Composing a Writer #12. What True Self-Publishing Means

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told I was destroying my life. It started in high school where every choice carried potential doom; if you don’t go to college, if you don’t go to the right college, if you sleep with your boyfriend, if you try drugs. I’m sure there are still people waiting for my unplanned pregnancy forty-five years later. Meanwhile, I did have an adolescent crush all right. On Shakespeare.

Choosing to self-publish started the doom threats again. Some literary folks believe not finding a publisher will destroy any credibility you or your book could ever have. That there’s a vain glory in waiting ten or twenty years, suffering for art like an unrequited lover. Balanced against that the fact that the average number of sales for a self-published work is a measly 250 over the lifetime of the book.

Publishing can feel hopeless but perhaps the way you can tell you’re ready is that you’ve completed the millionth edit of your book and you’re at a place where it’s harder to not publish than it is to go forward. Confidence has slipped in with the editors, beta readers, and re-writing. You got stronger through the process, you think you can survive the leap.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]

Self-publishing starts innocently. Someone asks if you know that Amazon will publish an ebook for almost no money. It’s true and it takes less than twenty minutes to become a published author. There are no quality checks –part of the reason eBooks get a bad name. You can publish without so much as a spell check. If you think your family and a handful of friends will be your only readers, it might be good enough.

Here’s the catch. Amazon is working on a plan for world domination. They have nearly put Barnes and Noble out of business and Barnes and Noble were the biggest booksellers in history, having already threatened to put indie bookstores out of business. It’s that big fish eats little fish model of capitalism. So, it makes sense that indie bookstores don’t buy CreateSpace (Amazon’s publishing branch) books. Better to not use their ISBN number as it catalogs your book forever as Amazon’s and you don’t get to support your local bookstore. It seems like a quick publish but is it worth the limitations and politics and ongoing royalties involved?

Then you research self-publishing on the web and find a range of options. Some are vanity presses that print for money. (Think bottom feeders.) They accept all books and then sell you services like editing and cover design for various amounts of money. You might even recognize their brand names. Some authors don’t want involvement in publishing “details” and are happy to pay for the convenience. Be aware that it’s generally over-priced with a large up-front investment from the author. Editing is included and there will be a required investment of a few thousand dollars. In the end, you get a percentage of the sale but so do they –forever. Do you really want to pay them a percentage going forward for work that you’ve already paid for?

Here’s the tricky part, where the sharks live. Vanity presses frequently call themselves self-publishers.  Those are two different things but it’s very hard to figure that out doing the research. It’s an industry secret of sorts. There are varying sales pitches with lots of gray areas. Some of those vanity press books are beautiful. Not to mention, they’re great at selling themselves to authors. It can sound reasonable because traditionally published authors get a few cents a book. If you sell like Stephen King, it adds up but for small fish, not so much. A true self-publish should mean that you get all the money.

Here’s where I say again, be aware. First-time authors are like fat trout in the stream, easy picking because we’re inexperienced and tend to wear our hearts on our sleeves. There is an industry of businesses who prey on our naiveté and passion and they work right beside professionals with ethics and knowledge to help us. It’s hard to tell the difference in the beginning.

Most confusing for me was a hybrid press that asked for submissions just like an indie press would. I got the thrill of being accepted, along with a flattering phone call, only to find out that it would cost almost $10,000 to get my book to press. Sure, they offered a bit more than the cheaper vanity presses but that was an impossible amount of money. They tried to make me feel guilty or uncommitted but the money wasn’t possible. Once I verbalized that, their enthusiastic interest in my book evaporated.

A big deciding factor for me with Stable Relation was that I’d paid for three professional edits in the process of writing. It was a wonderful and educational investment. The quality of my manuscript was a direct result of that but why pay for it again, as most so-called self-publishers or vanity presses required?

The family story goes that my first sentence was, “I’ll do it myself.” As a kid, I quit the Brownies after a month because I thought they were sissies, gluing macaroni on paper when there were horses to ride.

I guess it’s no surprise that in the end I’d self-publish but at least I’d taken the time to become well-informed about the process. I could write a book about publishing, but instead, here are the Cliff’s Notes:

I searched for a cover artist whose work I liked and found Jane in England. I chose the cover from a group of designs that I had input on. She has a great eye and got all the details in place. She was knowledgeable and made the process of cover and interior design quick and easy. The cover needed a bold visual and with my art background, I was picky. I wanted my true self-publish to stand proudly on shelves next traditionally published books. Hiring a professional achieved that.

Jane returned the finished covers and interiors, both paperback and ebook, in digital file format, along with bookmarks and PR images, and a bill for a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand. The rest was easy:

  • I filed a business name for my publishing company. Prairie Moon Press was born for a few dollars.
  • I bought my ISBN numbers from Bowker in the name of Prairie Moon Press.  I bought a group of them; each book and eBook need its own identification number.
  • I set up an account with Ingram Spark. They are the largest international distributor of books; the place that Barnes and Noble and all other independent bookstores buy from. Uploading my book’s files was as easy as posting on Facebook and within a week, a proof of Stable Relation came in the mail. The cost for set-up is $49.
  • I set up free eBook distribution on Smashwords for international availability.
  • After that, I opened an account on Amazon CreateSpace, because I knew the vast majority of my sales would be there. They can buy the books from IngramSpark but they charge me more and availability is spotty. Meaning Amazon likes to do business with themselves best. I uploaded both paperback and eBook there, and again, a proof arrived in a week. No charge to set up with your finished files.
  • The books become available when the proofs are accepted. The whole process is fairly simple and although IngramSpark and Createspace take a small percentage for distribution, your royalty is much higher than you’d think. You are now an author and a publisher.
  • Finally, it’s time to promote your book. During this part, to beat a dead metaphor, you gasp for air like a prehistoric catfish landed in the Sahara. And you have only begun!

This is the last post of this series, and probably the least interesting –being more technical that creative. Please understand that I take this task seriously. There’s always business required for art to succeed and I respect that. I’ll continue to write about writing and I’ll tag to this series. I’ll toss out writing challenges from time to time. Thank you to everyone who’s played a part here. I want to end sharing the words we started with –a call to your craft:

“Writing is the art of molding our voices to say just the exact thing we mean, with honesty, vulnerability, and hopefully a little humor. Take your writing seriously. Whether the world ever reads us or not, it’s past time that we give our own words the respect they deserve.”

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Composing a Writer #11. Submission and Rejection

I’m not proud of what I did. In my defense, I was in my early twenties; old enough to know disappointment, even violence, at the hands of men. I knew I wasn’t at my best. It had been a stressful, lonely couple of years. He was wearing a tie and he seemed sincere, quiet-spoken, and maybe an inch shorter than me. They say you fall for men who remind you of your father. Not me; this man was his polar opposite.

Still, there’s no excuse and I’ve carried the shame for decades. I can’t even quite admit the details now. I only said hello to be polite but then we were talking, haltingly at first. Before I knew it, one thing led to another and, it’s embarrassing to say this, he was kind to me. He told me that I was pretty. That’s when it happened. I crumpled and bought the vacuüm cleaner. I’m not sure if this makes it better or worse but I think he was at least seventy.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]

This is just to say that there’s a special mix of exhaustion and numb hysteria when a writer makes a choice…

I decided to submit my manuscript to small publishing houses. I did another few hundred hours of online research and found about twenty-five possibles who accepted memoir. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I spent as much time researching publishing as I had to edit the whole manuscript.

Each publisher had slightly different submission requirements. They all want a cover letter, bio, resume, and first chapter. Some ask for a comparison statement and most want to know that you have a following who will purchase your book, and what you’re willing to do to promote the book. The resume has an obvious challenge for first-time authors.

Some publishers want a 50-word description, some want 250 or 500. Then maybe 2,500 words. After spending an eternity writing the manuscript, now you must hack it down to an enticing tidbit. Then, you need that tidbit to come in assorted sizes. It’s harder than it sounds. In the end, there’s a file on your computer filled with a few versions of each bit of required paperwork.

Then publisher by publisher, each submission got cobbled together; the same bits but in various orders. Finally, with a precious feeling of elation and dread, that last part… the submit click. Consider this the part of the roller coaster ride where there is a long incline before the big vertical drop.

I think I’m supposed to say something about patience about now. Here goes. When working with animals, patience is the place where all good things come together. Other trainers tell me that I redefine patience. However, when working with “the way of the world,” I consider patience another word for procrastination. Sorry. I probably redefine relentless, too.

The research never stops, but now is the time to do all the other things you should have done already. Make an author website and an author page on Facebook. I had a hard time even calling myself an author, without a book, so I opted to share my quest for a publisher in the first posts on my author blog. It felt sticky and vulnerable, but I was lucky that so many of my horse/life blog readers signed up for the new blog. Their comments on my older blog kept me going while writing Stable Relation, but now their comments on my new author blog, kept me lifted there, too. Bless those early readers. They carried me from the first word.

Steep yourself in publishing information. Check out Goodreads and the back side of Amazon. Continue following writer’s blogs. You’ll find that the industry is changing fast and no one knows what’s going to happen. It’s been that way for years but it’s good to be reminded. In the middle, one thing becomes abundantly clear. It isn’t if your manuscript will be published, the only question is how you’re willing to let it happen.

Within the first two weeks, I’d heard back from the first wave of publishers. They told me that they didn’t accept memoir after all. I choked back my why say so then? remarks and thanked them. Then Feminist Press in New York asked for the full manuscript. Finally, someone wanted the whole book. I sent it within minutes.

More rejections came back, but always with a compliment about my writing. Two publishers initiated personal emails with suggestions because, although their press didn’t publish memoir, they had ideas for me. Somehow, I had no publisher but wasn’t rejected either. Feminist Press sent the kindest note –a kind of apology rejection.

A blog reader asked if I wanted to talk with one of her friends who was a retired publisher and that conversation was invaluable. I emailed a publicist who required a reading before taking an author on, but she responded with an in-depth book assessment that was nothing short of glowing.

Stable Relation had come a long way and the process gave me confidence. My writing was acknowledged as my genre was rejected. On the advice of a handful of publishers, I decided to self-publish. Not because my manuscript wasn’t good enough for a real publisher, but because the publishing world was complicated and Stable Relation wasn’t easy to categorize. They thought my book deserved a chance and I believed they meant it.

This Week: With one blog left in this series, this week is about your process. Please take a moment and tell me how your writing is going. Are you writing differently? How do you cross the line from wanting to write and writing –and even writing for publishing? Have your writing or publishing goals changed? Tell me about your research and add the link to your author website. It’s your turn to tell me a story about your writing –please and thank you.

Even the word submission is touchy for me, as a horse trainer and a woman. My reaction has evolved through my life and my memoir, Stable Relation, is that exact story.  The irony was not lost when publishing brought me snout to snout with another opportunity to submit. I held my head up, listened to varied advice, and made a choice.

I took the compliment without buying the vacuum cleaner.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Composing a Writer #8. Editing the Editing

I was raised by a woman who chronically rearranged furniture. It was a nervous habit. Coming home late you had to look for a particular end-table that got put in odd places, usually just in front of your shin. Then a week later, in front of your other shin. I had spent my life trying to not-like-my-mother, but there I was shuffling chapters around like a veneer end-table, a green Naugahyde sofa, and an orange and brown zig-zag afghan. How the mighty had fallen.

After a whole year of typing away on my manuscript for Stable Relation in predawn hours, I’d lost perspective. I had 80,000 words but I had no idea if they made any sense. I’d tried so hard to write in a way that did not draw conclusions, that didn’t tell the reader what to think, that I couldn’t tell what I thought.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. It isn’t that I’m an expert; there are as many ways to approach to writing as there are authors.]

I had an idea of how I wanted to tell the story when I started. I wanted the first chapters to feel rushed and a bit uncomfortable. Then that feeling would give way to an eventual sense of gratitude and ease. I wanted the writing style to reflect the story line as it progressed. I told the story in an episodic way, more than chronologically because I like stories that circle back on themselves. In hindsight, a more linear approach might have been easier but I wanted the story to unfold like we meet people; who they are gets defined by their experience but we only learn that over time, in bits and pieces.

My developmental edit hadn’t been what I expected …as if I’d written enough books to know. After the best rewrite (rearrange) I could do, I sent the manuscript to a second professional editor for line editing. It cost real money like the first editor, but my reasoning was that if I wasn’t willing to invest, why should a reader? I knew that a publisher would edit the book if they picked it up, but I wanted my version so tight that perhaps they’d let it be. I consulted the Editorial Freelancers Association and found three possible editors, interviewed, decided, and sent the manuscript off again.

My manuscript came back, digital this time, with red ink track changes in the margins. Who knew word tense was such a challenging thing? I made the same grammatical errors repeatedly but correcting them a few dozen times does drill the lesson. There were times the notes in the margin told me I was redundant and other times that I was preaching (no surprise). The edit was impersonal but at the same time, I felt she cared profoundly about my grammar and sentence structure. This edit was a lesson in how to write as well as a keen focus on the lumps and holes in the story. It transformed my ability to write a sentence, in this manuscript and going forward, and I joyously paid her fee. I had no idea if she liked the actual story; she was objective. Then near the last chapter, in a red track change, one word: [crying]. Through the editing, I had come to respect her abilities; I didn’t know until that last moment how much I wanted her to like Stable Relation.

I reworked the book with those edits but it was more like moving knick-knacks instead of entire sofas. Word by word, my confidence meandered back. I sharpened my points and got all my ideas on the same page; irony and humor returned. I said more with less and in the right tense. When the time was right, I sent the manuscript to a third editor for a final proofreading edit.

A few weeks later the manuscript came back, this time with fewer red track changes than ever, mostly grammatical, some capital letter mistakes with job titles. (The humans in my book had job titles; only the animals had names.) There were a few more word mistakes, like using one instead of on, one every other page or so, that my eyes had missed. In the process of making changes from the last edit, I had written new prose in a few places with imperfect skill. Editors are magnificent.

This Week: You’re a writer. You write. Words are your minions. They await your bidding with energy and a good ground covering gait. Miles of words pass through your fingers. After all the emotional and technical challenges of writing, you remember how much you love to tell a story.

Your assignment this week is to consider an old Akira Kurosawa movie called Rashomon. Tell the same scene from more than one perspective. Or write a story that tells something important in hindsight. Alter your voice in prose: Use sentence structure to help define the emotional aspects of your scene. Have a written plan for an essay and then stick to it; think fascinating introduction, the arc of the story with plot twists, and really stretch for an unexpected ending. Or for the fun of it, write a bit of nonsense with wrong words spelled correctly, in that one and on sort of way. Pick one of these ideas, or make one up that interests you, and just start.

And then let us know on our Writing Herd Facebook page. It doesn’t matter where you are in these assignments. Some new members have joined; say hello! If you are a founding member but have not shared your thoughts yet, chime in, whether it’s sharing a piece you’ve written or your thoughts about writing in general. We’d love to hear from you. Let us know how it’s going; let’s use each other for encouragement and talk about how we write and well as what we write. Most of all, Write on!

That final editor called me just before returning my digital manuscript. It was a Saturday morning and I was giving a riding lesson. I usually don’t answer my phone while teaching, but I will check caller ID to check if it’s a client. Seeing my editor’s name, I apologized to my rider and took the call. I listened as my editor said it was the best book she’d every edited. Then she said some other things. I forget what happened the rest of that day.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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One Book Award; Two Bar Incidents

wm-toasting-spirit

The 2016 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards were held last weekend, in conjunction with the Miami Book Fair International. Stable Relation won a gold medal, and since I never went to my high school graduation, I decided to attend. As if that passes for logic.

I’d been there before and love south Florida, even during election years. It’s always been culturally diverse with many Spanish-speaking residents, so I did my best. By that, I mean that I made a point of saying hello, smiling when I didn’t understand, and following with gracias. It felt good to make the effort. I can also order a beer in Spanish, but that’s about it.

A convention of introverts. Just think of it.

On Friday night, there was a meet and greet for authors at the hotel. Apparently, no one eats on airplanes anymore, and I’d had a close connection, so by the time I finally got to the hotel, I’d already missed two meals. I went down to the bar early and ordered dinner. As I sipped my wine, I took a keepsake out of my pocket. A client had given it to me years ago; a small stone with a word, or in our case, a name, etched into it: “Spirit”.

Forty-five minutes later there was still no sign of dinner, I’d had a second glass of wine, and tears were flowing. It wasn’t the first or last time that I’ll cry over a good horse. And it wasn’t just my gratitude for thirty years with my Grandfather Horse, who changed my life. It was also the memory of saying a final good-bye to him two months ago.

Yes, I flew to another state to get dressed-up and cry in the dark corner of a bar.

I guess the best thing I can say is that, at my age, most people look right past me. It’s one of those backward age-perks. Dinner never came; then I sat through a series of presentations about book marketing, and among other things, was reminded for the umpteenth time to thank people you might want something from in the future.

Public relations is a quandary for me. Self-promotion is necessary. At the same time, strategizing about it always feels grimy and insincere. Call me a dweeb–maybe even a Labrador–but I’ll take my PR cues from dogs. They seem to get it right most of the time. Then I stumbled off to bed, after a bag of chips from a vending machine. Wrung out. Gracias.

Saturday morning and I did it again. Me, the one who is usually up and writing at 3:30 in the morning, missed breakfast and the bus to the Miami Book Fair. I Ubered (a new verb) there, got some coffee and had a great time. Then I rushed back early, determined to nail down an entire meal and have time to get “formal” for the award presentation, as requested.

The presentation was like I imagined graduation would have been. We walked across the stage, got our medals, and smiled for the camera. Applause, and more kind people. And more photos. I hope I smiled–but not too much. What I didn’t expect, descending the steps on the other side of the stage, was the overwhelm of gratitude I felt for how much words have always meant to me, on so many levels. I felt elated and humbled. All the good words.

The biggest weekend takeaway was how affirming it was meeting people who had done what I had; authors of true crime and young adult and historical nonfiction. Like Cary Allen Stone, and Tyler, and Michelle Rene, and Karen Hoyle and more than I can list here. New friends and word geeks, one and all.

book-awardOn Sunday, I checked out and got the airport early. I was feeling giddy; I’d been recognized for my gold metal… by the metal detector. Wow, it’s changed me already.

I swaggered into the airport bar and pulled out my notebook. The last three weeks, I’ve had a chronic case of blurbitis, and without that measly sink-or-swim paragraph, the next book languishes in limbo forever. No pressure.

But I must have snorted when the men next to me at the bar made a joke. That was all it took. They welcomed me in, telling me they were just back from an amazing trip to Cuba. They were Texans; I know better. But they told me about visiting Hemingway’s house and seeing his pet cemetery. They had a photo of four small headstones; I think three of the names might have been some Spanish variation on “Blackie” and one simply said, “Linda.” Conversation sped on to the Cuban economy, vintage cars, and the professor who was their guide; these two longtime friends had quite a time together. I’m certain we didn’t vote the same ticket. Then they ordered a second round.

Hemingway; the man’s man author; I asked who their favorite woman author was. The dead air didn’t last long. “Barbara Kingsolver. Poisonwood Bible.” And we have a winner!

Eventually, they asked me what I was doing in Miami and I told them. Then I told them they’d heard me right. Heaven forbid getting googled in a bar, but I was there, loud and proud. My life limped and groaned while passing before my eyes. Gracias again, for the statute of limitations. Or maybe it just felt that way.

What could I do? I tossed my suitcase onto the bar stool, like a saddle over a horse, and rummaged through dirty clothes to produce two copies of Stable Relation. At the same time thinking, “Who is this woman?”

UPDATE: Cover image; check. Ebooks formatted; check. Blurb for back cover edited into submission; check. Barn Dance is almost done, just a pile of technicalities left to do. It’s up to Prairie Moon Press now.

Then our flight was announced and we all hugged like old friends, still as different as Americans can be. Standing in my line, I turned and saw one of the men, looking exhausted, half-drunk, and clutching Stable Relation in his arm.

Here’s to you, Spirit. The ride isn’t over yet.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

Word Geek Needs Prom Date

“She’s insufferable with this stupid human game. What’s wrong with tossing a ball. What an embarrassment. We try to sleep through it.”
“She’s insufferable with this stupid human game. What’s wrong with tossing a ball? We try to sleep through it. This woman is an embarrassment.”

I was once on the very brink of practically passing as sophisticated. It isn’t the same as actually being sophisticated, but I swear, this blog is like a trashy “True Confessions of a Dork” tell-all. Bad boundaries? I was routinely accused of that, but I’ve moved beyond that to shameless.

I’m winding up to brag about my vocabulary. That’s what all this honesty has come to. Someone, please, stop me before I drag out comments from my grade school teachers!

First, just because I’ve never played a computer game in my life, doesn’t mean I don’t understand the theory. I want to announce I have just taken up something remotely like a computer game, only obscure and arcane and, well, it has the stench of a long over-ripe Honor Society membership.

Okay, here goes.

I call it writing but that’s a poor description. I spend a few minutes gathering words around an idea I have, and then hours editing them. I move them around like furniture, I replace words with better words. I struggle with punctuation and adverbs and pronouns. Then I check for words that I repeat too often or not enough. Writing is the very tiny part of the job.

Sometimes I use software programs like Word, but more often, I like the software here on WordPress. Their spell check is powered by an elderly English teacher with a very sharp ruler. For longer work, I like Scriveners, a writing software for arranging a book that is no less than co-author worthy in its ability to hold it all together before it actually exists. Even if their spell check is a bit more like a Junior High English teacher who also coaches soccer.

I’m getting to the part where it’s all as exciting as playing Call of Duty. (I had to google a game title. Is this a good one?)

Some word geeks play scrabble and call it good, but the game I dream of is software that can tell that I should have used to instead of on. You can’t imagine how invisible those little words become during editing. Oh, of course you can. You see those mistakes in my writing all the time. I’m the blind one.

Obviously, I troll around on word software sites because I get their solicitations… that’s how I stumbled upon Grammarly. I downloaded the free version and then had a picky judgment fest about it. I’m that kind of crazy on a Saturday night. There is a page switch aspect that I don’t like, but it wrangles commas pretty well. In my dorky opinion.

It all changed when I got an email summary from Grammarly that used the word “Mastery” in relating that in the last 39,620 words I’d written, (more words that 99% of users did in the same time period,) I had used 1424 unique words (a larger vocabulary than 97% of users).

Okay, I like this game. I think you can see why. I would never be the kind of person who liked statistics. That’s math and I would rather fanatically over-tip a server than do math.

It was WordPress who taught me to love statistics. I check them all the time, it’s a compulsion. Because they flatter me. Something math has never even tried to do. “Readers in 161 countries.” Wow. Humbled and flattered. It’s getting remotely close to 1,000,000 hits. (It would have been easier to type a million hits, but I wanted to gloat over all those zeros.) This is how it came to pass that I bored the dogs into a coma.

Like all good embarrassments, I was standing there at the corner of No One Cares! and Do You Know Who I Am? And smiling like a fifth-grader in cat-eye glasses and a buttoned-up sweater because Grammarly is my new best friend.

“Pathetic,” the dogs mutter in unison.

gold-shiny-hrReal Life Update: This Friday, I fly off to the Miami Book Fair International to receive my award for Stable Relation. This is an awkward invitation to be my prom date. Please. There’s a Saturday night formal event and as usual, the dogs weren’t invited and I think no one else will ask me to dance. So will you come? If you can’t show up, will you talk me through it on Facebook? I’ll be posting about it on my author page here. 

“Like” the Facebook page and follow me there, so you can share my angst of not wearing barn clothes and sleeping dogless. But know it won’t be as much fun as editing, just so you can prepare. 

Barn Dance, the next book, is still on track for January release. I think we have the cover photo nailed down, just looking for that perfect, witty tagline. Oh, and some more obsessive-compulsive editing. I know there are some stray commas and semi-colons roaming aimlessly through the text, but at some point, you just have to hold your nose and jump.

Okay, in an attempt for fairness, it wasn’t all hearts and flowers with Grammarly. I confess that Grammarly also noted that I missed commas in a compound sentence 274 times. I made 94 mistakes with missing articles. Perhaps most tragic, there were 168 mistakes in comma splices. I didn’t even know that happened to commas. Let’s just state the painful truth. I have comma drama.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

 

 

Going Where You’re Invited

Lately I’ve been haunted by this drumming thought: Now would be a good time to do something smart.

It doesn’t come naturally to me. To be honest, I have a tendency to do things the hard way. I spent a fair amount of time beating down doors, back in the day. If easier methods existed, they never occurred to me. For instance, I liked the idea of winning the lottery but I don’t actually believe in a free lunch, so I never bought the ticket. See what I’m working with here?

Lousy financial decisions have been a constant. Like hiring that financial planner/ex-IRS agent who helped me lose all the profit I made selling a house… to the IRS. And you wouldn’t want to take me along to buy a used truck. And oh yeah, there’s that barn full of un-rideable horses next to my house.

Maybe I got lost on the way to take the road less travelled and that has made all the difference. (Apologies, Mr. Frost.)

All of this is to say that writing a book fit perfectly into my long-term plan. First, I warmed my fingers up by blogging regularly for the last seven years. Readers came one at a time. I was a tortoise-like sensation. Then it took two years to write the first book, Stable Relation. Not a get-rich-quick scheme by any stretch of judgment.

Research told me that ninety percent of self-published books sold less than a hundred copies, but still I took the advice of two publishers and a book publicist and decided to self-publish. Hello, Prairie Moon Press.

Being the publisher meant writing press releases and blurbs. Promoting a reluctant author and entering book contests. And the biggest challenge of all: Talking good about the author in public. It’s enough anxiety to turn your tongue into a Dorito. How did someone who mucked barns and wrote every spare moment get this PR job?

It’s been fourteen months since Stable Relation came out. I’ve been making the whole thing up as I go and it’s been surreal. But is it time to let it rest? I love this book but is it over? Am I turning–even more than usual–into that balding guy rocking out in the cliché-red Corvette?

I figure just around this time my guardian angel got out of rehab.

And then Stable Relation was awarded a gold medal from the Readers’ Favorite book awards, in the Non-Fiction, Animals category.

The publisher (me) is happy because now the author (me) has the title of  Award Winning Author. I’m flattered but still more likely to come to “Hey, you!”

They hold a ceremony/mini-conference during the huge and wonderful Miami Book Fair, November 18-20th. They invited the winners to come, hobnob a bit, and perhaps snag the ear of an industry pro. And going to a book fair sounds like about as much fun as you can have without goats or donkeys. On Saturday night, there’s a formal event to present the awards. Think rhinestones on my Crocs.

Like I said, I’d really like to do something smart, if I could tell what that was. I try to keep an open mind. Life is like working with donkeys; you end up someplace else but had little control about how you got there.

So, obviously my category wasn’t the biggest, and I won’t know a soul there, and I don’t sleep well in dog-less hotel beds. But I’m going to try something out of character. If you have a history like mine and don’t know what to do next–it’s crazy notion–but maybe you try going where you’re invited.

…Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro
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How I Spent Your Summer Vacation.

companyDo you ever have that feeling that you’re watching a foreign film, only it’s broad daylight and your own life?

I can’t remember a summer when I’ve hugged more strangers who know me intimately.

Start here: Sarah is one of my oldest friends, and a beta reader for me. Beta readers agree to read unfinished manuscripts and give their opinion, before the book is done. Sarah has edited for me in the past, is an avid reader, a lifelong librarian, and knew all the characters in my memoir, Stable Relation. Beyond that, she’s given me what we used to call a “permanent wave” and so I knew she had no qualms about humiliating me. You want that in a beta reader.

When she called me, her first words were, “You make the place sound so bucolic. Anna… I’ve been to your farm.” She spoke with a flat monotone to her voice and a bit of sarcasm salted on top for comic effect. As Sarah gets older, she sounds more like her mother. They both crack me up.

Sarah’s right, of course. Perhaps my greatest feat as a writer is to get everyone to see this ramshackle humble farm through my eyes. Well, Sarah, your words have come home to roost.

The first farm visit last fall was for an newspaper article. I knew the reporter; he’d even been here before. I liked him. And I still changed clothes three times, trying to cross-dress and look like an author.

There has been a trickle of visitors this summer. One reader emailed me that her family was taking a road trip to the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde; would it be possible to drop by and say hello? Of course I was flattered that my tiny farm with mis-matched fence panels would be listed with such famous landmarks.

When they arrived, Marcella jumped out of the car, shouted enthusiastic greetings, promised to not take my whole day, and acted like she wanted to hug me.

Disclaimer: if you’ve read Stable Relation, I think you know my people are not the hugging sort.

So, of course I hugged her, and greeted her husband and daughter. Standing there in the driveway, I wasn’t totally sure what to do next. After all, I’m there because of my ability to sit alone and type. I guessed they’d want to see the animals. In hindsight, you’d call it a walking tour, but I wanted to get to the comfort zone of my barn. We were strolling and talking horses, when Marcella recognized my Grandfather Horse. She recognized him! I’m not sure why that meant so much to me. Except he’s the reason for all of this.

I had more visitors the next week; a man who’d written me not long after Stable Relation was published. Chaz and his wife, Peggy arrived with a bottle of wine. I would have never thought to make such a kind gesture. Again, the walking tour and Peggy was honest to say that she was a bit nervous around horses. It was fair, we were in the gelding pen, where the short horse is 15.2 hands.

I could see Edgar Rice Burro waiting for her at the gate on the far side of the next pen. Once we got there, he took over with Peggy, Edgar’s a bit of a lady-killer with his long ears and sweet heart. The other equines in the pen mingled with us. We stood there talking like old friends at the neighborhood bar. Even Lillith, the shy donkey foster, wandered up and nudged Chaz.

As they were leaving, I was signing a book for a friend of theirs, when Chaz showed me his copy of Relaxed & Forward. He’d told me before that he turned page corners at spots he wanted to come back to, but when I actually saw it, it seemed like every other page corner was turned. What a thing. I tried to stay focused on signing the other book, but it knocked me back. The dorky ninth-grader in me fumbled. Why didn’t I ask to sign his book? Why didn’t I thank them for making me feel so special?

Then this week, a group of five visited. They were long time city dwellers, as interested in seeing the pond and re-imagining the distances from the blizzard chapter, as meeting the animals. Then the llamas were a bit rowdy. As they were leaving, one of the women came very close. She said she knew it wasn’t a big deal for me, but for them it was very special. Something they would never forget. She grabbed me for a huge, heartfelt hug. I mumbled whatever I could think of but I fumbled again.

How could she possibly think this wasn’t a big deal to me?

UPDATE: The manuscript for Barn Dance is with my editor. She edits lots of authors; I just like to call her mine. She’ll have it a few weeks, then I’ll incorporate her corrections. It’s grammar and punctuation and sentences that make no sense. In the meantime, I’m in a flop sweat knowing I’ll need a tag line, thinking about the cover image, and that paragraph that perfectly describes 80,000 wandering words. In other words, this is the time that I least trust my judgment. On the high side, I’m getting used to it. Barn Dance is on schedule for the New Year. As always, thank you for your support.

Sometimes it feels to me like I use this blog to apologize; to vent my lack of social skills and try to navigate my way in the human world. I constantly shake my head, marveling at the ways Stable Relation has changed my life. When it was published, I hoped the book would take flight but I didn’t expect this boomerang effect.

We love company here, especially the animals. But since the book, sometimes I don’t recognize myself. So if my eyes seem to go blank, I have only the flimsiest excuse. I’m rudely distracted, watching a foreign film behind my eyes.  It has an embarrassed ninth-grader with gray hair and a slight limp; she needs sub-titles.

And Sarah, I notice I’m not any more “bucolic” than my farm.

Crossing a Line, One Year Later

clara loveletterWhen I was twenty-four and just a baby goldsmith, I decided I wanted to show my one-of-a-kind jewelry in a New York gallery. Most of my friends were just out of college and I wanted to think my self-taught education was in line. I steeled my heart, borrowed a typewriter, enclosed some slides, and mailed off an inquiry to the best fine art jewelry gallery in Manhattan, located on Fifth Avenue across from MOMA.

Pigs fly; I got a positive response by return mail and then borrowed money to buy the gold and gemstones for the new pieces. A few weeks after that, I boarded a plane wearing jeans and a t-shirt, carrying a backpack with new collection of work tucked inside. Such a risk. It all felt like watching a foreign film–precarious and surreal.

I checked into the Fashion Institute Dorm, changed into a ridiculous white dress with huge shoulder pads that made me look like an aircraft carrier, and set about walking the two miles to the gallery. That way I’d have plenty of time to get up a good head of anxiety and blister a toe in my new shoes. The meeting was a blur; I remembered to shake hands when I met the gallery director. In a conference room, I pulled my work out one piece at a time and he critiqued as I went, using phrases like “negative space” and “visual tension.” All I could think was Just say it–not acceptable, you don’t need to explain how bad my work is… and then he finished with a question, “Can you leave the pieces with us today?”

The rest of the day is even more of a blur. I blistered the rest of my toes going back to the dorm; I might have skipped most of the way. When I got some of my wits back the next day, I called the gallery to thank them again and got the news that one piece had sold already.

I said the word out-loud: Artist. Calling myself that name in my basement studio was one thing, but now I’d crossed a line. Okay, skipped over it really, but it changed things. Over the next year, I had work in galleries across the country, and almost as an afterthought, my work got more popular at home. I also lost a couple of friends. They stepped away quietly but I noticed. The attempts to reconnect failed. Is there such a thing as success guilt?

Maybe you know the feeling. A dear friend plans a wedding on the heels of the worst break-up of your life. You get a promotion in your dream career when your sister is out of work. If you’re in a place of scarcity it can feel like there isn’t enough luck to go around and one person’s gain depletes your possibility. Or if you’re the one with good news, you bite your tongue because mentioning your good fortune would be like rubbing salt in the their wound. Most of us have been in a place where it takes as much courage to say congratulations as it does to put on the white dress.

A year ago, I crossed another line. I went from writing endlessly in a little studio to holding an actual physical copy of my memoir, Stable Relation, in my hand. When I exposed it to the world, and I exposed myself as well. It took Zen-like focus and wild audacity. I knew a hard reckoning would come. On the high side, no silly white dress.

Writing is like constructing Frankenstein. Playing god with an 80,000 word manuscript, and when it’s finally done, being brought to your knees, trying to wrestle five words into a byline. It’s a hope that your words will catch the wind and at the same time, the profound understanding that you are less than a fleck of dust in this big, complicated world. It’s yelling, “Hey, look at me!” and knowing that your underwear is on your head.

And then, I saw a photo online of my book on someone else’s tablecloth and my mind imploded. In the next few days, more readers posted photos of the book and Stable Relation became my traveling gnome. I was over the moon. I was hiding under my bed.

Reviews started coming in and most were positive. People commonly said that they couldn’t put the book down; they’d finished it without taking a breath. Where’s the next book?

Wait! This literary “snack” had taken me two and a half years to write, a few thousand dollars, and a serious time commitment every single day since. What’s the word for simultaneously choking and laugh-howling with horror?

A year later, this is what I notice: I can laugh without choking again. My list of improbable things has been severely edited and my battered confidence is standing steady. I’m word-fearless and inspired to write stronger every day. I even dabble in poetry; fearless I tell you!

I’ve received heartfelt emails from kindred spirits in other countries, made friends with people I’m in awe of, and my rural mail-carrier told me her mother loved my book.

Now and then, I notice something missing. Someone missing. I don’t need a parade but those who have remained silent are noticed. I hope they’re well. What does it mean when we choose to miss events in our friends lives? When we don’t acknowledge passages like divorces or children born or new paths taken? Have I offended them? Could it be that our emotional landscapes at odds with each other?

I spend so much of time trying to be a human thesaurus, always searching for the right words to understand these inexplicable contradictions. All the while I’m painfully aware that I can’t control how those same words will be heard…in my writing or in my life.

In the end, maybe assuming good intention is a more productive use of energy than doubting motives. Change has an ironic sense of humor and we might do better to smile and act like we’re in on the joke, even in hard times. The other word for that is grace.

To my blog readers here, I’ve used this space to transition myself into my new surroundings. It’s been the place where I confess my dreams and my shortcomings. I wander around in old pajamas and spill coffee on my keyboard. Mainly I sit in slack-jawed amazement, balanced between wild joy and abject dread. If you have been with me here from the start, what tolerance you’ve shown. I’m sure I haven’t thanked you enough. I’m equally sure you can’t know how much your support has carried me. It’s been the very best part.

Thank you. Big. Always.

 

Quote-Hoarding as Therapy.

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It was called The Book of Quotes, curated by two guys in my high school. They were skinny/tall, a bit too smart, and not remotely athletic–way before that geek title was claimed with pride. Back when a dork’s best defense was his intelligence. The Book of Quotes was their prized possession; a spiral notebook carried everywhere, poised to immortalize the key words, when the world became bizarre. Entries were made daily, of course.

I was friends with the dark-haired one but definitely not smart/male/cool enough to hang with these guys on a regular basis. We were self-segregated in those days. Okay, that part hasn’t changed much. But one day when we were sitting in the library, they opened the sacred book and read a quote–obscure and out-of-context. It went splat out on the table, followed by snorting, giggling, and faking sophistication while pushing my glasses back up my nose again. We all just wanted to be in on a joke instead of the butt of one.

I had a secret. I kept a book of quotes, too. It wasn’t like theirs; mine was meant to be an oracle for lost girls. Like this:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”― Eleanor Roosevelt

You catch my drift. Mine didn’t involve arcane jokes or adolescent innuendos. Mine was literary and heartfelt. The quotes were my battle cry because if a good quote is repeated enough times, it becomes an internal tattoo.

 “Assume a virtue if you have it not.” Shakespeare
The habit stuck; I’ve been a quote-hoarder all these years but never so much as when I was starting to write my memoir, Stable Relation.  My studio was wallpapered with tape, thumb-tacks, and hand-written quotes that I relied on like a professional therapist. Every morning, I rolled out of bed hours before breakfast, let the dogs out, and started writing. I had no idea that birds were up in the dark, too, but they warbled and chirped a soundtrack to my book. I typed on, in the shadow of the quote that was my long-time favorite:
Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark. –Rabindranath Tagor

When an old-friend-quote shows up in real life, take it as an omen.

This blog started out as wishful thinking. I’d just finished my book and I was strangely confident. Sink or swim; Stable Relation was just what I wanted it to be. Every word of it.

The problem was what to do next. How had it not occurred to me that writing the book wasn’t going to be enough? Now what? I had no confidence in the process.  I was still that girl who chanted the magical words from other books. In a world of literary giants, my little book was invisible…unless I spoke up for it. A daunting prospect, so I recycled an extremely well-worn quote for that:

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu

Or in my case, one blog post. Here’s where I thank you, dear reader, again and again. It’s been a wild hike this last eighteen months.

The full-circle-crazy part? It happened while scrolling through Facebook. I came upon a quote that I thought about copying for an instant… but then I recognized the attached photo. It was one of mine, and now that I looked closer… I hadn’t recognized the words out-of-context. For all of the editing and word arranging needed to tell a story just right, I’d never once thought of dissecting my writing into a small bite. But umm, now that I think about it, that is how a quote happens, isn’t it? What a world!

Are you a quote collector, too? Words are free magic. We share them like our breath, our experience, our mutual lives. Words come from teenage boys, or ancient texts, or our own imagination, to remind us we are more alike than different.

The magic happens when a printed word takes flight, and carries us along.

We Had a Book Club Before Oprah.

We formed a book club before it was popular. You can tell by our dated name: Women who read too much (and the dogs that love them.) We were an eclectic group of women, of varied backgrounds and status, with jobs that ranged from engineers to doctors to tech queens to research scientists and everything to the left and right. In the beginning we didn’t all know each other but we did have one huge commonality: we loved books. I read the best books of my life with those women.

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The Parliament of Eight Wise Owls book club, with two readers off screen.

Our first book was Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. It set the bar high but I could list another fifty just as good. In the beginning I was a dyed-in-the-wool fiction reader, but being in the club meant reading books that you probably wouldn’t have read otherwise. Every time it was Lauren’s turn, she picked a non-fiction book. I’d silently grumble, then end up wild about the book, until I finally switched sides entirely.

We took turns picking authors from around the world, and then matched our potluck dinner menus to the book theme or nationality. We began each meeting with a glass of wine, but it was the book talk that I valued the most; first reasoning out my opinion, then seeing that book from other perspectives, and then enjoying the routine every month for a few years. There was always a delicious feeling walking up to the door with a covered dish and the latest read, anxious for our particular brand of bookish sisterhood.

And the elephant in my brain the entire time; the un-named what-if was always behind me, leaning against a wall. He whispered, “What if it was your book? What if you ever wrote yours??” It was a dream so precious and improbable that I made up an imaginary sarcastic loner to poke me, rather than share it out loud to my friends.

Life happened; there were weddings and divorces, members transitioned in and out, and eventually I moved away. For a while I commuted back but there were changes in my life that made returning difficult. Some of the other original members fell away that next year as well, but I understand the book club is still reading on. Long live the Women Who Read Too Much; thirteen years later and I’m still curious about what they’re reading.

It’s been a hectic month here, crowded with events I would never have dreamed of in my book club years. I was invited to take part in an event for local authors at the Pikes Peak Library District. Libraries are a sacred place, you know. Then traveling to the Midwest Horse Fair and meeting readers there was amazing, as well as having a day at Main Stay Farm. I gave a webinar I created from a blog post, and I just generally talked with authors and met readers. I’ve been busier with book work lately than my day job. (Which isn’t saying much if your day job is outside work and it’s springtime in the Rockies.)

NIEAseal-2014-Finalist-XLThen this week an email informed me that Stable Relation had been selected as a finalist in the National Indie Excellence Awards. It’s not a well-known as a Pulitzer but it’s special to me and I’m very grateful. It comes with a promotion. Now I’m officially an “award-winning” author. It means I can post this sticker. With a big smile.

But that isn’t the best thing that happened this week. I got another email, this time from someone trying to find examples of my goldsmithing online. I assumed she was an old client and I told her that I was out of the business. Then she told me that her book club, The Parliament of Eight Wise Owls, from Livermore, CA, had chosen my book. They were meeting that night. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of a book club reading Stable Relation, but it was certainly my first invitation to join the conversation! I downloaded Skype, tidied myself up, and sat quietly at my computer. At the appointed time, and by the grace of the internet, I joined them. It started with cheers and laughter on all sides. I asked if they had wine, and my computer screen was instantly filled with glasses. So I lifted mine as well and we started by toasting book clubs.

They each introduced themselves with wit and candor, and I was warmly included in their circle like an old friend. We talked about authors we liked and the value of memoir and Stable Relation might have come up. I spoke as an author part of the time, and a longtime book-clubber the rest of the time. My smile muscles were exhausted by the time I said good-bye, but just before that, I offered to send them bookmarks, if someone would send a list of the names for spelling. Susan sent me that list, with a short paragraph describing each member with such affection. They are a group rich in experience and kindness–the perfect bookish sisterhood.

(The Owls found my book online, largely because of reviews. So thanks to you, if you left a review, and if you’ve meant to leave one, a gentle reminder. It makes all the difference on this side.)

And thank you, Owls, from your honorary member! Here’s to book clubs; sharing books is a great way to build friendships. Books have opened unexpected doors for me, connecting the past and the future, in ways that fiction can’t imagine. Because for me there’s nothing that joins people like a good dose of real life non-fiction.