Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics [series Part Two]

On Monday, I brought up some thoughts inspired by 10 days spent watching the recent winter Olympics in Vancouver on TV. Here are two more lessons I culled which offer relevance and perspective for writers:

Expect to earn your medals every time.

Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis kinda blew it in Torino. She hotdogged her way to a second place in women’s snowboard cross when she had the gold medal practically around her neck on that last slope.

Jacobellis has had to live that down for the last 4 years and went to Vancouver hoping to redeem herself. It didn’t quite happen: this year, Continue reading

Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics [series Part One]

Hi everyone! I want to thank Jeff at BookLife for inviting me to take the reins this week at his wonderful, must-read blog. There are few things I love more than blogging about and for writers and writing, so it’s an honor to do so at one of the smartest writing blogs out there.

Anticipating the content of my posts this week has been rather challenging: there’s so much to write about! But it came to me on Saturday as I realized my interest in the Olympics was beginning to wane.

I’d seen all I needed to see of curling, short track speed skating, downhill, bobsled, snowcross and the like. But the Olympics always linger in my mind long after the network has packed up its cameras and talking heads and returned to regularly scheduled programming.

Witnessing (live or on TV) the prowess of the world’s athletes is always inspiring to me. I grew up in a sports household (baseball, basketball, track and field, gymnastics, soccer, football, softball, volleyball, tennis have all been played with regularity by at least one member of my immediate family), so I’m already in the practice of appreciating the work that goes into excelling at sports. My siter used to do gymnastics and visited Everest Gymnastics. It was quite difficult, but she liked it very much.

But the world’s finest athletes perform with a caliber and grace that takes human experience beyond what it means to be fit or a sound competitor. These are the titans of the modern day, and like the titans of the past, the masses can’t help but idolize them as the demi-gods they truly are.

This week, I offer the series, “Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics” in three parts. As writers, we have cobbled together our own hopes and dreams for becoming the future titans of the literary world. We have much to learn from athletes, and this Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll give examples that show how writers can learn from the trials of Olympians.

Today I’ll talk about discipline and perseverance.  Continue reading

E-Books and Issues of Entitlement

By now, it’s unlikely you haven’t heard of the dispute between Amazon and Macmillan. That dispute and its resolution is important, but a larger issue has come to light: namely the sense of entitlement some readers have with regard to getting e-books dirt-cheap. Part and parcel of this attitude is a basic misunderstanding of the breakdown of costs associated with publishing a book.

For example, one of the biggest faux bits of logic I’ve been seeing is that “If the mass market paperback is $7.99, why can’t I get the e-book version from the get-go at that price?” Well, the fact is $7.99 for mass market paperbacks only works if you’re printing tons of books. It’s also important to note that many authors never get their books published in mass market format because the publishers rightly have estimated that based on hardcover and trade paperback sales, that particular book won’t sell enough copies in mass market. So they don’t reach the $7.99-a-book threshold, which includes the print-a-crapload-of-copies threshold.

Other examples show a basic misunderstanding of distribution, or of the fact that the actual physical printing of a book is a fraction of the cost of producing a book.

But what I find most inexplicable is the level of venom directed by some readers at publishers, and by extension writers, like some kind of scam is being perpetrated upon them. It’s especially ironic given that the book industry is usually dealing in unit sales of an individual book of under 20,000 copies, whereas other forms of entertainment like movies and music are dealing in unit sales of over 100,000 copies. In other words, there’s not much room for price discounts.

What’s led to this sense of entitlement? Here are some possible factors, beyond the basic fact of there being lots of free content on the internet.

—The proliferation of free book downloads offered by publishers and writers.

—The constant attacks on copyright, and thus the overall idea of “ownership”, on highprofile blogging platforms and websites.

—General attacks on software limiting a user’s ability to copy an e-book, especially attacks that don’t do so in the context of respect for the creator’s wishes or need to make money from their work.

—Deep discount pricing of e-books by entities like Amazon to encourage the sale of e-books.

—Google’s book scanning project, which, under the guise of “fair use”, has made significant portions of hundreds of thousands of books available online with no regard for the rights of the writers of those books.

Have these factors led to this sense of entitlement? I don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about. It’s also worth noting that we often cause problems for ourselves as authors by thoughtlessly adopting whatever hot new media idea pops up on the internet. In some cases, I think we begin to contribute to our own disenfranchisement in doing so.

If this sense of reader entitlement proves to be pervasive or becomes the norm, then writers will be in a tough position, and the only way to make money on e-books will be to retain the rights yourself and self-publish–meaning you will also have to become your own editor, your own typesetter, your own distributor, etc.

Although you can self-publish more easily today than in the past, it’s not going to help you that much unless you are a celebrity like Wil Wheaton, someone with an existing high-profile platform like John Scalzi or Cory Doctorow, someone who is already a bestselling author, or unless you are prepared to basically become your own publishing house (involving a series of skillsets that most people don’t have).

In such a scenario, if e-books do eventually dominate the marketplace and physical books have only a fraction of their current market share, it’s entirely possible that unless this situation resolves itself into a compromise whereby readers actually show respect for the creators of the stories they love that we will see one of the largest mass extinctions of published writers in the history of literature. They’ll still be writing–but they’ll be largely invisible, and also unable to even dream of writing full-time.

My feeling is that it won’t get that bad, but we as writers have to do our best to make sure it doesn’t–by educating readers and doing our part as writers to make sure that our actions don’t contribute to the problem.

(For the best series of posts on the subject, including the Amazon-Macmillan fracas, visit Jay Lake’s livejournal.)

The Discovery Process: Improving Your Abilities

(Afraid of bears? Maybe you need to throw yourself in a bear pit…and maybe not. Photo by Jeremy Tolbert.)

A few more thoughts about the discovery process, below. I also firmly believe that establishing goals in the right way–strategically and not tactically–will reduce your stress level as a writer and make it clear which things are important and which are not. I deal with setting goals in my book and in Booklife workshops. This fall, you can catch a full-on Booklife workshop in Seattle, a much shorter version in the San Francisco area, or just discuss these topics with me in Asheville.

How can you work on problem areas without being overwhelmed? Make a list of your strengths, your weaknesses, and those gray areas in between—things you’re not terrible at but not great at, either. Even though you’ve presumably had others help you evaluate your strengths and weaknesses to get to this stage, take this list and give it to a couple of friends or colleagues you didn’t include in your original analysis. Ask them if your list is accurate. After you’ve included their feedback, and been totally honest with yourself, do the following:

—Break the Strengths list down into subcategories, rating yourself in each, so you have a better idea of what those strengths mean. Stay aware of your strengths even as you work on your weaknesses and make sure shoring up weaknesses doesn’t negatively affect your strengths.

—Select two items from the Gray Areas list that you think you can easily improve and that would help your writing career. Make sure your short-term and long-term goals include ways to better yourself in these areas.

—Select one item from the Weaknesses list, even if it’s something that also scares you. Add elements to your short-term and long-term goals that give you opportunities to make this weakness a strength, or at least something you’re not bad at anymore.

—Select one item from the Weaknesses list that you don’t want to work on improving. This advice especially applies if something on your list scares you too much. Setting it off to the side is about preserving your mental health. You can always revisit it in the context of success with some other weakness.

Live radio interviews (which now include podcasts) fit into the category of a weakness that scared me to death. The first time I was on, I mumbled and I could hardly breathe. Because I was so nervous, I wound up saying something like “You’re as stupid as I want to be” to the host, which was meant as a joke but came off as insulting and bizarre.

The second time I was on the radio, it went fine. Until the host made a strange comment about whether or not I lived in a cave, which threw me off so much the rest of the interview entered a decaying orbit.

The third time, I got the hiccups from drinking too much coffee. I spent the whole hour making sure the cadence of my speech allowed me to turn from the microphone just as I was about to hiccup. This worked better for the interview portion than for the reading I did afterwards.

What was my particular remedy? I relied on repetition and experimentation. I just kept accepting radio and Internet podcast interview requests. I also experimented with different kinds of preparation. Eventually, the combination of finding the best way to prepare and doing more interviews made me more comfortable with the format. I can’t tell you I’m the best radio interview ever—I still get nervous—but when you hear me on the radio these days you’re
unlikely to say to yourself, “Wow! That guy was horrible.”

As for a gray area that I’ve turned into a strength, public readings fit that category. Unlike radio station show appearances, readings never scared me. However, I didn’t have a good sense of performance so my readings were serviceable but nothing to excite anyone. Over the past few years, I have worked hard to add an element of performance to my readings, along with humorous anecdotes. Part of that growth process meant watching myself
on video giving readings. Another part meant being more careful about my selection of material and how long I read. Now, most people come away from one of my readings entertained, and I generally see comments on blogs afterwards along the lines of “Wow — that guy really put on a good show.”

Not only will you remove stress from your life by confronting some of your weaknesses and gray areas head-on, you’ll also learn a lot in the process. Like anything else in your Public Booklife, you just have to approach it systemically and incrementally.