Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Right Boots

Writing is a funny thing, isn't it?

Actually, CREATING is a funny thing. I've managed to create some amazing things in my brief 30 years of life, but none of them come close to my family. Keeping my daughter and my husband happy is an accomplishment requiring endless effort from all three of us. But when I think of that effort in any great detail, writing is the same way. Any creative effort or career is the same way.

As I climb the trail to the top of a mountain, I look into the eyes of the hikers who pass me on their way back down. They always look exhausted, but fulfilled. When I get to the top, I look down at all the steps I had to take to get to the summit, and it always amazes me. The view is always worth it. I don't need validation from someone on the top telling me I wore the right boots to get there.

Some of us take large steps. Some of us take short steps. I've even seen some people hike barefoot or with a cane or a child strapped on their back. We all do things differently, and I'm certain there will always be people out there criticizing how we do them, and there will also be people out there telling us we need validation to feel satisfied, or we need a lot of sales, or an agent, or a huge book deal, or a spot on the New York Times Bestseller list.

I started seriously writing when I was 16 years old. I looked like this on top of the mountain near where I live:

I look a bit heavier now, and older, and I lost the bangs, but other than that I look the same. I'm still writing about the same things, too, essentially. I still have that same drive and ambition. I wrote books because I loved to write and there weren't any books in the small-town library that I liked. I'd read all the ones worth reading, so I decided it was time to bring more books into the world. I'm still doing that.

My decision to self-publish one of my books has been a difficult one. Self-publishing seems to be a hot topic right now, and I've seen a thousand different opinions about it (many very negative), but in the end, I'm happy with my decision. Davin and I were talking yesterday about how we'll both feel satisfied when people we don't know send us emails about how much they enjoy our work. Amazing that it doesn't matter how you publish if your goal is something along those lines. I think there comes a point in our lives where we have to ask ourselves why we chase after the creative process, and it's essential that we answer honestly. For me, the answer was this: in the long run, some things simply don't matter, like how I share my work. It simply matters that I share it with as many as I can by the means I currently have available. Bigger plans will come later, and they may or may not include what others consider success. Success is what you make it, not what others dictate.

It looks like there's an interesting contest going on over at The Clarity of Night. You should hop on board! All you have to do is write a 250-word flash fiction piece prompted by this image:

The prizes are very generous! $100 for the first place winner alone! And even more dough for other winners. Yay! I'm definitely entering. I always end up writing some good fiction because of a contest or prompt.


  1. You're so right that we have to make our own path toward our writing goals these days. The truth is, the old paths don't lead where they used to. The whole landscape of publishing is going through seismic changes. I'm following your self-pub experiment with great interest. I know other serious writers who are going this route, who wouldn't have dreamed of it even two years ago.

    BTW, read your great story in Rose and Thorn this AM. Beautifully done. My house flooded recently, so I could totally relate to all those sounds and smells. Brilliant piece.

  2. Michelle, I'm liking you more and more everyday :) Thank you for your inspiring words and letting us know about that contest. I just might do it for some practice ;)

  3. This picture of you and the dog is adorable! You still look the same--I recognized you right away.

    Your clever post has reminded me of that "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" song--I think the chorus should be a response to the criticisms. You know how I feel about all this.

    Keep at it!

  4. You're most definitely right, and I'll be sharing this post with my friends, writers and otherwise. Fantastic. :)

  5. I've had conflicting views about "success" as it relates to writing for oh, 30 years or more. When I first submitted fiction and got regularly rejected, I tried to tell myself that I hadn't failed in my writing -- I had simply failed to find the right market. Or I told myself that lots of now-popular authors were rejected over and over. But no matter what I told myself, there was always a tiny nagging, deeper voice saying, "To be professionally published is to be a successful writer, and you are not."

    For a while, I put my writing out for free, and got lots of nice ego-boosting feedback, which made me feel good. But then I became friends with a pro fiction author, and the more I got to know her, and her work habits, her professionalism, and her dedication, the more I wished I could be counted as her peer. For me, pro publication was more a matter of being respected by other authors, rather than being validated by some total strangers at a publishing company.

    On the one hand, I do believe a lot of good writing goes unpublished simply due to market forces. On the other hand, I also believe in persistence -- a friend gave me her karate maxim, which I use for many difficult tasks: "Seven times down, eight times up.” My own road to publication was more like 7,999 times down, but that 8,000th time up made it all worthwhile.

    Whatever you choose, I wish you well.

  6. Anne: Thank you for reading my story! I'm so sorry to hear that your house was flooded. That's terrible! I hope it all worked out okay in the end!

    Chanelle: Glad you enjoyed the post! I hope you do the contest!

    FP: Yes, I know exactly how you feel about all of this! Thank you for all your support. I really appreciate it. :)

    Jenna: Thanks!

    Mizmak: I'm sure I'll have conflicting views in the future, just as I do now about many tough decisions in my life, but I've made the decision to self-publish this one book for many different reasons.

    I'm sorry that you've always had that nagging, deeper voice tell you nothing will make you happy but to be a professionally published writer. I happen to believe that self-published writers can be just as professional as a traditionally published writer. I take my craft very seriously, and I don't view my decision as any less professional than taking on an agent and a New York press. I've simply decided to do all of the legwork on my own. I write because it's fun and I like to create things. Having full creative control over this project has been absolutely freeing, and I've learned a lot doing it.

    One of the reasons I decided to do this is because I've wanted to be able to know more about self-publishing in order to share it here on the Literary Lab. I'm happy that I'll have first-hand experience now. :)

    Also, I think it makes a difference that I've written and published this book on my own because I chose to do so in the first place, not because I did it out of desperation from failing at getting an agent for it.

    You say: "For me, pro publication was more a matter of being respected by other authors, rather than being validated by some total strangers at a publishing company."

    I honestly hope that the authors I know already will respect me just as much for going a different route than the same route they have gone. If they don't, I think they might have a strange vision of what a writer and artist really is.

    I think both routes can be done professionally, and both routes take a lot of courage, work, and dedication.

  7. Mizmak: I re-read my comment to you, and I didn't mean to put words in your mouth about "nothing making you happy but being professionally published." I hope you don't take it that way. I simply meant that I'm sorry you kept having that feeling. I know exactly what that feeling is, and I've dealt with it for a long time. I'm happy to say I'm finally getting over it, though.

  8. Thank you for this post. I'm in the process of clarify to myself why I "chase after the creative process." What *do* I want to accomplish with my writing?

    Will you be writing an ebook about your self-publishing experience?

  9. IMO FWIW, self-publishing is a litmus test for writing friendships: see who sticks with you and those friendships are probably legit.

    Generally, I think writers probably shouldn't be focused on what other writers think of them, unless they want their works read only by each other! A whole world of nonwriting PEOPLE exists out there. Don't writers want THEM to read their books? I see a problem today with writers talking-writing to each other too much; the number of nonwriting readers doesn't seem high enough. Nonwriting readers may have different reading expectations than writing readers. I don't know who initially caused this, but by now it seems like every side is both a cause and an effect, and the amount of nonwriter fiction reading has been going down.

    I think “what readers do as a career” should be ignored most times, lest writers start judging general readers' opinions based on their careers too. If a janitor read my book and was very moved by it--that probably wouldn't mean any less to me than if an astronaut read it and experienced the same.

    I've read many biographies of artists of all kinds, and van Gogh always seemed one of the most hard-working. He was a prolific artist, yet while alive he sold two or three works--two to a family member, and possibly one commissioned work. Does that make him any less dedicated? I think that he and any other artist in his situation shouldn't be judged; his art really should be. The focus should be kept on the quality there.

    If an artist has produced a great work, a great work has been produced--that latter's the most important event to me.

    For years I averaged 12-16 hours a day at writing, and I've been quite prolific; I've heard some traditionally published writers say they've only ever averaged one or two hours a day and have only completed a few works. Why were they automatically called a professional good writer, and I was automatically called an amateur bad writer? Not that I really care about the label; after all, van Gogh was an amateur too.

    But labels are often being used to diminish. They really need to go. End-product nature and quality should count the most. I think all this not-the-writing stuff writing-world focus has moved the overall societal focus away from the actual written works.

  10. That really should have been "I don't know who initially caused all this,"--meaning the overall state-of-reading situation I've described in that paragraph, not the previous sentence only.

  11. Self-publishing and traditional publishing are not mutually exclusive. I wouldn't try to query a work already self-published, but duh, one wouldn't query any work already published.

    In your case, Michelle, I think the particular project fits the self-publishing model well, because of its word length and genre.

    A while ago, before I self-published a book of children's stories for my younger sisters. I did not even try to sell it to the outside world, or even friends. I had two copies printed total. The book was illustrated with color prints of artwork by my brother and I painted ourselves.

    The peculiar topic of the book, the fact it was illustrated, the length, all made me assume from the start that this would probably not find a home in traditional publishing. And since I had no aspirations to be a children's author, I wasn't worried about how it was published. I loved making the book.

    I don't mention the book in query letters because, frankly, it's not relevant.

    This discussion has made me think about self-publishing it again in a way that would be available through Amazon. I still wouldn't expect to sell more than a handful of copies. (Not even close to 150!) I have neither the time nor the inclination to market it. But a few friends have asked about it, so it would be nice to make it available.

    Sorry for rambling on. Nice discussion. I love this blog. You guys rock.

  12. "Success is what you make it, not what others dictate."

    Words of wisdom Michelle.

    I hope all is going well for you on the reviewers quest.


  13. I write because I can't not write. I love story telling and prose and the way my brain feels when I'm solving narrative problems and turning phrases. I don't write for money, and I have a pretty good job so I don't have to.

    One of these days I'll have enough short stories of decent quality to make a collection, and very likely I'll self publish it. Meanwhile, I'll continue to push my novels at traditional publishers, because that's the route I want to go with them.

  14. Schizophrenically, I shall now offer a second remark dissenting with my first.

    Some of us need the validation of professional publishing. Speak for myself here, I have NO IDEA if what I write is any good or not. When I wrote my first couple of books in high school, I thought I was a GREAT writer, and hey, my mom, high school English teacher and best friend agreed, so it had to be true. My first hint my writing wasn't so great was the stream of reject letters from agents.

    When form rejects started turning into requests for partials and fulls, I felt like I had external validation that my writing was improving. I know if I had an agent, I would feel, "At least one person familiar with the industry believes in me."

    In my case, trying to break into the industry has forced me to become a better writer.

    I do not need a New York editor to validate a book for me. I buy self-published books for pleasure on Amazon if I find the topic interesting, and judge the quality for myself, just as I would any other book. But for my OWN work... I just don't no how to judge. I welcome the crutch of relying on someone else's professional opinion.

    This undoubtedly says something about my needy ego.

  15. It's driving me crazy, so too corrections:

    "I just don't no how to judge" -- I do know how to judge the difference between "know" and "no" however. Ugh.

    And in the other comment, "A while ago, before I self-published..." should be "A while ago, I self-published..."

  16. "Too" corrections?!

    I'm going to go face plant in a pile of pancakes now.

  17. Linda: I won't be writing an ebook about my self-publishing experience, no, but I will do a series of posts about it here at the Literary Lab. :)

    FP: I agree with you that the end product is all that matters in the long run, and that's what I was trying to get at with Davin's observation that it doesn't matter how you publish. If what I want is to reach readers I can't normally just hand a book to, I've succeeded, self-published or traditionally published. I'm not against either one.

    I think the main thing this project has taught me is that I don't NEED to be traditionally published to know I'm a good writer. I may not be good enough for some readers, but who is 100% of the time? Nobody. I'd like to pursue a traditional publishing route at some point in time, but not right now, and you already know many of my reasons for that - one of them being that I'm simply not ready for that kind of commitment with contracts and such. It would be unfair to myself and the publishers/agent/editor I'm working with that I'm not putting 100% of my effort into it.

    Tara: No worries about typos! I have way too many to even count. :)

    I think that's cool about your self-published book, and I would be one of the people to buy it on Amazon if you put it up! See, I think it's absolutely amazing that we have the option as writers to go both routes if we want to.

    I specifically wrote Cinders to self-publish it, so it's fun to see how it all takes off and does. I've learned more about writing this way than I have any other way!

    As for your other comment about needing that validation - that resonates with me on some frightening levels, but like I said to Mizmak above, I think I'm getting over that need. I know my work is good enough to put out there with this particular novella. My other novels still need a lot of work, which is why I haven't put them out there at all - with queries or self-publishing.

    It's nice to have people we respect pat us on the head and tell us, "yes, yes, you ARE good." I always needed that in college. I still need it sometimes in other areas of my life, too, but I think every writer hits a new level when they can trust themselves enough to be proud of their work no matter where it ends up or how. Even if it gets bad reviews...still trusting that your work is good is a huge step in the writing process. I'm not saying you don't have that trust in yourself, but I do understand the need for a professional opinion.

    If it helps you any, I had to get some specific people's opinions on my novella before I trusted that it was good enough to put out there. It was scary waiting for that feedback. :)

  18. Donna: Aww, thanks! All is going well so far. Just waiting for my proof copy. :)

    Scott: I love your reasons for writing! I think that's what makes you so good! You truly love the process. I can't wait to get that short story collection. Get on that. :)

  19. Tara, I think that no matter how writers will ultimately publish their works, before seeking this they should apply themselves to figuring out whether their work is quality writing. And whether they feel they've succeeded in page-rendering the fiction inside their heads, and whether that rendering is as clear as they can make it--that type of thing should be their focus.

    With my fictions, some parts I thought were weak other people loved, other parts I thought were strong others never even noticed (seemingly). And still other people reading agreed with the parts I thought were strong and weak. Responses can be so willy-nilly. And each fiction is likely unique, so should be judged that way, IMO, and not by some outside recipe.

    I really think writers should trust their subconscious minds more: if you truly think your work is where it should be and where you intended it to be, then put it out there. But first: work on removing your ego during one complete beginning-to-ending revision. Imagine that you didn't create that work; imagine someone else did and now you must evaluate it.

    Writers can imagine getting inside the fictional heads of all sorts of people; I believe many writers can also imagine themselves as not being themselves while revising. At least this is what I do.

    "When form rejects started turning into requests for partials and fulls, I felt like I had external validation that my writing was improving. I know if I had an agent, I would feel, "At least one person familiar with the industry believes in me."

    --But that doesn't necessarily prove anything about writing quality either way. All the poorly written published books I've see (especially the celebrity-"written" ones)--someone in publishing believed in those too. Just like you trust your own thinking in picking out self-published books, I think you should probably trust your own thinking on your own writing more.

  20. Tara: Reading FP's last comment here reminded me of something else I wanted to say. I agree with her that every writer who wants to publish, self or traditional, should first be sure their work is of high quality. This may mean working with a professional writing group, sending your work to an editor, getting professional opinions in other ways, etc. Just writing a first book and hitting "publish" on an e-book site is a sure-fire way to publish crap (for most writers).

    One thing I firmly believe in is good hard work, and I think self-publishing has actually made me a better writer because I've had to make sure the writing is up to par without an agent and editor backing me up. I know I'll write better things in the future, but I am in no way ashamed to put this one out there. Quite proud, actually. :)

  21. Michelle, Your excitement for Cinders has been very inspiring for me. It reminds me of why any of us or doing this, or at least why I think any of us should be doing this. If you are making art and creating the opportunity to share that art with people who want it, then life seems pretty perfect to me.

  22. Davin: You've been a big reason for many of my writing decisions lately. Don't be frightened when I say that. :)

  23. Hi, Michelle. What an insightful post, I love it! You have taken my thoughts and words about self-publishing, my writing abilities, and my end product (my book) and turned them into a work of art.

    I self-published my book, "At The Starting Gate" for exactly the reasons you have stated. I did not need ANYONE judging my work. I simply wanted the book written and published. I consider that my private success.

    I wore the boots I like...whether anyone else likes them or not.

    Great post, thank you so much for posting this. It is a wonderful read.

  24. "Success is what you make it, not what others dictate."

    Yes. That. Good on you for making peace with the controversy and following your heart.

    Also, I'm SO on that flash fic contest. Let's do this. *cracks knuckles*


  25. Dellgirl: It means a lot to me to have you say that and to see that I'm not as alone in this journey as I thought. It doesn't seem like there's many writers out there rooting for the lonely self-publishing route. It's definitely something we do for art's sake alone, and I think it's a brave move for anyone if it fits them. It's not for everyone. Thanks for stopping by!

    Simon: :)

    Yes, let's do the contest for sure!

  26. Davin: I just saw on one of FP's comments that you clarified about what you want from readers - no that they necessarily enjoyed your work, but that they were moved by it. I get that. :)

  27. This is one of many incredibly tough and conflicting issues in the writing life.

    I really do applaud you for thinking things true and making a decision.

    Good luck and we'll be here to cheer you on.


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