I was speaking to a new writer the other day, and I was impressed by her clarity. She knew enough to understand the life of a writer is tough, but she was willing to work hard. What really impressed me, though, was when she asked if she could share what I told her with her husband because he was her biggest fan.
I told her that put her ten steps ahead of most people since family support is critical for an artist. No message board, chat room or critique group can truly duplicate a family’s faith, their unflagging support, and, if a writer is very lucky, loving honesty. I know because I was showered with that kind of support from day one.
While I may have started writing because of a crazy dare, my first stab at writing was pretty traditional. By that I mean it was awful. I threw away the pages (there were no computers then). One day when I was cleaning I found that sad little manuscript under the sofa. The story I considered idiotic, my husband believed was incredible merely because I had created it. That gesture – pulling the pages out of the trash and hiding them to preserve my ‘brilliance’ – was enough to make me sit down and try again.
When that book sold, I dared to dream that I had actually started on a career path. It wasn’t an easy one. There were challenges and frustrations, joys and excruciating anticipation. For every two steps forward there was one step back, and all of it was shared with family. In return, family gave back encouragement, sympathetic ears and selfless celebration when it was called for. Often my husband did the household chores after his own long day at work so I could write in the evening. When I wrote during the day I kept my two toddlers quiet for a while by putting an old typewriter on the floor, threading it with paper, and telling them to write their book while I wrote mine.
Books were sold, books were rejected, books were started and never finished. My family endured my tears and meltdowns when things looked bleak. But when something good happened the celebration was a family affair even if it was just a trip to McDonalds for McNuggets in those early days. It was my husband who found the Kindle opportunity before I even heard of it. One of my children is a writer now and we spend long hours in the kitchen talking craft. My other son works in Hollywood and brings a whole knew point of view to my storytelling.
Over the years, over the course of penning 39 books, nothing has changed in our household. My family are my biggest fans (even if my husband can’t remember the titles of my books). I am so grateful for every word they’ve ever spoken, every hug I’ve received, and every chore they’ve undertaken in service to my work.
Throughout my thirty-year career I also learned a very important lesson: to return the favor. Whether a person writes books, don judge’s robes, manages an office, waits tables, pilots an airplane, or is a cop on the beat; no matter what we are in the ‘real world ‘the best gift we can give and receive is the utter, undying, unshakeable faith in those we love.
No matter who you are, what you do, or what you dream give the gift of goodwill to someone you love because it will come back to you ten fold.
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One of the strangest books ever written was Flowers in the Attic (V.C.Andrews). There is lots to talk about with this book (incest, misguided religiosity, family acceptance and love) but those are topics better left to a book group discussion.
What really terrified me was the premise of that book. A mother locks her kids in the attic and forgets about them. The children languish, nearly dying in that attic, until they rise up and confront her. They are no longer willing to be locked away. And that brings me to the topic of the day: books, backlists and half finished manuscripts locked in our creative attics.*
My friend and fellow author Brian Drake deals beautifully with the subject of discarded manuscripts and whether the are salvageable in his blog Bringing Back the Dead , so I would like to focus on the opportunities and challenges traditionally published authors face when dealing with their backlist.
My own career has been neatly split in two distinct genres: Romance/womenâ€™s fiction and legal thrillers/police procedurals. Over 26 years I had my rights reverted to all 23 of my novels as soon as I was contractually able. I had no idea then that rights reversion would turn out to be the smartest move I ever made. In control of my work, I was perfectly positioned to digitally publish, POD or self-publish my literary inventory. I chose to concentrate on digital publishing, taking advantage of the explosion of E-readers.It took a year to scan all my thrillers, create covers, edit for scanning errors, properly format and upload my 11 book backlist. The effort was worth it.
My faith in my thrillers has been rewarded by good sales, excellent reviews and a growing following. I realized, though, that I had the advantage of name recognition as my fan base moved from paper to IPads, Nooks and Kindles.Spurred on by this clear opportunity, it seemed logical to follow the same strategy with my early books (romance and single title contemporary womenâ€™s fiction). Yet when I went to my literary â€˜atticâ€™ and opened the door I didnâ€™t exactly find my â€˜flowersâ€™ in full bloom.
The truth was that some of my work should not be resurrected. The very first book I wrote was creatively tentative, predictable and descriptively overwrought. This was a far cry from the intricately plotted books I penned later in my career. In short, it was clear I had learned a lot between the first book and the last. I tried to convince myself the craft didnâ€™t matter. Books were books and someone would like these. But I also realized many more people would be put off by these early efforts. That would impact both my reputation and my sales. I might never be able to convince those readers to give me another chance. When I weighed the pros and cons it came down to this: would I be proud to have these first books in the hands of an avid reader? For three books, the answer was no.
I want to make it perfectly clear, I am not ashamed of anything I have written. All my books were published by respected New York publishers. Each represents my best effort at that stage of my career but some of those books are not representative of the author I have become. When a reader chooses to sample my early work, I want them to hear my unique voice (I had no POV in the three I will not re-publish). I want the reader to be engaged in a multi-layered story (my early work is linear). I want a reader to get to know well-drawn characters that live in a complete universe (my early characters were two dimensional and their universe limited).
In my memory, I believed my attic was full of fabulous books; in reality, I had stored away my building blocks. I am wise enough now to recognize that the readerâ€™s experience is more important than my ego. Just because I wrote a book twenty years ago does not make the work viable today unless it clearly shows emerging strengths. If I republish my initial stumbling as I tried to find my literary feet, I run the risk of alienating a reader rather than piquing their curiosity. I want each book to show how I have grown as a writer. Bottom line, if any of my work might waste a reader’s time or money it should be set aside.
So, as much as it pains me to admit it, as hard as it is to close that door, there are some flowers that need to stay in my attic. I am ever so grateful that they are there to remind me of where Iâ€™ve been, how far Iâ€™ve come and that writing is hard work. I might visit them once in a while but, like V.C. Andrews has shown me, sometimes there are reasons you need to lock the door and walk away.
*These thoughts can be applied to any creative effort: painting to pottery, music to manufacturing.
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