It’s no secret that I have stepped into the position of managing editor for the arts journal, Pomona Valley Review for the upcoming 12th edition. For those that don’t know, PVR is an arts, poetry, and short story journal that comes out once a year and is run out of Cal Poly Pomona by alumni, graduate students, and faculty from …
The Martian novel, written by Andy Weir, is a self-publishing success. In 2011, he self-published the book and it got enough attention to garner him a contract with Crown Books. In 2014, The Martian was re-released with the help of Crown and became one of the top selling books on Amazon.Com. And then it became a movie.
I started reading The Martian last year and, between applying to graduate programs, moving (twice!), picking up a few side jobs (on top of my main jobs), and all the rest of life stuff that gets in the way of fun stuff, it took me a while to finish the book. Mind you, I really enjoyed the book as I was reading it and I even got students of mine to read it as well.
Now that I’ve finally finished reading and watching The Martian, I can compare and contrast the two different media used to tell Andy Weir’s story of an astronaut left behind on Mars for your (and more likely my) amusement and declare one better than the other (because all things must be ranked!).
If you haven’t read the book or watched the movie, this post contains spoilers. Though, if you’ve clicked on this blog because of the title, I’m assuming you kind of already knew that, but I thought I’d be nice and post a warning anyway.
Self-publishing has taken off, that’s no secret. Bestsellers, from Fifty Shades of Grey to Wool, began as self-published books. Recently, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), in the UK, even began its own masters program in self-publishing. A full-time student can complete the program in one year; when he or she graduates, they will have all the skills needed to edit, design, publish, and market their own book. At least, that’s the idea.
I’ll admit, I’ve read very few self-published books. So few, that as I write this, I can’t recall their titles. But by no means do I “hate on” self-published books. Sure, I have, on occasion, expressed the belief that self-published titles are generally lacking in editing, design, and marketing—all those aspects of publishing that UCLan hopes to teach—but that isn’t always the case. If I’m being honest, those nameless self-published titles were bad apples that spoiled the rest.
What do I mean by spoiled? The great thing about self-published titles are that you can often get them for cheap (sometimes even free if they’re e-books). Low prices are great; that means more books for me. Yet, in my experience, this leads to reading a lot of bad writing, and in the end, I’d rather pay more for the good stuff.
For a long time, most readers have felt this way. Publishers may be the “gate keepers,” but, as a reader, I appreciate knowing that I can trust a book stamped with HarperCollins’ or Penguins’ logo will be a good read. However, I think it’s important to remember the exceptions, because, surely, not every reader will love every book published by the “Big Five.” So why shouldn’t that same logic apply to self-publishing?
Self-publishing has many positives. None too small to overlook. Wool, as I mentioned earlier, was a great success story. Hugh Howey originally self-published the book as a stand-alone, short story on Amazon. When it began to develop a following, he continued the plot with additional stories, all of which he eventually sold to Simon & Schuster for six figures.
In a recent post, I asked whether or not paying to submit to writing contests is worth it for a writer. Money and writing often spark conversations about worth. The kind of value we as readers give the written word and the individuals who work tirelessly to create it.
Now that I have graduated and moved back home to Southern California (oh, Portland, how I miss you), I am pushing myself to write again and write often. Although I try to squelch all hopes of publication—getting the words down at all is step one—I do find writing in smaller chunks to be less daunting. Because of that, I often approach a piece of prose as a short story, even if I plan on turning it into something larger one day. Most publications are willing to publish writer’s short stories, personal essays, and flash fiction, but perhaps not their 100,000-word novel.
But the only conversation worth having is not whether a writer should pay someone else to read their work, but whether an author should get paid because they wrote the thing.
In truth, this conversation is a matter of opinion. For as long as there are writers willing to submit their work and go unpaid, there will be writers who refuse.
I don’t believe the answer is so black and white. If you’re still trying to figure out where you stand, ask yourself “Why am I submitting in the first place?”
Is it for the prestige? Is it for the recognition? Is it to be validated? Is it because you’re a professor and your boss told you to? Is it because you’re a student and your professor told you to? Is it because you see writing as a career and this magazine or journal as a stepping stone?
Writers, for me, are philosophers. And anthropologists. They search for meaning, and they observe and report.
Writers are smart. They have to be in order to survive, in order to create something worth surviving.
But quite frankly, there’s a lot of bad writing out there. Technology gives anyone with a computer access to a word processor. Anyone with enough time on their hands can sit down and start typing. Anyone with enough money can call up an editor, who can rip their work apart and build it back up.
I struggle with the flooded marketplace. There are simply too many books out there, many not worth reading.
A friend once told me, “I think most people think they have at least one great story inside them.” As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Forbes estimates that somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books are published each year (nearly half of those are self-published).
Writing initiatives, like National Novel Writing Month, seem to purport the idea that “anyone can write” if they only just pushed themselves, if they only just set aside the time. I have quite a few friends, people working in publishing, that have participated in NaNoWriMo. And when I ask each of them where these novels exist now, I get told that the manuscript is in a drawer or a trash bin—wherever it is, the answer is always the same: it wasn’t very good.
My point, I suppose, is that both readers and aspiring writers need to remember what it is that drew them to books in the first place. The goal of writing shouldn’t be to hit a word count—to write 50,000 in thirty days. The goal of writing shouldn’t even be to leave your mark on the world. Because I get it, really I do. Life is short, but art lasts. The goal of writing should be, in my opinion, to give readers something of value.
In a recent interview with Guernica, agent Chris Parris-Lamb, of The Gernet Company, stated that this problem is actually the most common one he sees. On the manuscripts in his slush pile? “I just wish I read more submissions where it felt like the author had taken great care with it, had spent a lot of time on it, and had a better idea—or any idea at all—of the books they saw their own as being in conversation with, as well as how theirs was unique. Most submissions I see feel like someone checking ‘write a novel’ off their bucket list.”
So, I didn’t have time to work on what was supposed to be today’s post, because I was too busy making an infographic for my course this term on copyright. I blame my procrastination on an extreme case of “senioritis.” Graduation is only a few weeks away. It’s my last chance to procrastinate, forever, people! (Or so I tell myself.)
The infographic helps authors determine whether their work is eligible for copyright in the U.S. and has a short “FAQ” section answering other general questions an author might have about copyright as it applies to their work. The tricky bit is that copyright isn’t always so black and white and changes all the time. There are also many types of literary works, so this graphic is not meant to represent all of them. Although it does serve as a basic overview.
What else do you want to know about copyright and your writing? Tell us below!
To submit to today’s literary contests, writers can spend anywhere from $0 to $50. But generally, the average for entry fees is around $15. After spending countless hours tweaking every line and sentence of a poem or story, many writers find it difficult to fork over this kind of money.
It’s not just that many new and emerging writers are young students that makes this difficult. Most contests and journals take quite a bit of time to read submissions, even listing periods of up to six months in delay to hear back from their editors. Because of this, it’s not unusual for writers to submit one piece to multiple publications. If each contest charges $15 to enter, then the cost of doing so quickly adds up.
It begins a vicious cycle. Writers take better, more time-consuming jobs to help support their writing endeavors, but then soon discover they have little time or energy to write.
I may sound sympathetic here, but I’m not. I once went to a lecture given by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. She looked at the audience of hopeful writers and said “It’s no one’s fault you wanted to be an artist.”
It’s important that if you’re going to be a writer, you develop a thick skin. That when the author of a bestselling novel tells you it’s no one’s problem but your own that you decided to be a writer, you listen.
Writers, including myself, want to be taken seriously. On the bus the other day, a coworker began telling me about her friend, “the novelist,” who self publishes young adult books online and has now been picked up by a larger publisher. She’s making a living doing it, my coworker told me. I don’t know how, she went on, it seems like she’s never doing anything to me. I cringed. I suppose writing does look a whole lot like doing nothing from the outside.
Being taken seriously means not only desiring to be able to earn a living by the work we do, eventually, but also to be respected for that work. A long day of brainstorming and plotting might, to a stranger, appear a whole lot like me pacing my studio apartment in my underwear—but that’s how real work gets done folks.
Let’s look at the facts about writing contests:
While reading an article about self-publishing, I happened to stumble upon this fact about book covers:
“75% of 300 booksellers reviewed (half from independent bookstores and half from chains) recognized the look and design of the book cover as the most important part. They agreed the jacket is prime real estate for promoting a book.”
I struggle with this, because, to me, I fundamentally disagree that the cover is the “most important part” of a book, but on a marketing level, I supposed I understand. When I go into a bookstore or search shelves virtually on Amazon, I generally already have an idea of what I’m looking for. It’s either a text that my teacher assigned, a sequel to a novel I’ve been obsessing over, or perhaps something entirely new. But even when I purchase something new, the first thing I do is grab the book, turn it over, and read the description. I don’t see a pretty picture of a bird or flower on the cover, or maybe even a woman, whose back is mysteriously facing me, as is so common in chick-lit these days, and automatically decide the book is for me. But maybe there are readers who do.
“Our brains are wired to process images faster than words. When we see an image, it makes us feel something.”
Or as Naomi Blackburn, top Goodreads reviewer, states in the same article:
“If the cover seems to be nothing more than a catalog photograph with block lettering, I bypass it. If the author didn’t care enough to dedicate time/effort to their cover, I wonder how much time they put into the book itself.”
To be fair, an author might give away the responsibility of cover design when they choose to work with a publisher. If you ever plan on writing your own book or working in publishing, here are a few things to keep in mind during the design process.
For one, it’s important that the cover doesn’t give away too much.
It’s also important that your cover doesn’t give readers nightmares.
The new year is around the corner, and the holidays are coming to an end. If you’re anything like me, I’ll bet you have a few gift cards to spend. My post-holiday shopping list consists mainly of books, as well as some more warm clothes to get me through the rest of winter.
During my time interning for Dark Discoveries Magazine, I read a lot of dark, short stories. Aside from that experience, however, I haven’t read much in the horror genre. My father’s a pretty big Stephen King buff. When I visited him on Christmas, the shelves in his living room were filled with many of King’s books. I left with a stack of them, along with a few old collections of poetry.
1. The Shining by Stephen King
Even if you haven’t heard of Stephen King or read The Shining, the title should sound familiar, as Jack Nicholson starred in the 1980 film version. Or maybe a friend screamed “Here’s Johnny” while pretending to chase you with an ax, and that’s all you know about the film/book. You had no idea why they kept calling themselves Johnny, because your parents wouldn’t let you watch a movie about a man who gets more than a tad stir crazy and, well, I won’t give it away. But now you know. You’re welcome.
2. Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining and was just released earlier this year in September. The book follows a now middle-aged Dan Torrance (the young boy protagonist in the first novel) as he attempts to save a young twelve-year-old girl in a fight between good and evil. Judging by what i’ve heard from others, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to read The Shining before starting Doctor Sleep. Even if you’ve watched the movie, give the book a read. Movies often leave parts of the novel out, and in the case of a psychological thriller like The Shining some things are difficult to transfer to the big screen.
3. Mañana Means Heaven by Tim Z. Hernandez
Tim Z. Hernandez is an award-winning poet and author. His writing is beautiful. You can read an excerpt of Mañana Means Heaven here to check it out for yourself. A big draw to Hernandez’s book for me is that it features a little writer some of you may have heard of: Jack Kerouac. If you’ve read On The Road, you may remember the “Mexican girl” that Kerouac has an affair with in California. Her part in the novel only spans fifteen pages, but Hernandez spent years searching for Bea Franco, the real-life “Mexican girl” from Kerouac’s novel. Mañana Means Heaven is the result of that search and Hernandez’s conversations with the elderly Franco.
NaNoWriMo has gained a plethora of participants. Hundreds of thousands, in fact. A quick look around Twitter, typing in keywords like #NaNoWriMo2014 or #amwriting will pull up a ton of tweets from writers updating their followers with their word counts, struggles, and achievements. But as with any event or cause, there will always be the naysayers.
In this case, the naysayers of NaNoWriMo believe that if you were a real writer, you wouldn’t need a month dedicated to writing to meet a word count. Or that it’s impossible to write something of quality—of substance—in thirty days.
Before I get too deep into my defense of NaNoWriMo, I think it’s fair to mention that what a writer actually is is a fuzzy distinction. “Real” writers get paid for their work; they get published. But if you’re still new to the craft, if you’re still aspiring and finding your voice, does that mean you’re not a “real” writer?
I think it’s also fair to mention that, in a way, the naysayers are partly correct. “Real” writers don’t need a month; at least, they shouldn’t. NaNoWriMo, however, is aimed at newer writers. Writers who still need proof that they can actually do it—that they can write a novel-length story, that they can meet a deadline, that they can fight through writer’s block.
To Keep The Ideas Flowing
The thing is, when a writer isn’t writing, things can get dark fast. We start having depressing thoughts about the meaning of our very own existence, or that we will never become the voice of our generation. Writing is a muscle. When we don’t stretch it, we lose the ability to use it effectively. The ideas don’t come as easily, and when we do finally find the time to write, we find the words don’t come easily either. Something I noticed during last year’s NaNoWriMo was that, as soon as I started writing, I couldn’t stop the ideas from coming. Sure, more often than not, these ideas had nothing to do with the project I was actually working on. But you write them down, you tuck them away, and then later, when you can, you come back to them.
Getting to Know Yourself
Believe it or not, not all writers are daunted by the task of completing 50,000 words. Some participants find that they need far less than thirty days (this one only needed nine). You wont know what you can achieve until you try. Participating in the NaNoWriMo challenge allows you to discover your quirks—your areas of strengths and weaknesses. If you’re like me, you might discover that, yes, writing 2,000 plus words each day is a piece of cake. That it can be done by sparing only a few hours of your day, but that it’s also much easier with the help of an outline. That diving into the unknown might work for the first 10,000 words, but then your mind starts drawing blanks.
NaNoWriMo also helps you develop your routine, because each of ours will be different. Maybe you can’t write on an empty stomach. Or without a candle. Or without Jurassic Park playing in the background (hey, we’re not judging). There’s nothing like a month of intense writing to help you get in touch with, well, yourself.