Lessons from MTV on How Not to Self-Publish

Confession time. I watch MTV on occasion. For many years I enjoyed the “True Life” series, because most of the time it was a surprisingly honest documentary series on a variety of topics. Then a few years ago, the subjects’ “confessions” became obviously scripted, and the show quickly devolved into a pseudo-reality show masquerading as a docudrama.

But still, I watch.

A few weeks ago, they aired an episode titled “True Life: I Work with My Ex.” It was generally boring and not worth my time, and I found myself fast forwarding through much of it. That is, until they featured a young guy self-publishing a novel with the help of his ex.

I was riveted. Not because I wanted to know more about self-publishing, but because I was suddenly watching step-by-step instructions on how not to do it. The following are several lessons I learned.

Lesson #1: Publish before you’re ready. An early scene begins with the ex-girlfriend doing page layouts, and the author enters and shows her several pages with entire scenes cut out. They just weren’t working for him, he says. “Good call,” I think. He then proceeds to announce that he just wants to get the thing published so he can start selling it.

Okaaaay …. First, one should not be cutting out large portions of a book mere days before publishing. And second, I don’t think anyone, anywhere rushes publication to get a jump on sales. Like, ever.

Lesson #2: Have a complete and utter lack of marketing prowess. In a later scene, the two ex-lovebirds are shown on a street corner with a stack of flyers. “Do you like to read?” they ask/harass each passerby. “It’s the must read book of 2012,” they proclaim.

Later, to their credit, they are shown entering several bookstores and asking how they can get the book sold in-store. One owner takes the time to outline how important marketing the book on their own is, though something made me think they both thought, “Throw flyers at random strangers? Check!”

Lesson #3: No professional editing. From what I could gather, the only editing of the book was provided by the ex-girlfriend. Later in the episode, after the book has been printed, they are shown meeting with a freelance editor. The editor politely remarks on the author’s potential, though no constructive criticism is shown. I wondered if this scene was fabricated by MTV to fill time, as getting an editor’s feedback after publishing would be useless.

In fact, I wanted to believe several scenes were fabricated by MTV to pad the episode – the flyers come to mind – until I found the novel on Amazon. The author bio was rambling and very poorly written, and the sneak peek of the first few pages proved the book was no better. I’ll let the subtitle warn you of the writing inside: “A Story About Chaotic Harmony.”

The Amazon page was where I also discovered Lesson #4: If you don’t have real customer reviews, fabricate your own ridiculously glowing ones. The book
currently sports five 5-star reviews, and the “self-reviewing” is glaringly obvious. Some snippets:

“your words spoke to my dreams. and also my fantasies.”
“Hands down the most entertaining book I’ve read in ages. WOW, when does book two come out!?!? I can’t wait!”

Then, after several people left comments observing that all the reviewers had only ever written a review for that one book, the latest 5-star review made a point of explaining why they’d never written a review before.

Lesson #5 is my own conjecture: If your book can’t sell on its own, hatch a plan to market it on reality TV. The episode was supposed to feature exes working together, but something about this couple struck me as off. At the end of the hour they were back together and working on his second novel. I can’t help but wonder if they were together all along, and thought exposure on national television was the best way to market the book. Whatever their reason for appearing, I appreciated the resulting lesson on how not to self-publish.

When Writing Doesn’t Pay (But Should)

Recently, a friend requested I write some ad copy for her small business. “Just write something up really quick,” she said, “and make it sound good.” Nothing about length, medium, or details for the copy. Nothing. But what bothered me most was not the lack information, but the lack of compensation.

For you see, the average person seems to believe writers do it for the love of writing, and that’s all the compensation we need.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem giving free guidance or advice. Quite frequently, someone wants to pick my brain about getting into magazine writing, or I’m asked to give an important e-mail a once over. I think anything like this falls under the umbrella of being a good friend. It’s like asking a CPA a tax question, or getting your doctor friend to take a peek at a strange growth. But you wouldn’t ask the CPA to do your taxes for free, or the doctor to remove the growth without pay. So why are writers not given the same respect for their time and abilities? I think the problem starts with a few misconceptions:

  • Writing is a hobby. It always comes easily. It’s also extremely enjoyable. Just because I enjoy writing, doesn’t mean I don’t put a good amount of blood, sweat, and tears into it. And even if you’re good at something, that doesn’t mean it comes easy. Often times I’ve suspected others think they’re doing me a favor by asking me to look over their resume. So for the uninitiated – all writing is not the same. Sorry, but that cover letter I spent three hours rewriting was not as enjoyable as chapter fourteen of my novel. I’d much rather clean your bathrooms than edit your business letter (and I’d probably get paid better, too). Which brings me to:
  • They don’t understand how long it takes. I think this misconception is very common, considering the number of times I’ve been asked to write something “real quick.” Even my husband, during a discussion on this very topic, made the mistake of saying, “Maybe they don’t know what they’re asking of you. They might think editing a resume takes you five minutes, when it really takes you forty-five.” Uhhh – whaaaah? Forty-five minutes to reformat and rewrite a 3-5 page resume? In my peacefully slumbering dreams! The truth is, I have no idea how long it will take me to write something until I’m done. I’ve had one-page articles take two hours to slog through, and that was just the editing. Imagine how much time it takes to research and write copy from scratch.Often we equate being good at something with being fast and efficient, too. We also imagine that the better we get at an activity, the more quickly we are able to complete it. Painting a room comes to mind. My husband and I hire a painter for most projects around our house, because the same room that takes the painter four hours would take us twelve – and his work is of a better quality. Writing is not one of those types of activity. If anything, it’s the opposite. For instance, when I first started writing magazine articles, I’d often spend less than two hours on a 500 word article, and that included research and editing. As I grew as a writer, and honed my craft, I became acutely aware of deficiencies in those earlier articles. Now a 500 word article might take me five or six hours, because I spend more time researching, outlining and editing. It takes longer, but the end product is so much better.
  • That’s why I’m troubled when someone asks me to write “something quick,” but also specifies “make it good.” Sorry, but I can only give you one or the other. So the next time you need the services of a writer, take your estimate of the time commitment, and multiply that by four. That should get you close. If you just want it fast, take the quality you expect, and bring it down several notches. And if you want something that is both fast and free, I guarantee I’ll do it as fast as I’m possibly able.
  • Writers get paid in peanuts (or they don’t know what compensation is appropriate.) I do think that, on occasion, it does occur  to my friends that I should get paid for my help. They just don’t know how much. Most people have a general idea that a painter gets paid by the room or per hour, and a CPA gets a flat fee for a tax return. But how much do you pay someone who wrote your cover letter? Honestly, I don’t know most of the time either. This is when gifts are good. Gifts are very good. Anything you would bring as a hostess gift, is also acceptable as a thank you for a writing service between friends. A friend in college would bring me something to decorate my dorm room every time I edited one of her term papers. Lunch, dinner or coffee is great, too. I’ve even offered copy editing and writing for a friend’s web page in exchange for free product. No money ever exchanged hands, and no resentment did either.I have a wonderful beta reader who has given me invaluable advice on my current WIP, and spent many hours editing it for free. We don’t know each other in real life, but I’ve used my stealth ninja skills (OK – stalker skills) to find her home address, and plan on sending her a package of goodies as a thank you. Like many interactions between friends, it would seem odd to offer money, but perfectly acceptable if the compensation is in gift form. Bottom line: if someone does something for you that you can’t, or don’t want to do yourself, a small token of your appreciation is always appropriate.

In the last 10+ years of writing, I’ve been offered monetary compensation just once by a friend, and this same friend was a graphic designer who knew all to well what it was liked to have her skills considered “a hobby.” The job in question was a cover letter, which I wrote in such a way that she could make minor changes and use it over and over again. She paid me $10.

So what about other writers out there? Are you asked to write for free? If so, how do you handle it?

Settings – Why I’m Writing What I Know

Oh, dear. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times.

Write what you know.

I wrote magazine articles for a few years. All of it was what I knew. And it got to be boring. Very boring.

I think it was when I sat down to write the umpteenth derivative of the same basic topic that I decided I’d had enough. I needed more excitement. More creativity. And I’d had an idea for a historical romance bubbling around in my brain for who knows how long. OK – I know how long. About 10 years. So I  bit the bullet and started writing.

Thing is, for my premise to work, the story had to be set in England. I considered the possibility of moving the setting to America, but due to the very social mores that drove my plot, it absolutely would not work outside of Great Britain. So England it was.

And writing that novel was work, let me tell ya. Lots and lots of work.

Every time I wrote anything about the house, the yard, the streets, I had to do research. I researched blueprints and layouts of typical upperclass homes in the late 1900s. I scoured exterior and interior photos of residences, streets, and parks. I certainly didn’t want  my maid scurrying to the parlor, only to discover I’d placed it on the wrong floor. In the end, the book was a learning aspect in many ways, not the least of which was this – research is hard.

So when I got the idea for my second novel, I took the easy way out. I already knew the setting would be America, and I had a feeling the Midwest would be a more unique perspective, considering most mail order romances are set out west. The farm setting came about organically.

This is when the “cheating” began. My novel is set on a farm. Confession time. I live on a farm. In a farmhouse. Built in 1860.

Oh, glorious day, how easy it is to write the setting now! No more seeking out old photos of rooms and floor plans. I simply close my eyes and imagine myself stepping into my front hall. No more meticulous research to determine how far from the road a typical London residence is set. I already know my house is 600 feet from (what was then) the main highway.

Sure, my house has changed drastically in almost 150 years. The chimneys were cut off and abandoned in the attic 40 years ago, so I have no idea what the fireplaces looked like, but the farmhouses on each side of us are a young 120 years, and I have them for reference.

I know  most writers don’t have this luxury. To live in the very home in which their story is set. But I do, and I’m relishing every minute it of it.

Why I’m So Awesome at Distraction

I don’t think I have tell anyone this, but I think everyone can find an excuse not to write. It’s finding an excuse to write that’s the difficult part. So in the interest of full disclosure, here is a list of reasons why I haven’t written much in the last two weeks:

– My husband was out of town and I don’t like being in the house alone. Thus, I found it difficult to concentrate.
– My husband was back in town, and the possibility of his entering the room suddenly and interrupting my thought process made it too difficult to concentrate.
– My daughter was sick and needed care.
– My daughter broke her arm (completely separate incident) and needed care. OK, that’s not even true. Yes, her arm is broken, but she doesn’t really need care. Still, for several nights I felt sorry enough for myself about having another toddler break his/her arm that I didn’t feel like writing.

All of these are completely superficial reasons. Not even really reasons at all. But they still add up to my writing a total of 1,000 words in the last few weeks. And my goal was 14,000. Yikes. It sounds even more pathetic when I spell it out. And those were just new reasons for not writing in the last few weeks. On any given night, my regular rotation of reasons are as follows:

– I’m tired.
– There’s something really great on TV.
– I need to catch up on writing blogs, which is really research, and totally worthwhile. (Riiiiight.)
– The baby cried 20 minutes ago, and there’s a chance he will again.
– I just changed a major plot point, which means by the end of my writing session I’ll have deleted more than I wrote. Which is depressing, so I might as well not even start.
– I need to clip coupons/balance the checkbook/pay bills. Actually, anything that would normally be unpleasant and easily avoided must be accomplished immediately.
– The fate of the world rests on my researching all minor actors from an episode of Quantum Leap I caught this afternoon. This includes both their Wikipedia and Internet Movie Database pages.
– My future writing career rests on writing a rambling post for a blog no one reads.

So there are my excuses for not writing this week, last week, last year, and likely the next few years as well. What are yours? 

Why My Novel is Like One of My Children

For those with kids, I’m sure you’ll understand when I say that your child is likely the funniest, smartest, cutest, sweetest thing you’ve ever seen. It’s ridiculous to even think that anyone might feel differently.

And then the next day your child is the brattiest, rudest, most stubborn child on the planet. All eyes are on you at the restaurant, the grocery store, the library. All look as if they’re thinking, “How on earth does that mother let her children act that way? Doesn’t she know how poorly they’re behaving?”

I feel the same way about my writing. Sometimes I think my latest WIP is fantastic. I don’t see the mistakes. The lack of conflict or the commas issues. I only see perfection. Each page is a revelation. How funny, then, that the next day I have my head in my hands, wondering where I went wrong. Nothing comes together the way it should and my characters seem dull and lifeless. I send it off to a beta reader, or contest, and then hope and pray no one thinks it’s all a joke.

I recently spent nine days alone with my children while my husband was away. Nine very long days. I had two goals for the week: write 9,000 words of my WIP and survive life with two toddlers and a baby. During those nine days I dealt with tantrums and whining and vomiting. I also received feedback from a very fair but very tough critique partner that made we question the value of my novel quite a bit. Let’s just say I certainly didn’t meet the first goal, and I’m not sure how well I met the second.

I was beaten down and exhausted as I walked into church with all three children on day nine. I snapped at my son as he wiggled about on the pew, and rolled my eyes as the nursery worker describe my bossy daughter’s behavior. The baby vacillated between boisterous screeches and hysterical exhaustion.

By the end of service I just wanted to get home and survive the next 7 hours before my husband returned. And that’s when the first person approached me. An older woman who told me of how my daughter had entered her Sunday School class the week before and moved around the room hugging each and every elderly woman in turn. “She was the joy of my entire week,” she said. A few minutes later another woman mentioned how well my son had done during junior church. Multiple people stopped to coo and smile at the baby, and comment on how good-natured he was.

And then, just before we left, I saw her from across the room. Months before I had mentioned my writing to this woman, and she had asked to read it. Now, here she was, the first time I’d seen her since handing over the first twelve pages of my WIP.

“You have to give me more chapters,” she said. “I can’t wait to read what happens next.”

Needless to say, I walked out of church that day feeling very proud of all four of my children. I can’t say I ended the day feeling the same way, but it was sweet while it lasted.

Author or Writer?

I noticed I don’t have a tagline for my blog. Easy enough fix, right?

Apparently not. If you noticed, I still don’t have a tagline.

You see, I couldn’t decide between referring to myself as an author, or a writer. I’ve found that the title of “Author” is only bestowed on someone published. And not just any kind of published. Traditionally published. And not just any kind of writing. Novels. Only novels.

This seems a little elitist to me. Do we only refer to general practitioners, or oncologists, or surgeons as “doctors?” Of course not. Even though there are hundreds of specialties, the public recognizes they all practice medicine. So while there are thousands, if not tens of thousands of published novelists out there, I imagine there are hundreds of thousands of writers who fill in all the words in between. Their writing isn’t any less difficult, or time-consuming. In many cases, it’s even more widely read.  So why are novelists the only kind of writer bestowed with the “author” title?

OK, so I even went the super-cliched route and looked up Webster’s definition. I wasn’t going to admit that, but under each definition is the question, “What made you want to look up [this word],” and this comment caught my eye:

“To see whether it’s now considered a verb, too. To me, a writer writes, and if what that writer wrote is published, then and only then does “author” apply.”

I’m guessing that’s the general consensus among most people, which is why I’m not yet comfortable with calling myself author yet. Even though I’ve had several dozen magazine articles published, I only feel like a writer. And if I were to introduce myself to someone as an author, I know the next question would be “What books have you written?”

I don’t know what the answer is. What about you? If you write novels, but aren’t published yet, how to you refer to yourself when someone asks what you do? If you write in some other medium, what do you call yourself?