It is Insane to Write and Publish a Book. There, I Said It.

“To feel alive.”

That is how a former client, Doug Sundheim, described the reason someone should embrace the idea of risk in their professional lives. This seems to align with the emotions that publishing a book evokes in an author, and would be my interpretation of how Miranda Beverly-Whittemore describes her emotions before her book is released next week:

“I’m feeling a general wash of anxiety when I first wake up every morning.”

What else is she feeling? Oh, a few things:

  • excited
  • nervous
  • guilty
  • chagrined
  • distracted
  • moved and honored

And this: “I’m also prone to burst into tears much more often than usual. Like, about anything.”

Another author, Porochista Khakpour explains her feelings around launching her book (taken from Facebook, with permission):

“Less than one month til publication and I constantly want to ask if something is wrong. There must be something wrong, yes? Is something wrong? It feels like something is wrong. I am lonely, broke, sick, exhausted, and sometimes happy. I still love my second novel. Is this okay? Is it okay to say, hello, I love this book I wrote? Am I kidding? Who am I kidding? I guess I have only a few (lovely) Goodreads reviews and a whole lot of NO Amazon reviews. Is this normal? Am I posting too much about the book? Not enough? I have not sent out a mass emailing–is that okay? Do you want me to? Is that the truth? The Amazon Q+A with a great guest author has not yet appeared on my Amazon page–is this fine? Does Amazon hate me? Some people I know and love have not said a word about my second novel–is this normal? Where is the husband I broke up with too early who could help reread this, who could wash the dishes, walk the dog? Why did I break up with him and him and him etc? How did it go the first time? Is the world different now? Do books exist? Did my first book exist? (Sales would indicate NO.) Do I exist? How much worrying is too much worrying? If I worry myself into a ditch, is there nowhere to go but up? Am I worrying to simply “go up?” What is up? Is it heaven? If I act too happy about photo shoots, am I seeming superficial? If I seem too sullen about photo shoots, am I being ungrateful? If I write this post then will people think I am a failure? Will they walk away from my book because I’ve slimed it in self-doubt? Is this the real me? Who am I? If I don’t write this post, am I just pretending? If I delete this post, am I trying to manipulate your image of me? Am I manipulating my image by participating here? Who do you think you are? Who do you think I am? Please don’t answer that…”

“I am not worried about sales for $. My sales will never make me rich, trust me. But my insecurity with this book is partially rooted in it taking over 2 years of trying to sell it with no success (the first book was sold in a couple months). This one every editor seemed to love and/or be impressed by but ultimately they would freak out about it (or marketing depts freaked out about it) when it came to the final moments. Months of almost-offers would turn into no offers. Part of it was that I had terrible sales with the first book (plus all the great reviews and press in the world, plus awards and awards-lists so maybe it looked even worse to have bad sales.) With this, it would be good to have enough sales so I can publish my third and fourth books but the numbers game is different when it comes to me. I have no delusions of bestseller-dom and all that. That is not even where my head is. This pre-pub experience is just crazy-making even when things are great.”

Some responses from her Facebook friends:

  • “I feel like I’m reading my own thoughts and fears as a writer spilled out onto the page in all their naked and vulnerable glory.”
  • “It is because you are putting yourself out there, and this can be vulnerable and painful. ”
  • “All of this, yes.”
  • “I adore you”
  • “I absolutely love this! Can so identify.”
  • “It is the ultimate expression of the hidden side of the writing life. I found it very human and very moving.”

This week, Miranda, Julia Fierro and I wrapped up a huge book giveaway that featured 24 authors whose books are coming out this spring/summer.

This was a wonderful way to support other writers, and help make 24 people going through a scary process feel as though they weren’t quite so alone. There is a recognition that they have taken an enormous leap, likely feel complex emotions around it, and as Doug may say, “feel alive” because of that process.

I’ve said this before: while there is SO MUCH an author can do to prepare for a successful book launch, they can’t really “plan” for one. So much of this is about trying to create a scenario whereby luck can more likely occur.

Clearly, it is totally and completely insane to write and publish a book. Right? Why would anyone do this? To invest the time and energy; to put yourself out there so completely; to risk yourself professionally and financially to such a huge degree?

It makes no practical sense.

Which is, of course, why writers are endlessly inspiring to me. Why this act of risk is so compelling, because for many writers, they describe their motivation as:

“Because I can’t not write.”

These are the music-makers. I have heard that “everyone wants to write a book,” and have come to believe that, at the very least, there is a compelling human desire to tell stories.

Last year, my wife and I bought a house that needed extensive renovations. We hired so many professionals to give this 100 year old house another 100 years of life. One of the people we hired has an almost magical power to work with his hands, to turn concrete, metal, wood and nails into a home.

He once asked me what I did for a living, and I told him I work with writers. He immediately paused, looked into the distance, and said:

“I always wanted to write a book about a squirrel.”

This blew me away. How immediately and thoughtfully he said it, and how with only the slightest nudge, he revealed something that he had clearly thought a lot about, but you would never know it based on his normal line of work.

That beneath the layers of dried concrete, dust, and oil on his hands, was a storyteller who had not yet put words to paper.

That we – all people – are made of stories. That we look for stories in every corner of our lives. That we, each of us, create stories.

And some of you write them down. And try to share them. And that is totally insane. And I thank you for it.
-Dan

Helping Kids Find Their Voices as Writers

How does a child find their voice? How are they given the skills and the freedom to express the world they experience?

I have worked with a public school in Harlem, PS 123, for about a decade now, and have recently started a new project with them focused on “student voice.” The goal is to bring in writers, artists, photographers and other creative professionals to show kids unique ways to find and express their voices.

When I first thought of this series, one person came to mind immediately as a guest speaker: Rachel Fershleiser. She does literary and nonprofit outreach at Tumblr, is the co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs, and helped create hundreds of events at Housing Works Bookstore in NYC. Rachel is just freaking amazing.

This week, Rachel came up to PS 123 and helped a group of fifth graders learn how to write their own six-word memoirs. The results were powerful, and represent the tip of the iceberg of who these kids are and what they can create in the world:

What most blows me away by this is that this was created within 45 minutes. Imagine if these kids kept writing, kept honing their ability to share and create.

A Tumblr was created to publish the students’ work, again representing the nearly immediate way that someone can not just express their voice, but share it with the world: http://5-501.tumblr.com

Here is a look at the workshop:

I would like to thank Rachel for being so generous of her time, it’s not an easy thing to work with a group of 5th graders and help them create something special within a single hour!

I would also like to thank Sarah Chesson from PENCIL, a nonprofit that helps coordinate partnerships like the one I have with PS 123. And of course: THANK YOU to the faculty (esp Principal Hernandez, Ms. Stewart and Ms. Mann), students and community of PS 123 who allowed us to be a very small part of their lives.

My partnership with PS 123 started years ago, and I often wonder where these students are now, what they may be doing, and of course, if they are writing:

Thanks.
-Dan

 

 

How You Fail Determines How You Succeed

My recent guest post on Writer Unboxed:

“Even if you have something really good. Even if people really like it. It takes so much MORE in order to succeed.”
These are words from my friend Andrea, at a meetup I helped run last night that brought together local creative professionals.

The group shared stories of their own journey to craft a creative life & business, and observations from friends and colleagues.

Andrea shared another quote, from a local shop owner who, after opening her doors and struggled to develop a clientele:

“I didn’t realize how hard it would be to just bring in $100.”

This is akin to an author dreaming of their book launch, and wondering how many hundreds or thousands of books they will sell, and plateauing at 75 books sold.

It is so difficult to write a book, and to then publish a book, that the concept of developing an audience and selling books can be downright paralyzing to any reasonable author. (luckily, most authors live in a dreamworld, to their credit!)
🙂

There is so much risk in choosing to write and publish a book…

Read the full post here.

Don’t Make It Perfect. Just Make It Better.

“I have bits & pieces but don’t know how to construct a coherent plan from all of it.”

These are words an author shared with me this week, and it sounded so familiar. This is a challenge that many writers go through. They are super smart, they have read so many “helpful” articles and blog posts, and read books and attended conference sessions, etc to learn how to develop an audience for their books. BUT… they are drowning in a sea of “wonderful” ideas, without any process by which to move forward.

I had a conversation with another author who was considering hiring me for consulting. As we talked about his goals, he seemed vacillate between two emotions:

  • I’M SMART & HAVE SKILLS
    In describing his specific goals it was clear that he could feasibly go through the book launch and marketing ideas on his own. He has the basic skills to do so, and is obviously very smart.

  • I’M OVERWHELMED
    In describing his plans, he quickly became totally overwhelmed when he realized how many balls he had in the air, and how adding any more would adversely affect his other obligations at work and home.

Talking through this, I told him that my biggest fear, and the thing I see most often with other authors, is that 12 months from now, his plans will remain undone. That even though he is smart (he knows what he wants), he has skills (he knows how to get it done), that the last part (I’m overwhelmed) will overshadow these things.

That sometimes, you bring partners into a process because doing things together is not only less lonely, but more effective. In the past, I used the Weight Watchers system as an example:

A primary reason Weight Watchers works is that it is inherently social. You are encouraged to show up to a group meeting for a weigh-in, to chat with other members, and the Weight Watchers staff. This process offers encouragement, you learn how others are finding success in losing weight, and you build powerful relationships with those who have similar goals. Over time, you may want to lose weight not just for your own sake, but to ensure you don’t let the group down. Your purpose has become communal, and you feel a sense of accountability.”

Another important aspect to build momentum is the value of process. That a simple process that encourages small actions can be more powerful than a complex plan. I have been considering a simple prompt that a friend shared with me months ago:

“How can I make it better?”

This seems like the simple challenge that each of us face in our lives.

Whether these are issues of craft.
Of work/life balance.
Of interpersonal relationships.
Of lawn care.

That the goal is not “how can I fix everything and make it super awesome!”
Because that road is long and twisting. Because to reach “awesome,” is often more of a process than a destination or achievement.

For instance:

  • Can you write bestselling novel after bestselling novel?
  • Can you find total fulfillment in every aspect of your career and total complete peace at home?
  • Can you make everyone like you?
  • Can your lawn be perfect?

Honestly: probably not. Sorry.

But you can make each better. Within 30 days, you can learn how to:

  • Write a better sentence.
  • Feel better about specific task in your job.
  • Repair one aspect of a broken friendship.
  • Get 20% of your lawn 10% greener.

I’ve written in the past about how bored I have become with chasing “best practices.” (see: Why “Best Practices” Lead to Mediocre Results) That there is often a false promise in these (e.g.: “5 simple ways to make your book go viral using Goodreads!”), and that the describe things that works for a handful of people two years ago, but have since been diluted. That I’d rather see authors:

  1. Be more focused on honing their craft.
  2. Better understanding their audience.
  3. Get clearer on the motivations and messaging that connects those two things.
  4. Have meaningful conversations that lead to trusting relationships, and doing this often.

Why?

Because these are all things that were critical for success 30 years ago.
Are critical for success today.
And will be critical for success 30 years from now.

Too many people are pursuing “best practices” waiting to “go viral.” They are hoping to find some “secret” way of using Amazon that is akin to winning the lottery.

Success comes from relationships and empathy, not buttons.

Many authors are starting in a place they are slightly unsure of.
Slightly embarrassed about.
Slightly afraid of.

So they need to start one thing: make it better.

Not amazing. Not perfect. Just better than a day ago. Than a week ago. Than a month ago.

Oftentimes, this is about establishing the right habits. Perhaps it could be:

  1. Write daily
  2. Change one work habit that gives them an extra 15 minutes of breathing room each day
  3. Have a conversation with one ideal reader each week
  4. Understand one new thing about how your stories connect with that reader’s heart and mind

If you are hoping to build processes such as these into your writing life,
I just announced the next session of my 8-week online course: Get Read: Find Readers and Build Your Author Platform, which begins May 5.

Thanks!
-Dan