What I’ve Learned About Being an Author

My first book was published a number of years ago and I am now working on what will be my eighth. I’ve seen a lot of changes in the publishing industry over that time but the most essential element remains the same as it’s been since Gutenberg invented the printing press. An author sits alone with the seed of an idea and a reader sits alone enjoying the fruit of that idea. It’s only the middle bit between those solitary acts that has changed. Here’s what I have learned.

  1. Write

If you want to write, then go ahead. It’s like Yoda said, “No try, do. Do or don’t do. No try.” There are many ways to get started and the easiest is to set up a free WordPress webpage and begin blogging. Write about what you know. Develop a theme. Forget how many people click to read it, that’s not what it’s about.

You are writing not as a sprinter on race day but a marathoner in training. Build writing muscles and skills by using them. Read authors you admire. Then read those you don’t. Treat them as teachers. Then write more. Someone who is not writing is not a writer. They are someone who either has written or someone with a dream but no plan.

All I've Learned About Being an Author

(Iconix Brand Group Inc)

  1. Printing and Self-Publishing

Printing is often all many people want. For example, if you want to write a history of your family that no one but your family will probably read then find yourself a printer. They will help design, and then print and bind as many copies as you wish of whatever you give them. Be sure you have at least five people proof-read your work or even hire a professional editor to save yourself the embarrassment of errors that will live longer than you.

Self-publishing is becoming increasingly prevalent. It’s tough as you must essentially become your own publishing company. It demands a lot of work which means hours away from your writing. However, if willing and able to take the risk and do the work, the reward could be your book appearing on Amazon and other online sites and generating sales.

  1. Publishing Houses

Publishing houses understand that they are making art and making money but if they don’t do both then they can’t do either. Accept that. Many small houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts – over the transom, as the saying goes. Larger houses, and there are fewer of them as they have been shuttering or swallowing each other, will only accept manuscripts from agents. Agents and houses will not be interested in a whole book, just a proposal.

  1. Proposal

If you want to write a book, then don’t write a book. That is, develop your idea for a book into a proposal for a book. It is a two-page sales pitch. Be succinct in explaining why anyone would want to read your book and why a publisher will make money by publishing it. A novel’s proposal is more straight forward but a non-fiction proposal’s subtitles could be: Elevator Pitch, Argument, Market, Author, Table of Contents. If you are a first-time author you will probably also need a sample chapter. Have a couple of people read and edit your proposal. Be sure it is not someone who loves you or will not be harshly critical for you want unburnished opinions now, not later. Then find yourself an agent.

  1. Get an Agent

Scan the web and you will find lots of agents. Or, go to a bookstore, if you can still find one, and look at the acknowledgement pages of books like yours and see which agents are being thanked. You only want to approach an agent who specializes in your kind of book. An agent is the liaison between you and the publisher. If your proposal is any good, an agent may take you on as a client. A contract will be signed in which the agent will get around 15% of everything you make.

She will then be like your best friend, supporting you or kicking your backside depending on which you need most at the moment. She will help to hone your proposal and make it better than you thought it could be. She will then approach publishers attempting to have them take it on. She will negotiate an advance on royalties and contract with them. Meanwhile, you concentrate on your writing.

  1. The Publishing Contract

Famous people sell a lot of books and so they get huge advances that can sometimes be in the millions of dollars. First-time authors, however, can expect between $5,000 and $20,000. You should not get too excited, though, because the money is there to pay for expenses incurred while writing the book and it is later deducted from royalties earned from sales. Most authors will earn from 8% to 12% of the book’s sale price. The contract will establish when the finished draft manuscript must be submitted. Now you must actually write the thing.

  1. Writing

There is always time. I am up and writing each day at 5:00 am. The sane world is still asleep so there are no emails or calls, just me, tea, and the muse. Even if the muse doesn’t show up some mornings, I am there doing what feels like a punch-the-clock effort but at least I’m there. I run and take long walks without music and it is there the real writing takes place. When in my office, I am usually just typing what I have already written in my head. The best secret as to how to get words on a page is to get your ass in a chair.

  1. Editing

Kurt Vonnegut once told students that anyone can write. To be a writer, though, is to write something then rewrite it, and then rewrite it, and then re-write it again. Then, when it is absolutely perfect, re-write it three more times. You should do this before submitting the manuscript. When you do, you will be assigned an editor. This is your other best friend or perhaps like your best high school teacher. He will take your manuscript and mark it up noting where the structure should be improved or grammar fixed. You will go back and forth a number of times until finally, you are on the phone or in an office going through the entire manuscript one sentence at a time. It will then be sent to a proofreader who will, hopefully, find all the little mistakes left for you to fix.

  1. The Box

It’s a glorious feeling. A box will arrive at your front door and inside are the dozen or so books that your publisher sends you for free. There it is. After two or three years of solitary work and then months of editing it is finally a tangible thing. The verb has become a noun as your writing is a book.

  1. Marketing

Your publisher will assign a publicist. She will do all she can to sell you and the book. You may be interviewed on radio or TV, do speeches, or appear at literary festivals. You must be ready to explain your book in twenty seconds, or ten minutes, or an hour. You must never be ashamed by shameless promotion. You are no longer in the business of writing. You are now in sales. This will involve your engagement in social media for you must take on a lot of the marketing work yourself.

You will need to grow the hide of a rhinoceros because there will be those who will not like your book. You may get trashed in a review. You may have no one show up for an event. Your book may be ignored altogether. All you can do is your best and keep smiling.

  1. Dividing Your Brain and Time

Usually, several months or even a year may go by between your having submitted the final draft manuscript and the publication date. While editing that one, you will be writing your next one, beginning with the idea and proposal. You will then be in the odd position of talking about your first book while all your brain really wants to focus on is your next one because your first one, to you, is already two or more years old. It’s an interesting dance.

  1. Sales

About five to ten years ago, it was predicted that book sales would plummet. They did not. There are actually more people buying and reading books today than ever before. Even the sales of physical books have become relatively stable year to year. Even if physical and e-book sales are combined, the sales of nearly all books are relatively low. There are only a few Harry Potter like hits each year. They allow publishing houses to publish all the others. One can have a Canadian best seller at 6,000 – 8,000 copies. That is why nearly all writers have other jobs. Most teach or are journalists but there are a lot of writing waiters.

Like in the music business, there are a lot of people doing it but only a few making a good living. That said, if all you are interested in is the money then forget it. You probably won’t make much and you will probably not be much good because you are in it for entirely the wrong reason.

And so….

Writers understand and live for the warmth of a well-written sentence and cogently constructed argument. Margaret Atwood once observed that you know you are a writer when you are writing in July about a winter scene and then after an hour lost in creative thought you look out the window and wonder what happened to all the snow. Good luck. I’m pulling for you.

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One-Sentence Lives and a Challenge

Long-time Toronto Blue Jays announcer Tom Cheek once said that every baseball season begins as a story, turns to a paragraph, and ends as a sentence. “Boston breaks the Bambino curse.” “Carter hits the walk-off homer.”

I believe that what is true of baseball is also true of people’s lives. It was this thought that helped me to complete a writing commission in which I was asked to write one-sentence biographies of all 23 Canadian prime ministers. The thought also helped me to reflect on a birthday of note; one of those ending in a zero that moved me into a new decade.

I offer one of the one-sentence biographies and then my own. They are, I confess, run-on sentences that would have my editor’s red pen flying and old English teachers’ fingers wagging, but one sentence none the less. Then comes the challenge.

one-sentence-lives-and-a-challenge

Sir John A. Macdonald: As the most prominent voice at the Confederation conferences, Macdonald was instrumental in creating Canada with its constitution placing dominant power with the federal parliament, essential in building Canada when, as our first prime minister, he added enormously to Canada’s size by purchasing Rupert’s Land and welcoming new provinces, and with his National Policy that allowed the country to grow on steel rails and behind tariff walls, and he was then key in saving Canada at the Washington Treaty negotiations that kept us from American annexation while winning recognition as a sovereign state, and, so, despite some tragic and wrong-headed policies, such as those involving Aboriginal nations, Macdonald was Canada’s indispensable man whose echo reverberates to this day.

And now for me: John Boyko is a walking talking advertisement for the power of existentialism for he has been a teacher, administrator, politician, musician, and author, whose insatiable curiosity, confidence in one’s ability to reinvent oneself, and belief in seeking motive in challenge rather than comfort, and value in experience over things, have informed his life, while through it all he has been a loyal if sometimes annoying friend, and, in the most important part of his life, a devoted but sometimes flawed husband, father, and grandfather.

Our lives are write-your-own-adventure stories. There are so many more books to be read, places to explore, ideas to consider, challenges to be accepted, and warm moments to build and share.

And so now the challenge. I challenge you to write your one-sentence biography. If unhappy with the sentence as written, I sincerely believe we can write ourselves a better tomorrow. Our greatest fear is not that we don’t have enough power to change but that we have more than enough.

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Teenagers: Tears, Fears and Warnings

Young people cry at funerals. Old people cry at weddings. The tears reflect fears. We know too much. Everyone cries at graduations because we know too little. No one knows what’s around the bend for the young grads anxious for the next chapters in their lives. Last Saturday presented a perfect bright and warm morning with the sky a brilliant, cloudless blue. Although my responsibilities are such now that I didn’t need to be there, I watched a hundred young people graduate from a prestigious Ontario private school. I watched tears and at one moment felt the welling of my own. But I knew the question that had me wiping my eye.

All schools do graduations well. They are worth the pomp. This one takes place every June on a massive lawn under a big, sparkling white tent. Parents are seated to the left of the front long tables with graduates and next year’s grads to the right and staff and faculty at the back. As speakers speak it is always fun to watch the three groups react differently. I listened, sort of, but my mind wandered and as I scanned faces I wondered.

I wondered how many of the seventeen-year-olds sitting in their sharp jackets and striped ties realized just how proud the group behind and beside them were of their efforts and of them. They were all more beautiful and healthy than they will ever be, shining in their youth and bursting with potential. Yet they sat largely oblivious to the fact that by graduating from this place, with their families, in this country, at this time in history, they were already on second base without even having swung the bat. But that’s okay. The dumb luck circumstances of their births had nothing to do with them but neither was it their fault.

The parents and teachers knew that and more. They understood that the young people had earned a right to be a little self-satisfied today for, after all, teenage years are tough.

Teenagers- Tears, Fears and Warnings

Here they are still searching for identity while their bodies continue to change and often betray them. Here they are with brains still not fully wired and therefore unable to fully and accurately read people and situations but being held to adult standards. Here they are stuck in our society’s drawn-out childhood when for thousands of years and in other places they would be an adult with adult decisions and responsibilities. Here they are being forced to pick university courses that will determine their futures when they really tell us what they want to be when they grow up only so we’ll stop asking.

It’s amazing that with all of that, and for many of them much more, they keep going, smiling and trying. They made it all the way to this moment. For many of them, after all, and especially for far too many girls, high school is not a sanctuary but a battlefield. Too many people put teenagers down for the actions and attitudes of a few. It doesn’t matter where the teenagers attend school or who their parents are, hormones don’t care and society’s dangerous messages and temptations don’t discriminate.

I would rather accept that there are a few unfortunate teenagers just as there are many unfortunate adults and instead consider the many. I am in awe of the vast majority of teenagers for their generosity, energy, intellectual curiosity, and goofiness. I admire the resilience they muster in the face of so much and so many stacked against them.

Resilience, in fact, was the theme of one of the speeches that I found particularly poignant. The headmaster spoke of failing forward. The notion, he explained, is that we learn more from failure than success. We learn what works and what doesn’t. We learn of our own character as it deepens through our growing ability to adapt to circumstances without sacrificing values. Anyone, the headmaster said, can experience a failure. Only if you refuse to learn, accept responsibility, or try again do you become a failure.

It was an excellent point to make and especially to those gathered that day beside parents with the financial ability to have constructed a net beneath them of sufficient strength that any failure or fall would be recoverable. I wondered how many of the young people really absorbed the message. I guess I wondered, as I do when I see wedding day tears staining wrinkled cheeks if winter can ever warn the spring.

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The Importance of Ignoring Your Rabbits

Journalists, detectives, and hiring teams love hypothetical questions. Those in their sights are asked to imagine situations and predict reactions. Politicians dismiss them. Suspects leap behind lawyers. Pity the sweaty-palmed job applicant spinning an internal Rolodex of possible responses while balancing honesty with guessing the right answer

As an author, I have been interviewed countless times in TV and radio studios, over the phone and over coffee, and before audiences. Speaking engagements always end with a Q and A. In most cases, I am asked about whatever book has just been published and my answers come relatively easily. After all, by the time a book leaves the nest to make its perilous way in the world, it has been re-written so many times that an author nearly has it memorized. Further, after a while, an author hears the same dozen or so questions and it becomes a little like Neil Diamond singing Sweet Caroline – the performance is still heart-felt, enjoyable, and hopefully entertaining, but seldom challenging.

But then, once in a while, down the queue comes the query – the hypothetical. It just happened to me again. I am proud and was humbled to have been invited to be one of six artists, authors, business people, and community leaders to participate in the annual fundraiser for the Greater Peterborough Health Services called Peterborough Speaks.

Last Wednesday evening, each of us took a turn on a chat show-like setting at the Market Hall theatre. We were interviewed for about 15 minutes before an audience of 250 and those who will watch later on television. Media personality Michelle Ferreri began my session with a question about my upcoming book and all was going well enough, I thought, until the end. She concluded with, “What advice would the current you give to your 20-year-old self?”

Ignoring Rabbits (photo: Peterborough Examiner)

Wow! Up in the Green Room, I had heard BrandHealth president Paul Hickey asked that question and so I didn’t think the same bullet would be fired again. I was reminded of the same gulping feeling I experienced when asked by a Calgary CBC journalist during a live radio broadcast: “Of all the Canadian prime ministers, which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?”

That time, I was on the phone with radio’s cruel absence of the communication crutches of expressions or gestures and the terror of dead air. Now I was on stage before all those people and cameras. I was suddenly like one of the hundreds of job applicants who, in another part of my life, I had interviewed with similarly tough, hypothetical questions. It was my turn to spin the Rolodex.

I said, “I would tell my 20 year-old self to ignore the rabbits and tend the tree.” Michelle looked incredulous and there were smatters of nervous laughter from the audience. I explained;

“When I was 20, I was like a frenetic young man alone in a large field teeming with rabbits. I was armed with a tiny net called ambition. I scurried from one to the next, finding that with every rabbit I snared, two more got away. I wish I could convince that guy to leave the field and seek a sanctuary of silence to contemplate what is truly important. I would implore him to imagine shaping his life less as a hunter and more as a gardener before a young bonsai tree. I would suggest that he slowly nurture its growth by picturing its ideal shape and then, over time, mold it into that shape by snipping off certain people, places, activities, and habits and all else that is destructive and distracting. I’m not sure he would have had the capacity to hear me for winter can seldom warn the spring, but I would advise my 20-year-old self to ignore the rabbits and tend the tree.”

I had considered the metaphor of the bonsai before but never constructed the thought as I expressed it that evening. Now that I have, and because I did it in such a public way and with this writing I am doing it again, I am pressing myself to a new challenge. I will soon be making a couple more snips.

As for the fellow in Calgary, I said, “Sir John A. Macdonald would have been the best NHL hockey player for in the Gordie Howe tradition he had the broadest skill set of anyone at the time and was not above throwing a few elbows.” I hope Sir John and Mr. Howe would have liked that. I suspect that as young men they had learned to ignore the rabbits.

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