrie in the garbage, because he was so discouraged by rejection from publishers, and thought that he didn’t have what it took to get published? His wife fished it out of the garbage and sent it to his agent. The rest, as they say, is history).

One of the things that King mentions as a must for writers is reading. A writer has to read.  This is non-negotiable. It’s important to see how other writers set up scenes, move plots, describe characters, put words together. It’s also a good way to get ideas (most book topics out here have been recycled many times, but with different spins). Keep in mind that getting ideas is not the same as plagiarizing; if you can’t make a subject/idea your own without blatantly copying from another, then let it go.  I mean, really making it different: this goes beyond just changing a character name and/or location and passing that off as originality. I can’t tell you how many The Da Vinci Code knockoffs I’ve seen circulating around; they are very obvious, so you’ve probably seen them too.

Another vehicle that I recommend is National Novel Writing Month, affectionately known as NaNoWriMo. I’ve done this every year for the past five (six?) years. This occurs every November, and you have the entire month to write a 50,000-page novel (which is approximately 250 pages). The “winner” (who reaches or exceeds the 50K-word goal) gets bragging rights and a bunch of discounts and freebies from self-publishing vehicles such as CreateSpace and Lulu, and e-book vendors such as Kobo (I finally “won” in 2013, and that is the book that is coming out this October. Yay me!). You have to buy your own T-shirt, though. 🙂 There is no fee for entry, and it’s fun to participate in local events that are geared toward helping you get to that 50,000-word finish line. This is a good way to meet other writers, who can help hold you accountable toward finishing your goal. It’s a good way to make yourself write and if you don’t “win”, that’s cool; at least you’ve gotten started.

An expanded feature of NaNoWriMo is that they do Camp NaNoWriMo, which are month-long, virtual writing “camps” that take place in April and July (signups for July are now open). You get to meet “cabin mates” (fellow writers who can help you be accountable) and set your own writing goals, as opposed to the default 50,000 words. If you only want to write 10,000 words (approximately 25 pages), then do that. 25K words? No problem. Whole hog at 50K? Go for it! It’s all good.

[As a matter of fact, I’ve signed up for the July Camp NaNoWriMo, so holler at your girl (I’m afrosaxon in the ATL). Maybe we can be cabin mates!]

One thing I don’t personally recommend is writing workshops, where a bunch of people sit around and share and critique each other’s work. There are some good ones out there (I guess), but my experience with said workshops is that not all participants are in it to win it. Some use workshops as a safe space where they don’t actually have to put themselves out there to the public; you’d be surprised at how many workshop participants have been in them for years, and are always “preparing” for publication. These also tend to be the same people who are quick to tear down your work in a non-constructive way (under the guise of constructive criticism). What starts as a vehicle for nurturing becomes a crutch. When you are a serious writer, and especially a fledgling writer, you need to surround yourselves with people who are in alignment with your goals. It’s just like marriage, or a committed relationship: are you going to take advice from single friends, or from those who have achieved that which you seek and are thus better equipped to understand your struggle? You can’t fly like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys.

So to those who are thinking about writing a book, article, blog, it’s time to roll like Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

yoda do or do not try

Thanks for stopping by.