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.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it others. Consider leaving a comment, I’d love to hear from you.

 

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A Nation of Festivals Making Us Better

We are a nation of festivals. There are film festivals, poetry festivals, rib festivals, art festivals, and every conceivable genre of music festivals. They are fascinating in like a conch blowing silently but convincingly through the ether they gather those of similar interests to form a temporary community. Festivals offer revelry in the acknowledgement that our particular passion is shared. My favourite are literary festivals. They intrigue me because they shouldn’t work.

Canadians read. Canadians read more books per capita than nearly anyone. A lot of folks enjoy books on tablets but most are sticking with the physical kind, the kind you can hold, smell, feel the joy of cracking for the first time, hold in bed without hurting your eyes, drop without breaking, and then shelve as a friend to share your home. Ok, I’m biased.

Canadians write. A generalization that is generally true is that all novels ask the question, “Who am I?” and all non-fiction asks “Who are we?” That Canada is blessed with so many talented writers asking both questions and so many readers reading all that stuff it is little wonder that we always seem to be in a state of existential angst and renewal. That’s a good thing. A reactive society is one of division and anger but a reflective society enjoys more consideration and compassion. Is this Trump versus Trudeau? Maybe that we read so much leads to our fighting so little.

The thing is, though, and the source of my fascination with writing festivals is that both writing and reading are solitary pursuits. Margaret Atwood once observed that you know you are a writer when you are typing away in your office in July about a winter scene and look up and out the window and wonder where the snow went. As an author, I know that feeling. Writing my history books often transports me back to the era that I am investigating and I quite honestly sometimes have trouble getting all the way back. I’m alone in my research. I’m alone in my writing.

But then, whatever I have written is released to the world. It is like I watch a young bird leave the nest. I wish it well. I always know some will like it. I always know some will attack it. I always hope the world will not just ignore it. It is up to the readers. Readers, of course, then buy what writers have spent so many hours silent and alone creating and devote more hours silent and alone to absorbing. Watch someone reading. They are not really there. They’ve been transported. Books are conduits of ideas from one solitary person to another.

The notion of two solitary experiences coming together for a community group hug is the source of my fascination with writing festivals. Writers blinkingly emerge from their writing dens with their pallid skin and reeking of coffee and wine and are suddenly before large groups and asked to talk about what they wrote, how they wrote it, and why they wrote it. For many, it’s like asking a fish to describe water. Readers emerge from their solitary reading spots to quiz the authors and each other about books and ideas. The isolation ends.

A Nation of Festivals

(Photo: Lakefield Literary Festival)

Festivals, like book clubs, lay out ideas to be examined as a community exercise. They remind us that books are like paintings and songs and any other art. Their meaning is only partially controlled by the artist. The rest is up to the experience and mood of the beholder. At festivals, the readers and writers both learn more about the books and ideas in question and about themselves. I am always intrigued when asked questions about my book that I never considered.

I have attended many but my favourite is the Lakefield Literary Festival. I am biased, of course, because I live in the Village of Lakefield. It is the Ontario community in what city people call “cottage country” consisting of only 2,400 people. Lakefield was once home to sisters Catherine Parr Trail and Susanna Moodie who were among Canada’s first writers and much later to Margaret Laurence who was among Canada’s best.

The Lakefield Literary Festival began in 1995 as a one-off banquet to celebrate Margaret Laurence but it became an annual event. It is now among Canada’s premier literary festivals, this year to take place over the weekend of July 15. It draws writers and readers from across the country to enjoy the campus of Lakefield College School and ideas and books and each other.

I will be at the Lakefield Literary Festival in a couple of weeks both speaking and teaching a writing class. I’ll be at Saskatoon’s Word on the Street Festival in September. I know I will enjoy both. I know I will enjoy meeting people who share a passion for writing, reading, books, and ideas. All those writers and readers at these and all the other literary festivals will emerge from their isolation. They’ll contribute to our national conversation by reflecting upon who we are as people and as a broader community. Perhaps all that isolated writing and reading and then all those festival conversations will play a role in making Canada a better place for us all.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it along to others. I hope to meet you in Lakefield in July or Saskatoon in September.

Icarus, the Cleavage, & the Interviews

A man should never look at a woman’s breasts. Never. A man should never, ever look down a woman’s cleavage and under no circumstances for fifteen straight minutes. Never. Ever. No how. But I did. The red-faced moment occurred during one of the many interviews I have done as the author of six books supporting the rocky marriage between art and commerce.

A print journalist once began an interview for Into the Hurricane: Attacking Socialism and the CCF with the question, “What does CCF stand for?” The back jacket explained that the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation was the Canadian democratic socialist party and precursor to the NDP. I tried not to betray surprise with my realization that far from judging a book by its cover, she had read neither.

I understand that interviewers are busy folks often armed with nothing but a list of questions prepared by others. Some are so shackled to their list that I could respond, “Gee, my pants caught fire!” and hear nothing but, “I see, now my next question…” I accept those interviews as a challenge to stir interest and I sense success with the first follow up question that hints at a wandering from script.

An American print journalist once told me she had read Blood and Daring, which was about Canada’s role in the American Civil War. That, I thought, standing in my office, cradling my phone, fighting my ADD and trying to stay focussed, was a good start. She then said, “I’ve never heard of this Sir John A. Macdonald, but he seems like kind of a big deal. Perhaps for my American readers you could you sum him up in one sentence?”

With apologies to my high school English teachers, this was my one sentence stab: “Macdonald is like your Thomas Jefferson because he provided much of the philosophical underpinnings of our democracy; he is like America’s James Madison because he was the main architect and author of our constitution; he is also like your George Washington because he was our first chief executive and fully cognisant of the fact that everything he said and did would be precedent to his successors – so, Canada’s Sir John A. Macdonald is like America’s Jefferson, Madison, and Washington rolled into one man.” Damn, I was proud of myself. The article based on the interview was a well-written piece but the run-on Macdonald explanation was absent. Rats.

In-studio radio interviews are fun because many studios are cramped and chaotic. The interviewer is often hidden behind microphones and equipment or glass, making eye contact impossible. Assistants and producers are often scurrying about. During one interview the news and weather person was scribbling madly away beside me, tapping an I-Phone, and leaving and returning. It was a challenge to focus. Other studios offer Zen-like calm. Like Forrest Gump’s chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

Icarus, the Cleavage & the Interviews

(Photo: http://www.mxlmics.com)

Live radio over the phone is often interesting. I recently attended a good friend’s retirement party in Chatham, Ontario and expected to be back at his house in time for the 8:00 pm interview with a gentleman broadcasting from Montreal to affiliates across Canada. The party ran longer than I had expected. So, at 8:00 I was shivering in my dark, cold car, beside a parking lot dumpster, answering questions about John F. Kennedy and John Diefenbaker, while hoping beyond hope that a police officer or ne’er-do-well would not rap on my frosted window.

Live radio hates dead air. You must talk without time for thought. The funniest live radio question came at the end of a long interview about my biography of R. B. Bennett. The gentleman said, “Now you have read a lot about Canadian prime ministers so tell me, which one would have made the best NHL hockey player and why?” Later, my wife Sue, who is much smarter than me, said that Lester Pearson was a great hockey player or maybe I should have said Jean Chrétien because of the Shawinigan handshake. The best I could muster was, “Sir John A. because in the Gordie Howe tradition he was the best of his era and not above throwing an elbow.”

Television is fun. I once did a live interview for the East Coast CBC from a studio in Toronto. I was made up, wired up, placed on a swivel chair but told not to move, and then instructed to look at the screen six feet before me. I heard the producer count down and the interviewer’s voice through my ear-piece but the screen remained dark. I had expected to see him as he and viewers were seeing me. I know I was thrown for the first question or two wondering if there was a malfunction. I carried on and tried, as always, not to say anything too stupid.

One of the best in the business is TVO’s Steve Paikin. He has interviewed me three times and in each instance he has carefully read the book and prepared questions but then the interview becomes a conversation. For those interested, here is my most recent interview with Steve Paikin so you can see how very good he is.

http://tvo.org/video/programs/the-agenda-with-steve-paikin/kennedys-northern-front

TVO Feb 17

Steve Paikin and me on February 17

And then there was the cleavage. It was an interview for my Bennett biography. For some reason, it was decided that the taped radio interview would be done outside. The interviewer was an attractive woman about eight inches shorter than me clad in a red, low-cut top. I had begun to respond to her first question when the sound person stopped us and said that because of the height difference she would lower the wind-socked microphone and I would need to look down and keep looking down throughout the interview. “OK,” I whispered, realizing straight away that I was being asked to break the cardinal rule and look where a man should never look. Never. A cleavage is like the sun, I’ve been warned, more than a glance can hurt you. Yet, for fifteen long minutes, I was Icarus.

Interviews are all fun and nearly all interviewers are well read, intelligent, articulate, interested and interesting. Like the folks I get to meet at speeches and festivals, I feel honoured to share ideas with them. I never forget that I am lucky to have written and published books and, through them, to have met so many great people and seen the places I’ve seen and done the things I’ve done. Even when the interviews get a little funny, crazy, or embarrassing, I never take for granted how truly blessed I am.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice. You can check out the books I was talking about at your local bookstore or here http://www.amazon.ca/John-Boyko-Books/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A916520%2Cp_27%3AJohn%20Boyko

The Power of Reinvention

When I was a young Dad, my favourite books to read with our daughter were from the create your own adventures series. Even as a child she had a rapier wit and daring sense of wonder. We would arrive at the parts where the protagonist was presented with options and she would pick one but often we would invent more until we were legless with giggling. Later, I explained that the books were existentialism instruction manuals.

You see, my brow has always furrowed at the notion of Christian providence. After all, if God has a master plan for the universe, and even for me, then is prayer not presumptuous? Why should my puny, clasped-hand demand throw Him off his game? Is His plan that negotiable?

Similarly, I’ve never understood science’s determinist ideas of nature and nurture. If one the other or both are so powerful then why am I the only one of four brothers to attend university, write a book, play an instrument, sing, and live where we grew up. Those things don’t by a long shot make me one whit better than any of them, after all, one brother is tougher, another handier, and the other smarter than I will ever be. But do our differences, and we are all quite different, not dispute the determinism?

Religion says things occur because God makes them happen. Science says things occur because natural laws make them happen. Existentialism says shit happens. I kind of like that. It invites us to write our own adventures. I find that a bold and empowering notion.

I was the first of my extended family who did not work in one of Hamilton’s two steel mills. That decision, again making me no better and in many ways dumber and affording a life less secure, was at its least a declaration of reinvention. In university I thought I’d invent myself as a lawyer. After some research revealed that lawyers spend most of their days doing things far removed from the exciting stuff I’d seen on TV, I scotched that idea and became a teacher.

Teaching was challenging and fun. There is nothing in the world like working with a student and suddenly seeing the light flicker on; not to whatever subject is at hand, subjects are just vehicles, but to suddenly cotton on to the idea that she is smart, and can learn, and that learning is fun.

I was being groomed to become a principal in one county before we moved home and then it happened again. I took neither the bait nor the necessary course. I said no to bosses who encouraged me. I saw some principals doing good work but too many forced to be clerks pushing paper and firefighters addressing the conflagration de jour. Besides, it’s an odd system that increases pay with every step taken away from the reason we’re there – interacting with kids. Reinvention, I guess, demands sincere commitment or its just change.

Instead, I continued to do the best job I possibly could but began reinventing myself as an author. I had written a textbook and had it published by Oxford University Press but that was a fluke. I had no idea what I was doing. So I wrote another. This one dealt with the history of Canadian racism and I was thrilled when Winnipeg’s Shillingford Press published it. It’s ironic that Winnipeg has just been tagged as Canada’s most racist city.

Boyko

Shillingford published my next book too, the one that looked at the right wing attacks on Tommy Douglas and the CCF. For the next one I upped my game. I secured a literary agent; the hard working and marvelous Daphne Hart. She secured my next book, a biography of the misunderstood and under-appreciated Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, with a much bigger publisher – Key Porter Books. I felt like I’d arrived.

However, just as Bennett was building, Key Porter was caught in a whirlwind of reinvention itself and, like many other publishers, went bust. The good people at Goose Lane picked up the paperback edition. My next book was about Canada and the American Civil War and Daphne had it placed with Canada’s biggest house – Random House. I could not have been happier. It did well in Canada and the US and has even been translated into French – I’ve now written a book I can’t read! My next book will be with them too and film rights have already been secured.

I’m out of the classroom now but not really. The shameless book promotion that is now essential for all authors has taken me from coast to coast speaking at events and doing radio and TV. After speaking engagements I am often asked how I can talk for 40 minutes, wandering the room with my lapel mic, and all without a note. I confess that after dealing with a room full of thirty 16 year olds, that being with two hundred adults is easy. It calls for the same skills and tricks: know your stuff, make it fun, tell stories, and sneak learning in the back door when they’re not looking.

The craziest question I’ve ever been asked was by a Calgary interviewer on live radio. “Of all Canada’s prime ministers,” he said, “which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?” No dead air allowed. No time to think. What would you say? Again, the dancing I’d learned in the classroom made it easy.

boyko-at-commemoration-of-death-of-sir-john-a

So my latest reinvention is now complete; I am an author. I write books, this Monday blog, book reviews, op. ed. columns in newspapers and magazines, and enjoy speaking engagements. I have created my own adventure. I once read that our greatest fear is not that we have no power but that we have all the power we need to do what we wish. For me, and for those who believe in existentialism’s liberation, that is no fear at all. I wonder what I’ll do next?

If you enjoyed this, please share it with others or even consider checking out one of my books at http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/home/search/?keywords=john%20boyko