Becoming A Published Author
Agony and Ecstasy of Writing a Book
By Evan and Lois Swensen
Thrills and Throes
At age four I became a closet writer. It was the only place where mocking siblings didn’t find me, and it felt sort of safe. As soon as I learned to read, writing stories—and living them—became my passion, my comfort, and my escape. The characters tended to be everything I was not and would so like to be. In my teenage years I had become quite adept at hiding my writing activities and pretending to be doing homework. Words, sentences, language were always a thrill. The power of them, the heights and depths to which they allowed me to explore the concrete and the abstract gave me a place to go with my feelings and thoughts and ideas, almost to a point where it was scary to pursue them any further for fear I would get lost like a balloon in a wind storm. And so I wrote stories when I could hardly write, and never let anyone read them. Writing is revealing yourself, becoming vulnerable, taking off all the protective layers that keep you safe and whole and protected.
For many years into adulthood much of my writing was just for me—for others just some humor pieces, religious observations, plays, and poetry. My husband kept encouraging me to write for publication, full of hope that it would give me joy, but I froze in fear —one of my deepest regrets, because illness took him many years ahead of what we might have reasonably expected and he never saw his hope realized. It took a long time to understand that no one was the better for my not sharing myself. It was selfish and self-indulgent. If you get hurt a few times—deal with it. You’re not the first person who’s felt rejection, ridicule, or indifference, and it’s not a world-class tragedy. You shake it off, use it if you can, throw it out if you can’t.
So I started pursuing the thoughts Ted and I had thrown back and forth, exploring, questioning, and it became a story. In a story there is nearly always someone who is you, the writer, or someone you would like to be. My protagonist was not exactly me. He was male, I am female; he was young, I was—well, a lot older; he was a champion athlete, I was the clumsy kid they argued about having to take on the high school softball team (if they had only played soccer—I can’t throw a ball, but I can run and I can kick!). But we asked the same questions and faced similar challenges though different in form. We had to know what was true, and what it meant. Was balance more important than excellence—or could you have both? What makes me who I am, and who, by the way, is that? And is the world really better off knowing the answers to that?
Some writers love only the first writing, that creative burst that culminates in a story that someone might want to read, and that will echo in somebody’s soul. I loved it too, but I also rejoiced in the edit, the rewrite. No more worrying about the story line, making it all fit together, flow just right, letting the characters grow and become. That creative part was over. But then the extra treat—playing with paragraphs, finding the winning word and the singing sentence. Looking for the right slant, the passion, the moment my character became all I wanted him or her to be and more, much more. The point where he started doing things I hadn’t planned on. Working it and reworking it till I had the words right, as Hemingway said. As right as I could make them at that time and that place in my life, which may not be as good as I will be able to make them next year or ten years from now, but the best today!
I cherished the manuscript for a while. It was perhaps not a literary masterpiece, but it was mine, and it held my thoughts and questions and a few answers and a little of my soul. Could I uncover that for other eyes? And on the practical side—how? Without an agent, knowing full well the chances for a first-time novelist to connect with a big publisher, unwilling to go through the e-publishing channel, and incidentally, without any money to bankroll the publication of my book—what were my options? I had published and regularly updated and sold a desk reference for writers (Write & Wrong) some years before, and although it was mostly a self-publishing project, Evan Swensen of Publication Consultants had taken the publication under his promotional wing. I had worked with him for some years as a fierce and fanatic free-lance editor, and knew his integrity. I also knew that from his beginnings in the book publishing business with a little Alaska book he had become a savvy professional with now a publishing company that had left others in Alaska in the dust. And thus it happened. Evan took on Break Point Down: Game Over, the story of an athletic champion who seeks to become a man, with the subplot of an abused child who seeks refuge with him and whose agony he doesn’t comprehend nor knows how to manage. I pursued his venture into the “real world” and his efforts to translate his superb physical mastery into life skills, spiritually and emotionally empowered so he could somewhere, sometime, somehow uphold someone other than just himself and become whole. I reviewed, rewrote, restructured, rephrased, added and deleted, allowed the characters to make choices I had not foreseen, changed names, and in general tinkered with it till I knew it could bear no more tinkering.
At last it was finished, and it was no longer a manuscript. It had become a book.
A book, however, that needed marketing. And selling. A manuscript is precious, and comforting to hold in your hands, and fun. A book is exhilarating the first time you see it, until, your entrepreneurial innocence torn into shreds, you discover that in today’s world there is no safe hiding behind a pen name while the publisher takes care of the book forevermore. The way I’d like to have it, writers write, editors edit, publishers publish, and booksellers sell. It seems like a perfectly natural order of things. They are different and separate activities, though connected. Nothing quite prepared me for the anguish of going out there and actually finding a way to launch this precious newborn, facing demons in the form of potential readers, family members, critics, people who look at the book and never open it, or worse, people who open the book and then put it back. People who pick up your book pretending to go and buy it, and put it down in another aisle. You answer questions such as “What is your book about?” What does she want me to do, tell the whole story so she doesn’t have to buy it? “Is it interesting?” Heck no, it’s boring as all get-out. “I am going to look at all the other books and then I’m coming back to buy yours.” Yeah, right. “I left my wallet in the car—let me run and get it.” See ya. “Does it have any pictures?” Well, no. Dr. Seuss is over there in the corner. “I have a stack of books at home that I haven’t read yet, but it sounds really interesting.” Thanks. I am flattered. “Will you be here next week? I could some back then and buy it.” Why not just postdate your check? “You should send it to Barnes and Noble. It would really sell!” A bookstore, why didn’t I think of that? Have I made enough money yet to cover the gas?
You have to have a power statement, you are told. A power statement that makes potential buyers salivate and fight over the last copy of your book as you stand there with a benevolent smile, pen in hand to provide your cherished signature. I played with power statements. One for young readers, one for older readers, one for men, one for women, one for left-handed people, one for righties, one for— How much do you tell? Not enough to take the suspense away, if they ever felt any, but not so little that they don’t feel the spark. You know how it is with sparks. Some cause an inferno and others fizzle. Most fizzle.
Now for Write & Wrong I never needed a power statement. It powerspeaks for itself. Pick it up, read a few sentences, and you know what this book is for. No plot. No suspense. No conflict. No characters. No ambience. It’s like a Chicago Manual of Style for Dummies. It’s about grammar and style and dangling constructions, and it’s about the difference between aggravate and irritate. But Break Point Down is different, and you heard it here first: it’s much scarier to bare your soul than to discuss the benefits of hyphenating more or less correctly and avoiding double negatives. As an editor, I had worked with many writers, and seen the agony in their faces as they first came to discuss their wounded manuscripts, bloodied, scribbled and squiggled on, and decorated in several colors, which have to do with the continuum of downright absolutely abominably wrong to possibly improvable. I have argued with the already perfect, encouraged the meek, calmed down the hyper, nurtured the timid, bandaged the crushed, and loved and respected writers’ work and their courage and their willingness to make it better yet. Some have become bearable, and others very, very good.
So, power statements. Make of them what you will. Pat yourself on the back or apologize for a possibly imperfect piece of prose. Come to think of it, don’t. Plan B. Pounce on some scene, some fact, some trait of your book that characterizes the whole story and says enough to elicit interest and not enough to satisfy curiosity. Good luck with that. Most passers-by do not have time or interest to listen to a cutesy commercial. Some have too much time and take all yours, block access by other maybe-buyers, and disclose their most intimate musings on topics of possible interest to them. They rarely buy. Some may argue with you about your power statement, nod earnestly and appreciatively as they cast about for an elegant way to leave, or use it as a bridge to their own soapbox.
The power statement should be provocative but short, informative but veiled enough to arouse curiosity. Don’t tell them how it ends. Not too general, not too specific. Not too much, not too little. Don’t be pushy, but don’t shoo them away from your table. A tablecloth. How many times has Evan told me about tablecloths! At Costco he actually borrowed a fluffy little throw rug for my table. It looked somewhat like a bear cub hide, and I am not fond of animal trophies for decor, but oh well. Another time I called my granddaughter to bring me a tablecloth, and she did—it was the ugliest pea green, and badly clashed with the cover of my book, but it covered the nakedness of my table.
You can decorate the table with items that relate to the content of your book, although that is a questionable technique if that content is not immediately obvious from the cover (and don’t get too cute). Although my hero had at one time been a tennis champion, tennis balls are of debatable benefit as come-ons for my novel. The connection with the title is dubious. They do what round things do—they roll, and into awkward places. Crawling on the floor after stray tennis balls does not sell books, unless you are built to provide visual benefit. Besides, it’s sort of an after-tennis story, so the balls more or less negate the content. Having no champion-athlete-turned-civilian-looking hunk at my disposal as a prop, I usually just put out business cards and a few bookmarks. I do at times use a banner, often at my own peril, since an innocent hand gesture to emphasize a point in a discussion, or a slight scraping of chairs as you rise to shake hands can bring it down on the head of your unsuspecting once-potential buyer. Banner stands are not remarkably stable.
So you have your books, your tablecloth, and your power statement. Do not look at the guy on the other side of the store surrounded by Harry Potter hordes. It’s depressing. Work out your own technique—his probably wouldn’t look right on you. If you haven’t done this before and you are scared speechless, have a couple of friends drop by to stage a conversation that looks like a fascinating sales negotiation. If you have done it before and you are still petrified and your friends have lost patience, look for a person you will probably never see again and strike up a conversation. For me, marketing is easily the most difficult and frustrating part of being a writer. So I said it, black on white. It’s hard. It doesn’t come naturally to everybody. To some of us, it doesn’t come at all. It has to be chased and lassoed and tamed and civilized. The salesman-writer relishes the market and thrives on witty banter with adoring customers. The Business 101 dropout is flummoxed. Flummoxed, I tell you. But never mind, a writer has imagination and knowledge of people and character and the inner workings of the soul, so he can be an actor, and an actor can be anybody, and anybody can be a writer—at least the aforementioned anybody—so . . . ? Writer = actor = salesman. Q.e.d.
Equals may be a bit strong. Could become might work. Will become for the bold and brazen. But that’s the way it works in the 21st century—writers do a lot of the marketing. It is not surprising that as the quantity of writing has gone up with the advent of the word processor and PC, of social networks and texting, the quality has not. Some present-day writers would not have entertained the notion of producing a book had they been born 25 or 50 years earlier, and probably shouldn’t have. Others who might not have had the time or the opportunity pre-PC have gone on , with electronic convenience, to write gems. Both extremes are on display: more talent comes out of hiding, and more junk is proliferated. Where does Break Point Down fit in? Buy the book!