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Twenty-five years ago, I sat in my father’s rusted out, $100 jalopy in my high school parking lot. Because I was perpetually worried the car would cough out somewhere on the eight-mile drive from home – it did often – on good days when she performed without complaint, I arrived with time to kill. Usually I would pop in a cassette tape of the Pop Diva du jour and measure time in Top 40 chart toppers. However, that Saturday morning, Celine Dion’s latest lay in the pocket of a jacket I’d left behind, forcing me to scan radio stations. On the west end of the dial, I stumbled on to something unlike anything I had ever heard before.
I didn’t grow up in a house where public radio was a known entity, let alone a central part of life. I knew of two kinds of programming: music and talk radio (WJR, which occasionally ventured into sports programming as well). Whatever I had found was neither of those. Transfixed in a cultural reverie, I had my first driveway moment-albeit in the parking lot of high school – as I listened to Dusty and Lefty discuss transcendentalism and its relationship to cattle prodding. The news from Lake Woebegone made me wish I’d lived somewhere where the men were strong, the women were good looking, and the children were above average. Guy Noire’s city full of dark secrets reminded me how boring I found my little town, where two biggest events of the year were homecoming and the last day of school for seniors, when those with combines would drive them to school. (This tradition is still upheld annually.) In the days before the internet, Garrison Keillor’s performances gave me the first hint that there were things in the universe for me to discover beyond the gas station at the end of town. By the time the episode of Prairie Home concluded, I’d missed half of practice, but realized how much more I’d been missing out on all my life. I listened to that station for rest of the day,the next day, and for many, many years to come.
Through the years, I have had various Public Radio loves, from Science Fridays, to All Things Considered. This American Life, to On the Media. Car Talk was (and is) a consummate favorite, though it exists now only in reruns and a column in the Sunday paper. I never realized just how effected I was by the NPR and PRI voices until I learned of the passing of Tom Magliozzi, one of the co-hosts of Car Talk, and felt like I had lost a family member.
Through the years, I’ve introduced my own children to the wonders and importance of public radio, but I’ve never forgotten that magical day when strong Norwegian farmers first opened my ears and my eyes. Even though PHC isn’t going away, and a new host will be taking the reins next fall, I can’t help but feel like an epoch in my life has come to an end with Garrison Keillor’s retirement. But having experienced an awakening before, I can’t help but believe there’s another one just around the bend, where perhaps the women are strong, and the men are good looking, and the children are doing the best that they can.
Thank you, Mr. Keillor, for being the gateway drug that made me a public radio junkie, and for being such a central part of my life.
Today, I had a lesson in the immortal truth: less is more.
Damn it all, and Merry Christmas….
I’ve been dabbling in audio recording in my home for several years. I’ve gone through several iterations of a home set up, including speaking into a small handheld recorder, using a slightly better and more expensive handheld recorder, using a USB mic hooked into my computer, and finally, the most recent iteration: roughly $500 worth of audio equipment set up in a closet dedicated to the purpose in my house. No matter what, the sound quality has always bit.
After I moved into the new house two years ago, I thought the reason I was getting such bad audio quality was the fact that all of my floors were hardwood and that most of the ceilings were very high. To some extent, that’s true. These things will contribute to a poor sound quality if they are not addressed in advance of recording. I’ve tried several tricks including getting sound shields, using acoustic foam, putting carpets down on the floor or hanging them from the ceiling (yeah, that one took a lot of work), but it always ended up sounding like I was recording in a wind tunnel. Which actually would’ve been great, because my house often gets really hot and wind would totally have chilled me out.
Well today, as a “what the hell” experiment, I plugged a cheap $10 set of headphones with a mic boom directly into my iPad and hit record. Granted, the iPad ain’t cheap, but I already had it so I don’t really consider it an extra cost. And lo and behold, I got the best sound I’ve gotten in four years of recording using the simplest set up I’ve ever used and using it on a whim.
Now of course you know me. I’m gonna try to take this and spin it out into a larger life lesson. Or in this case specifically, a lesson on my writing. One of the more uncomfortable pieces of feedback I’ve heard from readers through the years was that my plots got too complex or that my writing was to highbrow. While I certainly think there is a place for writing of that kind, it’s not what I was going for. Which makes me think maybe, sometimes, I’m just to focused on the complexity to realize that what I’m trying to achieve is actually pretty simple. I’m sure others of have this type of experience. It sort of reminds me of the old – was an Amish song? A Quaker song? Something by the Bee Gees? – that reminded us that “’tis a gift to be simple.” Those lyrics also continue on to say that “’tis a gift to be free,” however. $10 ain’t exactly free, but what it would’ve saved me in headache and tribulations to just be simple rather than striving for unnecessary complexity would’ve saved me and everybody who ever listened to recording of me a huge headache.
Just thought I’d take a minute and share this truth, because it’s transformative once you accept that it IS true and just learn to go with it. And like most undeniable truths, it’s radically simple. If you want to do something, truly want to do it, you WILL make time for it.
Do you want to learn how to speak Swahili? You’ll make time for it.
Do you want to take a hike this weekend? You’ll get up early and haul your ass out to the trails.
Do you want to learn how to shear sheep? Um, okay. I don’t really get why, but if you really want to learn that… I mean truly WANT to learn that, you’re going to be spending your time with some mothereffing fluff balls.
And if you want to write a book, you’re going to find time to write a book. It might mean waking up an hour earlier in the morning, spending your lunch hour with a laptop, or jotting down things in a notebook while you’re waiting in line to pick up your kids, but you’re (I’m) going to find time to finish that damned manuscript.
And YES, there are exceptions. There are times when you actually CAN’T do what you truly want to, no matter how hard you jimmy jack your day and your life. But, in all fairness, these times for 98% of us (a very scientific number with no scientific backing) are either temporary, or not as far outside of our control as we think they are. If you’ve said to yourself you’d like to do something, ANYTHING, and you can’t find the time, ask yourself – is it really because you have no time, or because you make no time?
When I was writing my first book (unpublished), I told myself I was going to do it three months, even though I estimated it would be 100K words long, and despite the fact that I had to two school age kids, a daily 70+ mile commute, a full time job, and all the regular mom/wife stuff on top of that. And that’s a hell of a lot, people. But I did it. In fact, I wrote 120K words. How, you ask? Simple: 1. I gave up TV, 2. I cut back on reading, and 3. I dedicated myself to writing from the time my kids went to bed (around 9 PM) until midnight each night. Was it tiring and a little stressful? Yes, but I was able to do that because I made it a priority over all those other things (TV, reading, and ample sleep) so I could reach the goal I wanted to reach.
So if you’re struggling to find time to do something, ask if 1. you really want to do it, and 2. if you’re willing to take the actions really necessary to do it. If you find yourself dragging your feet or making excuses, ask yourself if you’re just day dreaming (which is FINE – it’s fun and enhances your creativity) or if it’s something you truly want to do. If the latter, then get to work gettin ‘er done.
We all have them, right? Instead of deny it, let’s talk about it. Here are mine:
I wish I could see things from other’s perspectives more willingly. I wish I could shut my eyes and not have to see all the injustices done. I wish I could look out to the distance and see my future not cast in the gray shadows of my own self-doubt.
I wish I would use them to speak wisdom. I wish they communicated to others the wishes I wish for them. I wish they would learn to still when arrogance or overconfidence emboldens them.
I wish I could learn to hold it higher, being proud of my work, my books, my decisions. ME.
I wish I could hear other views, and not jump to judgement. I wish I could filter out the voices that seek to belittle and condone me.
I wish I could give them more. I wish I could use them in the fruitful prospect of building, of learning, of pulling others up. I wish they would clap in joy, and shake the heavens. I wish my fingers would tame and not point when struck.
I wish I could get it moving more, instead of wasting time, sitting in chairs, archiving the data of not-going-to-keep-you-from-dying-someday, or procrastinating because I fear success as much as failure.
I wish they would support me as I kneel, learning to be humble, learning to be strong even when asking for help. I wish they would bend and help me meet others half way.
I wish the would walk a path of pride, and that they would tramp down the weeds of conflict to make wide and easy the path for those who follow in my footsteps.
Admission: I’m not catholic. I don’t think I’m Christian even. I’ve studied the major religions of the world today (and even some of the minor ones) and I found enough flaws and inconsistencies to keep me from throwing my lot in with any of them. Not that I’m saying I fault people who are religious or even just religiously-classifiable. My philosophy, instilled in me at an early age by a grandmother whose voice is my moral compass on most everything, is that to each his own, but keep to your own. If you have a personal faith that works for you, go with it with my blessing. Just realize that I don’t think a blessing particularly signifies anything beyond good will and best intentions.
That being said, I really like this Pope. More than like, I’m in complete awe of him. When you think of the qualities of the guy you want leading an organization whose guiding principle is “Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you,” he comes pretty close to ideal. Does he have some flaws? From my perspective, yes – but don’t we all? And while I have problems with the Catholic Church as a whole (don’t even get me started on the banality of REQUIRING men to abstain from what are natural and healthy relationships in order to be “men of faith”), I look to him as someone who embraces that same lesson my grandmother (who, coincidentally, is a Catholic) taught me. As cliche as it sounds, he restores my faith in humanity, in the hopes that men can achieve great things, have tremendous power, and still be kind, compassionate and humble.
But I’ve been here before, and I’m afraid to see it happen again.
I got on thinking on this topic in recent months in reflection of the Bill Cosby scandal. I’m a child of the 80s, and there are few parts of my childhood I remember with more fondness than the Cosby Show. It remains a centerpiece of my younger years, giving me an image of man who could be highly successful, an understanding father, a professional, a feminist, an educator, and so much more. It presented to me a contrary representation of African Americans than that which I learned living in the aegis of post-Industrial Detroit and from the attitudes of some whites who saw themselves as displaced and disenfranchised from the events of the 60s and 70s. Years later, it would become a show I could still sit down to watch with my own children and reflect on my childhood while using it as a basis for them to learn from some of its timeless lessons and laugh at family-friendly comedy.
When the first stories started to emerge about what Cosby was really like and what he had really done, I didn’t want to believe them. Yes, I understood that Healthcliff Huxtable was a fictional character, but I still believed as his creator, Bill Cosby must have those basic core values as part of himself. The more news that came out, the more hurt and confused I grew by my memories.
I know there’s a world of difference between Bill Cosby and Pope Francis, but I’m illustrating these two personalities because of the chasm between them. After all the scandals of the Catholic Church over the last twenty-five years, I need to know that something that has come from it to remind me that we must take each individual on his own merits and grant him the benefit of accepting the face he gives to use is his true face endures. Please, oh please, let this Pope remain true and consistent in his benevolence. Please, let just one leader be true to the tenets of his public actions with his private intent.
Five years ago today, my first published book went live. Ten minutes after that, I started screwing things up. No, really, I swear. The day 12.21.12 released, (yes, on 12.21.10, I know that’s a bit chintzy), I had the flu. Thinking a good author should try to pimp her new release, I went on to the Kindle Boards (now called KBoards) to post about my book, while drowsy/dizzy/on medication, and wrote a post with a few typos in it. As you might know, the people on KB are not always forgiving, and immediately, I was lambasted. How good could my book be, they said, if I couldn’t even spell all the worlds in a four line post correctly?
Lesson learned: don’t market medicated.
Five years wasn’t all that long ago, and yet, the publishing world was so different then. Kindle Direct Publishing was around, but it wasn’t yet the behemoth player in the marketplace. There were still two major national bookstore chains. Print was still the thing, and ebooks were only beginning to emerge as any sort of viable market. The ebook of my first book wasn’t even available on Amazon until several months later. Now Borders is but a memory, and Barnes & Nobles struggles. Back then, if you were a published author, that was still a true and rare thing. It would still be a few months after 12.21.12 published that the first self-published success story, Amanda Hocking, earned a name for herself. If you self-published, the general presumption was that you only did so because your work wasn’t good enough for a “real” publisher.
Boy, that sure changed, didn’t it?
Five years and a few months ago, I pulled together my guts in a ziplock bag, slung them over my shoulder, and started knocking on the doors of publishers and agents. Metaphorically, of course. I mean, we all understand that right? I wasn’t literally carting around lungs and gizzards. When Hemingway said the key to writing was bleeding all over your typewriter, that’s not what he meant. At the start, I sent out one query letter to one publisher. A week later, I had a signed contract in hand. While I was thrilled then, I’ve learned a lot of lessons since that have told me why that was ultimately such a bad thing to happen. Firstly, of course, because it gave me unrealistic expectations of how easy the path in front of me seemed. Moreso because it inflated my ego, since (in the words of my 2010 self) I obviously was a lot more talented than authors who labored for years with nothing to show. I was a shoe-in.
See, here’s the thing about sticking your nose so high in the air. It makes it so much easier for the universe to bop you on it.
Of course, it would take time, frustration, pain, and a little bit of hope to learn that and the other things I’ve learned so far. Among the other lessons I’ve taken from the first five years are these:
When you’re trying to be a professional writer, try to act professionally.
This, by far, has been the hardest, and I’m still not anywhere near to mastering the skill. I’ve gotten better though. In the early years, and still now but with lessening occurrence, I assumed friendship where I only should have practiced courtesy. While there are exceptions, the following people are not your friends: your publisher, your agent, your PR assistant, your editor, your cover designer, your lawyer, your readers, other authors, the general public. Can people from this list become friends? Yes, of course, but it is not a de facto position. Too many times, I made the assumption that I had a personal relationship with people because I had a good professional relationship with them. Consequently, when I had a problem or dilemma, be it personal or professional, I unloaded to people either not equipped or not in a position to help me, and burdened them with the baggage of my emotion. I’ve lost too many relationships this way, both professional and personal.
Self-publishing is both the greatest thing that has ever happened, and the worst thing that has ever happened to publishing.
I’m sure this one is debatable, and that some of you will disagree with me. But, if I’m to look as a writer at the current state of the publishing industry, I have to rely on good, old Chuck Dickens, and his immortal words that open A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
There are so many successful writers today whose work never would have seen the light of day if they hadn’t self-published, and there are so many good writers who can’t get a hold in the marketplace because of the ease with which it’s entered upon. Understand where I stand. I’m a firm believer in market economy; I think the readers should be the one who determines what books are successful, and not necessarily a diminishing number of gatekeepers and marketing agents. However, I think that self-publishing has also been a detriment of some writers, who in a more traditional system would have benefited professionally from rejection. I would put myself into this group. I’ve put out several books that would have benefited with some firm criticism and growing pains before they were published. No one likes rejection, I know, but we all have to admit that sometimes it does us some good in the long run. If we’re always right, we can never be wrong. If we’re never wrong, then how does reflection, growth, and developing our craft become an obligation to one’s self?
I have no talent when it comes to predicting trends or whose work will go far.
This one isn’t really a critical lesson, but I find it entertaining. Through the first five years, I have twice been part of an author collective (both of which have dissolved since). Collectives are wonderful for new authors, because they give you, in theory, a safe place to bitch, moan, get advice, and support and be supported by other writers. In the first one which I was in right after my first book came out until right after my second book came out, I remember making the comment that none of us should be worried about media relations, since it was unlikely any of us were going to be huge successes the first time out or become NYT bestsellers. The group included, among others, Alice Clayton, Helena Hunting, Nina Bocci, Laura Kaye, JM Darhower, and Debra Anastasia – all of whom went on to hit a variety of best seller’s lists. Oh, yeah, there was one more author who was in that group whose career is still struggling (#sarcasm): EL James.
There’s a flip side to this too, of course. There are also writers I’ve read whose work is among the best I’ve ever encountered, yet who still linger in the margins of the industry. (See Grave Refrain for example.) The stellar writing of such work leaves me feeling sure they’ll go on to great success. At the same time, I feel like I have a great secret that hardly anyone knows.
Past performance is not an indicator of future returns.
Peaks and valleys is the term I hear often. Some months you’ll do really well, have a lot of sales, and think things are finally picking up. Some months, you wonder if you’ll have enough in the bank to buy a cup of coffee. Sometimes you’ll spend weeks marketing a release and it falls flat. Sometimes out of nowhere, you get a dozen sales of a title on a day and you did nothing. Nothing begets nothing, as Billy Shakespeare wrote. Sometimes, something begets nothing, or nothing begets something. Anyone who claims they understand and know all of what’s going on the industry right now is either lying or trying to sell you something.
You can write what you want, or write what the markets want. Don’t try to write both at the same time. In fact, don’t try to write to the market at all.
A few years ago, I ran an experiment under a different pen name. I put out a book that I tried to make as trope-driven and a reflection of what the market wanted as possible. Half way through writing the book, I decided I just couldn’t end it with the predictable, cliche ending lovers of the genre expected. The result? Both me and the readers ended up hating the book. In trying to make us both happy, everyone involved just ended up unsatisfied.
If you do find a few other authors with whom you can have both a professional and personal relationship with, treasure them. Also, some readers will stand by you, no matter what. Collectively, this is your tribe.
I’m friendly with many authors and readers, but as I mentioned above, I’ve learned to be a lot more reserved when it comes to assuming friendship. This is sadly because I’ve also had the experience where even authors who proclaimed we were friends, ended up stabbing me in the back. For a short time after this happened, I decided to cut myself off completely from any social interaction. I even considered unpublishing all my books. Thank goodness reason got to me before then. It was a close call. In the aftermath, after all the dust settled, and I saw who was still beside me, I learned the meaning of true friendship. Friendship is something that becomes so much sweeter and rare when it’s concentrated in the hearts of a few rather than diluted across a trove of many. I honor each of the friends I’ve made.
Now for a few highs and lows…
The best day of the last five years was… when Melissa Perea published her review of A Love By Any Measure. On top of being an awesome review, it happened to also be the day I’d decided to give up writing. I’d been having a difficult time for several months, and things just kept getting worse. Declining sales, bad or lukewarm reviews, a cancer of jealousy that wormed its way into my bloodstream… Then, literally, as I was signing into Facebook so I could delete my account, I saw a message from Melissa about how much she loved my book. I still tell her she saved my writing career, and it’s true.
The worst day of the last five years was… when the publishing house that had put out my first book and I decided we needed to part ways, and I suddenly found myself with two written books and no publisher. Ultimately, I’d decide to self-publish, but on that day, I thought my writing career might have been over before it ever took off.
The most awesome moment was… stepping into the elevator at RT2011, and having a woman across the way see my name tag and squeal, “Oh my god, it’s you!” Nowadays, that situation would probably flip, since that woman was Darynda Jones.
The most embarrassing moment was… when, after spending two months prepping A Love for Any Measure for print, and after having sent out dozens of copies to reviewers, I realized there was a huge typo on the FIRST BLOODY PAGE.
The most surprising moment was… when A Love by Any Measure was the number one free book on Amazon Kindle. It only lasted an hour, but it was awesome.
The moment I wish I could most take back was… when I decided to respond to a troll review on Goodreads. Never swat a troll. They release a pheromone that alerts all the other trolls and they swarm.
The thing I look forward to most in the next five years is… really coming into my own. I feel like this first half-decade has been practice, and that I’m only now really finding my voice. I still have so many stories inside me, so many characters who claw for an opportunity to come out.
So, thanks for the first five years guys. I think it can only go up from here.
Oh, and I would be remiss without mentioning one more thing: On that day five years ago, a dear friend also had her first book release. A week or so later we would have a joint release party, where my three friends and her forty friends would come together and give us the night of our lives. Happy Anniversary, Robin DeJarnett! Now, when is that sequel coming out?
2016 is going to be my year of “Adulting.” I figured with 40 right around the corner, I should start doing “adult things.” No, not THOSE things. Never those things. Adult-Things. Like: plan for my financial future.
This one really gets me because I hear some people talk about trusts and 401k and IRAs and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, sure, I got an IRA. Gershwin. I have his complete library in mp3s.” At 25, it was easy to roll my eyes, change my baby’s diaper, and say, “Yeah, I’ll figure all that out some day. Can you hand me the Balmex?” But as I realized recently, my gray-to-black hair ratio is flip-flopping, and it might be possible some day should be sometime next year.
Also on my list: being a best-selling writer by the time I’m 30. Still working on that one too.
But money, that’s serious yo. I don’t want to be one of those people who stumbles towards a gray zone of retirement without any plans of what to do or how to pay for it. And I certainly DON’T want to be one of those people who just daydreams I’ll live off government benefits. I want my retirement to be a plethora of well-funded rainbows and sunshine and drinking wine on the Amalfi Coast.
Another thing I should do in 2016: try wine.
So it seems I should stop thinking about the thing, and just do the thing. (I totally stole this concept from Amy Poehler’s book, Yes, Please, which I’m currently nearly done reading.) But now I have to figure out all this adult stuff like investments and divestments and divergents and stuff. And, I… am lost.
What do you do? I’m talking to YOU, the people out there who are actual Adults and have thought about this stuff, and better yet, done something about it. Do you use a financial planner? This seems a very adult thing I should do, but I haven’t gotten around to yet. Do you have any books you recommend? Hit me up, because I’m clueless.
Do you have any recommendations on a newbie wine? Yeah, you can post that below too.
I had a mini depression bout this week, which was not when I was expecting it. I have regularly 2-3 days/month where I get hit hard, but I’m usually able to predict those and know what they are, so I think my way through them. This time, this wasn’t the cyclical bout, so it blasted me. It was triggered on Monday when I released my latest work, it only sold three copies.
It’s hard to approach a subject like this without sounding like I’m whining. It’s not that I expect people to read my books by virtue of my writing and releasing them, but I did think this one would get a better reception than it did, given that it was holiday themed and linked to an existing series. What it said to me was that I have lost the ability to get people excited about my books, and that there is little desire to read the books I’m writing. I’m more saddened by my lack of meeting reader expectations, by my inability to connect to readers, than I am about selling only three copies.
I appealed to friends for advice on what I should do. I can some up their advice in the following statement: “work harder.” Which is exactly not what I wanted to hear, because in my mind I convinced myself I had worked as hard as I could. One reminded me of the older writer’s salve: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
God, I’ve always hated that phrase, and I especially cringe when people say it to me, even though their intentions are good. I’ve been at publishing for five years; I think it’s safe to say I’m not holding out hopes of overnight success at this point. But how long do I keep running and instead of moving forward, I seem to move backward with each release.
And then on Thursday, I ran a 5K. Not a metaphor, I actually hauled my ass down to central San Jose before breakfast and ran 3.2 miles in the 35-degree morning air. (Yes, it does get that cold in California.) And that, my people, gave me perspective. A marathon is 26.2 miles; I can’t even fathom what it means to keep at one of those. But 5K? That got to me. I worked my ass to cover that measly distance, but I did it. Sometimes I ran. Sometime I walked. Sometimes I danced and sometimes I cursed. I didn’t compare myself to the people running around me, because there success wouldn’t determine my own, it would only frame it in hindsight. I didn’t judge people who were even more overweight than me running, because I didn’t know where they were coming from, and I certainly didn’t know where they were going. I didn’t deem myself superior to the people I passed because I didn’t know what burdens they were walking with that I couldn’t see.
Indie publishing is one in which you only have the ability to look up in the sky and wonder why you’re not flying among the clouds like other. And in looking up, you’re inspired, but you’re also blinded by the sun. You have no idea what it took for those people to get there, all the years they spent building planes, learning how to pilot them, and figuring out how to navigate. You certainly don’t get there by just wishing you had a plane to. You got to build the motherfucking plane.
Shut the hell, Killian, and write the next book. And next time, chart the trip better.