A few weeks back, four of us met at the Red Door for our quarterly retreat. Vanessa was on sabbatical (we missed you Vanessa!) It was a weekend of laughter, good food, and hard work. Here’s a round up of what we all took away.
For me, this was a Red Door of questions. And the question that struck me most was ‘have we lost our courage as writers?’ My first response was ‘no.’ During the last 18 months, I worked on a YA novel in a new-to-me genre and one that stretched me as a writer. Writing the book, I told myself, was an act of courage.
But courage, properly defined, is the ability to face danger, difficulty or pain without fear. Writing the book required time and effort but it wasn’t dangerous and only a little painful. Sure it was difficult to write sometimes, but what book isn’t? It didn’t require courage as much as a leap of faith.
Later, however, as the ‘no thank you’ responses outweighed the ‘yes, please, send me the full’ ones, my fear showed up and the need for courage became acute. Katherine Anne Porter called courage “the first essential” for a writer. Cynthia Ozick admitted, “I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence. Sometimes with every syllable.”
Anxiety is felt by writers at every level. But we don’t let it stop us. We move forward: writing, revising, submitting. And that forward motion is the most courageous step of all. So, no, at the end of the day, I could honestly say I haven’t lost my courage as a writer. Forward movement = courage. Laura Tobias
Defining Success Successfully by Bonnie Edwards
At various times, writers have different goals. To sell a first book is the most common. Anyone who wants to write for publication has that dream. But it soon changes and we want more sales: a multi-book contract, to hit a bestseller list, or to rise to the top with subsequent books.
Success is fluid and always changing. But when you hit a lull in your career, redefining what you consider success is crucial to continuing. As we’ve moved through our decade of Red Door retreats, our definitions of what we consider success has changed for us all.
At one point my markers were:
1 A completed book delivered with another at the first draft stage
2 Working with my agent on a new proposal
2 Having an editor who looked forward to seeing what I’d present next
I hit all those marks. I had my success. But now with the world of publishing springing into as many different directions as there are writers, I need to redefine my markers for success.
I asked everyone to redefine their markers so that when we hit those marks we’ll actually see (and enjoy)success when we have it. We all slept on this question for a night and came to the table with amazingly similar answers.
In this rapid-change period the markers for success have narrowed to financial. Two of us had a specific monthly dollar amount in mind, the other two were more vague and “want to make a living.” (this is variable, of course, depending on life changes) One of us “wants to build a readership” and branch out to a new market…all possible within self-publishing…maybe not-so-possible with traditional houses. In self-publishing the only marker that’ll tell us when these things happen will be that financial marker.
All of this occurred while one of us watched her “free downloads” at Amazon edge continuously closer to a set number she hoped to hit by midnight. In the morning, we found that YES! She’d hit that mark.
Self-publishing has changed so much about the publishing life that redefining success on a regular basis may become vital. Hm, much like all those traditional publishing milestones…what’s new is old, after all.
The Pen Warriors had their millionth retreat last weekend. (I’d put in the actual number except Bonnie Edwards insists on Roman Numerals, and I’m now lost somewhere among the Xs, Ls, and Cs. ) (A note from Bonnie: this was RD XLII – um…I think…YES! I googled and I got it right…for some bizarre reason this is the only time numbers mean a damn thing to me)
During the retreat we talked a lot about self-publishing–the good, the bad, and the horrendous. I’ve been giving it a go for a few months now, and I’m grateful I’ve had some back list books to help me up the cyber learning hill. Cuz it’s been mega steep for this non-nerd! (Truly, I’d rather be spending my time with pink ponies and unicorns than algorithms, meta data, and file formats.) Anyway, we also spent some time, as Bonnie said above, trying to corral our expectations and define what would mark success for us as we stumble along this new and twisting path toward our readers—or who we hope will be our readers.
It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I’d already achieved a major success—I’m now having fun living in Writer Land. Huge! I’ve always been one who tried to take the work seriously and myself not so much, so this fun thing, this easing of publishing tensions and pretensions, works for me. These days, I set my own pace, set my own deadlines and write what I want, when I want and burn the rest. It’s liberating, I tell you, liberating! 🙂
So there’s my deep thoughts on the future of publishing EC Sheedy style. 🙂
Another topic we discussed was how to make our writing stronger, and this was something we all agreed to be of paramount importance. Whether we’re writing for traditional publishers or going the self pubbed route, the story still has to be the best it can be and contrary to popular opinion, it doesn’t get any easier with each new book. So how do we keep our writing fresh and avoid falling back on old cliches? By concentrating on the two things that make for great stories: a dynamic plot and skilful story telling.
We’re all looking for that next great idea; the story that hasn’t been told. Or, in the absence of the breakout concept, for new ways of reworking old story lines. That means digging deeper into our imaginations and twisting the tried and true into new and unusual shapes. Case in point: a male and female marooned on a desert island. THE BLUE LAGOON or ON THE ISLAND? Two very different takes on a similar theme.
The other component of strong writing is craft, and whether we hone our skills by going to workshops, reading “how to” books, or following the blogs of writers whose work we admire, the need to constantly improve is vital. We laughed as we trotted out our favourite phrases and “go to” words, but the fact we keep repeating them is the reason we incorporate a craft segment into each of our retreats. Hopefully by the time we wrap up another forty or so Red Doors, the Stupid Word List (thank you, Bonnie) will have been vanquished and we will each be celebrating our own successes—whatever they happen to be! Gail Whitiker