Writing: A Solitary Profession?

Writing is generally a solitary act. But does it need to be? What do you think about writing groups? Are they beneficial or a waste of valuable time?

After you read the responses from the WinRs, let us know what you think!

GB Pool

The Loneliest Profession

Writing is basically a one-man operation, unless you write for television or the movies, where a committee does it. But the traditional author sits in front of a computer, typewriter, or a piece of paper and writes all by himself.

Belonging to a writers’ group, above and beyond the constructive criticism and brainstorming sessions, gives you people to talk to about your work, this precious commodity that you have created, nurtured, and hopefully someday will send off into the world to entertain and enlighten other people.

Having “a second pair of eyes” is a perfect way to see things that you missed, hear things that you didn’t know were there, and point out things that aren’t working. And if you are in the right group, they will see the good things in your “baby” as well.

I originally belonged to a larger group of writers. Their styles ranged from Science Fiction to experimental to Women’s Fiction to Mystery. Good writing is good writing. I can read anything and enjoy it if most of the basic rules of English Grammar (and Common Sense) are adhered to.

There in lies the rub. When a portion of the group doesn’t recognize the basic Parts of Speech, proper syntax, and know how to use Spell Check or even a dictionary…Houston, we have a problem.

A few of us broke away from the herd and started our own group. Two more writers joined us and we have the group we have today. We have watched each other grow, improve, learn, and it has made us all better writers. We learn from our own and each other’s mistakes and achievements.

But of all the things a group, any group – sewing circles, car clubs, collectors’ groups – brings to their members, the best thing is it gives you a place where people who are doing the same thing you are doing can come and talk about their dreams, their learning experiences, their frustrations, and their successes. It lets you know you aren’t really alone in this wonderful world of writing.


Bonnie Schroeder

I belong to the Alameda Writers Group (AWG), Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC) and the awesome WWW — which I think stands for Wednesday Women Writers, even though we sometimes meet on Thursdays.

Have I found these groups helpful? A big fat YES!! I have gotten honest, kind and insightful feedback that has (I hope) improved on my fiction immeasurably. Equally important, I’ve received encouragement and the immense comfort of knowing others share my Terror of the Blank Page.

From a craft standpoint, I believe it’s essential to have other writers read your work and give notes, and the people in my critique groups are serious readers as well as wonderful writers. They know what makes a piece work, and what brings it down, and when I’m too close to my work to see the most glaring errors, my fellow writers gently but honestly let me know where I went wrong. One of our wise members has remarked that she learns as much by reading others’ work as she does by getting feedback on her own, and that is so true.

When I see another writer struggling with an issue of plot, character development, or just trying to get those words in the most effective order, it teaches me something about my own process. My writing groups have supported and inspired me, and I can’t imagine life without them. Heck, I’d hang out with them even if I didn’t write.


Jacqueline Vick

One of the best moves I ever made as a writer was when I accepted the invitation to join the WWW writing critique group.

The only writing feedback I had received prior was either paid for (I highly recommend Pilar Alessandra of On the Page for screenwriting) or anonymously delivered through contests, and sometimes the latter feedback was either vague or snarky.

I can’t stress how much my writing has improved from the perceptive comments of my group, all delivered in a caring way. If someone were to tell me that I was indulging myself in a certain passage, I could be confident that it was a valuable bit of information, not a personal criticism. And a writer needs people who will tell her when she’s amusing herself and not her audience!

On a broader scale, I belong to Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. The speakers made available by both SinC and MWA provide great insights and tips. All three have Yahoo lists that offer discussions on almost any topic, and you can ask others to share their experiences, which is priceless. Add to that newsletters chock full of information–writing tips, research advice, market guidelines–and the price of admission is well worth it.

As with anything, the more involved you get, the more you get out of it. I’m the type that has to force myself to attend meetings, but when I do, I’m always glad I did. I talk to other writers about what they are up to, find out the latest happenings in the publishing arena, and just enjoy my fellow scribes.

Writers have to fight the urge to remain isolated, and a writing group can put you in touch with others who share your passion.


A Report Back on the CCWC

Late June, writers from all over the country met in Pasadena, CA, for the California Crime Writers Conference–a joint effort between the Southern California chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Dozens of panels to choose from, high-quality speakers, and the comradere of fellow writers made the weekend worth every penny.

Though it’s difficult to sum up such an eventful conference, here are some highlights from the Writers in Residence who attended. We asked them to consider the following questions:

What was the best/most important thing you learned at the conference?

Which speaker (keynote or session) did you find most inspiring/helpful, and why?

In which way has the conference helped you the most – tangibly (facts, techniques, contacts) or intangibly (inspiration, support)?

Did you attend this conference? Let us know what you thought!

Pictures: MK Johnston and Rosemary Lord soak up information at a panel. GB Pool works the Forensic Track. Jacqueline Vick works the raffle table with Sue Stimpson


MK Johnston

A good conference benefits the writer in many ways. You learn, you relearn, you’re invigorated, you’re humbled. You reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. That’s all part of the appeal, whether you’ve just decided to begin writing, you’re shopping your latest novel or any point in between. And, as has often happened to me, I found some of the most helpful information came from the least likely source.

Generally, I had no trouble picking which session I wanted to attend, but one session had nothing that interested me. At the last moment I chose Christopher Rice’s “Become your editor’s favorite author”. His message was simple – Know what your central premise (theme) is, and create very detailed character biographies. In other words, know precisely what and who you’re writing about. He also stressed the importance of creating an editorial staff to include your biggest fan (for pure support), target audience member, tough critic (knowledgeable in your genre), and proof reader. Rice also discussed the rewrite process, not just technically, but emotionally. His advice – never rewrite your book for someone who rejected it.

One concept that kept coming up was whether or not to prepare a story outline. I didn’t use one when writing my first novel. Although it allowed me the freedom to explore different paths with the story line, it also took many years to complete, a luxury I won’t have with the sequel. Several speakers gave great advice on how to get the advantages of an outline without outlining. Two good suggestions: write key scenes on index cards and add up or down arrows to note whether that scene is more or less active (to help with pacing), or rely on very detailed character bios to guide the story.

I came away from the conference with my creative juices flowing and the resolve to finish my rewrite. Can any writer ask for more?


GB Pool

Since I had the opportunity to work on the conference from its inception, I got to see how much goes into putting on an event like the California Crime Writers Conference. But I think getting to interact with other committee members, attendees, and the speakers was priceless. I have met so many absolutely marvelous people and I realize how important networking is to anyone who wants to not only be a writer, but be a successful one.

I ran the Forensics Track at the conference and spent the entire time with that group. I got to pick who spoke and work with them and introduce them. That was a sheer joy. As for my favorite speaker, I thought private detective J. Corey Friedman was spectacular. He could literally get your mother’s underwear size by running a “legitimate scam” on her. And he showed us how to get information on nearly anybody via the Internet. One man gave him only his name and Corey found his wife’s Social Security number on-line.

Working on the conference showed how well organizations can do things if each person gets their assignments and does them. Nobody bothered me and I did my own thing. It worked for me. And then to see how happy people were who came to the conference made all the work worth while. Bernadine De Paolis said, “I pissed on the ceiling.” She explained that in her family that means I did the impossible. I don’t know about that, but I sure was glad there were so many happy faces. That’s what I wanted.

Note: The elusive Jackie Houchin takes many of the pictures for our blog. We will capture her on camera…eventually.

Jackie Houchin

Writing (and Reviewing) Crime

Along with everyone that attended the California Crime Writing Conference, I was impressed by the four “tracks” of workshops available.

I chose the “Learning the Craft” track because it fit what I am interested in. No, I haven’t written any crime fiction since the junior detective series I wrote for my grandchildren ten years ago. But I do review mystery and thriller books, so I wanted to learn from the professionals what makes a terrific best-seller.

Jerrilyn Farmer used her book, “Perfect Sax” to illustrate how to plot a mystery. She kept us spellbound for an hour as she reviewed her reasons for choosing for the victim, the method of murder, a variety of suspects, false leads and red herrings, and then showed us how to add twists and surprises to keep the cleverest of readers guessing till the end. “But remember,” she cautioned us, “all your characters’ actions and reactions must be logical and believable.”

In her workshop on how to plot a thriller, Gayle Lynds explained the difference between a mystery and a thriller. Mysteries begin with a terrible crime, then go on to discover who did it and why. Thrillers begin with the knowledge that something dreadful is about to happen, then race to try to stop it. She also drilled us on the importance of the villain in a thriller. “Your antagonist is critical, he drives the plot. He must be a worthy opponent for your hero, a clash of titans. If you get stuck in your story, ask yourself what the villain is doing.”

The tips I learned in these two sessions will help me better understand and review the next crime or suspense novel I read…if I can just remember to apply them.


Jacqueline Vick

For attendees of the recent California Crime Writers Conference, the most difficult task was to choose which panels to attend.

In the Writing Business Track, Carolyn Howard Johnson began the day sharing cool tips on how to market your book without spending a lot of money. With so many online options available, this isn’t as difficult as it seems. Carol explained how to efficiently produce both a blog and a newsletter by sharing information between the two. Many blogs allow users to schedule a future posting date so that the newsletter content doesn’t duplicate what’s online. She also mentioned the immediate feedback she’s received from Tweets—postings on Twitter.

I have to say that the information she gave on marketing was the most valuable concrete information I received at the conference because she was talking about steps I can take today to get my “brand” out to people so they will be interested by the time my book comes out.

Annette Rogers of Poisoned Pen Press reminded us that we writers are storytellers. She read examples of great opening paragraphs to demonstrate how to catch the editor’s attention. Editors look for stories that can compete against all media, including television, movies and radio. And we can’t sell something that isn’t out there. If a dreaded rejection shows up in the mail, tweak a few words and send the manuscript out again the next day.

Annette inspired me because writers sometimes see editors as a scary, separate piece of the publishing puzzle, and her personable approach and sense of humor reminded me that editors are simply people who would love to see good writing on their desk.

The E-Publishing Panel included Annette Rogers, Marilyn Meredith, and E-Publisher Marci Baun. While traditional publishing can take two years from acceptance to print, E-Publishers can do it in as little as four months. The standards are the same, and guidelines are still important.

This panel inspired me to think outside of the box. The opportunities to publish are out there, even though it seems that the business is contracting.

Everyone inspired me in one way or another–the speakers with useful information, the other attendees with their stories and eternal optimism. I learned long ago that mystery writers are a close community, always willing to encourage and share tips. I highly recommend that writers get out of their cloistered writing rooms and step into this conference in two years when it is offered again.

Finding Time to Write

Some writer’s snatch a few moments of time wherever they find it. Other’s adhere to strict schedules. Walter Mosley tells us to write every day. Peter Brett wrote his first novel on his smartphone during his daily travels on the F train. Do you follow a set writing schedule? Write every day? Have a favorite writing spot? Do you put butt to chair until you’ve finished a specific word count? Tell us about your writing schedule.


Writers Write by Bonnie Schroeder

I try (emphasis on “try”) to write every day, first thing in the morning — okay, I feed the dogs and make coffee first and then retreat to my desk with one dog underfoot and one cat in my lap. On my desk, I have a kitchen timer that I set for one hour. Some days I actually write for the full hour before the phone rings or the other cat barfs or my stomach starts growling. Some days I have to stop the timer until the aforementioned distractions are dealt with; then I try to finish the hour later on. I don’t always make my goal, but occasionally I actually exceed it.

For me the important thing is to try for it, every day — weekends included. It keeps the circuits open and the muse engaged. When I worked at a job 50 miles away with a two-plus hour daily commute, there were times when I could only manage 15 minutes a day, so an hour is a huge luxury for me now. But even with those quarter-hour writing sessions, I finished the draft of a novel. It took a few years, but that daily contact with the pages kept them in my mind, kept me plugged into the current. And that, to me, is the secret: write something every day, even if it’s just a paragraph, or even a sentence. Then I can legitimately say, “I’m a writer.”


Lucky by Jacqueline Vick

I’m extremely lucky. I was able to quit my day job to pursue writing full time. (Well, writing AND homemaking full time). That means that every morining when I rise, my day is my own and my schedule is whatever I want. Sounds great, doesn’t it? There are a few downsides.

When I’m working on a novel manuscript, there is no boss handing me deadlines. There is no client with a specific need to fill. I have to set all of those goals myself…and keep them. Repercussions can be a wonderful motivator; without them, it’s more difficult to stay on course.

My deadlines consist of “finish the first draft by May 1st”. I’m always happy to find a short story contest, because that gives me a specific deadline and specific criteria to meet.

Yesterday, I was talking to my brother who is a personal coach, and he said that the difficulty most people run into is keeping promises to themselves. They don’t value their own time and their own goals as much as they value other people’s time and goals. I’m starting to get around this by making more specific goals and deadlines, and then pretending that I work for a fabulous author named Jacqueline Vick. She has high expectations and I don’t want to disappoint her. I imagine her asking me to have the rewrites on chapter one on her desk by Friday. It’s a bit kooky, but it works.

I write every day including weekends. My butt is in the chair for about 8 hours on weekdays, a few hours here and there on Saturday and Sunday. I write in the only place available to me–the dining room table. It’s a pain to keep cleaning off the table each night, but the thought of my husband reaching around a stack of papers for the pepper mill helps keep me organized.


Writing Away by Jackie Houchin

For an organized, everything-in-its-place, kind of person, my writing schedule is very haphazard and irregular. I mostly write when a deadline looms, so I’m thankful I have those. I write reviews for magazines and articles for a newspaper and newsletters. If I don’t get my copy in, it doesn’t get printed. Simple as that, and no amount of boo-hoo’ing will fix it. The next issue already looms on the horizon.

If I were to write a book, I fear I would find myself writing franticly for 23-hours every day during the last weeks before the agent/editor/publisher’s scheduled deadline. I admire my fellow Wonder Women who persistently, faithfully write for months and even years to bring their creations into the world. Their ultimate satisfaction will far outshine my instant bursts of pride.

So which style is best? “Whatever works for you.” Yeah, you’ve heard that before, but it’s true. Whether it’s dedicating specific minutes, hours, and days to craft a novel, or franticly writing and rewriting and “ripping the paper out of a typewriter” before rushing it to an editor…it doesn’t matter. If our words, opinions, ideas, and stories are read (sooner or later), well, that’s what counts.

That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it. Now, let’s see… when’s my next deadline?

PS: Where do I write? Either at my dinosaur desktop PC in my office until the “backside” can’t stand sitting any more, or more recently, standing at the breakfast bar in the corner of my kitchen with a 6-foot cat tree behind me (usually occupied by three cats lounging and looking over my shoulder, and trying to foil my thought processes with their diabolical purring and mind games) while I pound away on my laptop.

Location, Location, Location!

During an interview, P.D. James made reference to Agatha Christie’s sparse location information, saying that it made her books accessible to many readers because they could imagine the story unfolding in their own hometown. There are other authors who write pages of description, down to the size, shape, and number of balustrades on the neighbor’s house.

What role do you think location plays in a novel? How much effort do you think should go into the research of the book’s setting, and how much of that research should make it into the book?

A Response
by MK Johnston

Location is the universe in which your characters live and your plot can progress. It’s critical to have a vivid setting, but research adds another vital dimension. Mark Twain, in describing the difference between fiction and non-fiction, is alleged to have said, “Fiction must be absolutely believable.” Research should bring a level of believability to a novel, since false or inaccurate details will destroy a reader’s interest. It becomes a question of balance; too little information will strand the reader and too much can distract from the story. As a general rule, the more unique the location – historical, foreign, exotic, or alternate universe – the more description is needed to make it real. But research should enrich not only the setting, but the characters and the plot.

How much description is needed to create a believable novel? As a reader, I like having a partnership with the writer. When I write, I prefer to render a sketch and leave some details to the reader’s imagination. However, I recognize that some prefer an oil painting, with everything fleshed out, and there are situations when more description is needed. Sometimes the protagonist will dictate how much is necessary; the setting or action will at other times.

In aiming for reality, the key is to avoid using your research in an obvious or intrusive way. No one enjoys reading a textbook. The effort should be translucent, used to create touchstones, not speed bumps. If I can construct a sense of place that grounds the reader in the world I’ve created, and allows the characters to live out their lives on the page, then I’m satisfied.


I Second That
by Jacqueline Vick

Miriam is exactly right. It depends on the book. When I read an Elizabeth Peters, the rich details about Egypt transport me not only to that land, but to the late 1800’s (for the start of the series). However, if a contemporary cozy included that much detail, I think the longer passages would bring the reading to a screeching halt.

I think the danger that I and other writer’s face is “keeping too much in our heads”. I’ll read a passage and “see” the room where the action takes place, but I have to make sure it’s actually on the page so that the reader can share that image with me. That’s why it’s great to have a critique group. Other writers will tell you if the image is clear.


Location, Location, Location
by GB Pool

In many novels and even short stories, location acts almost like a character. A great setting sets the stage for greater challenges whether it be physical places (Mt. Rushmore/North by Northwest), climatic as in climate (hurricanes/Key Largo or Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival), or the local natives (from Tarzan’s Africa to people on Hollywood Blvd).

For a short story, pick an easily understood setting because it needs less description; a dilapidate factory vs. a factory that makes those tiny tweezers that fit into a pocket sized manicure set, etc., etc., etc. If you get too technical, you will lose your audience and use up your word limit.

Get most of your facts right about places you only visit on the Internet; some readers are finicky about accurate descriptions of locales; if in doubt, fictionalize your locale. All the research you do will change your perception of that area even though you won’t use every bit of information that you discover. But your understanding of a region will color the entire story whether it is the incessant rain, blistering heat or rugged rocks.

Setting denotes the background of character living there. A person living in a penthouse has a different outlook on life than does a guy living in a garage apartment. A person from one economic background will view the same background through their own eyes. Where one person sees an efficient, profitable corporation, another will see it as a greedy, industrial monolith.

Description of settings can educate the reader, but don’t go too non-fiction. Some settings act as a general background. A short description such as: the local pub, conjures up a picture in the reader’s mind so you don’t have to go into elaborate explanation. Some word pictures set the era and mood like the longer descriptions used by Anne Perry in her description of Queen Victoria’s England. The type of book and the mood you want to achieve should dictate the length of your descriptions.

Too much description of a locale can stop the action. Remember, you’re not writing a travel guide. Setting also tells us how much time has passed (After two days a thick layer of dust covered every surface.)

If your story gets bogged down with too much description and it starts sounding like that travel log, describe those locations through dialogue. It will set the scene and add information from a particular character’s POV, so you not only see the surroundings, but you know how that character feels about it. Different characters can view settings differently depending on his or her personal perspective. (A woman in love can smell the flowers in the park, while her friend who just lost her job can see the wad of gum on the sidewalk.)

Use descriptions (sight, sound, smell) of locations to evoke an emotion, reaction, or establish mood. (A scummy swimming pool tells the reader the motel is seedy.) Setting can also take reader into another world (Tony Hillerman’s Indian reservation, Dick Francis’s racetrack.)

Remember “Chekov’s Gun” story. Don’t put something in a scene if it’s not going to be used. “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Letter from Anton Chekov 1889. This tactic was used constantly in Murder, She Wrote. The camera always zoomed in on the “clue” about eight minutes into the show. During the last seven minutes Jessica Fletcher would recall that “clue” and solve the case. But you always knew that clue would make a reappearance before the final credits rolled.

How Truthful Should a Writer Be?

A writer’s words are her sword. And, as Spiderman found out in his blockbuster movie, With great power comes great responsibility. Whether you are writing a non-fiction account, a novel in which you base your characters on real people or incidents, or a critical review, sooner or later you might have to make a choice between the truth and a subject’s feelings. But what if the information is critical to your account? What if Uncle Ned’s embarrassing quirk adds the perfect touch to a character you’ve been struggling with? What if you absolutely hated that book and you’d like to forewarn other readers? Do you forge ahead at the expense of people’s feelings? Talk to the subject before publishing to soften the blow?

Double Edged Sword
by G.B. Pool

In this litigious society, it isn’t worth the time, money, or headache to use a real person when writing fiction, unless the character is used as a harmless extra, or the person has given their permission. I won’t write a review of a book or play that I don’t like. Silence speaks volumes. When I worked as a newspaper reporter on the Whitehaven Star in Memphis, I told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Facts backed up what I wrote. I never worried about being sued.

That said, the bottom line is that I wouldn’t go out of my way to run somebody down, no matter how idiotic I think they are. I wouldn’t shame anybody or point out their flaws. It doesn’t do anybody any good. If I don’t like them, I ignore them. If I like them, I would rather protect them and their quirk. Of course, if you are talking politics…all bets are off.

My name (or a close facsimile) is turning up in a book, Tommy Gun Tango, written by a friend, Bruce Cook, who wanted to use my hyphenated name for a character. The girl is wild as they come, not necessarily based on my personality, but hey, maybe Bruce knows something I don’t. And he did ask permission. I told him I’d be happy to be a potted plant in one of his books.

Now, I might start a character based on somebody in a news story, but then I’d flesh out the character and make them my own. My story would take a totally different path, too. After all, after we have been inundated with the wall-to-wall coverage of high profile cases in the news, who would want to rehash it?

Since I wouldn’t be privy to the motives of the people involved in real stories, I would be making it all up anyway. It is the inner feelings and my own interpretation that makes the character memorable.

Real people are a jumping off place, even if their characteristics are totally off the wall. I would rather create my own people with motives I think fits the part they are playing. And anyway, when the character takes over the writing, they can fill in the blanks themselves.

In my Ginger Caulfield novels (Media Justice, Hedge Bet), I definitely use my husband, Richard, as the character Fred, and Gin Caulfield is mostly me. My agent asked if I would deepen Gin’s character. In “agent-ese” that means give her a flaw, something gritty. So, I had to add some backstory to make Ginger a slightly darker character. It does make her more interesting and I will be able to add sub-plots using this flaw, so it works. But the creativity is mine. I’ll take the arrows if it doesn’t work.

Sometimes they like it
by Jacqueline Vick

My dad is the youngest of thirteen kids. Most of my uncles and aunts have spouses, and some of them have grown children. And that’s just one side of the family. Then there are my in-laws. It would be difficult for me to create a character and not hit on some of their quirks and personalities.

My Mother is convinced that the Deanna Wilder character in my mystery manuscript, “Family Matters”, is based on her. Well…she’s right to a certain extent. Fortunately, she’s also pleased. I do have a sister, but she is much nicer than the Vanessa character. As I wrote the manuscript, I hoped that my sister wouldn’t think that I saw her as Vanessa. My only other option was to never write a sister character unless she was a saint.

I find that if I take a trait and exaggerate it (which I can do, since I write comedy), it takes on a new life. I also rely on advice I received from another writer: “No one ever recognizes themselves in your book, especially if they’re the villain.”

Having said that, I agree with Gayle. I would never want to harm someone just for a few laughs. If Uncle Marvin liked to dust with women’s panties, that would be too recognizable and could only cause embarrassment and pain. If I had an Uncle Marvin, he might think I was making fun of him.

As for reviews, I think that it’s more how you word it. Some reviewers take the opportunity to show off their own caustic wit. This is not reviewing. It’s performing. When I’ve done script reviews, I always remember that the person who wrote it has feelings, and that this is currently his best effort. It’s my job to be constructive and helpful.

If I wrote a non-fiction book…. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that one.

To Self-Publish or Not To Self-Publish…That Is the Question

When I asked the previous question about self-publishing, Gayle generously gave an in-depth response based on her experiences. It deserved a separate post. Read on for the nitty-gritty about self-publishing.

G.B. Pool

Self-publishing isn’t just a vanity press. To publish one book you have to put in a good year’s worth of research, planning, designing, editing, and production before the presses roll. And remember, you have to write the book, too. After it’s published, you have to promote it. That’s called work. I started a real business when I started SPYGAME Press. I paid taxes. I put in 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. It was hard work. Sometimes it was frustrating. But it’s the American Dream to do what you really want to do.

Before I decided to self-publish, I tried getting a literary agent. I paid a couple of them up front before I learned you don’t pay anything until they produce. I also got taken in by one of the top “book doctor” scams in the country. It cost me $1100 to learn that lesson. For a dozen years I saw the literary agent business go from people who just wanted my money, to people who didn’t bother sending back my self-addressed stamped envelope. The most frequent reply I received was that they already had enough clients. Nobody said they didn’t like my work.

Ninety-five percent of these literary agents weren’t interested in reading a few chapters of anything. The other five percent were still after my money. That’s when I decided to go in another direction. I checked out POD (print-on-demand) publications and e-books, but I didn’t think I would have as much control over my material as I wanted.

I saw a self-publishing class listed at the Adult Community Center in Glendale, California. I took the class that was given by a very talented teacher named Belma Johnson. He describes himself as a motivational speaker. He certainly motivated me. I took the class in September of 2003. I bought a few books on self-publishing, searched the Internet, and took notes. By the end of January of 2004, I had gotten most of the technical aspects of the business out of the way. That meant setting up a business account at my bank, getting the proper paperwork from the state, a Post Office Box, and securing ISBNs.

I located an editor, a woman who had worked in publishing in New York for many years. She edited the book. When she was finished, I went back over the manuscript several more times and fine-tuned it. Edit, edit, edit.

I found a printer in New York with a very good price who did the printing. They were affiliated with a wonderful cover designer who took my very simple idea and turned it into something I really liked. I made no changes in his original design. Six weeks later I had the books.

I have been asked: How many people self-publish? Many people do it now, especially with P.O.D.s or e-books available for download on places like iUniverse or even the way I did it by starting a company.

There is a rather long history of self-published books. There were no big publishing houses in early America so many newspapers printed books for local writers.

Here are some early writers who self-published: Mark Twain, Zane Grey, Carl Sandburg, D. H. Lawrence, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Wolff, Alexander Dumas, Edgar Allen Poe, Kipling, Thoreau, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Paine.

Today, most of the big publishers are gone and smaller imprints are turning out books. The main reason is cost and the other reason is people don’t read as much. There are two fundamental culprits: One is known as television and the other goes by several names: XBOX, GameBoy, Nintendo, not to mention cell phones and I-pods. They devour time, leaving people with no time to read.

Here are names of a few self-published books: The Elements of Style – handbook for writers, What Color Is Your Parachute – handbook for corporate bigwigs, A Time to Kill by John Grisham, The Joy of Cooking, Mary Ellen’s Best of Helpful Hints, Dianetics. And The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poytner. That’s one of the books I used to get my own publishing company started.

Samizdat is Russian for self-publishing. It started in late 50’s. It was unofficial, it circumvented censorship. People turned out fiction, poetry, petitions, and religious material. The movement spread to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. All those countries are free now.

Is there an advantage to self-publishing? Yes. You get published. If not, you would be relinquishing your fate to someone you don’t know who can turn thumbs down on your manuscript for no more reason than they got up on the wrong side of the bed that day. Why should you rest your entire future on someone who doesn’t know you, who might have an agenda, or who might not even bother to read your work?

The large publishing houses get hundreds of manuscripts a month. They don’t have time or staff to read every one that comes through the door. Many hire people outside the business to read for them. Most publishing houses will only take referrals from literary agents. And there are far more writers than there are agents, and most agents have all the clients they can handle. It was that Catch 22 element that left me with no alternative other than to self-publish.

In the course of five years, I have met a lot of people in various stages of writing and getting their book published. I was at the No Crime Unpublished Conference of mystery writers in June 2005, and Lee Child, the author of the “Jack Reacher” novels, was talking about self-published books. He said it’s always better to be handled by a big-time publisher, but being self-published is just another way to circumvent the usual torturous route to the big name publishing houses by being able to show a big name publisher you can complete a book and present it well. Remember, John Grisham is no longer self-published.

Try as hard as you can to get an agent or publisher, even a small publisher, to publish your work. It is your best option. Starting a business and dealing with the government and learning all aspects of the business is the hardest work there is. And remember, after you publish you have to promote yourself. That is tough and time consuming.

But the lessons learned will help you immeasurably if a regular publisher picks you up. It will be your effort to sell those self-published books and your actual sales that will attract a publisher. They are looking at their bottom line and they want someone who will work on their own behalf to market their book. Most publishers expend zero dollars for new writers. It will be all on you.

There are drawbacks of course. The cost of starting a business can be prohibitive. POD might be cheaper, but you don’t have total control of your work that way. And some publishers and agents scorn the self-published author. It might take a while for everyone to come around to accepting the self-pub. And if you don’t put out an exemplary product, meaning no misspelling, the correct format, a terrific story that adheres to correct grammar, you will look like an amateur and it will be hard to overcome that first impression.

But if you have it in your heart to get published…do it.

I’ll give you some free advice: Don’t listen to anybody who tells you to forget your dream. To tell you the truth, they’re probably afraid of the competition. Listen to people who give you encouragement. Never give up. Because…there is a number inside every published book: A Library of Congress Control Number. That means the book is sitting in the Library of Congress along with Gone with the Wind, The Maltese Falcon and The Hunt for Red October. A self-published book is really published.

Self Publishing Your Way to Traditional Publishing

There are several stories whizzing around the web about authors who jump-started their writing carreer by self-publishing. They later used the leverage created by the sales of their book to manuever their way into traditional publishing houses. The examples range from oldies like Beatrice Potter and Mark Twain to currently successful authors like Deepak Chopra and Richard Paul Evans.

Would you ever self-publish as a route to becoming traditionally published? Why or why not? Do you think this is the future of publishing, or just a trend?

Bonnie Schroeder

I would consider self publishing only as a last resort. Sure, I’ve heard the miracle stories, but chances of getting your big break via self publishing are even slimmer than those for getting an agent the hard way. If a person had a huge social network, was very internet savvy, and had an endless reservoir of marketing energy and know-how, it might work, but your average writer just isn’t that kind of animal.

I hold more hope for e-publishing and Print on Demand; they address some of the traditional publishers’ cost concerns without going into direct competition with them. I would definitely go with an e-publisher if I had the chance.

Jackie Houchin

Would I ever self-publish? Good Heavens, yes. I do it all the time when I write and post on my web site. I also self-publish when I submit stories, articles and reviews to non-editing venues such as American Chronicle and my local bi-weekly newspaper. It’s a fast way to get my writing out there and read.

But these articles and reviews are not enduring in the sense that books are. They are “flash” pieces, meant to be received, read, and then – as in the case of a newspaper – thrown away. Sure online sites keep archived records, and there are links on Google that go back years, but these “immediate” stories will never sit on someone’s bookshelf to be read and reread (or at least dusted).

Because of my experience in this type of writing – and frankly the instant gratification that comes with it – I would be more apt to self-publish. I would write the best book I could; pay to have it edited (line and content); use the best POD company and illustrators I could find; and go for it. A distribution deal and marketing plan would also be important.

Several authors I know personally began by self-publishing their books. They did a lot of self-promoting and aggressive marketing, and they were noticed by a traditional publisher. Now they have multi-book contracts. It can be done.

However, one author I know went the “traditional” publishing route with her first two books, and is now actively and happily self-publishing the third and fourth in the series. The construction is top-quality with very professional cover designs. Best of all, she’s “in the black.”

The bottom line is the author’s personal career goals… and how patient and optimistic he/she can be.

Jacqueline Vick

I’ve already self-published a children’s book. It was a project I’d worked on “on the side” and I wanted to see it in print. I really didn’t try to market it to traditional publishers first. Instead, I went to Lulu.com. I wrote the story, hired an illustrator, solicited editing feedback, and then published. I will say that I found a few errors in the first copy and had to go back and make changes. (The errors were mine, not the publishers, and they could have been avoided with a more careful review on my part.) So I would recommend special attention be paid to proofing the copy.

I do think that there are a lot of people out there using this method to attract traditional publishers. I can think of three authors off-hand who now have traditional contracts. I think it all comes down to how hard you market the book.

All of the Above

What do I do when I can’t think of a particular word while writing, asked the curious Jaxon?

My dogs are actually quite, what’s the word?, sagacious, when called upon to aid in my search for the proper bon mot. I do use the Thesaurus frequently, if not religiously, and…Oh, what is the word I’m looking for?…Ah, yes, habitually.

But when all else fails, I get up from the computer and wander around, because the farther away I am from the computer, the better the chances are that the most delicious and obscure word will pop into my cranium and I won’t have a pencil or piece of paper to write it on, and while I am searching for a stupid scrap of anything to use, the word will completelty… Oh, I can’t think of the right word to use…..Let me ask one of the dogs.