Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rest Breaks for Writers--Feeding the Creative Artist

I'm rerunning this blog from last December, since it is timely at this season.  To honor my artist and focus on my writing, the blog will be taking a break until the first week of January.  Feel free to browse the archives back to 2008 for inspiration--and consider taking a rest break and feed your own creative artist this month!

There are some important signs of burn-out that writers need to attend to.  An overactive Inner Critic.  A feeling of the blues about one's work.  A sense of deep depletion, despite enough sleep and exercise.

December often rolls around with all of these symptoms, for me.  I'm finishing up my fall semester of teaching my online and in-person classes.  I adored them--the students were amazing, wonderful, and inspiring-- but I give so much to each group, holding the creative space for them when they can't see the pathway, it takes a lot of energy and time.  This week, as the classes complete and the last posts are made, I find myself sitting on the couch, staring at the mountains outside my living room window, wondering where I am.  More important, who I am.  I can't tell anymore.

Crying jags often accompany this, for me.  Wails of "I'll never write again" sometimes come too.  It's normal to dive even deeper as the tension releases and the stress lessens, as both body and emotions come forward with long-ignored needs. 

Don't get me wrong:  I eat healthily, I exercise regularly, I sleep reasonable hours, and I have good family and friends support.  I'm living a good life.  But in the realm of manifestation and creativity, which is what my work is all about, I had been stretched to the max these past months.  I didn't know any other gear to drive than Intense.  I didn't know how to get back to the "necessary boredom" that Dorothy Allison talks about, the place where my own creativity bubbles up.

Somehow, though, I'd managed to carve out three weeks in my calendar.  My spouse started a new job about that time, my son was visiting friends for the holidays, so I was alone.

Blissfully, frightfully alone, with nothing to do.  Or, let me rephrase, nothing anyone else was asking me to do.

So what next?  How do I make use of this nothing, and let it heal me, fill me up again?  I hadn't a clue how to begin.

Taking a Creative Retreat for the Inner Artist
I have a wonderful book for these occasions:  The Woman's Retreat Book by Jennifer Louden.  It's packed with ways to disengage and reacquaint yourself with yourself.  I found it on a back shelf, went back to my spot on the couch near the mountain view.  I closed my eyes and opened the book at random.  Of course, it opened to this section "Feeding the Artist."  I read the first line: "If there is one cosmic law I know the consequences of ignoring, it is this one:  you cannot create from an empty well."

Duh.  Why didn't I see this before I had my meltdown?  Well, obviously, when one is empty, it's hard to see that.  Many of us keep running anyway, fueled by adrenaline, and the joy of life gets dimmer and dimmer.  We lose track of where we are, who we are.  We get swept up with other people's lives (and creative needs--if you're a teacher).  It's all good, it's all important.  I love my work.  But there's a moment to say, "Stop!"  Let yourself go back to yourself.

I decided I would ignore both calendar and lists for these three weeks, as much as I could.  Even my visioning lists went into a nice blue folder and into my desk drawer.  I began to putter, to play.

The first day I cooked two soups.  I love to cook, and two soups in one day seemed lovely and extravagant.  Besides, the vegetable drawer was foreign territory and I could use up a dangerous-looking butternut squash (fine with the dangerous part cut off).  I took a walk and went to bed by 9.  The next day I listened to Christmas carols and wrapped a few gifts then read a lovely novel (Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann) and let myself nap.  Day three I got out the card table and started a jigsaw puzzle.  I cleaned out my clothes closet.  I took myself to lunch.

You get the idea.

One of Jennifer Louden's most important directives in this chapter on "Feeding the Artist" is not to create while you're filling the well.  Stop working on your project, stop trying to manifest anything.  Ugh, that was hard.  I hadn't had enough time to work on my novel-in-progress, so these three weeks were planned as full immersion.  But when I took out the manuscript and my editing pen, I froze up.  It all looked terrible--a sure sign of the Inner Critic's negative notions surfacing--and I couldn't bring myself to do anything.  Reading Louden's advice felt like a reprieve.

Funny thing.  As I began to fill up again, new ideas started coming.  I would be watching a movie or marveling at McCann's amazing prose, and I would find myself thinking very lightly about my own creative projects.  Images would come.  An idea of how to solve a sticky plot problem in the novel.  A place to get information I needed.  I didn't pursue these, just took notes.

I'm letting the creative tension build for another week.  It's getting fun.  I look forward to my empty days, I no long dread the thought of moving so slowly.

This Week's Writing Exercise 
1.  Take stock.  Do you need to feed the artist?  Is she or he starving from too much output and not enough input these past busy months?

2.  If the answer is yes, can you carve out time for a rest break?  Even five hours in a day when nothing is needed of you is amazing and precious.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Can Self-Publishing Land You on the Best-Seller List?

My indie-released songwriter friends never understood why writers are so hung up about self-publishing.  Musicians have long separated from the labels and ventured out on their own, releasing their own CDs and working with indie distributors like cdbaby. 

But we writers have been told that unless we get an agent and go the traditional route, we'll never be taken seriously in our writing careers. 

I went the traditional route for years--agent, large publisher, small press.  Each experience had its ups and downs and I worked with some wonderful editors and publishers and some not so.  I stayed away from the stigma of "vanity press," or self-publishing, because I believed it was a fast route to career suicide.

Besides, I wanted the marketing and distribution help a publisher could give.

Times have changed.  Advances are few and small now, most publishers don't have the same careful editorial procedures I benefited from as a writer starting out in the 1980s.  Manuscripts must arrive in pristine condition--the writer's responsibility.  Agents and publishers demand a platform, a solid marketing plan and media presence, from most authors they sign nowadays.  The writer must become more than just a wordsmith with a good story.  She has to learn to sell her book as well as write it.   

For this, writers get 7-1/2 percent of sales, which for a $14.00 trade size paperback amounts to about $1.13 per copy.  We do the marketing work, we hire editors before submitting it.  The publisher prints the book as orders come in (print on demand) in most cases, not wanting to carry inventory, or does a short run of less than 500 copies to see whether the book will sell.  Agents take 15 percent of everything.   

Some writers are thinking seriously about their options now.  Many are choosing self-publishing. 

They're figuring out the system themselves, they're crafting e-books and selling them for 99 cents a copy to drive up sales.  They're making money.  Even if they self-publish a printed book, through Create Space or Lightning Source, they can make up to $10.00 a copy after expenses are paid back (for typesetter, proofer, cover designer, and editor).   

Self-publishing requires money up front, for a printed book.  Less or none for an electronic book.  But if you're going to have to market it yourself anyway, why not make $10.00 a copy instead of $1.13?

What's your experience with self-publishing?  What are your thoughts?

Find out the potential, explore your options.  Don't be swayed by the traditional route when there are more opportunities for writers than ever.

Your writing exercise this week is to read all about writer Darcie Chan. She was rejected by over 100 literary agents and dozens of publishers, then went on to self-publish her debut novel and sell over 400,000 copies on Kindle.  Think this kind of story is a fairytale?  It's happening more and more.

The link to Darcie's story is here.

Self-publishing is still a controversial topic.  But as the industry takes one hit after another, it's an option many writers are considering--and succeeding with.

For more success stories about self-publishing also check out chapter 25 of my book, Your Book Starts Here.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Five Major Turning Points on the Road to Finishing a Book

Travelers in foreign territory often need good maps.  But book writers rarely have them.  We often don't know about the major stops--what I call "turning points"--in the book-writing journey.  It's hard to tell when we've arrived, when we're ready to move on, when the writing is finally enough.

These five turning points are often where we get stuck and frustrated.  Moving to the next level requires skills and a new approach,