Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Writing Makeover (In Three Part Harmony)

Photo courtesy of Ritesh Nayak

Who doesn’t love those makeover shows? All over TV land you see people making over their bodies, their wardrobes, their businesses, their homes, their obstinate children. At the end of the show comes “the big reveal.”

We get to see the once overweight, ramshackle, bankrupt, mousey, insecure, temper prone protagonist, the ninety-pound weakling transformed into a ninety-pound giant as my late beloved brother used to say.

The hero rides off into the sunset and the viewer thinks well, if that bozo can do it, so can I.
And now along comes The Daily Writing Coach jumping on the bandwagon. I’m going to tell you the story of my writing makeover.

Writing is one of the great passions of my life, second only to the love I have for my daughter. I am, however, an unlikely writer, I think. I am of the generation where young girls were taught that their ambitions should center in the home. As a Cancer, domesticity came naturally to me. But after a while, I found it wasn’t enough. Something ate at me, a desire that eventually framed itself as a need to do something significant. That was the phrase that beat upon my psyche. I wanted to do “something significant.”

For a long while, that significant thing was cooking.  I love food and anything related to it, even grocery shopping. But this was a generation before the Food Channel. Other than Julia Child on public television or the Cordon Bleu in Paris, I couldn’t find anyone to give me hands on cooking lessons. I wanted to go beyond Hamburger Helper and The Joy of Cooking. I wanted to know what Julia Child knew. I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, now one of the major hubs of masterful cooking in the world. Yet in the ‘70’s, nobody was giving cooking classes.

So I cooked my way through Julia Child (that movie was the story of my life, minus the blogging), and one day, for the fun of it, offered cooking classes in my kitchen. I had six takers and it changed my life.

Because teaching cooking was so unique, I was featured in a local newspaper, got more students, offered more classes at night, after my day job. I thought I had found my “something significant.” But deep down I knew that, while I loved teaching cooking, it wasn’t it.

My fifteen minutes of fame in the Palo Alto Times caught the attention of a cardiologist friend at Stanford University where I worked as a medical secretary. He asked me if I would write a low cholesterol cookbook with him. I said, “Sure. What’s low cholesterol?” No joke, my exact words. Remember, I worshipped at the altar of butter and cream a la Julia Child. The notion of a low fat, healthy diet was almost as unique as cooking classes.

I thought it was a lark, the idea of writing a cookbook, not really believing we would pull it off. But such is the power of a book proposal on Stanford University letterhead that we got a book contract with some actual money attached to it. Off we went, John Schroeder back to saving lives in the hospital, me to figure out how to write the book.

John had more of a role than merely flaunting his considerable credentials at the publishing world, but the actual writing fell mainly on my shoulders. And that is why I am here today telling my story.

I remember it as though it were yesterday. Sitting in my kitchen in front of a new electric typewriter that I bought with my share of the advance, staring at a blank sheet of paper and finally typing the first sentence.

I think of it as the moment of my rebirth. In my mind, angels sang, trumpets blared and a deep, throaty voice announced, “She found it, folks. This is her significant something.”

The feeling of astonishment, pleasure and discovery I felt as I sat down to write that day has never left me. I did not know the trials that lay ahead, however. I had to learn how to write, an expedition as arduous, soul wrenching but rewarding as any taken by any explorer. My readers who write will understand this.

So there I was, a writer who had to learn how to write. Traveling along this narrative of discovery was another important facet of my life. Though I had no formal training or education in anything, somewhere I have tucked away my single diploma, the one from high school, I have always loved to read and listen to stories. I was raised before television. I spent my childhood with my ear glued to the big console radio in our living room listening to Let’s Pretend and The Lone Ranger.  As I look back on it, radio was excellent training for the imagination, for which I am grateful.  But reader that I was, I lost myself in books starting with Little Red Riding Hood, up through the Russians that I devoured in high school and anything else I could get my hands on after that. Before I began writing my first book, I’d read a novel and think, I don’t like that sentence. It should be this way. I didn’t know it, but that is what writer’s do. We edit everything we read, even our grocery lists. I guess I had the soul of a writer, if not the talent.

Fast forward through the next several decades, during which I discovered I loved writing fiction, took many, many writing classes, imagined myself on the cover of the New York Times Book Review as author of the Great American Novel. I was enthralled with the literary masters, the winners of the big prizes. I was deeply moved by language and words beautifully wrought, complex characters that helped me understand my own life. I practiced, practiced, wrote and wrote. I sold very little, until another cookbook project came along.

By then I knew how to write. I knew that a good cookbook contains good writing as much as a novel does. I was and am enormously proud of that book, but by then my desire to do something significant had shifted from food writing to fiction. I began my life’s work, my great Irish novel.

At this point, some twenty years ago, I had developed a hard won daily writing practice, hence this blog. I taught classes, worked with other writers on their manuscripts, had been accepted in the world’s greatest writing group. We gave public readings and I received praise for my story and my writing. I knew that being a good writer, and I believed by then that I was, did not automatically lead to a publishing contract.

In one hand you had the art and craft of writing and in the other, the business of writing, the publishing world. I had no idea how to crack that code. I knew that for most writers, never the twain shall meet.

I had to satisfy myself with the knowledge that I had transformed myself into a literary writer and hoped the publishing gods would smile upon me when I finished my novel. That I could call myself a writer was not only a great source of pride and satisfaction, I had worked very hard at this craft, but it was my identity as well. I might not be setting world on fire as a 9 to 5’er or as a published author. But by god I could write a ringingly beautiful sentence. I knew that because a writing teacher told me so. I was all about the art of writing. At times, this self- image was accompanied by a great deal of hubris, though I would not admit that to myself. I was too modest! I sneered at romance writers, paranormal writers, mystery writers. Those were genre writers. They didn't produce "art." 

Two years ago I experienced a sea change in my circumstances. I needed to earn money and I was no longer able to work at a day job. I didn’t realize that in a short year, I would also undergo life-threatening health challenges, as well.

I didn’t know it, but, in addition, I was about to be knocked off my literary high horse. It was the beginning of my writing makeover.

To be continued.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Here she comes apologizing again . . .

Photo courtesy of Michael Rad

It seems that every time I post this year, I have to start out with an apology. I do recall promising to post three times a week, but now I'm six months late. So here's my latest apology.

I am writing every day, because that is what I preach to my students and followers.

Yes, writing but not blogging. A week from now I will celebrate the first anniversary of publishing my first book on Kindle. I believe it sold 20 copies and I earned about $48.00. I was astonished that there was even one sale. It was a mystery to me that anyone found it among the two million ebooks on Kindle.

But I followed the lessonsI I had learned in an online class to make my book visible and, sure enough, it worked. Today I have eighteen titles on Amazon, seven of them are paperbacks and last month I sold over a thousand books. One thousand fifteen, but who's counting?

I have made many friends in ebook chat rooms and facebook groups. Some of those might find my numbers encouragement to start their first book, others will scoff and call me a loser. Well, not really. These people are too nice, but some people sell a thousand books a day. And more. I know of one woman who, in the course of two years, had sold one-hundred thousand copies of her list in January, 2013. That's huge.  In June, she celebrated her millionth sale. That's nine-hundred thousand copies in six months. By September, it was a million and a half.  If a book goes viral, it changes the author's life forever.

In August, I took a shot at changing my Kindle fortunes. My sales were in the 200-300 a month range. I was definitely moving up, happy and grateful for that bit of success, but I knew if I changed genres, I could possibly do better. But which genre? I am a literary writer and food writer. I was not into the moneymakers, zombies, paranormal, young adult, romance and mysteries. Those types of books required a totally different skill set and mind set. Then I heard a woman who was to become an online friend, Lee Dobbs who publishes as Leighann Dobbins, talk about her success with cozy mysteries. I didn't even know what a cozy was, but she was selling, at that time, five thousand copies a month. I checked out her books, read a couple and decided to give cozies a shot.

For those of you who don't know what a cozy is, Think Murder She Wrote, Agatha Christie and the like. The fun is in figuring out the whodunnit, with no blood and gore or overt sex.

Pshaw, I said to myself. I can do this. And then, Olivia M. Granville, OMG to her friends, was born.

However, much of what I've learned over the years did not serve me well as a mystery writer. I needed to cut to the chase, instead of languishing in pretty sentences. I had to figure out how to write a who dunnit. For example, who dunnit? Who was it done to? How did they do it and how would the scoundrel get caught. Along the way there had to be red herrings and other possible suspects to draw the reader off the trail and heighten the suspense. And then there was the background, the aspects of my protagonist's life and the town she lived in that added interest and fun and create fans for my books.

Many chewed fingernails later, six weeks to be exact, on August 9, 2013, I launched Armoires and Arsenic, A Darling Valley Mystery by Cassie Page. To my astonishment, it sold ten copies the first day and is now my best seller.  I have added a second mystery, A Corpse In A Teacup, A Tuesday's Tea Leaves Mystery, based on Olivia's best friend. That also has garnered sales and since I added those two titles, and put my cookbooks in paperback, my monthly sales have doubled and my royalties are even better.

I am now on my third mystery, the second in the Darling Valley series, Groundbreaking Murders. I hope to launch it by the end of the year, along with another children's book, When Mikey Made the Rules, and will start serializing my Irish novel, The Equal of God, my literary effort.

So that's what I've been doing when not blogging, writing ebooks. I have seven paperbacks, three (about to be four) self-illustrated children's books, five cookbooks and two (soon to be three) cozy mysteries.

I detail all of this because I think you all, as writers, should know that there is an opportunity to publish your work that does not involve the agent/publishing house merry-go-round. Many ebook writers have enough success that they get picked up by a legacy publisher, as hard cover pubs are called, and some writers have so much success that they wouldn't think of signing up for the paltry royalties offered by a traditional publisher. Which is to say, there are many more options available to the writer.

Does this mean I wouldn't accept a publishing contract? Sure, if the terms were right. But if I were selling enough to get notices, I might not. I'd love to have my Irish novel picked up by one of the big houses. It would be so good for my ego, but the others, not so sure. I don't discourage anyone from going after a good agent, but if that isn't happening, Kindle is.

I'm going to write more about this new world of publishing. In the meantime, please feel free to write with any questions.