Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Musings for the New Year from Denise Weeks (Shalanna Collins)

Today my musings are mostly directed towards writers, artists, and others who tend towards the philosophical and thoughtful.

The dying and rebirth of the light during this solstice season brings thoughts of one's legacy, of the mark one hopes to make upon the world before leaving it. Writers in particular have an ego thing about leaving something behind to be discovered years later on library shelves (although that's quickly becoming an indulgent fantasy, as books are not kept very long anywhere.) What is the important thing--that your book sells well, or that it is widely read now (not the same thing if you have giveaways), or that it is a masterpiece that might be rediscovered someday?

Is it enough to have written a great novel, or is image everything, trumping substance (as it always has in most endeavors)? If your book is a good seller, what does it matter if it has "legs" and lasting value? What matters to you? You are spending days of your life that you can never get back doing this. You might as well be true to your own vision and do what only YOU can do, write the book that only you can produce, instead of chasing trends and trying to do "something that'll sell." You have to risk looking like a fool and having everyone know all your inner secrets. If you can't do that, write a journal only for yourself.

Today on all the social media platforms, I'm seeing authors campaigning for votes in the various conference-sponsored awards. "Nominate my book for the Lefty!" say the Left Coast Crime attendees. "My book should get the Agatha this year," say the Malice Domestic members. I know that authors have to ask for votes for these awards, and I probably shouldn't wince when I see this, but I do. I don't like the vibe of "vote for me in this popularity contest!" It smacks too strongly of junior high.

Wouldn't it make more sense for people to nominate books they have actually read and loved, even if those books are not the ones their friends and associates are pushing? Even if it's standard to scratch one another's backs, and even if we do believe that these books that friends have written must be good? (It would be nice to believe that every vote is for a book that has been read, studied, and loved by the voter, but even though I was born at night, it wasn't *last* night.) Yes, I know you can only nominate books published last year by attendees of the conference, and yes, I know I'm going against the grain here. Fighting a losing battle. Forget it--just vote.

Maybe I'm too much of an idealist, but I always like to think that awards should mean more. I've found, though, that awards may not be something that readers take into consideration. Asking readers whether they look at the Agatha winners or the Malice Domestic/St. Martin's winners when browsing books, I got blank looks from many of them. When I mentioned that my own NICE WORK is a Dark Oak contest winner, they managed weak smiles, but obviously they thought of that as just another buzzword. It didn't impress them that the book survived several rounds of readings and came out on top in the opinion of the judges. (We're about to choose a Dark Oak winner for this year, in fact, and I hope that readers will take the award into consideration when looking for new mysteries to read. I think it DOES mean more. Will readers? The jury is out.)

We love awards, but are they effective in getting your book noticed? Is it worthwhile to worry about them, or should you put your energy into other promotional channels? Certain types of books tend to top the awards lists--but is that the sort of book that could only come from YOUR heart?

Here's another canard that needs to go. "You're a good writer, so your books will find readers no matter how you publish them."

This is a very dangerous belief. Wonderful books are often published and then languish unseen on Amazon shelves. If people do not hear about your book, they will not buy and read it. If word of mouth doesn't happen, you are out of luck. Publicity campaigns are sometimes good, sometimes of no use. Plumping your book constantly on social media can backfire.

So your book may be another Mary Poppins, Harry Potter, Little Women, Cat's Cradle, or The Secret History. However, if no one reads it because they don't know about it, you are out of luck. Amazon ranks you by sales, so if you don't get lots of sales, you don't appear on the radar of Amazon's many buyers. There really isn't a centralized spot to announce that your book is out there. Promotion is a permanent thorn in our sides, and the best way to do it is still unknown. Today we're responsible for getting our work noticed, in any way we can.

The nugget of truth here is that if you have an exceptional novel, they can't take that away from you. Even if no one reads it, it's still a great work of art. The tree falls in the forest, and although the sound waves go out, there are no eardrums for them to fall upon. So it goes. Poo-tee-weet?

Here are a couple of notes I have received over the years during workshops with New York publishing personnel. I still find it helpful to keep these questions up front when I'm working on a novel. (They get more philosophical as they go.)

Literary agent Donald Maass: "Don't open with too many characters or a mob scene without a specific focus on one character. We've got to know immediately who the ONE protagonist is, or, if the hero/heroine is a couple (because it's a romance), then we need to see first one, then the other (or an interaction between them), and then go into one's implied POV. We must have someone to identify with and root for."

Harlan Ellison: "What is the moral of the story? At the end of the day, and at the end of reading the book, and years and years and years after, what is it that you want them to not only remember, but, more importantly, not be able to forget?"

Literary agent Natasha Kern: "What is the true heart's desire of the main character, and how does she pursue and move toward her heart's desire?"

Tor editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden: "What is this book trying to say about what makes life worth living?"

It's something that can be said with art, with music, with caretaking (of the young, of pets, of the elderly), and in many other ways.

What are YOU trying to say about what makes life worth living?


Beryl Reichenberg said...

Nice musings, Denise. Although sales are desirable and necessary, I also enjoy that special moment when I have touched a child's heart. It is that connection that propels me forward to write another story and do another event. Beryl

Jackie Taylor Zortman said...

Very interesting post, Denise. Like Beryl, my primary goal with my own book was to have Pete's (my grandson's) story "out there" and to help others by sharing what I've been through and learned. So far, I consider myself to be a success by those goals. Touching the hearts of others is a huge reward.

Shalanna said...

@Beryl--I'm so glad you enjoy moving others and being a teacher or inspiration to them. That's the important part about what we do, and I feel that artists are blessed (as are teachers of all stripes) to be able to do this! What we do looks so simple to others sometimes, but it really isn't. Keep the faith!

Shalanna said...

@Jackie--We have reached important goals of sharing and helping others. I feel that every novel has something to teach about "what makes life worth living" and "how you can accomplish your mission in life," and if we can inspire another person to go searching for what it is they are meant to do, we have accomplished much. Isn't it amazing to think that our voices will go with others we've never met and never would meet? When I get tired and fed up with the business of publishing, I come back to it mostly because of this.

Beryl Reichenberg said...

Thanks Jackie and Shalanna, you echo my thoughts so eloquently. Maybe at heart we are all teachers in one way or another. Beryl