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Little Writer That Could (and did!)

The story behind the story of how I published my first book.

I gave this as a talk at a conference back in 2000, I believe. Twenty-one years ago the publishing landscape looked a LOT different. Why do I keep this old news up here? Because a lot of it is still true. Publishing has changed, but it is still a tough business to be in. I’m leaving it here for both its historical perspective and as (hopefully) some encouragement to new authors out there. 

When my husband used to do our taxes, he always ended up at the post office at midnight on April 15th  with the Lucky [hot] Dog cart, the peanut vendors, the clowns and the TV cameras. Once I asked him if he was embarrassed to be caught in all his procrastinating glory on the news. He got this thoughtful look and after a short silence said, “Actually, I felt like I was finally with my own kind.”

That’s why we are here at this conference, to be with our own kind. It doesn’t matter to me that our kind are people who see things no one else does and hear voices in their heads. It does seem to bother my husband. He has a standing order to our children if he dies suddenly, he wants an autopsy. He wasn’t happy when I told our children that Louisiana has forced heir-ship. If he dies, they get to divide half of his estate. I think he can forget that autopsy.

One writer points out that, “[writing] is nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums to get rid of.”

Let’s face it. We sometimes “sit and stare at that blank sheet of paper until blood forms on our foreheads” or words on the page. Sometimes all we get is blood.

Some of us have found that bleeding words are easy when faced with the challenge of trying to share those words with a sometimes uncaring world. It requires risking rejection from our critique partners, from editors, and if we manage to sell our work, then by reviewers, and finally by the toughest market of all: the reader.

We regularly put our work—and often our hearts with it—on a slab and let people examine and poke it. Sometimes they stomp on it, kick it around, then send it back with a form rejection stapled to it.

Sometimes, possibly painfully often, we ask ourselves why we feel compelled to endure this pecular form of torture? Once I tried to explain the writing and publishing business to someone who asked, for about the hundredth time, why my book still wasn’t published.

I told this person, imagine yourself in a degree program at a college. Now imagine that every semester, the requirements for your degree program change. Imagine that the professor changes, too, sometimes right in the middle of the semester—usually just when you’ve got yourself on course for an “a.”

And the new professor hates you.

Imagine you keep slogging forward and you finally get the diploma. You celebrate, you rejoice, you make a little money, and you go to the next project. And then they come to you and tell you, oops, we’ve changed things again. You’ll have to go back and start over from the beginning.  You can keep the diploma you have, but it doesn’t mean anything to anyone, but possibly you and your family.  If they are sensitive, kind and caring.

And that professor still hates you.

In most careers, you do your apprenticeship or finish your schooling and you are reasonably sure that you can get a job and make money.

Not in ours.

There are easier ways to suffer.

There are other things you could spend your time and your money doing than trying to market your stories to a world that has more stories than it has paper to print them on.

So why am I’m standing up here telling you not to give up?

I called this talk, “The Little Writer That Could and Did.”  I’m sure most of you remember the story of the Little Engine that Could. If you’re too young to know, I don’t want to hear about it.

I just want to say, I hated that story. Adults were always trotting it when they wanted me to do something I knew I didn’t want to start, let alone finish. I don’t know if it was the cumulative effect of hearing this story so much, or just that I’m a very stubborn person and refused to give up. I do know when I was asked to talk about not giving up, that’s what I thought of.

That stupid engine that didn’t give up. That annoying little whiner that thought he could and finally did.

I admit I have wanted to give up. A few years ago, I reached a point where I was asking myself, why I am doing this? What am I thinking? Did I like suffering for my art?

No! I didn’t like it at all!

Toni Morrison once said, “I never wanted to grow up to be a writer, I just wanted to grow up to be an adult.” I have to agree. I even tried to quit once—writing, not trying to be an adult.

It would have been easier to give up chocolate. I finally realized that I would write and continue to write if publishers quit publishing and writing became illegal.

I am a writer, not because someone conferred it upon me, but because I can’t help myself. It’s what I am. Like Quentin Crisp, “I write to stay alive.” It’s not just a career I’ll eventually retire from, but a state of being.

I’m doomed to go to my grave as a writer. And my last act will probably be to write my own inscription for the headstone. The obituary will already be done.

Once I accepted this reality about myself, I took a deep breath and faced the business of writing. It wasn’t pretty.

The mid-list was shrinking, publishing houses were merging and the genre I loved and wrote was considered dead on arrival on most NY editorial desks.

To survive as writers we have to face the fact that there are things we can’t control. We can control our output. We can hone our skills.  We can identify markets and we can submit to those markets.

But if we can’t make an editor [or readers] buy our books.

It wasn’t easy to realize that what I was, that what I did, that writing what I loved to write, might not be enough. That I could work hard, perfect my craft, submit to everyone in New York and their dog and still not make it into publication.

I had few choices. I could change what I did or change the publishing world. Or I could find a way around the publishing world.

The first two weren’t really options, though I did try. I have a lot of admiration and respect for people who can adapt their writing style to market realities, but I am not one of them. And the publishing world didn’t look like changing anytime soon, just for my benefit.  That meant finding a way around.

My procrastinating husband broke his hip in high school. Ten years later his hip started to deteriorate from arthritis. The medical experts told him he was too young for replacement surgery. He’d have to live with the pain until the technology became available to fix it.

I too had to live with my pain until the technology became available to “fix” it.

My husband got his hip 13 years before I got my glorious “yes, we want to publish The Spy Who Kissed Me” from New Concepts Publishing, an electronic publisher that [did] business on the world wide web.

I chose not to be stopped and eventually found that “The mid-list [wasn’t] shrinking, it was moving to the Internet.” With that move, there are expanded and exciting new opportunities for authors.

There are some who don’t see e-publishing as a real opportunity. One e-publisher is supposed to have said, “Don’t call me a pioneer. They are the ones with the arrows in their backs.”

There have been plenty of arrows shot at me in the past year and a half.

Like the “arrow” I got from a friend who wanted to know where she could find my “real” book, not the diskette offered by my electronic publisher. For every book I sell, I spend a goodly amount of time educating readers about the advantages of reading electronic books. Half the time I fail because they don’t want my book bad enough to deal with the delivery system.

I’ve also spent a lot of time defending my choices to print authors who see my choice to go around the barriers to print publication as a sellout and a betrayal.

To some degree, the naysayers have a point. There are no advances [prepayment of royalties] in e-publishing—like most small presses—and there isn’t a lot of money in it yet, though many predict that will change suddenly and dramatically. [It did.]

Samuel Johnson said, “Sir, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

I don’t consider myself a blockhead, though there are those who might disagree. I do know I wasn’t making any money or any headway, despite a raft of “good” rejection letters, until I decided to try this alternate route to publication.

A year and a half later my first e-book, The Spy Who Kissed, was voted Best E-book of 1998 by the Reviewer’s Listserv and was the first e-book to be nominated for a Romantic Times Reviewers Choice award in the same category as such industry heavyweights as Olga Bicos, Linda Howard, Stella Cameron, Suzanne Forster, Justine Dare, Elizabeth Lowell and Meryl Sawyer.

I have also had a second book released by Hard Shell Word Factory [Hard Shell closed their doors about ten years ago]. This book, The Last Enemy, was accepted for hardcover publication by Five Star Original Romances, an imprint of Thorndike Press. (As of 2002, I have four books our in hardcover and have secured top-notch agent representation–which then went away lol.)

I was also able to contract for audio rights to The Spy Who Kissed Me [should be back out in audio soon!

I’ve also had the indescribable thrill of getting real fan mail from real readers who enjoyed my books and took the time to tell me.

None of this would have happened if I’d left my books in my desk drawer and waited with folded hands and patient heart for the market to change direction.

I also wouldn’t have learned a heck of a lot about the various rights that come with each property and how to effectively exploit them.

With each assignment of a single right, the succeeding rights have become easier for me to market.  If I don’t eventually start making some serious money at this, it won’t be because I didn’t try everything that was in my power to try.

Thanks to e-publishing, I have been able to take back a measure of control of my writing career and I’ve been able to share my worlds, my words with others and make some wonderful new friends.

It’s a wondrous thing to string words together until they become a real book that makes a real person laugh or cry or believe in something that can never be.

That’s why I started writing, that’s why I can’t stop even if everyone says no way, no how, no chance for you.

Like Saul Bellow, I’ve “discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, to hell with you.”

Don’t let them stop you. Don’t give up. When you come to a barrier, find a way around it. Let it point you in a new direction. It’s scary, yes, but not as scary as giving up on your dream.

Be a writer that can. Believe the magic. Believe the impossible dream. Keep seeing things and hearing voices no one else can.  Don’t let anyone stop you.

Keep writing words down and polishing them up. Keep sending them out. If you believe, eventually your vision will find a way to real readers,  whether your words are printed on paper and bound into books that travel in a semi-truck across the US or whether they ride on the electronic pulses of a superhighway around the world.  Believe.

(This was my first talk, presented at a writers conference a long time ago!)

UPDATE: While the heart of this talk is still true, I’m so thankful for how the world and the options have evolved. I’m now happily self-publishing both my backlist and my new books. And yes I still believe!

© 2000-2021 Pauline Baird Jones All rights reserved.

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