26 September, 2010

My talk in Montezuma

I was the opening speaker for the All Iowa Writer’s Conference last weekend**, and it was the first time in a long time (almost 4 years) since I’d been in front of an audience of strangers. And I was first.

Have I ever mentioned that I’m pathologically shy?

Anyway, I’d struggled for weeks over what to talk about, especially since I was ‘first up’ and all, and I reasoned (accurately, as it turns out) that most writers at these things talk about how they got published. While that’s helpful and can offer insights, everyone’s journey is different and, well, the information can get kind of redundant. So, with that in mind, I decided to try something different.

I decided to talk about you. Yes, YOU.

I started, as most writers do, by talking about me. About how I grew up incredibly poor in a rather dysfunctional home, and how I’ve been writing my whole life. I talked about how my mom has a story I wrote when I was seven (on construction paper, complete with illustrations) and how I wrote my first novel at 14 (hand written in spiral notebooks that got passed around school) and that, throughout my life, one constant was writing. I wrote to escape. I wrote to vent, to purge, to scream, to dream. To hope. I wrote in little snips and vignettes and scenes that just dumped out of my head. I wrote whatever I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted, and where I wanted.

And I didn’t know that was precious. I did not know that the process of writing what I needed to write for the reasons I needed to write it were vital to me. So please, every one of you, think for a minute (or however long it takes) and figure out WHY you write. Why are you compelled to put words on paper? Are you looking to vent, to explore, to give yourself a voice, to create, to explain, to learn? Are you writing in the hopes it’ll make you cool, or because if you don’t you’ll go mad?

There is no right or wrong answer for this, it’s all up to you. And you need to grasp it, hold it, and protect it because it’s IMPORTANT, okay? It’s precious, and it’s yours and you need to keep it safe.

So, I wrote throughout my whole life. Back in 2001, about the time my dad’s diabetes took a bad turn, I started a new book that became Ghosts in the Snow. It came out of me in an endless gush, a flood, anger and shame and hate. And hope. Part of this gush happened because of my dad, who’d often been a thorn in my life, a thing to fight against, was dying. I lived next door, and I had to spend a lot more time with him, tending him, than I wanted. 

So I wrote. I wrote a lot. The book ended up being one thousand and thirteen pages long, about a quarter of a million words, which was a LOT longer than a book was supposed to be. But what did I know? I was a wife, a mom, a graphic designer. A dabbler in writing. But, being who I am, I do what I’m supposed to do – whether I really want to or not – so, okay, good books are supposed to get published. So, how do I do that?

I didn’t consider WHY I wanted to get published. It was just the thing I was supposed to do, and I should have thought about it, thought about it a lot more than I did, so once you know and understand – and are prepared to fight for and protect the why you write – think about why you want to publish. Is it to be noticed? Validated? Do you want to get laid? Get rich? Have a venue for your vision?

WHY do you want to get published? Think about it, think about it really. Why? Why this quest? Do you merely need to see your words in print, hold the book in your hand, and say ‘I did this!’ then, please, for God’s sake, go to lulu.com and get a copy printed up and save yourself a lot of heartache.

But me, I didn’t know any better, didn’t think any better, so as my dad’s sickness worsened, I set out to sell the book. I did think a little, and I’d decided that I wanted a real book in a real bookstore, and that meant a New York publisher. There really isn’t any other way to get into a bookstore, not with any real distribution, unless it’s from a major house, and the only way to access them is through an agent. So, that decided, I queried agents, and when I got one, he sent it off to publishers. A few months later, Bantam bought my book.

But I didn’t think about what selling to a New York publisher meant. I didn’t stop and think about why I wrote and why I decided to send it out into the world until long after, after it was already done, after my brain broke.

See, I wrote Ghosts as the opening book in a 7 volume fantasy series. But my editor didn’t like the fantasy parts, only the murder mystery that served as a catalyst for the opening, and she asked my agent if I’d be willing, and able, to cut the epic and write a mystery instead. I said sure – mostly because that’s what I do – and I deleted about 7/8 of that book, and all of the follow-up novel that I’d nearly finished.

(insert shocked gasps here)

So. Me, Tammy Jones, wife and mom from rural Polk County, who wrote little vignettes and scenes and brain dumps her whole life, found herself writing a book she hadn’t envisioned to a length and content and character list specified by others, on a DEADLINE no less, because when you’re published by New York, that’s what you have to do.

If you want to make money as a writer, you have to write FAST and to order. I have a friend who writes a book every six weeks. She is a great fit for New York publishing and she makes good money. She also writes in several genres under lots of pseudonyms, and writes books for hire that she can't claim as her own. People like her do great with traditional publishing, people like me... not so much.

See, when you publish a book, it's not your book anymore, it's a widget, a thing, that's going on a shelf in a store. Publishers pay you for your widget - and that's all it is to them, not your hopes, dreams, or identity, it's just a thing for sale - in the hopes that someone will walk down the isle, see your widget on a shelf and think, 'Oooh, that looks like a good widget! I'll buy it and try it out!'

It's no more and no less than that. Selling widgets. If you can't deal with that reality, then please do not try to sell to New York. Life is too short to be miserable making widgets.

Anyway, my first book went all right. While writing the second, my dad died. And I found myself writing full time and working full time and marketing full time and being a wife and mom full time, and I was cracking at the seams, so something had to go. So I quit my job to stay home and deal with the book mess as I got more and more miserable writing to order, but the second book, Threads of Malice, kept churning right along. I finished it early, in fact. Thank goodness. Somehow I knew I needed to get it done before Ghosts hit the stands.

When Ghosts came out, my cracks became deeper, harder to work around, let alone live with. I cried, I cried a lot. I hear of authors who relish and squee over the first sight of their books. Not me. My first sight of the books, in a box from my publisher, sent me wailing to the bathroom to scream and vomit. It has only gotten better because I’m accustomed to the angst and fear and loathing, so I just count them and put them in a closet. 

Anyway, Ghosts sold well, really well. It ran through its first printing and earned out in nine and a half weeks, which is unheard of, especially from a new author. A few months later, it won an award, and my brain TOTALLY SHATTERED, right as I was starting on my third novel, which nearly didn’t get written at all.

So think. THINK. What kind of publisher do you, just YOU, want and need. Do you just want to have your words out there for the masses and the physical book doesn’t matter as much as the words? Then go epub. Do you want control, absolute control because your words are not to be trifled with, then try self publishing. Do you want to be edited without so much conformity? Then maybe small press is for you.

I didn’t know, didn’t THINK, and, because of this, my brain broke in the spring of 2005. More than five years ago. I don’t want anyone to ever think that I’m blaming my agent and editor for any of this. I’m not. They were and are absolutely awesome and amazing people. I’m blessed to have them. The problem is with me. Because I didn’t think.

I spent months in intensive therapy just to get words onto the page for Valley, to get it out and get it done and do my job like I’d promised to do. I’m still recovering from that, from forcing out the words. Valley was another book that was totally re-written (about 2/3 of it was tossed and re-done) but that’s part of the job. If you’re writing for New York, that’s the way it goes sometimes. There are books like Threads which are nearly word-for-word matches to my first polished draft, and others like Ghosts and Valley that are completely restructured and redone.

And it’s work I did. When you get edited, your manuscript comes back all marked up with red pen – I’m sure most of you have heard of blood on the page – and it says things like ‘tighten’ and ‘need more conflict’ and ‘no - delete and redo’. It’s up to you, the author, to figure out how to fix it, and do the work. The editor just tells you what they want fixed, not how to fix it.

Stepping into this unaware broke my brain for five years, I’m just now starting to write again, and I don’t want it to happen to you. In some ways getting published was a wondrous magical thing. I’ve met lots of great people, seen places and done things I never thought I’d have the guts to do, and I have three great books – how cool is that? But, getting published was one of the biggest mistakes I made, at least for my writing brain. I broke my creativity. I did this to myself, because I wasn’t ready, wasn’t prepared, and didn’t ask the right kinds of questions of myself.

So please, PLEASE, decide for YOU why you write. Why YOU want to publish, and what YOU need from a publisher. Figure it out, protect it, and hold it dear. I don’t want you to lose it like I did.

***Please note that I don’t speak from prepared remarks, this is just a gist of what I’d actually said (there were jokes, off shoots, and TONS of questions along the way) I also talked about a few other things, which I'll post about later, but this was the meat of my talk :) ***


Maripat said...

Thanks, Tammy. There's a lot of great stuff in there to think over.

Tammy Jones said...

Hey, did you see the bit about widgets? After I posted, I realized I forgot to put that in. 'Widget' became the catch phrase of the day. lol

Jean said...

Wow. They were so smart to have you as their keynote! It's possible someone has talked about this before, but it's rare.

I have considered that maybe I don't really want to be published, and that may explain why I've not gotten to the submission stage yet. But I'm not sure yet.

But mostly, I don't believe I'm good enough yet.

MJ said...

This is a wonderful talk. really deep.

Writing is such a psychological thing and the best writers access their hearts in a way most are unconscious.

I wrote all the time to order my thoughts, to dream, to survive, and New York killed that for me.

Writers forget New York exists only, Only, ONLY to make themselves money.

EJ said...

Wow, good things to think about. I've thought about why I write but not about why I want to publish. I've done the Lulu thing but distribution and marketing boil down to, "Here ya go, writer! Order books and go sell them!" If I wanted to do sales and marketing, I'd work in a book store. On the other hand, your insight to New York publishers was something I think I knew but had never heard expressed like that. I have some things to consider. Thanks!

Tammy Jones said...

You definitely get distribution when working with New York publishers - my books were available and on shelves world wide - but that's part of thinking about what you want and WHY you want it. I think a lot of us go for the agent and big publisher route because that's the top, and what we're supposed to reach for. I just think that somewhere in the mix we, as writers with skill and craft and passion, should matter to the equation. Somehow.

Tammy Jones said...

Oh! And EJ, just because you have distribution, doesn't mean you'll get sales. I marketed-marketed-marketed Ghosts (and it sold really well) but as soon as I started cracking up and stepped back from marketing, my sales plummeted.

Even with New York, you still have to market and sell. It's one more thing to weigh in the equation. {{huggs}}}

Monica Jackson said...

I think the deal is that for new authors, New York is the pinnacle. It's intensely competitive.

But sometimes you have to go beyond the rep and look into what you really get.

New York dogs authors. But I think that doesn't matter for most because it's the Hollywood of books. How many wannabee actresses are desperately trying to break in there?

Yeah, you can make money on an indie, but the dream is receiving your Oscar...and for that you have to be a Hollywood approved indie.

Tammy Jones said...

Heh, Monica. I certainly don't want to receive any more 'Oscars'. They're bad for the tambo brain. :) And, frankly, money has never been a motivator for me. Sure, it's nice when it comes, but I'm not willing to work myself into an aneurysm just to get more.

I liked a lot about working with New York - have an awesome agent and editor, for example, and my cover art is luscious - but I never really considered anything different, or how I would manage working in the widget mindset.

I'm a bit older and wiser now. Least I hope so! lol


Krista said...

Wow. I wish I would have been there.

Something that really struck home with me was this:

WHY do you want to get published? Think about it, think about it really. Why? Why this quest? Do you merely need to see your words in print, hold the book in your hand, and say ‘I did this!’ then, please, for God’s sake, go to lulu.com and get a copy printed up and save yourself a lot of heartache.

I'm conflicted. There's a part of me that still believes the only way to be taken seriously as a writer to go the traditional route. If I take the easy way out and self-pub, I fear I'd feel like a fraud. Yet, what if I hold out for the real deal and it never happens? Would I regret allowing my pride to stop me from seeing my words in print?

It's all very confusing. It's also very scary. Rejection hurts, but success doesn't necessarily equate to rainbows and sunshine, either.

Tammy Jones said...

Krista, do you know any working published writer who equates publication with rainbows and sunshine? I sure don't.

Being traditionally published is a job, just a job, like any other job. Some writers love their jobs, some hate it, just like any other job a person might have.

But you're absolutely right about being taken seriously. There is a hierarchy and that's something to consider too, if it's one of the important factors in why a person seeks publication. Also the money aspect (selling to New York guarantees at least an advance), distribution, reviews, all that.

Like I said, there's no right or wrong answers, only YOUR answers. What does Krista want and, once she's figured it out, how should she go about getting it?


KHurley said...

I remember when some of this was happening, and I just wanted you to know how brave I think you are to be able to share this with others and perhaps help them avoid similar problems. You've presented this with an honesty that is deeply moving, and it's an amazing and generous gift to new authors. {{{Hugs!}}}