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LETTERS FROM WAKE ROBIN FARM

Warning to Hopeful Writers

I first started writing in total isolation here at Wake Robin Farm. Nobody for feedback.  No writers group, no writer buddies. This was long before the internet, so I'd get excited when my copies of The Writer and Writer's Digest would arrive in the battered mailbox out by the road.  I remember reading them in the hammock strung between two oak trees, just happy that I had this one little thing I intended to pursue entirely on my own.

 

Finally, for feedback, I sent one of my short stories to the Wrtier's Digest critique service.  I couldn't believe my amazing good luck when the writer assigned to me was Merrill Joan Gerber, my favorite Redbook Magazine fiction contributor.  I was thrilled to have her help me with a couple of my stories. She gave me solid advice.

 

But then she said, "You don't need me.  You should be sending your work straight to editors."  She didn't feel right, she said, knowing a good chunk of my critique payment was going to Writer's Digest. She lamented that those working for the critique service were told to encourage even the worst writers, the better to keep that money coming.

 

Interesting. And I appreciated her levelling with me.

 

For many years thereafter I did not have to deal with the concept of people trying to make money off of my hopes.  My books began to be traditionally published by Random House, and everybody who helped me polish and promote those books had the same goal I did, to come up with the best product possible and make money off of its sale.

 

Enter Self Publishing.

 

Long before I actually tried self publishing with my two recent memoirs, I came in contact with the concept when members of the Authors Guild were invited to take advantage of a deal the Guild had worked out with iUniverse to bring back into print the works of  authors who had formally reclaimed the rights from their publishers. It was free for us, and the books were decently produced. What's not to like?

 

Then the phone calls from the relentless iUniverse salespeople started coming, and I am embarrassed to admit that my closets still contain far too many cartons of my own paperbacks. These people were totally hard-sell!  And it's difficult to resist going for the larger quantity in order to get the best price break. Also, I hadn't quite figured it out yet: beyond what iUniverse collects from non-Author's Guild  authors as upfront production costs , they must be making a good share of their money from selling cartons of books to the authors themselves, not  to individuals on their website.  I mean, when was the last time you went book shopping at the iUniverse site?

 

Now Self Publishing has exploded, and there are tantalizing stories of a handful of individuals being incredibly successful.  Wasn't that Matt Damon movie about the guy stuck on Mars based on a self-published  book?  A huge industry selling publishing services has sprung up around all the hopeful writers.  Yes, people might need editors and cover designers, and I'm sure many of those freelancers out there offering these services are highly talented and completely legit. But most of the services offering "promotion" must surely border on outright scam.

 

These are the calls I get these days, two or three a week. Almost always the caller has a thick accent, and I feel so bad that this is what they're forced to do for a job, convince some hopeful writer to throw good money after bad in  trying to promote their self-published book.  When somebody tries to claim they have carefully vetted my thirty-year-old book and wants to discuss it with me, clearly, it's bogus. Because I know better!  But I worry for the self-published author  who would so desperately want to believe  that somebody thought her book was great.  Clearly, when so many of these callers leave numbers asking for a return call, (because they just can't wait to talk to you!) there must be people falling for it. 

 

One caller asked if I'd like to go to the Los Angeles Book Fair. Sure, I said, and you're going to pay for my trip?  Because when you're actually getting properly published, that's how it works.  The publisher gives you a plane ticket to the Miami Book Fair and a hotel room overlooking the bay and somebody throws in a thousand dollars a day for you to speak in schools and pretend to be a celebrity.

 

My husband and I don't spend long on these calls now.  We've got it down, and the bottom line is this: if the caller wants to pay me money for the rights to one of my titles, I'm interested.  If their plan in any way involves me sending  them money, then, no. This shuts them up. After all, a con only works on hope, not cynicism. 

 

No, I don't worry about inadvertantly turning down anything legitimate.  I figure if Reese Witherspoon ever calls,  she'll at least be able to say the title of my book correctly.

 

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Cheryl Strayed's WILD

Cheryl Strayed is speaking in our town tonight, and people keep asking me if I’m going. I’m not, but only because I satisfied my curiosity about the real woman behind this book I so admired when I ran down and heard her at the Corvallis Public Library right after it came out. WILD was a big deal from the start. Now, with the opening of Reese Witherspoon’s movie version, it has become a media juggernaut.

Some people—other writers—resent Strayed’s success. Not me. Sure, I had a little trouble rooting for her in those first chapters. Why did she walk out on a perfectly good husband? Was she going to explain that? But before long I couldn’t help empathizing with her simply as a fellow human being, however flawed.

Here’s the thing that drew me into Cheryl Strayed’s journey of self-discovery: her kindness to others. A powerful book is not about being able to string nice sentences together. Plenty of people can manage that trick, but without heart, where’s the story? Cheryl Strayed has heart. She gives every individual she meets along the trail a break. For contrast, read Augusten Burrough’s memoir, DRY, where he actively sneers at each every single person he encounters in his life unless he is sexually attracted to them.

Yes, Cheryl Strayed hurt some people along the way. She shot heroin. She wasn’t too careful in choosing sexual partners. “Not a very good role model,” somebody actually confided to me. (!) So what? We’re sitting around this big campfire to share our stories, not set ourselves up as role models. How can you not empathize with someone so honest, a person harder on herself than on anyone else? I think this capacity in Strayed goes beyond her memoir. In her collected DEAR SUGAR columns she also shows a compassion for others, as well as a lot of hard-won wisdom.

True kindness and compassion for others is in short supply in this world. It should be valued. It should be spread around. Cheryl Strayed clearly does not need an endorsement from me at this point. Nevertheless, here it is: You go, girl! Read More 
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