Publishing doesn’t validate your life

This is an article I wrote two years ago, based on something a literary agent once said:

Publishing doesn’t validate your life.

How true.

I have to admit before I was published, I thought that if I reached that nirvana called “published author,” I’d have sweet validation. Every day would be smiles and dancing. You know what? I was wrong. Being published is terrific, mind you, but it doesn’t bring happiness or validation. Instead, it adds more stress to your life.

Gone are the days when I could write for the sheer joy of it. Always looming is a deadline. And though I pinch myself because I “get” to write, and I feel like I’m doing what I was created to do, I sometimes get lost in the cycle of publicity, sales and marketing. And I’m tired of worrying about provision.
Maybe I’m the only one (and I’m embarrassed to admit this publicly), but I check my Amazon ratings for the three (Note: now ten, and I don’t do this anymore, thankfully) books I have in print. I know, know, know that these ratings mean very little. I know that a high rank (which is bad) just means that during that hour the book didn’t sell. I know that if a band of readers (like a book club) went together and bought ten of my books in one hour, my rating would shoot lower (which is good).  

But it doesn’t mean anything.

Why do I pester myself with such nonsense? After all, publishing doesn’t validate my life, right?
It’s like this weird endless cycle of neediness. It evolves in incremental steps of if onlys:

  • If only I could be published in a magazine, even if I’m not paid.
  • If only I could be paid to be published in a magazine.
  • If only I could go to a writer’s conference and have an agent show an interest in my proposal.
  • If only I could sign with an agent.
  • If only that agent could sell my work.
  • If only I could have more than one contract.
  • If only I could earn out the advance for the book I wrote.
  • If only I could sell enough books so a publisher would want another book from me.
  • If only a publisher would treat a mid-list author like me kindly.
  • If only I could make a living at writing.

    That’s a lot of if onlys!

I remember reading about blocked goals once and it’s stuck with me. A blocked goal is a goal that is dependent on other’s actions or happenstance. All these if onlys fit, albeit somewhat awkwardly, as blocked goals. I don’t have any control over whether I’ll get a contract offered. I can’t make people buy my books. I can’t make my book sell enough to earn back an advance. I can’t control the fickleness of this industry.

What I can do is create goals that can’t be blocked. Goals like:

  • I will listen to the heartbeat of God and write what He inspires me to write.
  • I will not let writing, by God’s strength, overshadow the needs of my family.
  • I will write the best books I can write, always seeking to improve, abounding in humility and teachability.
  • I will be patient when sales wane and trust God’s sovereignty.
  • I will promote my books with this motivation: to see the kingdom of God advanced.
  • I will laugh at the unpredictability of this industry and strive to be lighthearted.
  • I will serve others and not let elusive and fleeting fame (if that happens) inflate my head.
  • I will attend conferences, read writing books, and welcome critique.
  • I will serve my readers by praying for them and answering emails when God provides time.
  • I will write for the sheer joy of it, not despising unpublished words.

So, yeah, publishing does not validate me. Sure it feels great to hold my book in my hands. It’s lovely when I get a good review. But it’s the hand of God on my life that brings me ultimate validation. That God stooped to earth and chose me, a frail, needy girl, stops my heart every time. And by His grace, I will carry on.

Mary DeMuth mentors writers toward publication at The Writing Spa, which now has a brand spanking new Facebook page. Head over to this post today or tomorrow for a chance to win the 2011 Sally Stuart Christian Writers’ Market Guide, my fiction proposal tutorial, and a 5 page substantive critique from me (a $200 value!).

Get Thee to the Swordfight

People are funny. And not always funny ha-ha. When Lost Mission hit the shelves last September, a few people told me it was well written as far as that went, but it started off too slowly. I was prepared for any criticism except for a slow start, since the story mentions two miracles in the first four pages alone. (A church bell seems to ring by itself, and a fresco is “not painted by human hands.”) I even tossed in a couple of boys who are nearly burned alive. These folks did admit it “got better” later on, but still, apparently the miracles and near death experience were barely enough to pique their interest.

Maybe I should have burned the boys.

Of course I know a novel has to hook the reader from the very first word these days. Even an Amish romance must be thrilling from the get-go, otherwise the jaded citizenry will wander off to channel surf their countless choices in realty television shows, or “meet” a dozen perverts a minute on Chat Roulette, or even worse, read somebody else’s book. But I did think I had done my duty, hook wise, with two miracles and a couple of burning boys in four pages flat, so color me confused.

In situations like this it’s good to consult the specialists. I decided to check out the first four pages of a few stories that have done pretty well, and what I found there was instructive: Aunt Polly fails to spank her nephew. Yawn. Tom Sawyer goes back on the shelf. A man—we don’t even know his name yet!—rents a house. So much for the first four pages of The Great Gatsby. On page one of another novel we learn the Hudson River valley is uncivilized, and we learn it some more on page two, and more on pages three, and four, and by then it is clear The Last of the Mohicans wouldn’t last long in the hands of today’s impatient reader. In fact, none of these so-called “classics” would pass muster nowadays, yet people in the olden times seemed to think they were okay. So between then and now, what changed?

We did, I’m afraid. Once upon a time a troubadour could count on Lords and Ladies to sit and listen in the castle without interrupting him to say, “Get thee to the swordfight already.” Once it was possible to write a novel about a great white whale in which the whale did not appear until around page three hundred. But nowadays, unless there’s pending death, dismemberment or damnation in the first sentence it’s close the book and pass another novel.

Blame it on Robert Adler, that mad Austrian scientist who invented the television remote control. He hoped to liberate us from the senseless tyranny of having to move more than one finger to switch from NBC to CBS to ABC and back again (the only three options back in ‘56), but his impatience with the time consuming walk from couch to television set unwittingly created a slave race of channel surfing zombies.

Or maybe Adler’s Folly was just one more step in the long attention span decline that began with Gutenberg, (real name, “Goose-skin”) the inventor of movable type, a devilish creation which made it possible for the Average Joe’s reading choices to outnumber his brain cells. But really I suspect we’d have to go much further back to expose the roots of this problem, because even Gutenberg suffered from an early indication of the looming plague when he took a little longer than expected to come up with the printing press and got sued by an investor who was “losing patience.”

It turns out slow beginnings aren’t even my only shortcoming as a novelist.

In Lost Mission, I also made the mistake of setting some scenes in the 1700’s and others in the here and now. I never dreamed this would cause so much trouble, yet some people have complained it’s hard to follow the transitions between timeframes. In my defense, I did see this one coming. In the book are subtle hints, along the lines of “Pay attention, dear reader, because we’re about to leave the old timey days.” Lest you think I’m exaggerating, allow me to quote Lost Mission’s first transition. Here’s the setup: at this point in the story we are crossing the Atlantic toward the New World on a Spanish galleon with an eighteenth century friar, and then . . .

“. . . this is just the first of many journeys we shall follow as our story leads us back and forth through space and time. Indeed, the events Fray Alejandro has set in motion have their culmination far into the future. Therefore, leaving the Franciscan and his solitary ship, we cross many miles to reach a village known as Rincon de Dolores, high among the Sierra Madres of Jalisco, Mexico. And we fly further still, centuries ahead of Alejandro, to find ourselves in these, our modern times.”

You see the problem. (I know you do, because you’re one of the few who haven’t gotten bored with this column already and gone off to Google something better.) If a reader can’t (won’t?) follow along with an in-your-face transition like that, it’s hard to hope she will remember basic plot points or character’s names from one chapter to another.

Should an author pander to such people?

Just imagine where that could lead. Think of eBooks with embedded comments to remind readers that John is “the narcissist you met in chapter three” and New York is “the city where this story is taking place.” Such things are certainly feasible in this electronic age, but are they wise? Don’t brains, like muscles, atrophy unless we use them? One does hope to let the reader’s memory and imagination do some of the work, otherwise what do we have? Television, I suppose.

In a culture with 150 channels in the basic cable package, and 116 second delivery times in fast food drive through lanes, and eight minute speed dating (not to mention three minute online speed dating), I suppose impatience with old fashioned storytelling had to reach this fevered pitch. And I suppose it was too much to hope my novels would escape unscathed. After all, some of the people who read them also enjoyed that mega bestseller which is not entitled Your Best Life Later. But it does leave me wondering how a novelist should respond.

Should authors embrace the current reality by getting a character killed, kidnapped, betrayed or broken hearted in the very first phrase (never mind the first sentence) of page one? Should we try for two miracles per page rather than two pages per miracle? Should we (as some are doing) crank out four or five novels a year for fear of being otherwise forgotten in the reader’s rush to choke words down like French fries? This path has the advantage of keeping the author in print. Might it also make authors part of the problem, like drug pushers who claim they only give the people what they want?

Or should we hope there are enough sober readers left who still know the difference between reading a novel and channel surfing? Ah, the high road. Writing for that vanishing breed would be a risky choice for those of us who survive on advances and royalties, but while it might keep us up at night worrying about the bills, at least we could still look in the mirror in the morning.

There is always compromise, of course, a middle path between these two extremes, and that’s what most of us do, including me. But where does compromise lead us? Given the change in attitude from the days of Cooper, Twain and Fitzgerald, it seems the real choices are two: join our culture’s epidemic of impatience and make a living, or write for thoughtful folks and risk going out of print. Imagine you’re a novelist, struggling to survive on words. What would you do?

Mary DeMuth on Marketing

Mary DeMuth gets a little crazy sometimes with publishing-itis. So she writes pieces like the above to keep her sane and away from the men in white jackets. In between, she writes parenting books and novels. Her recent novel released last month: Daisy Chain. Everyone MUST buy it because she says so. She will end her bio by saying she enjoys writing about herself in the third person. You can find her Royal Craziness here: Or if you dare, you can choose to be mentored through the publishing journey at The Writing Spa.

This post is dedicated to all those faithful Tax Peeps who pare down our book earnings. Happy April 15th, all!

I’m an expert. I have six books under my writerly belt, and can throw my marketing girth out there for all to see and admire. Why can I say this? Because I received my first royalty check—which I promptly spent on socks at WalMart. Which is why I am starting a new marketing endeavor aimed at those illustrious folks who proudly call themselves Midlist Authors. It’s called MAD: Midlist Author Dictators.

Here’s how MAD works. We midlisters have tired of every conceivable marketing method known to computer-huggers everywhere:

• We’ve shouted on Shoutlife.
• We’ve given and received ridiculous gifts on FaceBook (hugs, gardens, little cyber-bits of foof).
• We’ve blogged ‘til the cows came home, and then we took movies of the cows and hoped to start a viral revolution on You Tube.
• We dusted off our amateur movie skills and made B-level book trailers.
• We’ve spoken to book clubs, fielding questions about that pesky scene (that we don’t remember writing) on page 154.
• We’ve paid handsomely for a website whose visitors consist of our grandmothers, four stalkers, and ourselves (which counts for most of our hits).
• We’ve paid printing companies mucho bucks for business cards, bookmarks, t-shirts, auto decals, and mugs. (And we’ve cleared out a closet and a garage to hold these items.)
• We’ve spoken to groups large (12) and small (1), and solicited email addresses for our gem of a monthly newsletter—only to have our subscribers rebel by unsubscribing and vowing to never read any of our books.
• We’ve twittered away entire days, telling our seven followers the intricacies of our days, how much we’re writing, what we had for breakfast, and what exactly the dog ate to make him throw up those colors.
• We’ve given away free books to people in Nigeria in exchange for 540,000 dollars. (Well, a book and also all our account information).
• We paid handsomely for a professional picture only to discover the picture actually looks like us. (We opt for a picture taken in high school when sags and wrinkles didn’t exist).

So we’ve worked hard, we midlisters. And what has all this toil brought us? Nothing. So we’re starting a revolution. We are now MAD! (Midlist Author Dictators, in case you forgot the acronym.) Here’s how MAD program works:

• We read books about dictators (benevolent and not so benevolent) and figure out what made them tick. We take notes. We puff ourselves up. We practice on our dog, trying to make him do new tricks. Once we’ve perfected that, we go to the next step.
• We take what we’ve learned and create an empire where we are our own dictators, forcing the general populace to buy every one of our books. This includes backlists and the books we bought for 25 cents from our publisher because they were destined for the fiery furnaces of destruction.
• We rule benevolently (hopefully . . . There is that thing about absolute power corrupting absolutely.) And then we retire in the Cayman Islands off all those meaty royalty checks. (But we have to hire someone to decipher them because, for the life of us dictators, we can’t figure those puppies out!)

So there you have it. A new marketing method for a new generation! Midlist authors unite! Get MAD! Dust off your dormant dictator and have at it! Your very future depends on it. If you can’t sell books the old fashioned way, you may as well dictate. And if you fail? I hear WalMart is hiring greeters—their own micro-version of crowd-control-cart-distribution monarchy.

The abrupt disappearance of young Daisy Chance from a small Texas town in 1973 spins three lives out of control—Jed, whose guilt over not protecting his friend Daisy strangles him; Emory Chance, who blames her own choices for her daughter’s demise; and Ouisie Pepper, who is plagued by headaches while pierced by the shattered pieces of a family in crisis.

In this first book in the Defiance, Texas Trilogy, fourteen-year-old Jed Pepper has a sickening secret: He’s convinced it’s his fault his best friend Daisy went missing. Jed’s pain sends him on a quest for answers to mysteries woven through the fabric of his own life and the lives of the families of Defiance, Texas. When he finally confronts the terrible truths he’s been denying all his life, Jed must choose between rebellion and love, anger and freedom.

Daisy Chain is an achingly beautiful southern coming-of-age story crafted by a bright new literary talent. It offers a haunting yet hopeful backdrop for human depravity and beauty, for terrible secrets and God’s surprising redemption.

Dropping Rose Petals

Marcia Lee Laycock won The Best New Canadian Christian Author Award for her novel, One Smooth Stone (Castle Quay Books, 2007). She lives in central Alberta Canada with her husband, two adolescent golden retrievers and a six-toed cat.

“Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.” (Don Marquis)

These days, you could substitute the word book for the phrase, volume of verse. The quote makes me think of a cartoon I saw once and wish I had copied. It’s of a writer sitting at a desk surrounded by thousands of volumes in a library. An eager fan holds out a copy of his book for him to sign. The caption reads, “Being a writer must make you feel so…so significant!”

The puzzled looked on the writer’s face made me laugh out loud. I know how he feels, and I’m sure you do to. In the face of the plethora of written work we often wonder why on earth we are driven to write. Hasn’t it all been said? Haven’t better writers already captured our thoughts on the page?

The answer is, ‘no.’ Your thoughts, said in your voice, have not been heard and yes, they are significant. They are significant not just because you have done your apprenticeship and reached a level of skill and expertise, but because God wants to use them. You are His child, unique in the universe and He has a purpose for you – all of you, including the words in your mind and heart – those unique words that you put into a computer and send out to a publisher. The expression of that uniqueness, when done with pure motive, is honoring to our Creator. Therefore it is not only fitting that you do it, it is commanded.

1 Peter 4:10 says – “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” What we write is a form of God’s grace to be extended to others, no matter how insignificant we feel, no matter how small the audience may be, no matter the state of the economy,.

Don Marquis’ quote could leave us with a sense of futility unless we know there is an echo, even the infinitely small sound of a rose petal falling in the Grand Canyon. The smallest of echoes has meaning when it is an echo of our Creator’s purpose. So toss your rose petals to the winds, scatter them with prayer and thanksgiving! They are significant in God’s economy. They may even change a life.