Monday, October 24, 2016

Jolly Fish Press — My Perspective

Last week was one for the ages. I missed my weekly blog because I went camping and also because I received disturbing news about one of my publishers which distracted me. Jolly Fish Press announced that it would close its doors on October 31st. Jolly Fish publishes my young adult Unseen trilogy — ELEANOR, CELESTE and DAVID, and also my newest award-winning mystery THE FINGER TRAP.

The announcement was unexpected and shocking and possibly premature. There are tremors and rumors and possibilities being explored before the end of the month, which goes far to prove my point that deadlines are a magic to get things done.

In any event, I want express my feeling about Jolly Fish Press because there are people who are angry right now, who are scared and lashing out. They’re being vocal and I think unfair.

I consciously chose a career in writing. I did not slide into this. I do not do this as a hobby. This is my job. Before choosing it, I did the research and saw that my chances were as bleak as I could imagine, and yet I went forward anyway. My experience has shown me that it is even harder than I thought it would be. Such is the course of an artist in our society.

Because of my financial position, politics and faiths, I can measure success without dollar signs and this has kept me going. But even bringing money into it, compared to so many others and where I was a few years ago, I have to admit that I have had a share of success. I am lucky. I realize that. This is a subjective business (see previous post). My luck and my success have come about because some small presses, some cool editors, and some awesome publishers believed in me and gave me a chance.

That is all a writer can hope for: a chance.

Small presses can take chances big presses can’t. They can change and adapt faster (and crash and burn quicker) than their big brothers. It’s a fertile ground for new talent, unusual stories, experimental fiction—ART. They fill a need and give people like me their start. 

Jolly Fish symbolizes the noble small press to me. It burned fast and hot and twisted and turned, won awards, had best-sellers, rose and fell, taught people, inspired people, pissed people off, missed deadlines, kept going and kept on, while educating itself and fighting for survival in a business whose heyday is a century past, all the while, giving writers a chance.

A chance.

Publishing is a brutal business. If it’s not money, it’s personality that gets in the way. Because of JFP and the success I had with them, I’m actually well equipped to handle their demise should that happen. I have an excellent agent that I wouldn’t have without them. I’m luckier than most and I recognize that part of my luck came from hooking up with JFP when it was first starting and I was first starting. It was a perfect marriage.

It is easy to pile on and blame when things go wrong. There is sudden change here and that is always hard. There are the stages of grief at play here too; I get it. I’m right there with everyone. But I have no ill will for JFP. None at all. I am sorry to see it go, sorry to see the end of a dream and the end of a dream-maker which is a small press that can give chances.

Jolly Fish Press gave me chances in spades— editing help, fantastic covers, distribution, marketing assistance (as far as they could), advice, tips, and moral support in a most demoralizing field. We’re all making it up as we go along and anyone who says otherwise is a damn liar. That goes for life as well as modern publishing. Jolly Fish played fair with me and resorting to Hanlon’s Razor when we were in doubt, our relationship has been friendly, professional and desperate as only the combination of art and business can be. 

I would not be where I am today without them.

I will mourn Jolly Fish Press if they do die, but I will also be forever grateful for what they did for me and what they did for so many other authors. There are people behind the press, do not forget, and I know them to be good people and this is as hard if not harder for them than it is for us authors. I have no doubt they did the best they could. This is a brutal business and as much of it as I’ve seen, they’ve stood out to me as one of the good guys. Even now they are fighting for their people—authors, editors, investors—still fighting in this harsh, high-turnover, burn-out business—fighting for whatever fate will allow.

All things pass and happiness comes not from false entitlement, but from gratitude.

Thanks Jolly Fish.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Subjective Case

I’m teaching again. The University of Utah has again let me stand in classroom at night talking to adults about art. It’s heaven. This semester’s class is called Literary Querying, The Art of Rejection and it’s a class I can teach because I’m a self-taught expert. I learned it all the hard way because there was no other way to learn it. Classes like I’m giving should give new authors a head-start in this changing industry. 

As I again go into the forms and chances of literary querying, I remember that there is one thing that does not change: the subjectiveness of it.

I spent the first half of my first class trying to discourage my students because, well, because this business is hard. Making a living as an artist is a long shot and I wanted them to know this. And what’s worse, success has little to do with how good you are or how great your writing is. It's about luck and...


I think writing has to be capable to be published, adequate to be a best-seller. It does not need to be great. In fact, that often works against it, in my experience. Novelty and approaching the borders are an unknown territory few agents and publishers are willing to explore. The biggest lie an agent will ever tell you is “I want something different.” They don’t—they want the same repackaged.

But I digress.

Big agents receive thousands of queries per week. Per week. Let that sink in Thousands per week. Usually, they’ll have a dozen or so active clients. Let’s say twenty-four to be kind. They’re not really looking for anyone new. They might have one opening a year and fifty-two thousand applicants. 

Let’s say, because we’re charitable this morning, coffee is good and hot, the cat is playing with his tail—all’s as right in our writing world as it can be, that the agent or editor who reads our query reads it all, gives it the attention it deserves and doesn’t toss it away as fast as he/she can to get to the next one, after not being blown over by the first word of the letter. “Dear,” how cliche.

They read our letter and consider. It’s a great book, we're a decent writer. The market is clear, it’s not too weird, not too safe. It can coattail on another best-seller or maybe branch out enough to be its own. It’s right in the gatekeepers wheel house (gatekeeper meaning the agent/editor/publisher/judge/manager/reader—those people keeping us from the treasure of the publishing castle.) We're even in the gatekeeper's primary genre, their selected age group. It’s good.  It's perfect.

But… their danish was a little stale this morning. They have rash on their ankle they can’t explain. They’re late for a dentist appointment. Their signifiant other has a new fetish involving Crisco and garage-door openers and Sis is calling for a family meeting about Dad’s World of WarCraft addiction. And let’s face it, if they don’t pick up their friend’s cousin’s girlfriend’s collection of Unicorn Haiku, the group will never be the same and they really need those Friday night drinking parties to let off steam.

Mood, weather, sunspots, fate—it doesn’t matter, they put it aside. It didn’t grab them just the way they needed to be grabbed that day. All was perfect except that one butterfly flapped its wings in Thailand the day before and off goes the form letter rejection: “I’m sorry to have to decline…. yadda yadda yadda, this is subjective business. Wishing you the best….”

The greatest authors, the ones who’ve shaped the tapestry of the art had to fight these same gatekeepers.

It’s subjective.

What is one man’s poison is another man's food. Such is taste, which the core of art. 

Another agent has no problem with book as a whole but falls on a fatal detail they'd be hard put to explain. A gut twitch (a bit of undigested mustard?) a single scene or one word. We're tossed aside, because, say, I have a scene in it where a divorcing wife leaves her husband in jail while she finishes up the paper work. A vital scene for my story, funny and effective, character arc, plot point, local color, all good—but it triggered the agent to reject it. That book later goes on to be published and win awards, but only after going through hundreds of rejections like this.

This is my book, THE FINGER TRAP. In a perfect storm I found by not giving up, it found print. It’s now finding readers and most have been very positive. It won a Platinum Quill. These are wonderful, validating things, but still subjective. I got lucky.

It’s all subjective. 

I recommend as an exercise for you, my self-doubting artist reader, to go to Amazon and research one of your favorite books or movies. A big one. One with thousands of reviews. Read the one-star reviews and cringe, but take strength in that. Those people see things differently. It did not speak to them and they rejected it, our masterpiece. In our righteous eyes, we see that they are wrong.

it’s all subjective.

That is the nature of art. If it were not so, it would not be art.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Getting Back on Track - Fall 2016

This year at the League Of Utah Writers Fall Conference we had several classes on writer wellness and productivity. I couldn’t make either one.

I’m regretting that.

I have to find new motivation to write again. I have such a backlog of books waiting for publication that the hurry is gone. I have to remind myself that it really was never there, that I always invented deadlines so I could force myself to write. It is how I do it. Being busy paid for itself in that I was doing the work, being what I wanted to be.

Now my life has changed. I’m in leadership at the LUW, I have an agent to query for me, I spend lots of time teaching and with new accolades and many titles I have new and constant promotional duties. And I still have all those books waiting their turn.

New work has suffered.

It hasn’t suffered long; only about a month, but for me, since I got into this feeling the reaching hand of death and the end of my days (aka bucket-list #1), this delay is inexcusable.

Luckily, another bucket-list event is happening this weekend. I am hosting having and participating in an actual writers retreat. The Infinite Monkey Writing Retreat by name. The first of many I hope. We’ve rented a HUGE house up the canyon by a reservoir with enough beds for 20 of my new closest friends with the intention and directive and motivation to write!

I’m getting stoked for this. I leave tonight. It is just the priming my pump needs. I start new classes next week, but with this happening now, I’ll arrive on the other side of the Sunday with new work and newer ambition.

Or I’ll cry.

I’ll cry anyway. I’m a writer. I always cry. I’ll cry on paper if I can, otherwise, I’ll just cry more.

No two of my books have ever been written the same way. As I slide into this new work in progress, CORONAM 2: OF CIVILIZED, SAVED, AND SAVAGES, this will be a new way and it should work. It’ll motivate me at a time when I’m slowing down in other areas (a bit) for the holidays and Nanowrimo is happening on its heals.

All good.

Productivity here I come!

Or I’ll cry.