Some time ago, my awesome editor, Gayle F. Moffet, had interviewed me in the anticipation of the release of my third book. This is me returning the favor.
Warning: enough of a wall of text to make a house (her words)
KG: What’s your best-fitting market, in your own opinion, and why?
GM: Six months ago, I would have said the short story market, but I’m actually writing stories now that are too long for what a lot of publications want right now. Up the Waterspout (shameless plug) is about 6000 words, and about two-thirds of the markets I researched for it wanted much shorter work. I think it’s the influence of flash fiction in the last few years. People read it and love it, so they want to help produce the same sort of work. I’m a huge fan myself, but I haven’t written any flash recently because all my work has become longer form short stories.
So, the short answer to the long answer is that I’m not quite sure. Right now, I’m still working in short story markets, and I enjoy the form very much, but I don’t know that I have a best-fitting market just yet.
KG: Do you feel that you may try writing “outside the box”, and if so, what would you write?
GM: I recently read a blog post (and, of course, cannot find the link again to save my life), about how new writers should attempt to stick to a particular genre or style because it’ll help build a consistent audience, but I have a magpie brain, so I’ve written a lot of different stuff and am sort of “outside the box” on accident at this point. But if I really got to go full-on with it–and do it on purpose–I’d want to do a really weird comic book, I think. Something like a comic crossed with House of Leaves, which I have yet to get through but fall in love with every time I flip through it. I have no idea how I’d pull it off, as comics as a form have a very specific form of guidelines, but I’d love to try and break it and see what could be done with the wireframe of it.
KG: What is the best piece of writing that you have read, and why?
GM: If I have to pick just one, it’s got to be The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve read it ten times (just finished it again, in fact), and every single time I read it I see something new or pick up a new hint of how the book unfolds, and it’s beautifully pieced together. I was going to send my old paper copy to a friend of mine until I realized I’d underlined all the hints of the massive plot point that drives the last part of the book. I couldn’t send it to her because I wanted her to read it without me giving away the point.
It’s not just the plot, either. It’s deeply, deeply researched, and Kingsolver writes a beautiful set of characters. The whole book is told from the perspective of the four daughters of the family, and they are each distinct, interesting characters. I recommend it all the freaking time, especially for people who may be sort of worn down by the way a lot of female literary fiction concentrates on how women are mistreated or abused or just treated badly. All of the characters go through some serious changes and have serious, sad events happen to them, but the concentration isn’t just on those events; it’s on their whole lives, and those lives just happen to include those events.
KG: What advice would you give to authors seeking the professional writer’s path?
GM: Do. Your. Research. Know the kind of effort you’re going to have to put in. You will always do more than write. Even if you go traditional, getting to that point still requires not just writing but editing and researching agents and querying and writing more (because maybe your first book isn’t what they want, but they want to see what you do next). Self-pub means you’re agreeing to take on every aspect yourself. You’re writing. You’re editing. You’re marketing. You’re trying to build a brand without the assistance you get from a traditional writer-agent-publisher set-up, and that’s hard, hard work. Hell, most of the people who sign with traditional publishers still fight obscurity. Not because the publisher isn’t behind them and isn’t helping them (though that has been known to happen on occasion), but because it’s you–a single person–against every other single person with a book on the shelves.
And please, I beg of you, please do not kid yourself about being an artist. I’ve said it repeatedly, and I will keep repeating it: Writing is not art. Writing is more than art. Writing is work. The reason you always hear “write everyday” is because you have to treat writing like a job. Because it is a job. I don’t think you have to write every single day, but you have to recognize that you’ll be doing some type of related work every single day. Maybe you write 3,000 words on Monday and spend the rest of the week researching how to market your work or compiling a list of possible agents. That’s not time taken away from your writing; that’s time sunk in to keep your writing alive. Don’t ever confuse the two.
KG: Speaking of research, self-publication is growing! In fact, you’ve edited two of my three books, which are self-published. And you have self-published work available in your own right. Self-pub vs. trad-pub is an ongoing debate. How do you see it all?
GM: At its core, it’s all the same thing, right? You want to be published. You want people to read your work. The trick is to decide what works best for you. Ten years ago–hell, five years ago–I would have said, “Dear god, why would you self-publish? What is this CreateSpace you speak of and what’s the point?” But now? Maybe it’s exactly what you need and exactly what works. The first Kindle launched in 2007. Ebooks now account for about 15-20% of the whole publishing market. And before anyone scoffs at that percentage, I’d like to point out that 20% of the publishing market is still millions of books a year. Publishing hasn’t seen a jump like this since–I don’t even know. Gutenberg, maybe? I truly believe the ebook is that revolutionary.
Even if ebooks hadn’t taken off like a shot when the Kindle launched, it still opened up an entirely new way of doing publishing business. I’m in grad school right now at Portland State University, and I take classes in their publishing program, which centers around a fully operational publishing house called Ooligan. One of the classes is called Intro to Publishing and is, basically, an ongoing discussion about where the industry is and where it might go and what might happen in the next five to ten years. The professor told us to research what it would cost to get a press up and running based on whatever criteria we felt would make a good press. Having recently fallen madly in love with ebooks, I started crunching numbers. Do you know what it costs to set up an ebook only publishing house in Portland, Oregon? About $500. And most of that goes towards paying copyright costs and buying a short list of ISBNs.
$500. To start a company. To start, noticeably, a publishing company. This is what ebooks have brought us: the ability to say, “We will read X. We will write Y. We can find our own market and make our own choices and be our own creative directors, and there is a real, honest chance people will read our work.”
It’s hugely romantic, isn’t it? And, let’s be honest, we know how I feel about that. So let me say this: There is already an Amanda Hocking. You will not be her. But you know what? Who gives a shit. Here’s what matters: That $500 is completely optional. You don’t have to start up a publishing house and buy ISBNs and pay for copyright stamps in your books if they’re your books. If you’re publishing just your own stuff, you need a login, a file, and a certain amount of patience while you wait for a story to upload and get vetted.
But do remember, if you’re considering self-publishing, that there’s a load of baggage that comes with the term. Having complete creative control over your own work, having the option to take on an editor or do your own tweaking gets people on the hump of the assumption camel and leads to the camel spitting at your feet. Labored metaphor aside, what I’m saying is that for complete creative control, for a better royalty (most traditional publishing contracts top out at about 15% for royalties), you’re giving up a certain amount of prestige. People think self-publishing is a purely vanity effort for people who aren’t talented or hard-working enough to do it the “real” way. It is complete crap. Are there lazy self-published writers? Yes. But there are lazy traditionally published writers. Are there hacky self-pubs? Yes. Are there questionably talented self-pubs? Yes. But those things, again, are equally as true for traditional publication.
Here’s my takeaway on the matter: You are exactly what you put into your work. How you put your work out there is absolutely up to you, but don’t get your head up your ass because you think someone else is doing it wrong. We’re in an industry that is having sweeping change applied to it with a vastness I can’t describe in a succinct way. Don’t try to assume someone’s doing it wrong. We literally don’t know exactly what the industry is going to be like in five years, and that’s not something anyone’s said about the industry in a very, very long time.
KG: What is one of the best self-pub routes, and what is a good, reputable trad-pub route, if one has an agent? Let’s touch on both.
For self-pub, I’ve used Kindle Direct and Pubit! and Smashwords. I’m creating a POD copy of my anthology on CreateSpace as we speak. I don’t have any major issues with any of them, occasional bouts of swearing when upload is slow aside. I do think Smashwords, while providing a valuable distribution service, is my least liked option. There is nothing wrong with it as an idea, but I don’t like that they only allow .doc files. I’m a tech writer by day. I know InDesign. It’s industry-standard in publishing, and I firmly believe you should know and be able to work within the standards of your industry. Kindle and Pubit! (man, how I hate that exclamation point), don’t require you to know InDesign, but they offer you the option to upload in .epub format, which can be created in InDesign. Smashwords doesn’t give you that option, and it makes me twitch. I understand that not everyone has InDesign or wants to learn it, but I feel it should be encouraged even if it’s only the allowance of an .epub or a .pdf (which, yes, you can create in Word, but my point stands).
I will say, Smashwords’ Meatgrinder is a thing of beauty. That is a brilliant little piece of software, and I sort of love it.
Now, regarding CreateSpace, which is a different type of publishing (print vs. ebooks), I have nothing but good things to say. Again, they let me upload a .pdf, so I can design in InDesign, but more importantly, they provide a stack of document templates so that a lot of the guesswork is taken out of formatting. They offer some services if you’d care to partake, but they’re not required. Funnily enough, when I was building my InDesign file to turn it into a .pdf, I wasn’t sure if my margins and gutter were correct, so I downloaded the template from CreateSpace and stole the measurements. The result? Perfect proof. Even better, CreateSpace lets you view an online version of the proof that shows you where your margins are and how your text stacks up against them. I ended up adjusting my margins slightly out of preference, and when I loaded it back in, the changes were clear. I really do highly recommend it if you want a printed book.
Regarding traditional publication, it’s a little trickier. Ebook self-pubs are so new that the options are still fairly limited, but traditional publishing has been around for a very long time. There are a thousand ways to get scammed to hell and back in traditional publishing. Here are the tricks I know:
1. Be wary of reading fees. They’re not all a sign of a shady organization, but make certain you know where the money is going. There are some publications that charge a reading fee because that fee is used as part of a prize pool, much like the way you’d throw ten bucks into a communal poker pot for the chance to win everyone’s ten bucks. There are reading fees that are absolutely bogus: No agent should charge you a reading fee, and don’t trust reading fees that come along with the promise of payment “upon publication,” but don’t assume every single fee is a trick.
2. Research your prospective agents. And I mean research. Dig up, dig down, dig sideways. Just because you get an agent doesn’t mean that agent is necessarily going to offer the sort of support you need. There’s a book called Merchants of Culture that is about the publishing industry in terms of money and trends and what-have-you, and there’s a heart-breaking story about a woman who got an agent, got a publisher, and turned out a string of moderately successful mystery novels. She found out, after a few years, that she wasn’t getting nearly the support that a fellow author at the same publishing house was getting, and she tried to get her agent to explain why. Her agent stopped returning her calls. So the writer called the publishing house and happened upon someone new to the flock who was kind enough to tell her that her agent was known for getting publishing contracts but generally not giving a damn once they had been signed.
Which brings me to my next suggestion:
3. Research freaking everything. And I mean everything. Try to come up with the most obscure questions anyone could have about a press or their workings and ask those questions. You can start pretty simple: How many books do they put out a year? How many stores will my books be in? What is my royalty rate for paper books? For ebooks? What are the expectations of me as an author? How will I be utilized during marketing? Once you have those questions answered, build up. How many authors does this press have? How many of those authors have had some modest success? Is my agent blacklisted anywhere? Does my agent actually want to help me with my workload in regards to marketing? And on, and on, and on. Pay very close attention to the answers you get. Read between the lines of anything that sounds remotely rehearsed. An ounce of paranoia can save you years of frustration and anger.
This one got really long!
KG: Yes it did! But now let’s get personal. Tell me about…editing books. Use mine as an example if you would, on the account that you’ve done two, and I have every intention of having you for the others.
GM: God, it makes me so happy to hear that; you have no idea. Editing books is sort of like cooking for friends with allergies. You want to eat something you like, but you don’t want someone to break out in hives. With editing, I want to edit and help produce a story I like to read, but I don’t want to take away the author’s voice. It’s especially interesting to work on a manuscript when I’m knee-deep in my own work. I know my own style, obviously, and I have to remind myself what my preference is versus what edits I’m making. Grammar and mechanics are fairly easy to edit. These are objective tasks. I have a style guide, the author should have a style guide, and we should be agreed that it is the final word on things if we get into a discussion on usage. It’s in the storytelling where you have to watch yourself as an editor (and where you should be watching your editor).
I’m going to do a quick style comparison between you and I. I write Greyhounds, and you write Bulldogs. My stories are generally pared down to the essentials. I may write long paragraphs, but they flow very quickly. You are more likely to write long paragraphs, and they are square little packages full of information. You love to paint your whole picture, and I’m more likely to provide a pretty good outline for other people to color in. We are pretty close to being on the opposite sides of how we tell our stories. I do push you for more dialogue from time-to-time, but I do everything I can to keep your voice your voice. You love your voice, and so I do everything I can to bring what you sound like to the forefront.
This is the job of an editor: To make an author sound better. An author’s voice shouldn’t get weaned out, and if you’re a writer with an editor and keep feeling like your voice is getting squashed, you need a new editor. I say that in good faith, working on the theory that if you’ve gotten an editor it means you understand that the editor’s job is to adjust things, to sharpen ideas and help you figure out what to cut.
The thing you need to know the most: Editors are trained to cut what they think need to go and not justify their actions at every single edit. Authors should be trained to recognize that just because an editor cuts something doesn’t mean it has to stay that way, or that it’s an insult to the work. If you’re not asking questions sometimes, you’re in a bad editing relationship. Hell, KG, how many conversations have we had about the most minute details? Dozens, probably? And sometimes, I’ve said, “You know what? Do it your way.” Not to shut you up or get away from you, but because the discussion helped me see why it needed to be done a certain way. At the same time there are plenty of times my response has been, “Yeah. That’s great and everything. Nut up and fix it.” An editor not willing to stand by their edits is a bad editor. But an editor not willing to discuss and debate changes is even worse. The job of a writer is to justify the existence of their story, to prove that it’s something people should read. The job of an editor is to help tell that story by going to bat for the grammar and mechanics and voice and tone and all those bits and pieces.
Do note, I don’t tell all my clients to “Nut up.” Well, not in those terms. You and I are friends, and it’s a friendship that was built from a professional relationship. I can tell you to sack up and get to work because we’ve built a relationship of respect and trust for one another that allows us to peel back some politeness and be our blunt selves.
Which brings me to another important point: If you have personality conflicts with your editor, it is a perfectly fine reason to get a different editor. You need an editor you can talk to comfortably. If you feel like you’re being dismissed or talked down to or even if it’s as simple as your editor swears too much for your liking, switch to a different editor. There is nothing wrong with fighting for the right to work with someone who works well with you. You’re not going to be nearly as productive as team if you’re secretly plotting someone’s horrendous murder by paper cut.
If you didn’t catch it before, I love my editor.