Thank you, Robin Williams: A Lesson in Gratitude

dead-poets-society-quotes-1I’m writing and posting this quickly before I change my mind, so, as Anne Lamott said in her own post on the same subject, this isn’t going to be proofread to perfection. I don’t usually comment on the passing of famous people since I’m not sure what I can add that someone more articulate than I am hasn’t already said, yet I find I can’t let the passing of Robin Williams go without saying at least a few words.

I’m going to date myself here—in fact, I’ll give you a precise date: I’ll be 45 in 17 days on August 30. I was a kid in the 1970s when Robin Williams first appeared on TV screens as Mork, first on Happy Days and then on Mork and Mindy. I was infatuated with Robin from the very beginning. I had my Mork and Mindy lunchbox, and I even had my own Mork from Ork rainbow colored suspenders. (Yes, I still have a photo where I’m wearing them. No, I won’t show it to you.) I listened to his comedy album Reality, What a Concept too many times to count. I could probably still do some of his skits from that show if I set my mind to it. As I grew, Robin Williams did too.

I was two years into my university studies in 1989 when Dead Poet’s Society was released. Two years into college I still didn’t have a major. I was one of those people who wanted to study everything, and in that time I had been a psychology major, a liberal studies major, and a history major. I’ve always loved books, and by college I knew I had some skill as a writer, but Dead Poet’s Society gave me a direction. A matter of days after I saw the movie I changed my major to English and never looked back. I became an English teacher, and though the John Keating moments become fewer as the years pass and society changes, I never stop trying to achieve them. I have my “Seize the Day” rock and a picture of “Uncle” Walt on my classroom wall. The title for my latest novel, That You Are Here, comes from a segment of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that Williams quotes in Dead Poet’s Society: “That you are here, that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” Over the years, I loved watching Williams continue to grow as an actor and a comedian.

As a writer with dreams for my career, I find I keep learning the same lesson over again—to be grateful for what I have right now, in this moment. We always think that when we get to some certain place or when we have some particular success we’ll be happy. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. When I sell x many books, or when I make y amount of money, or when I have this amount of recognition, or when I win that award, or when my books become films then I’ll be happy. But how many examples have we seen over the years of those who had all the success in the world and still struggled? Because you know what? It doesn’t matter. If you’re not content within yourself no amount of success matters. Success in itself can’t make you happy.

Normally, when I’m writing I have some point I’m trying to make, and to be honest I’m not exactly sure what I’m saying here except that I know I should be thankful for what I have. I know I have a lot to be grateful for. Waiting for a certain event to be happy, thinking that everything will fall into place when I have this one thing—whatever that thing is—isn’t good enough because nothing in itself can bring happiness. In an odd way, I think that’s what I’ve been trying to say in my posts all summer about being an indie author on my own terms. Success isn’t about numbers or rankings or awards. It’s about being true to yourself and doing your thing and living your life in a way so you feel good about yourself along the journey.  

So, yes, I have a lot to be thankful for. Mainly, right now I’m thankful because I was around at the same time as Robin Williams and I had so many belly laughs because of him.

Thank you for everything, Robin Williams. I know you’re making God laugh right now.

Q & A: That You Are Here Tour

That You Are Here on TourI’ve been doing quite a few interviews while That You Are Here is on tour. I’ve been having a lot of fun answering the questions, so I thought I’d post some of my responses here.

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Quick round:

Coffee, tea or…what’s your vice?

I love both, but I’ll normally go for coffee.

Favorite Movie?

Dead Poet’s Society

Favorite Color?

Purple

Favorite book/author?

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

How do you feel about bacon?

I’m a vegetarian, so bacon is a no-go for me.

 

The REAL questions:

Tell us a little about yourself.

In addition to writing novels, I’m also the executive editor of The Copperfield Review, a journal for readers and writers of historical fiction. I’ve been teaching writing for more than ten years now, as well. When I’m not writing or teaching, I like to find great vegetarian and vegan recipes since I love to cook. I also love movies, Broadway musicals, and I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey. Pinterest is my new love since it’s the one place where I can indulge in all my interests at the same time.

What’s under your bed?

My cat. (That’s not a joke, by the way. I can hear him snoring from here.)

What comes first, plot or characters?

For me, it’s usually characters. Then my job is to figure out what happens to them and what they learn along the way.

Pantser, plotter, or hybrid? Tell us about your writing process.

I begin by plotting out the story from beginning to end so at least I have a blueprint to work with when I start. But I know that as I continue writing often the characters will take over the story and bring it in directions I hadn’t originally thought of. That’s all part of the fun of writing fiction for me—I can start with the greatest plan, but I know it’s probably going to change along the way and I like that.

Oddest thing on your desk?

My cat (I have three). She’s looking out the window at the moment.

What’s your most interesting writing quirk?

Probably that I have the ability to procrastinate like nobody’s business when it’s time to write. Procrastination is my super power. I’ll cook, clean, do the dishes, feed the cats, check my e-mail—it takes me a while to settle down, but once I’m writing I could keep at it for hours.

What’s your favorite thing about the genre you write in?

I write in several genres, and I like that. That You Are Here is the first time I’ve written an m/m love story. My Loving Husband Trilogy is in the vampire/paranormal genre, though it could also be classified as historical fiction. Victory Garden is set during World War I and the Woman’s Suffrage Movement. Woman of Stones and My Brother’s Battle are also historical fiction, set in Biblical Jerusalem and the American Civil War, respectively. I like jumping around from topic to topic. It keeps things interesting for me and hopefully for my readers. I’d be bored writing the same type of story over and over again.

What is the hardest thing about being an author?

Finding time to write when I have a day job. Luckily, I have summers off so I can feel like a full time writer then. I also have a thing against writing first drafts, but since there’s no final draft without a first draft, I have to get that first draft done.

What’s the easiest thing about being an author?

Coming up with story ideas. I have an active imagination, as most authors do, and I have a lot of ideas floating through my head at any and all times of the day and night. I love kicking around an idea until I can start to see the story come into shape. I love that I can take these crazy scenes that I see so clearly in my head and share them with others. Writing fiction is an outlet for my imagination. I started as a screenwriter, but screenwriting was too much like a blueprint for me and I didn’t like the terseness of it. I love describing the room where the action takes place. I love describing the characters’ clothing, and what they’re thinking and feeling. I love the entire world building process and making that world come alive for the reader.

What’s your favorite published work of yours and why?

That’s a great question, and my answer varies from day to day. I’m very proud of That You Are Here because it’s such a different type of story for me. I’m most known for historical fiction, but That You Are Here is completely contemporary. I love writing about love—how two people fall in love. That You Are Here is about falling in love and staying in love in a complicated world.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Sometimes I’m inspired by books I read or television shows or movies I see. Sometimes I’m inspired by events in the news. Sometimes I’m inspired by events in history. Sometimes it’s a crazy story from my imagination. I’ve learned that inspiration can come from anywhere so I try to keep my eyes open for ideas.

Who is your favorite character from one of your stories and why?

This answer also can change day to day, but I do have a particular fondness for Mark from That You Are Here. Mark is an inherently kind person with a big heart and in a lot of ways he represents the person I’d like to be.

If you get writer’s block, how do you get around it?

In Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, she says to allow yourself the freedom to write the worst junk in the world. That’s a great way around writer’s block because I know it’s okay for me to write something that isn’t all that great at first. I keep writing and I know I’ll figure it out eventually.

What are you working on at the moment?

My current project is back to historical fiction in a love story inspired by Downton Abbey. My recent trip to London was great research.

What’s the biggest writing challenge you’ve ever taken on? Did you succeed?

Writing That You Are Here was a big challenge for me because it’s so different from anything else I’ve ever written. I wasn’t sure I should write it at first, but that’s the story that was in my heart so that’s the story I wrote. The book has received great reviews, so yes, I think I succeeded. Readers love the love story between Mark and Andrew, and that’s so important to me.

In Praise of Day Jobs

A cute picture of a cat proofreading a manuscript.

I know, I know… this is the opposite of what everyone else talks about. I’ve talked before about how most posts about publishing are directed toward one goal: leaving behind that dreadful day job (Bad day job! Bad job!) and making a living as a writer. It doesn’t surprise me that quitting the day job is the focus for so many authors. We like to judge things by their dollar value (or pound value, or yen value, or whatever you use where you live). The general belief is that when you quit your day job because you make enough money selling books, then and only then have you conquered that elusive mountain called Success, leaving the rest of us to dream of the Success that eludes us.

There are a lot of authors out there—both traditional and indie—who are doing brilliantly with their books. They’re making a lot of money, and some of them do leave their day jobs. And it’s true that most authors want to sell as many books as they can. I know I do. However, like with everything else in life, it’s important for each of us to decide for ourselves what we really want, not what we’re told to want by others. For a long time I felt like a failure for holding onto my day job. I need to be braver and quit. Just do it! But when I’m being honest I’ll admit that what I really want is financial security. I don’t mean financial security as in having millions in the bank; I mean I want to know I have enough to pay my rent and my bills, put gas in my car, go grocery shopping, you know, usual life stuff. I love the idea of making a living from my books, but I also love my steady paycheck.

Blame it on my childhood (I do). I love Dickens for his novels, but my attachment to him also stems from the similarities in our early lives. Dickens’ father John spent money faster than he made it, finally ending up in a debtors’ prison when Dickens was 12. While I was never sent to work at a blacking factory like Dickens (that I can recall), I, too, was raised by parents who never grew up when it came to money.

My parents were 16 and 20 when they met, and two kids later they remained teenagers in the lack of maturity they displayed when it came to financial matters. If there were such things as debtors’ prisons in the 1970s and 80s, the Allards would have been permanent residents. There was never enough money. Ever. My father was fired from every job he ever had for reasons ranging from being late to stealing money to stealing goods from the automobile parts departments where he worked. My mother worked occasionally, part time jobs here and there, but mainly she yelled and screamed about my father not being able to hold a job, and I became anxiety-ridden with her worries. We were evicted from every place we ever lived. Ever. The electricity was turned off too many times to count. I don’t know how many cars were repossessed, leading to the mornings when we’d go outside for my mom to drive my brother and me to school and the car wasn’t there, vanished to Repo Man Heaven. I remember a family friend sending my mother home with bags of groceries because there wasn’t enough money for food. I don’t remember being hungry, but I do remember the sickening feeling that comes with moneylessness. As a child, I couldn’t do anything about it, but as an adult I can and I do. Like I said, in praise of day jobs.

A few years ago I allowed myself to be convinced that I wasn’t a real writer unless I made my living writing so I tried my hand at freelancing. I hated it. I mean I really, really hated it. I hated that every job paid differently, and I hated that though I always had my work in before the deadline, the magazines or newspapers paid me whenever they got around to it. Sometimes the check they sent me wasn’t the right amount (Did we agree to $400? I have here $250…), and sometimes my payment was “lost in the mail” (Are you sure you didn’t get it? It says here it was sent last Tuesday…). Sometimes there wasn’t as much work in July as there was in June and I felt like a child again, worrying about whether or not the bills would be paid. At the end of the summer I raced back to my usual day job without looking back, and I’ve held on ever since.

Then again last year I flirted with the idea of leaving my day job after the release of Her Loving Husband’s Return, the third book in the Loving Husband Trilogy. Her Loving Husband’s Return landed on the Amazon best seller list the day it was released and it stayed there for months. Because Her Loving Husband’s Return is the highest priced of my books ($4.99) it meant thousands of dollars for me in a relatively short time. Awesome, right?

Here’s the thing about book sales: they fluctuate. Daily. Hourly if you’re keeping track on KDP. After a while, sales of even the best best-selling books slow down. If you make enough money while the sales are hot to feel confident depending on that as your income, then by all means do so. My point is never to say that my way is the right way. If you have a more adventurous spirit than I do, then do what feels right for you (remember Leo Babauta’s #11). I’m simply showing why leaving the day job isn’t the ultimate goal for every single writer in the world. Book sales are part of the ebb and flow of life—sometimes books sell well, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.

If I had depended on the sales of the Loving Husband Trilogy as my sole income, I would have done well for a few months, maybe about six months, but then what would I have done when the sales slowed down? Common wisdom says to write more books so readers have more to buy from you. Okay, I’m doing that, but I can’t churn out several books a year (also common wisdom), especially since my next novel is historical fiction and there’s a fair amount of research involved. Common wisdom also says to try different marketing strategies to get more sales. I agree with that, too, but no matter how much marketing I do I can’t predict sales or make anyone buy my books. If I knew the formula for forcing readers to buy my books I’d bottle it and sell it.

If you’re a genre novelist and you write quickly and develop a loyal audience, you may very well be able to make a living selling books. Erotic novels sell very well. Look at the Fifty Shades Trilogy. That author won’t have to work another day in her life. Bella Andre has become a publishing rock star with the success she’s had with her erotic romance novels, and she has a legion of loyal fans who snatch up her new books as they come out. For me, book sales provide a second income. I don’t have the stress of worrying about sales since I have my steady paycheck to depend on. After I do what I can, the books sell what they sell. I’ve learned to become very zen about the whole book sales thing. My life is a lot less stressful that way.

One of the things I love about Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn is her honesty about her journey as an author entrepreneur. She admits that since she quit working in IT she now makes about 55% of what she made when she had her day job. Kudos to Joanna for saying so since most authors won’t admit this. As a source of pride they’ll say they quit their day jobs, trying to prove they’ve made it as an author, but they won’t say what they’re making in comparison to what they made at their previous jobs. True, there are a lot of authors doing extremely well financially, but I bet there are a lot of authors like Joanna who are living on less since they quit their day jobs. Married authors may have an easier time with this since they might have another income to depend on whereas us singletons have only our solitary selves to pay the bills. Joanna also wins points because she admits that not all of her income comes from selling books. She sells courses in indie publishing and she does speaking engagements. Crafting a career for herself as an author entrepreneur helped her out of a job she hated and into something she loves. She makes less money doing it, but she’s happy, and heavens knows she’s good at it. She’s helped many authors with indie publishing, myself included.

Unlike Joanna, I don’t hate my day job. Sure, some days are better than others. Hell, some years are better than others, but that would be true of any job, yes, even writing. Writing isn’t rainbows and roses every day, and then there’s the stress of worrying from one day to the next how many books you’ve sold and struggling to find the magic formula to drive more sales. For someone from my background where there was never enough money, constantly worrying about paying the rent doesn’t work for me. I did enough of that when I was a kid.

True, I have less time to write than I would if I quit my day job, but you know what? The writing gets done. Writing is a priority in my life—it’s the only time I understand my place in the world—and I make time for it. Many writers, sometimes even the most respected and beloved authors, don’t make as much money writing as we think they do. I just reread Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and she spent part of her career struggling financially, and she’s Anne Freakin’ Lamott—the goddess of all things writing as far as I’m concerned. My man Dickens also struggled financially for the first part of his career, and he’s Charles Freakin’ Dickens! He complained he was being robbed by his publishers—sound familiar?—while he tried to raise his large family in London (even then London was too damn expensive). He didn’t do well financially until he started his reading engagements where he acted out passages from his novels to enraptured audiences all across Britain and once or twice in America. Some scholars say the exhaustion from the readings destroyed Dickens’ health and ultimately killed him, so maybe that’s not the best example. My point, and I do have one, is that even great writers don’t always make a living from their books.

I found this article from Fast Company about famous writers—and Dustin Hoffman—and their day jobs. Here’s another one from the Huffington Post. After reading them, I don’t feel so bad. Maybe I am cautious in the way I approach money, but my life has taught me that caution, especially when it comes to financial matters, is a good thing. I can write my books, market them to the best of my ability, and then I can relax knowing that, at the beginning of the month, the rent will be paid and whatever I sell becomes extra income. Don’t use a day job as an excuse not to write. If you’re an artist, the art will happen, even if you work a nine-to-five. It has to. That’s what makes you an artist.

The Business of Being an Author: What is Success?

Most articles about publishing focus on selling a ton of books with the ultimate goal of leaving behind the lousy day job to make a living as an author. That’s a great job if you can get it, and I’m thrilled whenever I hear of authors–indie or traditional–who find fantastic success. I would never argue with success for any author because it means more success for others. Fifty Shades of Grey sold 30 million copies? Awesome. Now there are a lot of readers out there looking for more books to read.

The more I read about e-book sales, the more I realized that the books that sell the most are genre fiction such as erotic romance, mystery, thrillers, and science fiction. That’s not what I write. The most accurate genre for what I write is literary fiction, and based on this graph I saw on The Creative Penn, fiction and literature make up 5% of e-book sales where genre fiction is 69%. For Amazon’s sake, I classify my books in more popular genres like paranormal romance (for the Loving Husband Trilogy) or gay romance (for That You Are Here), but they’re not romances in the traditional sense, and they’re definitely not erotic, so they don’t sell as well as, for example, Bella Andre’s books. I read an article that defined literary fiction by saying genre fiction is an escape from reality where literary fiction makes the reader deal with reality. That’s why genre fiction sells more. People want an escape from a long day dealing with work and family. I get that. That’s why I write fiction—to escape reality, my own reality at least.

So…if I don’t write the kind of books that sell a ton, then what? I’ve thought a lot about that over the last three years. When I began writing Her Dear & Loving Husband, my initial idea was to write a traditional romance about a vampire who rediscovers his one true love. As I wrote it, it evolved into what it is…a look into the good and the bad of human nature. When I had Her Dear & Loving Husband critiqued, the reader suggested I turn it into a more traditional romance by adding some steamy sex scenes and deleting the flights of literary fancy. She wanted me to turn James into an alpha male. I could have done it. I was tempted to do it. But when push came to shove, I realized that’s not the book that was in my heart to write. I made the decision to write the novel the way I was drawn to write it, not the novel that would fit more easily into an Amazon category, thereby finding a larger audience and selling more copies. I knew my choices could cost me readers, but I decided I was all right with that. Success for me no longer came in the form of huge numbers (though I certainly won’t argue with huge numbers if they happen). I believed that if I wrote the book that was in my heart, readers could relate to it on that level. I believed there was an audience out there for my Loving Husband stories, maybe not as large as the Fifty Shades trilogy, but my gut told me there were readers out there.

I was right. I’ve had the most beautiful messages from readers all over the world who love the Loving Husband Trilogy and waited patiently for each book, and it was a year between books. Book Three in the series, Her Loving Husband’s Return, landed on the Amazon best seller list the day it was released when I had done exactly zero things to promote it, and it stayed there for months. Is that success? It is to me.

On The Creative Penn, Joanna wrote a wonderful post where she talks about authors defining success for themselves based on what they want from their writing careers. For some, they want to sell a lot of books and make a lot of money. For some, writing is more of a creative pursuit than a financial one. She talks about writers who want to create body of work over their lifetime that they’re proud of. That’s me. I even left a comment on her post to that effect.

I’ve noticed how whenever the topic turns to writers who write as a creative and artistic pursuit, some poor soul takes offence by saying, “Why can’t I write for money? Why do I have to defend myself because I want to make money writing?” The answer is, you don’t have to defend yourself. If you want to write to make money, then write to make money. No one is poo-pooing that idea, especially not me. But if I write because I want to share the stories that are in my heart without making changes to increase sales and profits, then I can make that choice too. In fact, I think it’s the other way around. The vast majority of posts I’ve read focus on selling as many books as possible and quitting the day job, as if that’s the holy grail for indies—when you make a living selling books, then you have arrived. Arrived where, I still don’t know. If anything, those of us who write for artistic expression are the ones who have to defend ourselves because we’re not focused on the same things everyone else is focused on. That, as Leo points out in his post, is scary. It’s always scary when you make your own way instead of following the pack.