[Behind the Book] Loveyoubye

By the time I was ready to submit my memoir, Loveyoubye, for publication I was already burned out from my efforts to get my two YA African-based novels, Monkey’s Wedding and Mine Dances, published. A real sob story, that one. At the last moment my publisher merged with another house and I was dumped. This was during all the changes taking place in the publishing industry, along with the advent of vampire and teen fantasies.

My agent and I parted company and I launched back into the fray to get published. But then my husband started disappearing for weeks at a time and I threw myself into writing Loveyoubye to try to make sense of it all. After I finished the book, I went through the whole rigmarole of querying again and got a few nibbles. But it was only after I was rejected by a well-known agent, a solid recommendation (which assured me of at least a fair chance)—“the writing is excellent, but it would be a tough sell in today’s publishing climate”—that I decided to check out other publishing options.

As I’m sure anyone who has researched alternatives to traditional publishing knows, it’s a mind-boggling, soul-sucking process. Even the terms given to the various available options are confusing. Literary agent Jane Friedman breaks it down to “Partnership,” “Fully-Assisted,” “DIY + Distributor” and “DIY Direct,” while others contend that overall there are only two options: “Subsidy” and “Self-Publishing.” The more I researched, the more frustrated and discouraged I became. The “subsidy/partnership/fully-assisted” publishing services were either too expensive, or, as in the case of Windy City, who published a friend’s book, way too expensive (plus they did a bad editing job).

And as for self-publishing. I’d read every how-to book I could get my hands on, as well as all those online guides. I knew that if I set my mind to it, I could do it. But honestly, I really didn’t want to. The whole proposition made me want to take up drinking the hard stuff. And then there was the stigma attached to self-published books because of the generally poor quality of the writing/editing, along with the fact that unless you’re a marketing maniac like Amanda Hocking, et al, most self-pubbed books don’t have a long shelf life. I didn’t want to be another Wile E. Coyote charging over the cliff, beep-beeping all the way to the bottom of the canyon floor.

So while I agonized over which path to take, I had Loveyoubye professionally edited. Whatever I ended up doing, I wanted to make sure I started out with a scoured and polished manuscript. I chose Thomas White, a recommended professional editor and Pushcart nominee. He not only helped me tighten and clarify, he asked all those questions my mentor and other readers hadn’t; he made me dig clear down to my toes.

Enter She Writes Press. Something a little different. Although it called itself Partnership Publishing, SWP vetted submissions. That’s a biggie. It took three months for me to decide to sign. Still hoping for a publisher on a white horse to come galloping along with a huge advance in hand? Probably. But the fact of the matter is I needed to move forward, a big theme in my book. So I signed. Decision made. And then it struck me: I had committed to having my heart, guts, and soul laid out in print. The final step forward.

In tailoring my essay as to how I made the decision to publish with SWP, I didn’t mention the recently added bonus of having Ingram Publishing Services come on board as SWP’s distributor. They usually only handle traditional publishers. It was a coup for SWP. And a coup for me. Now I’ll have a sales force behind me, as well as become eligible for reviews by Publisher’s Weekly, and similar outlets that normally don’t review “partnership” or self-published books. Loveyoubye will be coming out in April 2014. 

[Behind the Book] An Author’s Dream-Come-True Moments

“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.”

~Gloria Steinem

On a sunny February afternoon in 2013, a big brown UPS truck pulled up in front of my house. My husband and I spied it from our open garage, where I was admiring the custom stain he’d applied to the oak mantel he was building. Tom is always ordering one or another widget or gadget from obscure websites that provide replacement parts or new attachments for his other widgets and gadgets. Deliveries are a near daily occurrence at the Fasbinder house. But when the UPS driver, Dave (I learned his name later) pulled out the second of what would be eight identical boxes addressed to me, my heart hammered against my ribs.

It’s my book. The words rang in my ears.

I know that the singular noun form is grammatically incorrect, and that eight boxes contain plural books, not a single book. But in my mind these were not eight boxes, each containing twenty-eight books. This was my book. Writers understand in their bones the distinction I make here. While Dave continued to unload boxes and Tom assisted, I snatched a utility knife from the garage.

Buzzing in the background, Tom and Dave chatted–I suppose about the weather, or the Giants, or how many stops Dave had that day. I heard none of it. I had been deafened by the contents of the box.

There it was, my book, cloned and stacked with its littermates, birthed by their mother press. I held my breath. There before me sat a thing previously held only in my imagination, a real and actual noun—a touchable thing that had dimension and weight, color and texture. I picked up one copy and stroked its felt-finished cover. Smelled its inky pages. Eyed the cover image that seemed to emit its own light.

“That’s a lot of books,” Dave said to Tom.

“Yeah, my wife’s a writer.” I’d never before heard Tom use this description of me. I’ve always written, but it hasn’t been my day job. My heart rate must’ve launched me to diagnosable cardiac distress levels at that point.

“Congratulations,” Dave said to me. “What’s it about?”

This would be my first presentation as a published author. Author…another new noun had entered my life with this delivery. “It’s set in San Francisco,” I stammered,  “and it’s about the perils of passion and the seemingly inextricable link between artistic genius and madness.” (Full disclosure: that’s not how I described the book that day. It’s more likely that I blubbered unintelligible nonsense about it being a dark love story…but not a romance romance…I mean…you know, something that men would like too and all…and on and on. My babbling wouldn’t be so great in the re-telling and I’ve worked on my elevator pitch since then, so I’ve taken poetic license with my own dialogue here.)

“Sounds good,” Dave said.

On impulse I asked, “Would you like a copy? As my thanks for being the one that delivered it?” Suddenly my ears got hot. I mean really, what could the man say? Maybe he didn’t even read books. Perhaps he was wishing he’d just delivered eight boxes of the newest version Grand Theft Auto, or cases of Jim Beam, or a gross of banana hammocks.

“Wow, that would be great!” he said with genuine enthusiasm. Then a sheepish expression crossed his rugged face. “But is it okay if I ask you to sign it? When you get famous, I’ll be able to brag that I got the first copy.”

My cheeks throbbed as I penned my first inscription on the title page of Fire & Water. Childish glee tickled the entire surface of my skin as I handed Dave the book.

To be truthful, by this point my publishing path had taken a detour from my original dream. About the time I was ready to submit my book for publication, the usually narrow openings in the doors of traditional publishers—my Plan A—had been closed even more tightly by the recession and the continuing consolidation of the big houses into fewer, bigger publishing houses. This was especially true for the unpublished and unknown. Light barely shone through the cracks in those doors by this point. I got an agent, tried to stick my little pinky newbie toe in the door’s hairline crack, but eventually decided I’d like to have a book—maybe even two or three books—before I become eligible for Social Security. When Plan B, an alternative publishing path appeared before me, I struggled with the idea at first, but then it just felt right.

In hindsight, I know a big part of why this dream-come-true moment occurred is because Plan A didn’t happen. I chose to publish my book with an indie, partnership publisher, in my case She Writes Press. SWP’s acceptance of my book gave me the external validation that the book was “good enough to be published,” a validation I’ll admit I’m shallow enough to need and that purely self-publishing didn’t quite provide for me. And it is no accident that the book is exactly as I hoped; I was included by the press in every stage of its design. This is rare, if not unheard of for newbies at big houses. With my indie, my input was valued and balanced with the skill and knowledge of professionals whose suggestions kept me from making at least a dozen rookie mistakes while staying true to my vision of the story and the finished book. Plan B can sometimes work out better than Plan A…if you’re open to it.

The commercial side of publishing and promoting a book can get overwhelming, discouraging, and just plain tedious. It’s easy fall into the trap of cynicism about “the book business” or to get jaded about yet another novel arriving in the world. But I’m dedicated to celebrating every one of these little dream-come-true moments. I’m doing all I can to imagine new stories and books into reality. I’ll choose silly excitement, girlish glee, and gratitude over cynicism and discouragement every time.

And I’ll always remember Dave the UPS driver as the first guy who got a signed copy of my first book, on the day my husband first called me a writer.

Don’t miss a chance to get a FREE download of Fire & Water, available July 26, 27, and 28th. You can order directly to your Kindle, iPad, or Android reader as well as you PC. This is a great way to support indie and self-published authors.

In the Company of Women.

Yesterday morning, I took a shuttle and a ferry boat to Whidbey Island–the home, for twenty-five years now, of the Hedgebrook Writers’ Colony, a retreat for women writers. I am here for a pre-AWP pow wow with Brooke Warner, the publisher of She Writes Press, Amy Wheeler, the Executive Director of Hedgebrook, and some of the women of VIDA, including Cate Marvin, Amy King and Jennifer Fitzgerald. (Jennifer and Cate had to excuse themselves yesterday morning to do an NPR Morning Edition interview about The Count, one of the most important advocacy tools for women writers anywhere. So cool.) Sometimes I feel like my life is a parody — I am the co-founder of the New York Salon of Women Writers, board chair of Girls Write Now, a founder of She Writes and She Writes Press, formerly of the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford and fiction/nonfiction editor for Women’s Studies Quarterly, and now I’m thinking about starting a chick poker night at my place on Fridays.

Any reasonable person might ask: is there some reason I don’t want to be around men?

The fact is that I enjoy men, a lot. I am dating the best one I’ve ever met (yes, we are still in that phase–after five years of being single in the post-divorce wilderness I am madly, stupidly in love), and I’ve got two little men-to-be living with me who are on track so far to be the most wonderful, and most feminist, men ever. My son’s friends are delightful, and so is my father, my brother, and the many other men I call my friends. But when I need the space to be creative, or want to bring people together to build something new or help me solve a problem, it’s almost always women I gravitate to.

I can trace this back to my first meeting with Diane Middlebrook in London more than ten years ago. I had always been a feminist–my mother made sure of that–but Diane was the one who brought me definitively into the she-space by inviting me to be her co-host in founding a salon of women writers. (You can read more about Diane and the salon’s role in seeding She Writes here.) I remember vividly sitting on the deck of her flat on Warrington Crescent, the white balustrade of the terrace bright against the leafy green trees below, the two of us at a small round table, imagining what the salon might be like. The vision that emerged (really, Diane’s) was to bring writers of all generations and genres together at her home or mine to discuss the craft and the business of writing. The mission was unabashedly practical: members of the salon would leave each evening better educated, more inspired, and better connected, than when they arrived. And it would be for women only. Diane observed that some of the women we planned to invite wouldn’t like this–they would feel we were creating a second-class salon, a place for women at the kids table rather than at high table with the grownups, aka men. But when I closed my eyes and imagined who we would ask to speak to us, and who would dominate the discussion that followed, it was as clear to me as it was to her: if men were there, it wouldn’t be what we wanted–or, more important, needed–it to be.

And what did we need it to be? Two seemingly contradictory things: a place where we could forget about being women…and never be asked to forget we were women, either. Having only women in the room made this possible. On the one hand, it freed us, from speakers to attendees, from the “woman writer” prism/prison women are inevitably seen through in a world where “women’s writing” is treated as a sub-genre of male Writing-with-a-capital-W. Diane, a biographer, kicked off our first salon talking about the peculiar ins-and-outs of fair use as they pertained to her work on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and was free to fully immerse herself in her topic without being the token woman on a panel, for example, or being asked how, as a woman, she could be so admiring of Ted Hughes’ poetry. (Both of these things happened to her often in other venues.) At the same time, we could quickly and easily convene a panel to address the Chick Lit label, featuring women like Alix Kates Shulman and Laura Miller of Salon.com, and feel free to have a passionate discussion about its impact on us as women writers without being accused of whining or being told shut up.

I need both of those things. I need to be a writer without being a Woman Writer. I also need to be able to candidly discuss and strategize with other women about being read, reviewed and treated as a Woman Writer, because I will be whether I like it or not. The places and spaces where I can do that aren’t ghettos or hide-outs. They are fueling stations, where I power-up and increase my power-to’s. I come to them not to escape the world, but to fortify myself to flourish in it.

Maybe someday women won’t need or want to gather exclusively in the company of women anymore. But for me, that time hasn’t come yet.

How about you?

The New Era of Publishing

I spent this past week in beautiful San Miguel de Allende, a city that earned itself the title of Best City in the World in Conde Nast this year. There’s no question about it: San Miguel is a special town. I got invited last year to present on a panel called Women Write Their Lives, moderated by the gracious and passionate Amy Ferris. I owe her a debt of gratitude for introducing me to the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference—and, by extension, the town.

In today’s post I want to share about the first panel I sat on, called The New Era of Publishing, moderated by change agent April Eberhardt. My fellow panelists were Betsy Graziani Fasbinder, author of Fire & Water, and Stephanie Bennett Vogt, author of Your Spacious Self. If you have an hour, it’s worth listening to.

Even though I live this stuff, it’s helpful to hear (over and over again, if you have to) about the different publishing paths. They’ve changed so much, even in the last three or four years.

April kicked off the panel with a definition of the five types of publishing that exist, acknowledging that arguably there are others (and I think there are). These are:

1. Traditional publishing

2. Partnership publishing

3. Hybrid publishing

4. Assisted publishing

5. True DIY (do-it-yourself) self-publishing

We all know what traditional is. It’s publishing as we’ve known it, and it continues to be (though increasingly less so) most authors’ dream. This is the path where the Powers That Be deign you the good and rightful owner of the keys to the kingdom. And, as April says right at the top of the hour, it’s a fairy tale.

Next is partnership. Now this is what She Writes Press is doing. We are a partnership publisher. Lumped into partnership publishing is “subsidy publishing,” and though we are a subsidy press, because the author pays for our services, we are very different from, for instance, the Author Solutions imprints (which include Simon & Schuster’s Archway, Hay House’s Balboa, Thomas Nelson’s Westbow, and countless others like Author House, Xlibris, and iUniverse). We’re different because we are mission-driven, there’s a publisher at the helm of our company, we are curated, and we have traditional distribution. But at the end of the day, partnership publishing is about partnership. You just have to be careful and make sure to choose a good (and ethical) partner.

When it comes to hybrid publishing, April introduces the idea of the hybrid author, those authors who are doing some traditional and some alternative publishing. There are big-name authors who are walking this line: Stephen King, Hugh Howey, and David Mamet to name a few. The idea behind hybrid is that the author chooses, but in order to choose you must first be deemed worthy, as it were, of being “allowed” to publish traditionally. For me, the hybrid publishing route is actually qualified as a publisher who co-publishes with you. The primary difference between a hybrid relationship and a partnership relationship has to do with the creative negotiations. Whereas partnership publishing is a package of services, hybrid publishing is generally (in my experience) when a traditional house takes on an author and then negotiates with that author to pay for part of the production of their own book, or for a guaranteed buy-in. Many traditional publishers are doing this, or have done it for years, without really talking about it—which is both interesting and slightly controversial now that partnership and subsidy publishing are on the rise. I’ve argued recently that author subsidization cannot be the sole measure by which we determine a book’s worth (since self-published books are barred from both traditional reviews and many contests). So for me hybrid represents an in-between but legitimized space where traditional publishers are doing partnership publishing. For others it represents authors’ freedom to move about the publishing world as they see fit—picking self-publishing for some projects and traditional for others. But like I said, to get to a place where you can choose you must first be invited into the inner circle.

Assisted self-publishing is a cool category, and I’ve done a lot of work in this space too. This is when a coach or an agent (or just a knowledgeable team) takes you through the process of self-publishing. Many coaches are getting into this now, because there is so much to know. And like I say all the time, you don’t know what you don’t know—and this could not be more true in book publishing. It’s a complicated industry, even though it’s relatively easy to produce books. There’s a steep learning curve, so why reinvent the wheel? In my opinion, assisted self-publishing makes way more sense than DIY, unless you’re a die-hard maverick who’s looking to make publishing part of your business strategy and future goals.

Finally, DIY self-publishing is when you truly do it yourself. The line between assisted and DIY self-publishing is probably somewhat blurry, in that those authors who DIY well will invariably have an educated team behind them. DIY self-publishers are publishers. They establish their own imprints, hire out their own editors and designers, and oversee every part of the process. I suppose this makes it somewhat different from assisted self-publishing as well, because with assisted self-publishing those agents and coaches often play the role of manager—responsible for signing off on the final edits, cover designs, proofs, etc. In order to DIY well, again, you must know something about publishing. You must know the Chicago Manual of Style and good design. Most authors do not DIY well, but those who do wear an extra badge of honor because there truly are so many places where you can go wrong.

It’s good to know what’s out there simply to stay on top of your own options. Just today I spoke with a woman who told me she was interested in publishing with She Writes Press, but her editors said she didn’t need to work with a press like SWP. All she had to do was find an agent who would sell her work. Easier said than done—and I can’t tell you how many authors I’ve worked with over the years who were elated to get an agent, only to discover that the agent couldn’t sell their work. Listen to the recording below to hear Betsy’s take on this. It’s a story that’s all too common—and her attitude about the whole experience is oh so refreshing.

Traditional is still there as an end goal for most writers, and that’s cool, and great, and exciting—when it works. And that only happens for a select few. For the rest of you, though, the alternative options that are popping up fast and furious are both a wonderful opportunity and a potential minefield. As an author advocate, I always preach the same message: Get published, no matter what, and go into every endeavor with your eyes wide open.

LISTEN TO OUR PANEL HERE: April Eberhardt, Betsy Graziani Fasbinder, Stephanie Bennett Vogt, and Brooke Warner

New Era technology image courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com

Kill Your Darlings. All of Them.

Recently JK Rowling made an admission that had Harry Potter fans all atwitter (and a-Twitter, too): Hermione should have ended up with Harry, not Ron. Why didn’t the more obvious–and frankly more believable, to my mind–romantic pairing happen?  According to Rowling, it was “for reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it.”

As a first-time novelist struggling through the revision process, this, to me, was the headline. JK Rowling is famous for her intricate plotting, and for having worked out the structure of all seven books before even beginning to write the first one. But a commitment to a plot made well in advance had caused her to lead two of her main characters into a relationship even she felt wasn’t true to who they were–or who they became as she was writing them. Somewhere in the revision process JK Rowling was faced with a choice: kill the plot as she had first imagined it, or strike a false note in one of the most critical relationships in the book. She chose the latter. Which just goes to show you how incredibly hard killing the plot as you’ve imagined it is. (So hard that, undoubtedly, it was not a conscious “choice.”) As William Faulkner memorably observed, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

It is hard. For the past three months, I have been engaged in the arduous, painful, nearly impossible work of killing my darlings. (I just killed the last one, the one I’d been most determined to save, yesterday.) Which may come as a surprise to those of you who have been following my progress here–since this summer I blogged about finishing the book, blogged about sending it out, blogged about how hard it was not to privilege critical feedback over praise, and finally, triumphantly, blogged about getting a deal with a Big Five publisher and instead choosing to publish with She Writes Press. The next blog, logically, ought to have been an announcement of my pub date. But instead I am here to tell you: my book isn’t done yet. (Which means it will probably come out next year, rather than this fall as I’d planned.)

Not as in, the manuscript needs a polish. As in, over the last three months I have cut it by more than 20,000 words. I think it is safe to say it is the hardest thing, in writing this book, I’ve done so far. Because what needed to be cut were my darlings. Things I had imagined would be in the book from the moment I started writing it in my head. Plot points, scenes, dialogue, character descriptions and even wisecracks I had written, rewritten, polished, edited and perfected more times than I can count. Things I wanted to hold on to so much that my resistance to their exorcism defied logic–even my own. Because I knew they were in there. I knew the places where things were bumpy, where things dragged on, where things seemed a little too strained, the places where my book and my characters were working so hard you could hear the puffing and smell the sweat. I just really hoped nobody else would notice, because I didn’t know how to fix them. More truthfully, maybe, I didn’t want to fix them. I wanted to be done.

A dear friend of mine, however, is to blame, and therefore forever to be thanked, for lining my darlings up against the wall and instructing me to shoot them. She is a playwright and a screenwriter, and one of the finest editors and teachers of writing I know. But unfortunately she didn’t get around to reading my manuscript or giving me feedback until months after everybody else did. (In her defense, though she needs none, she had a baby in May.) It was December 9th, exactly. I remember the date. The first thing she said was, “So….there are some big things, and then some little things. Do you want to start with the big things?” 

I’ve never been one to start small. 

A big thing was my main character’s job. Or not so much her job, exactly, but an incredibly detailed, throughly built-out backstory and plot about her job, as well as a job crisis that I thought impacted everything else in the book, and therefore absolutely could not be cut…aka Chapter Two. Not a paragraph or a scene, but Chapter Two

What follows are the five steps to killing your darlings. Unsurprisingly, they hew very closely to the five stages of grief.

1) Denial. When my friend pointed out this flaw in my book to me, I said, “I see what you’re saying. But do you think it has to go?” She responded that if I was really set on it, I could keep it, and the book would survive. But then she said, ever so gently, “Though it’s a little hard, at least for me, once I’ve seen something like this, not to fix it.” Naturally I couldn’t unsee the problem either, nor did I want to–I am enough of a professional not to want to do that! I could, on the other hand, choose to believe that Chapter Two did not have to be cut. Couldn’t it just be fixed up? Spruced up? Changed around? Asked nicely to be better, funnier, and more relevant, pretty please?

I did this dance with my darling for about two weeks, and on several occasions was reduced to tears.

On to step two.

2) Anger, aka Revision Rage. See above mention of being reduced to tears. Tears were not just of sadness.

3) Bargaining. At some point I gave in to what I’d always known was inevitable: the blank page. I had to cut Chapter Two as I knew it and start over. There was no other way! But my darlings pleaded and cajoled. Couldn’t just one of the original paragraphs come back and stay as it was? Couldn’t this one line describing the interior of the boss’s office survive? Would it really be wise to part with such a witty exchange of darling dialogue when you could cut and paste it so very easily right…back…here?

After a few weeks of this, I ended up with, you guessed it, Chapter Two again — but worse. Like your darling, but back from the dead with zippers in her forehead, trying to masquerade as the darling you loved before but all wrong, and making you vaguely sick just looking at her.

4) Depression. It is no fun seeing your darling looking like a Frankensteined Zombie and knowing not only that you are responsible (and that you spent several weeks of valuable writing time doing something you knew you shouldn’t be doing, but couldn’t manage not to do anyway), but you are now going to have to kill it all over again.

5) Acceptance, aka Writing. Back to the blank page. I did not delete my darling, but rather safely cut and pasted her into a folder I labeled “Deleted Chapters,” so she was still there if I needed her. (Part of what is so hard about killing your darlings is the fear that at some later date, when you are busily massacring other darlings, you will discover that those other darlings were the ones you needed after all.) On to doing the work. And it can be bloody. It is hardly surgical, that’s for sure, because the bits that are wrong cannot simply be excised without any impact on the rest. Get rid of a character, for instance, as I did, and it is necessary to comb the entire body of work for signs of her; change a major plot point, as I was forced to, and the effects ripple throughout and must be attended to, every last one of them.

It’s difficult, plodding, meticulous work. But it’s joyous,too. Why? Because as a writer, your darlings aren’t any one sentence, or scene, or plot twist, or even character. You have only one darling, and she is your book. 

Sometimes you have to kill for her.

**The photo is of my fourth grade son’s first self-edited manuscript. I think it goes without saying that mommy was very, very proud.