The Call of “Story” (Learning to Live a Better Story)

There is a traditional Lakota tale of a woman and an eagle. A disaster had struck the land and the woman was left alone, the only surviving member of her people. The woman was deeply sad and weak from the storm that had killed her people. In all likelihood she knew she would soon die like all the rest. But then an eagle came along. At first, the woman feared he would attack her, maybe even kill her. But instead the eagle spoke to her.

When the eagle heard her story and saw how sad she was, he decided to help her. The eagle hunted game for the woman, helping her regain her strength. The eagle brought wood from a nearby forest so she could build a fire to keep warm. As time went on, the woman got stronger and happier. She was not alone anymore.

However, winter was quickly approaching, and the eagle knew that the woman would die without shelter. He prayed to the Grandfather, asking why he hadn’t come to the woman’s aid. Couldn’t he see her suffering? After all, the Grandfather had the ability to help her.

The Grandfather said, “I have come to the woman’s aid. I sent you to her.”

The next time the eagle came to visit the woman, he no longer flew to her, nor was he clothed in feathers. He came walking, on two legs. The Grandfather had transformed him into a man. Together, the eagle and the woman survived the winter, and had many children and the woman’s race flourished again.

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I think this is a beautiful story. I have been thinking much lately about the way the structure of a good story relates to real life. Today, we often don’t live very good stories, to be honest. Perhaps the most basic tenet of story is essentially this: a character who wants something and encounters conflict in order to get it.

In which case, the stories we live out are rooted in our deepest desires. You would not watch the movie about a man who wants to work in an office and save enough money to buy a brand new Volvo. Unfortunately, this is too often not that far from reality. We live little boring stories, often largely for ourselves.

imagesWhat I think is most powerful about stories is that they open our eyes to the things that really matter. People in stories accept the call to a bigger story. Oftentimes they are called out of an ordinary life to something larger and more important. Luke Skywalker leaves the moisture farm to save the princess and also the galaxy. Katniss takes her sister’s place in the Hunger Games and proceeds to spark a revolution. They don’t have to be stories about heroes either. Walter White starts cooking meth to pay for cancer treatment and goes on to become a drug kingpin.

If the wants of our characters are clear and large, it will make for an interesting story.

Now, I think we ought to live out the stories of sacrifice and heroism personally.

I think some of the most powerful stories are those where a character learns to care more about others than themselves. Good Will Hunting would have been less interesting if Will had simply been really smart and then got a job and made lots of money.Learning that he doesn’t know everything and that love is more important than knowledge or money makes for a much better story.

I watched a recent movie called A Good Lie last week. It tells the story of a group of kids displaced by violence in Sudan. At one point, the oldest boy gives himself up to be captured by soldiers so that the others might have a shot at freedom. Four of them survive and are brought to America to start a new life. But the oldest boy’s brother never could forget what his brother had done. When he discovers that his brother eventually escaped from the soldiers, he returns to Sudan. Due to 9/11 and some bureaucracy, the oldest could not be granted passage to the U.S. But the younger brother thought of a solution. He and his brother, now full-grown, looked nearly identical. The younger gave his older brother his clothes and his passport and took his place back in Sudan.

Learning to live for something or someone beyond ourselves makes for a beautiful story, such as the story of the eagle and the woman or Will Hunting or the Sudanese boys, and countless others. It also makes for a beautiful life.

That is the sort of story I’d like to be living. Those stories call something out of me. They remind me to live for more than myself, more than my job, the mortgage, more than my writing.

There are things going on in the world that make me wonder like the eagle, why the “Grandfather” has done nothing about it, things like poverty and oppression and bigotry and depression. But I hear the call of the story, and I hear someone saying, “I have done something. I sent you.”

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Saying No to a Book Offer Pt. 2 (Author Mills and Bad Publishers)

I wrote another piece a while back on an experience I had with a sketchy vanity publisher, while seeking publication for a novel I wrote. I received quite a few emails about it from other writers. Several of them asking if it had to do with another publisher we’d had mutual interaction with. So I thought perhaps I should share another story of when to say NO when seeking publication.

I won’t name names, because this is my personal opinion on them, and I have spoken to other writers who were happy with being published at this house, and I don’t think it’s very nice to blog-bash.

I was very excited at first to get a full request from this company. They had some very nice looking covers and were YA focused and, by all ways of telling through email, seemed very friendly. I eagerly sent off my manuscript with that incredible roller coaster feeling in my stomach of being excited and terrified simultaneously. They had commented that, though my manuscript was a little on the long side, they were excited to read it.

I waited and waited, for the entirety of three weeks before hearing back. The publisher was offering me a contract. I could hardly believe it. But perhaps this was for a reason.

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Now, to be fair, this was a genuine publisher. This wasn’t vanity. They did not want any money from me. They had some e-book sales high on Amazon. They were legit. They asked if I was still interested. I said yes I was, and they drew up a contract.

But there were warning signs.

Warning #1: Short and Vague

The offering letter was short. Now I am not against succinctness, but there was much left to be desired in this offer. Essentially, they said they wanted to publish it, along with two sequels. They did not say how perfectly my novel would fit on their list. They did not say how they couldn’t wait for the world to see it. They just wanted to publish it. It was all pretty vague.

Nevertheless, I said I was interested and asked to see a contract, thinking perhaps there would be more details then.

Warning #2: Shorter and More Vague

Nope! The contract was no better. It was very generic, which is not too strange. I find all contracts in any respect to be this way to an extent. But it was also very short. The last contract I’d been offered was probably fifteen pages. This was four. There were no details on their plan for my book. No marketing plan from their end, though they said they expected me to be a part of the marketing. They had no expectations for dates for the sequels. And they wanted an answer in three days.

Warning #3: No Personal Contact

Along with the ultra-succinct contract was zero offer to call me and discuss the details of it. They said I could contact them with questions. But there were answers I needed, and they seemed to be hoping I would just sign and perhaps then we’d talk later. After I’d given them the rights to my book for five years.

I could have called them, sure. But I just felt like if they wanted my book, they should also be personally offering to walk me through these steps. It was all pretty impersonal. This didn’t seem to bode well for how they would handle marketing and distribution.

So I dug deeper. You should investigate as much as you can about any potential publisher or agent.digging-hole

Digging:

  • I contacted a few of their authors
  • I asked other writers
  • I researched their books and sales on Amazon
  • I read about small-house publishing experiences

Results:

  • The authors had nice things to say. The publisher was nice. It had gotten their work out there. Mostly e-book stuff. The payout was higher than many houses. Some of the writers had moved on to self-publishing instead.
  • Other writers had submitted. Found out the publisher made quite a few offers. Many writers shared my concerns.
  • They had some sales that were decent. They also had a crap-ton of books out there and coming out soon, and they were a pretty new publisher.
  • This was not that normal for small publishers.

In the end, after three whopping days, I declined the offer.

Though there were many authors who seemed content with the publisher, I also felt like I could do nearly as much as the publisher by self-publishing.

They wanted me to help market (not abnormal for small publishers), but they also didn’t seem to distribute much off-line. And didn’t do much beyond arranging blog-reviews and things like this.

They had a crap-ton of books they were releasing, and I knew of several others who had gotten offers recently or were being considered.

Along with their short consideration time, and vagueness, and quick response to my full manuscript, I concluded….

That they were an author mill.

They made good-looking books and generated sales, without doing a lot of marketing outside what the authors were doing online and such (They did do some, however). They threw a lot of books out there, and got sales from them due to a lot of books generating semi-decent sales. They did some print, but it was largely e-book focused.

I concluded that, though they might help me reach an audience and sell some books, and get going. I could easily get lost in the slush of many new releases. I would have to put a lot of work into it. And if I am doing that, then why wouldn’t I just self-publish, and get more of the money?

Best of luck to you on your writing and publishing journey. Be discerning, and don’t rush!

Don’t be afraid to say no!

*I would love to hear from you if this was helpful to you, or if I can be of further help!*

*Please leave a comment about your own experiences!*

*If you’d like to check out the first few chapters of my novel, The Lingering Shadow, go here.*

Cheers!

S. Andrew

The Myth of the “Professional” Writer

professional-writing-servicesSomething struck me recently while reading. I am a bit of a nerd, and I actually do read the author interviews at the ends of books. I also read the acknowledgements pages, as well as the author bios, and it is not uncommon for me to be found creeping online for info about whatever writer I am presently reading. As a writer, in general, other writers fascinate me.

But what struck me was what I have found most interesting about authors. Of course, I like to hear about their process and about how they got their big break, and where their big idea came from, and all of that. But I realized that I was increasingly becoming more interested in the non-writerly things they do. The things they do for enjoyment, humanitarian work they’ve done, or non-writing work they do or have done in the past.

For instance, Isaac Asimov, the great father of modern science fiction, was also a biochemist who taught at a university and wrote textbooks. While he was writing Carrie, Stephen King was a high school English teacher. A YA fantasy writer I read recently moonlights as a Hollywood make-up artist, though she’s published a best-selling series. Andy Weir is a computer programmer and space travel nerd, whose serial novel The Martian topped the charts out of nowhere.

I read an awesome book recently called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. In this book, a writer named Don Miller who wrote a best-selling memoir a while before, finds himself feeling really aimless in spite of his success, to the point he has a hard time getting out of bed. In the book, Don sets out to find out what living a good story looks like, rather than just writing about it.

We writers, I think, can sort of idealize this “writing life,” and, perhaps, idolize the thought of being a professional writer, i.e. someone who can pay the bills strictly by writing. While this is a great dream, it is not everything. Even if that goal is attained, writers are still people living out stories of their own outside their own heads, who may or may not happen to pay bills through writing.

I think I am finding that while I would love to be a “career” writer, I also don’t want to forget to live. One of my professors in college has written some great books that have received acclaim, but he’s still working his day job teaching undergrad writing classes, and there is no shame in that. More writers than we realize do a lot of other things too, and many may write full-time for a while, but also go back to doing other things.

So, what I’m saying is, don’t give up on your writing dreams, but also, don’t forget to really live in the world outside your head.

The Color of Mourning

I’ve heard it said that you don’t truly love something until you see someone else love it. I think there is truth to this.

I never read much Terry Pratchett to be honest. His books were always high on my list, but I never quite got to them. But people I know loved him, and without reading much of his work, I recognize him as a great writer, who’s work got tragically cut short by disease. As Alzheimer’s has wreaked its havoc in my own family, perhaps his death rung truer than most. For a writer I never really read, I’ve thought of him often the past few days, imagining the frustration a writer would feel as Alzheimer’s took it’s toll. But I think it may be more than that.

Neil Gaiman is one of my all time favorite writers, and was good friends with Terry Pratchett. What I think is most powerfully incredible about writing is that it allows us to hop into others’ heads for a while, to think like they think and feel like they feel. Shortly before his friend passed away, Neil wrote a piece about his friend Terry Pratchett, and I feel that I grew to know him more through reading this, and watching some subsequent anecdotal interviews, than perhaps if I had read Terry’s fiction.

There are many great writers out there, but I think Terry was also a great human, and those are much rarer. He took one of my favorite writers under his proverbial wing before he’d published a Sandman comic or much of anything else. Terry faced Death bravely, and he raged against injustice and against his own disease until the end. He also continued writing, despite his fading mind, until last year, which I find absolutely remarkable.

Many will mourn a fantastic comic fantasy writer. But I am mourning a human I never met. Not because of the tragedy of his disease, and because I can relate to that tragedy in my own family and to the rage at the lack of Alzheimer’s research. Though I think that is part of it, I think I caught a glimpse of Sir Terry Pratchett through another’s eyes, and that made his writing, his rage, his disease, and his death, matter to me all the more.

Writing is a funny thing, and it is powerful.