Friday, February 26, 2010

Speaker For The Day

I spoke to a group of business women yesterday at their monthly meeting at our local community college. Sometimes people ask me what I speak about. Actually, I have several topics that are tweaked to the specifics of the group and what they might be looking for. But once in a while, a group leader tells me to speak about anything I want. And that's what happened yesterday. I had heard there were a few women in the group who were thinking about writing a book. I had about fifteen minutes to deliver something they could carry home with them. Here are bits and pieces of my notes from my talk yesterday. Oh, my topic?

The Life of a Writer. What else?

"My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh my friends, it gives a lovely light!" A quote from Edna St. Vincent Millay

I say, she was talking about the life of a writer.

My name is Pamela King Cable, I’m a writer, an author, and a speaker. I often say I was born and raised by a tribe of wild Pentecostals. My mother, however, would not admit to that fact. She would admit that I cut my teeth on the back of a church pew, however.

Today, I want to talk to you about the life of a writer, the writing process, or as you may have been told - the mystical and magical world of a writer.

What is a writer? Do writers write only what they know? I say writers write what they are passionate about. There are events in the lives of most writers which possess powerful magic, influencing the stories they create.

But let me ask you, are there any books or stories you’ve read recently, or years ago, that you remember vividly?

Characters that linger and come to mind … at the strangest times?

Have you ever read a novel that has had the capacity to haunt you for days, weeks, years?

Do you have a favorite author?

What in their voice gives them an edge?

It is not a myth, that if you belong to a family with a writer in it, there are no safety zones. ...

One of my favorite quotes is by Harlan Ellison. He says, “It is not enough merely to love literature, if one wishes to spend one’s life as a writer. It is a dangerous undertaking on the most primitive level. For, it seems to me, the act of writing with serious intent involves enormous personal risk. It entails the ongoing courage for self-discovery. It means one will walk forever on the tightrope, with each new step presenting the possibility of learning a truth about oneself that is too terrible to bear.”

A writer’s life is a solitary life. For the most part. We have a room or a place where we prefer to write. A routine, a time of day, music we listen to, and habits and superstitions we refuse to break or talk about. We hope we possess that raw talent, unique originality, and gut emotional appeal. We raise the stakes on each and every page and hope, and pray, and believe that some day … we’re blessed a bit of luck.

I can tell you I have labored days over a paragraph. On the book I just recently completed, The Rose and the Charlatan, that book began over fifteen years ago. But that’s really not the norm. I have, however, spent many twelve-hour days writing. I can tell you that I have sat at my computer so many long nights that I thought I was going blind. I have been told by my doctor, that because of all the sitting in my chair, the disks in my back are degenerating and I’ve gone from 5’4” to 5’3 ½“ Writing, my dear friends, can be hazardous to your health.

But let's talk about the traditional publishing industry a bit. It's cutthroat. Since the recent recession, the chance to “make it” has gone from slim to almost none. The rejections by major agents and New York publishing houses, can discourage the very elite.

For the majority of writers, it can take up to a good two years to write a bestseller. You cannot submit unsolicited manuscripts to traditional publishers. So you need a literary agent. Once the manuscript is complete, a query letter is sent to secure an agent. This process could take another six months to a year.

Then once you land an agent, you hope they know their stuff and get you the best deal from a reputable publisher, preferably a major house. Then all parties negotiate rights, foreign rights, film rights, and the ever-shrinking advance. You sign away some rights, such as book cover, maybe even the title of your book, and a few other things. Once the contracts are signed, then comes the editing process.

Ah yes, we have already edited the hell out of our book, but no, it’s not enough. There’s another possible few months spent with our publisher’s editors. And there’s a deadline for that, too. A deadline to get it back to the publisher or everything you’ve worked so hard for, for so long, becomes null and void.

Then there’s the waiting. And waiting, and waiting some more. Next come the book galleys to proofread and edit yet again. And finally a year or two later, the book comes out.

It’s at that time you realize that writing the book and everything up to now was the easy part. It’s what comes after the book is out- that’s the hard part. Because unless your name is Nora Roberts or Stephanie Meyers or James Patterson or Nicholas Sparks … there’s very little publicity money for you. If you’re a first-timer, you’re on your own to get that book marketed. And hopefully, unless you go into a second printing in a relatively short time, your precious novel is removed from the shelves at Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Booksamillion. You’ve got about six months, if you’re lucky, to make it a hit.

And then somebody decides to make it available as an ebook, thus taking your profit from about a 1.00 a book to even less than that. There you have it. The life of a writer.

Is it worth it?

Yes, is my answer.

I began to chase the dream of writing as a child in the early 60s in the coal towns of West Virginia where my grandparents lived. Many of the stories in Southern Fried Women are based on truth, shreds of truth, people I’ve know, places I’ve been, and of course history plays a great part in some stories, like Coal Dust On My Feet. I was born a coal miners’ granddaughter. That fact inspired this story. A love story set amidst the longest and most violent coal strike in the history of our country. It is truth and fiction.

My mother was a skilled storyteller without knowing it. All I wanted to do when I was a teenager was to duplicate my mother’s life. ... She would agree with Pat Conroy, I’m sure. He said that the whole south runs on denial. If you don’t say it, it doesn’t exist.

What I didn’t know is just how much I would treasure her conversations someday. How they would become a part of me, part of my very existence as a writer.

More than anything else, I wanted to sit and listen to what came out of her mouth next and write it down. ...

But the most precious gift she gave me was a love for the written world. Be it the word of God or of Mother Goose, she was my inspiration, and one day I picked up a pen in the sixth grade and began to write and I haven’t stopped.

The next forty years would play into my storytelling, and how after surviving life’s heartaches and hardships, it gave me plenty to write about. From that moment forward I wanted to inform, educate, and entertain my reader’s mind, but more than anything I wanted to touch my reader’s heart.

As writer you must know more than how to put together a correct sentence. Yes, there is a never-ending learning curve to the elements of writing … but unless you are great storyteller, the other means nothing.

Allow me to quote ... So you want to be a writer by Charles Bukowski

if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody else,
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you're not ready.
don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to sleep
over your kind.
don't add to that.
don't do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.

Thank you.

Blessings to you and yours.


Kaira Rouda said...

Thank you for this post! It was wonderful, and I loved the quotes on writing you included. So true. So true!

All the best,
Kaira Rouda
author and speaker

Dena said...

I've never read that last quote. I love it.