Is Writing Like Giving Birth?

I recently took a walk with a friend who writes but hasn’t committed herself fully to being a writer. There is a difference! Someone who writes doesn’t necessarily need to take on all of the responsibilities that being a writer requires, including marketing her work. Her response to all of the things I’m currently going through (finding Advanced Review Copy (ARC) reviewers; seeking interviews; setting up readings—and so much more) as I prepare for the release of my next novel, Freefall: A Divine Comedy, was “I couldn’t do that!”

cherry-blossom-3308735_1920At first, I reacted a bit defensively to her response. It made me feel as if what I am doing doesn’t have merit and is beneath her. But as I thought more about her words, I realized that being unwilling to put in the time to not only write but also to promote one’s work—put it out into the world—is why she continues to be someone who writes. Being a writer requires of us much more than just creating our poems, fictions, essays, etc. We have to be publicity savvy as well and find every possible opportunity to make sure our efforts aren’t stillborn.

Having just watched my stepdaughter go through nine months of pregnancy, I can’t imagine her giving birth to a child that she wouldn’t care for in every possible way. Her approach holds true with writers, too. The image of a fully formed baby dying before she can enter the world is unimaginably painful. So, too, is the knowledge that some writers’ work will not find its audience partly because publishing book length works is not easy. It requires a tremendous amount of time and determination on a writer’s part to make it happen. But there also are many more outlets for writers these days. Not only is self-publishing acceptable but online literary (and non-literary) magazines abound, making it so much easier to send out work and find acceptable venues.

I don’t want this post to end up sounding like a judgment on my writing friend (or anyone else!) who chooses not to go all the way. She has made a decision that works for her. And I have made one that is right for me. I would feel terrible if, after spending years producing a novel, I didn’t give it the opportunity to find its readers. That interaction seems a major part of the writing process itself, the dynamic that occurs between writers and readers. Just as children need parents to thrive fully, so do our narratives need readers. I actually don’t feel as if my writing belongs entirely to myself. Consequently, I have the responsibility to give it life in whatever ways I can.

Hence I continually put in the necessary time and effort to send my writing into the world, preferring to not just labor but to be an active part of the birthing process.

What are your thoughts?

Writing for Love Or Money?

“Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.”  —Moliere

Recently, I’ve been struggling with this idea of writing for money. Moliere suggests writers are prostituting themselves if they write for money. But what of doctors or lawyers? Doctors charge patients for treating them, and lawyers do the same for advocating, things they’re trained and skilled to do? I’m sure Moliere had complex reasons for thinking this way about selling one’s writing, many connected to his era, economics, and his philosophy on life.coins-948603_1920

But when I read this quote, I felt a certain twinge, as if I might be damaging myself in some way, exploiting myself, or misusing a talent. Unfortunately, the writing that satisfies me the most isn’t lucrative—poetry and fiction. In these areas, if money is the main motivation then I’m not going to write as I need to; I’ll be writing for an audience primarily, not for what is bubbling up in my unconscious and seeking imaginative expression. I don’t feel that way when I write articles and essays, genres that can pay.

The word prostitution seems key here. Most of us think of a prostitute as someone who sells her/his body for money—who uses something intimate and vulnerable in order to live. What relationship does the body have, though, to writing, to words? Beckett may have the answer. He says, “Words are all we have.” In a way, our bodies are all we have, though I’m not sure we even have them, and words are as connected to us as our skin is to our frames. Words not only are all we have but, as Orwell understood so well, language forms us— informs us.

Does prostitution need to have a negative connotation? Couldn’t one have sex for money not just to exploit the body but to share it, to get close to another’s body, to have something vital to give? Sex may be the only way to give it. (I’m thinking of Moll Flanders, that wonderful 18th Century character, a prostitute if you like, but what a prostitute!)

Or maybe what Moliere means is that like a prostitute, a writer has something to give that is intimately related to his/her self. The problem might arise in our attitude to our body or ourselves and our customers. If we are doing it, sex or writing, only to exploit, only for money, then the behavior could be damaging. But if we approach this process consciously, we might not only do our best work, we also may stay more true to ourselves. It needn’t be an either/or proposition, as Moliere makes it sound, but both/and—not love or money, but love and money.

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

Are Writers Garbage Pickers?

When I arrived at the gym yesterday, I parked the car next to the Big 5 Sporting Goods store’s huge garbage containers, located in my gym’s parking area. I felt embarrassed for the man I saw lurking behind the bins. He wore a baseball cap and tried to appear invisible as he rummaged through the trash. The image of him prowling there stayed with me, and I couldn’t help but think of it as a metaphor for writers.

Writers are garbage pickers. They dig in the dregs of daily life, searching for stories they can embellish, selecting details from their family, friends, and acquaintance’s conversations/lives that illuminate the most elusive corners of our existence. I’m currently reading Joyce Carol Oates latest short story collection, Beautiful Days, and so many of the tales are anything but beautiful. In fact, one Amazon reviewer says, “The white-male-2064827_1920characters are unlike anyone that I know or would care to know. Very strange.”

Oates has clearly dug into the surface of our days to reveal what’s hidden from ordinary view. Her stories bring the reader close to situations and emotions we might otherwise avoid. There’s the teenager whose mother has kept him an emotional prisoner and refused to reveal his real father’s identity. When the father does turn up unexpectedly, it has a powerful and unexpected impact on the young man. Or the woman whose stepdaughter dies in a car crash. The stepmother feels the young woman’s death might have been avoided if the stepmother hadn’t ignored her phone call, made not long before the accident.

Each story confronts the reader with material we might prefer to toss in the garbage but refuses to be dismissed so easily. In other words, Oates (and many other writers) is exploring what the psychologist Carl Jung would call our shadow side, the parts of our personalities we’d prefer to ignore as they challenge our sense of who we are. But in order to have a truer picture of ourselves, we need to delve into that level. This is true both individually and collectively and reminds me of a radio drama I loved as a kid: “The Shadow.” The introduction went as follows: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” And then we were off on another adventure into that world. Oates is doing something similar in the way she examines her characters’ secret, interior lives, as are so are many serious writers.

Another work I’m currently reading, Sylvia Warner Townsend’s debut novel Lolly Willowes, reveals painful truths about urban and country life from her perspective early in the 20th Century when so many women were under their family’s (often male) domination. Lolly, in mid-life, finally breaks free from her brother and sister-in-law’s “care” and establishes a life for herself in a tiny country community where women seem more empowered. In scintillating prose, Sylvia Townsend Warner, a masterful garbage picker, unearths an unexpected aspect of female influence.

It’s true that garbage can get smelly and our impulse is to conceal it—to bury it underground. But it’s also true that certain kinds of garbage can be effective compost, fertilizing the earth. Something similar happens when writers aren’t afraid to dig into the emotions and actions that are a big part of being human. It’s where our most enlightening stories originate!

Birthing a Novel

The publishing date for my new novel Freefall: A Divine Comedy draws near (July 15, 2018), and I’ve started the final editing process with Pen-L Publishing. It reminds me of when Pen-L published my debut novel, Fling! (July 2015) and how long it had taken to complete it.

When I had reviewed my notes for Fling!, I was amazed to discover I had started working on it in 1999. When I first began, I had hoped to write a lyrical novel a la Virginia Woolf. But my husband called my attention to a review of another Canadian writer’s book, Barbara Gowdy’s Mister Sandman. When I read of her comic sense, “both inventive and tough,” I realized again how much I wanted to write in this way. But I also had resisted it because the style seems limited to certain topics. It’s difficult to write beautifully and be funny, and I was letting my desire for a certain kind of  elegance inhibit the progression of what later became Fling!

imagination-3066796_1920I was particularly taken by how Gowdy steered her story between fantasy and probability, between caricature and portrayal, between broad, cruel social comedy and a sympathetic understanding of thwarted and unhappy people. It gave me hope that I could do something similar but in my own unique way.

In a short story I had written then, I got close to this type of vision. It was great fun to do, but it scared me because it got out of control. By that I mean it slipped out of the ordinary way of seeing, meaning realistic, representational prose, into something else. At the time I wondered if perhaps it was my own perverse, bizarre self I feared. But my husband, who loves that kind of humor, embraces this tendency in me and encouraged me to follow its lead. Even so, at the moment, I was torn between my wackier self and my more conventional style. I love things that are a bit mad, strange. Over the edge.

That’s one reason why writers like Roberto Bolano appeal to me. He writes realistically, but his work always has echoes of something else running through it. Something elusive that, as a reader, I can’t quite grasp. His narratives aren’t exactly dream-like, but they also aren’t mired in quotidian details. And he has a wonderful wit.

So it’s interesting for me to review how Fling! evolved. My notes show how the writer is so intricately interwoven into her work. I was not only unearthing my characters as I wrote, but I also was excavating myself, though at times it’s difficult to know the difference. Something similar happened in the second novel I published (Curva Peligrosa) and also in soon-to-be-released Freefall that features one of my zaniest characters, Tillie Bloom.

I would love to hear if other writers have had similar experiences!

In WHEN WE WERE SHADOWS, Janet Wees shows how to explain the Holocaust to a child

 

When We Were Shadows, for middle-school students, is based on the true story of a Jewish boy and his family hiding from the Nazis in WWII in Holland. It traces his journey at the age of 5 from Germany toWWWS_cover8 - front cover Holland in 1937, where the family thought they would be free of the persecution happening to Jews in their home country, only to have their haven invaded by the Nazis 3 years later. The story describes how the family fled from one hiding place to another, aided by people in the Dutch Resistance, until they found refuge in a hidden village in the Veluwe forest. For 18 months they lived in fear of discovery, and were assisted by local villagers and the Resistance, and trying to make the best of their situation. After the village was attacked, the boy and his family had to take on new identities and continued to hide until liberation in Zwolle by the Canadians in 1945.

The story is told through narratives and letters, and is actually one long letter from a grandfather to his granddaughter when she becomes old enough to know what happened during that time. Within the long letter are narratives from the grandfather, recalling his memories, and old letters from him as a boy to his Oma (hiding elsewhere)describing the family’s experiences to ensure she knew they were safe. His letters also acted as a reminder that he was still alive and he could reflect on what he’d experienced.

In 2005 and 2007, the author visited the The Hidden Village memorial site in Holland, near Vierhouten. She sat in the reconstructed huts and tried to imagine living in those conditions for 18 months in constant fear for her life. As a former teacher, she knew about children’s interests in history and decided that North American children needed to hear this story.

Research found the name of a woman from Holland who’d been in hiding herself, and who knew someone who was curator of the museum for The Hidden Village. From the curator she got the name of a man who’d lived in the village the whole time. Off to Amsterdam she flew to interview the man-who-was-the-boy. For four days she listened, recorded, laughed and cried with her new friend, went home and began to transcribe the notes and tapes. Nine years of writing, editing, revising, submitting finally came to fruition with the acceptance of the manuscript by Second Story Press in 2017. The book is scheduled to be released April 3. It can be ordered online and in bookstores in Canada and USA. It is being translated into Dutch and will be for sale in Holland after the beginning of June.

Praise for When We Were Shadows

Excerpt from CM Association Reviews, University of Manitoba, by Carmelita Cechetto-Shea, Library Consultant for the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board, Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada:

A question that always creates much discussion and debate is: “How do you explain the Holocaust to a child?” Introducing children to such a horrific topic is often difficult, and a gentle approach is often a good way to introduce the topic without inflicting the details of what humans do to other humans. Instead of dwelling on the atrocities of the Holocaust, experts recommend the introduction of books on acceptance, courage, and loyalty, exactly what transpires in the When We Were Shadows. Written in the language appropriate for the intended readers (ages 10-13), Wees has shared a true story of a young boy dealing with life at an adult level, trying to remain a boy, but realizing that his youth is no longer typical and carefree. It is clearly written and designed to be used as an educational tool for children; there is also a teacher’s guide for the series available online. When We Were Shadows is a perfect choice for school libraries, whether as a stand-alone read or as a curriculum resource for teachers. When We Were Shadows will inform readers, young and old, on the journey of a young boy during the Holocaust, but ultimately it will inspire all to discover how the human spirit can triumph over evil. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.”

Interview with Janet Wees

Why do you write? 

I write to express how I feel to politicians, friends, family; to make corporations more accountable. And I write to teach, to share my experiences with newer teachers. This book was written for children so they would continue to learn about how the Holocaust affected children their age. As well, this person re-lives his experiences every time he makes a speech or talks to a classroom, so this was one way to alleviate some of that for him.

As a result of publishing your book, what have you learned about your_MG_9788 Janet Weesself and/or the writing process?

The steepest learning curve has been the publishing process. But before that, as all writers know, I didn’t let many people read my writing for fear of rejection. I set myself a publisher rejection ceiling of 12 as apparently that was how many rejections JK Rowling had. When I reached my 12, I took a different tack. I learned that I had to admit what I thought was good, really wasn’t good enough. I started letting people read and give feedback. I learned that I had to put my sensitivity on the back burner if I wanted to produce something readable. And lo and behold, I didn’t cry at criticism, I didn’t get defensive; I built on it. I also discovered that I could not just write; I had other things in my life and part of those nine years I traveled and volunteered and did social activities. Sporadically I got back on the trail and took a five day self-directed writing retreat in Banff and got involved with a mentorship program. That’s when everything took on a new life, and basically it was the beginning of this book being published. I actually took advice and listened and analyzed and saw what needed to be done. No more defensiveness over fear of rejection.

The most interesting part of the writing process was that what I had pooh-poohed in the past, when I heard someone say that the character took over and wrote the book for you, or the story took you along and wrote itself, was true! During those four months in mentorship, I would sometimes write for 7 hours straight, interrupted only for lunch when I remembered. It was as if I was the boy and I was living his life. I found myself drained after those four months and I couldn’t remember doing much else. But as I wrote I knew it was going in the right direction; I listened to my gut.

I also did something that is not very often recommended. When I didn’t hear from publishers who said they would let me know in 3 – 6 months, or would return the submission in a SASE, I contacted them and asked if my not hearing from them meant rejection. Three (THREE!) publishers said they could not find my original submission and to send it again! And I did that, and one of them ended up buying my book! I learned not to be shy about having chutzpah.

At what moment did you decide you were a writer? 

It happened when I was 13 and I entered a contest in a movie theatre magazine. The question I needed to answer was “Why are movies the best form of entertainment?” It was open to USA and Canada. My entry was fourth and I won a 12 piece setting of stainless steel flatware that I still use! My dad was upset because we had to drive 60 miles away to get it out of Customs. It was then that I realized words have power and effect.

What does your writing space look like?… like do you have a crazy mess of a desk full of notes and post its? Or is it a quaint chair at a coffee shop?

My writing space is a loft in my townhouse. I use a desktop (iMac). My desk is a mess but I know where everything is located…most of the time. I can’t write in noise but when I have a problem concentrating I will go for a walk and try to clear my mind. My mentor taught me to treat my writing like my job ie. get up, get dressed as if going to work and set up the times. So I never write anymore in my housecoat. I get dressed and usually start in the morning before other distractions happen. Sometimes I need to use an egg timer because I forget to eat. And I need to stand up and walk around every so often.

Where do your ideas come from for stories/books?

All of my educational journal articles were about a program I developed for gifted students with learning disabilities, so I could write from knowledge. Magazine articles also came from travel experiences and personal experiences. This novel, my first, came when I visited the memorial site for The Hidden Village in Holland, in 2005. It “grabbed” me. Two years later I visited the site again and sat in the reconstructed huts and wondered how the people felt. Even though I was retired I knew that children would want to know and read about this part of history. As a teacher of gifted students, I knew this was the kind of story they would read because of their own sense of social justice and their high sensitivities.  I began to research it and contacted a woman in New Jersey who had a contact in Holland who knew a man who was a boy who had hidden in the hidden village. I got his phone number and called him to interview him on the phone. He said, “We cannot do this on the phone; you must come to Amsterdam!” So I went and spent four days in his dining room, laughing, crying, listening, writing, recording and becoming friends with the man. He told me at that time (2008) to fictionalize to fill in gaps. He also said to make it an adventure but as I wrote it I soon realized it’s not the kind of adventure that is written in most books. He now says it was NOT an adventure. So this novel is based on the stories he told me around his dining room table. The first draft was more narrative and too adult a voice. I completely revamped the format and used letters as the vehicle to tell the boy’s stories, even though in real life he never wrote letters to his Oma. It gradually became a story of A boy instead of THE boy .

How much time do you spend writing each day? 

It has taken me over 9 years to bring this book to fruition, but I didn’t write everyday. At first when I was transcribing my notes I was at it every day. And when I was involved with the mentorship program in 2015 for four months, I wrote 3 – 4 days a week for at least 4 hours per day, sometimes more. I think I had to put in a minimum number of hours. My eyes begin to bother me and I sometimes needed to take breaks. I also write 400 letters a year so I spend some time each day or a number of hours one or two days per week writing letters.

If you didn’t write, what would you do with that time? Do you feel compelled to write or choose to?

If I were not writing, I would be reading or being outside. Sometimes I feel compelled to write (ie. letters to the editor), but now I choose to write because in the past when I felt compelled, I never had the time to follow through. Now that I am retired,  I like to write children’s picture books, but I don’t rule out another novel about WWII and Holland.

What writing mistakes do you find yourself making most often?

The most revealing mistakes I made this time were factual errors such as assuming that a tent would have a zippered opening, when in fact they used ties and pegs in the 1940’s. And I used luggage trolleys with which I was familiar as an escape route but in fact, they didn’t exist at that time either, so I had to change the method of subterfuge. I did a lot of research about the plants and trees to get accuracy but completely forgot about the tent and trolleys. I also made a mistake with glasses and how close a person would look at a book if they were near or far sighted. I learned so much about not assuming based on my life.

How would you like your books to change the world? 

I would like my audience of middle-schoolers to remember and understand the experiences of my protagonist so that it will never happen again. Children learn empathy through books; they feel with the characters and hopefully it becomes ingrained. I remember the first time I read about Dr. Tom Dooley and his experiences in Viet Nam and how he connected with people he was trying to help. I think his work as a doctor in the jungle inspired me to be in a helping profession. I became a teacher. Putting his politics aside, I feel he changed my world as I knew it then.

What lessons have you learned about marketing your work? 

I have learned to be shameless about marketing. Word of mouth and social media are probably the most affordable and fast spreading. I send bookmarks in letters so the recipients can share them, made up business cards with links to pre-ordering, posted photos on Facebook. I have learned that people seem to be enamored with authors. I find that so interesting, to be treated like some celebrity when I don’t feel any different. This happens in coffee shops or on the bus when I engage in conversation with strangers.

 

 

 

The Imagination = Fountain of Youth

“Logic will get you from point A to point B, but imagination will take you everywhere” – Albert Einstein.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of imagination not just as a writer and reader but also as a survival tool. And I wonder how and when this faculty first appeared. Of course, when discussing imagination, creativity is not far behind, for the two are handmaidens. The imagination needs our creative abilities in order to be realized, and to be fully creative, one needs imagination.

Kant, apparently, believed that the “faculty which takes pleasure in the contemplation of both beautiful and sublime objects is that which forms images” (The Critique of Judgment). Forming images is one aspect of inventiveness. Images have many components, usually based on something that we can name in the inner or imaginationouter world, like tree or bird or dragonfly. These entities then not only name something we can visualize, but they also can be metaphors or symbols that signify something more. In this sense, imagination really is an image-nation, inhabiting its own sphere.

 

The ability to dream and fantasize and discover has its foundations in our imaginative faculty. Think of how bland and one-dimensional this world would be if we couldn’t envision something more, something that hasn’t been considered before.

This is what inspires me to write. Writing offers me an opportunity to exercise my own imagination and create something totally new in the process. I feel all of my novels are a celebration of the imagination and where it can take us. For me, it is the fountain of youth. As long as we can imagine, we are young in spirit and able to transcend even this decaying body.

My Dance with Book Publicity

I started this blog for readers and writers because I wanted to share my experiences of wading through the publishing morass, hoping others can learn from them. Most of the time, I try not to rant, but today’s post contains a little bluster and perhaps enlightenment for those who are new to promoting their books.

In July 2018, Pen-L Publishing will release Freefall: A Divine Comedy, my third novel. Pen-L is a small press that can’t offer its authors much help in marketing their books, though it is wonderful in every other way. Nor are the owners able to pay advances. But they have editors that carefully copyedit each work, they create attractive covers and quality books, and the publisher operates a lively FB page, posting articles that inspire and educate. Its authors also have formed an online community, collaborating when they can by reading and reviewing each other’s work as well as sharing helpful marketing practices. Small presses, heroes in the larger publishing scene, struggle to survive, barely making a profit. Most of them do it for the love of literature and the satisfaction of midwifing good books.

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In contrast, most larger publishers have publicity people in-house that help books bearing their imprint to gather nationwide attention, depending on the author’s fame. However, these days, even writers that have contracts with bigger presses are responsible themselves for marketing much of their work. So not only do we writers need to constantly sharpen our craft and produce new narratives, but we also must sell ourselves and our creations, sometimes going into debt to do so.

When my first novel, Fling! was released in 2015, I was fortunate that my stepdaughter, a professional PR person, helped me create a press kit and sent out ARC’s (advanced review copies) to relevant sources. She also did some follow up phone calls that initiated a few readings and contacted a Canadian publisher that wrote up Fling! in her literary magazine. In many other ways, my stepdaughter was very helpful, initiating me into FB and Twitter, and recommending that I monitor my time on social media so I didn’t feel overwhelmed. If she had been charging me for her services, I never could have afforded them. Since I’ve now discovered just how costly publicists can be, I’m even more grateful for the efforts she made on my behalf before she left PR work to become a full-time mother.

As a result, I’ve learned a lot about book marketing, but I still had hoped to hire a professional publicist before my next novel is released who would introduce me to a larger audience and give me more exposure. I’m assuming a good PR person has access to promotional venues and databases that I don’t, giving her the inside track in reaching TV/radio shows, as well as editors of specialty magazines and newspapers. However, when I began to research various PR firms, I was shocked at their fees.

Most publicists want authors to sign up for at least three months and often longer. Their monthly rate starts around $5000 and rises. I mean RISES! It amazes me that some authors actually will put out those amounts when there is no guarantee of the results. And while I understand that PR people need to make a living, their fees seem excessive given the small amount of money that writers make from selling books. Let’s say you get 10% of the retail price and the book sells for $15.00. That means you are making $1.50 per book and would need to sell 1000 copies before making just $1500. Most newly published authors don’t sell 1000 copies, and that’s one reason why it’s so difficult for “debut” authors to sign on with the major publishing houses.

On the other hand, I could argue that hiring a dynamo PR person might lead to higher book sales and you’d make back part of your investment, but it’s too great a risk. So writers that want to find a larger readership for their books are easily exploited, caught up in the dream that a publicist will somehow magically transform their experience. While I can’t change this scenario, I can at least recommend an alternative that I discovered in my research.

Some professional publicists have written how-to books that are invaluable for writers like myself who are willing to take the necessary steps to promote their books. One PR person that I stumbled across is Natalie Obando, a journalism and PR graduate. She has written a self-help book that covers most of the bases for marketing one’s own work: How to Get Publicity for Your Book: A Do It Yourself Guide for Authors. I purchased the Kindle edition for $5.99 (it’s also available in paperback for $13.99), and while there is considerable work involved in creating a media kit and all that goes into it, I’m willing to put in the time, and I’m also learning in the process. It isn’t ideal. But it’s better than going into debt.

I would love to hear from others about their marketing experiences!