Essays, Misc

Red Wine and a Side Order of Confidence, Please

There’s nothing quite like setting foot in a social function for triggering every insecurity I have in a span of 2 seconds flat. Last night, I got a taste of how far I had come in regards to self-confidence as well as a view of how far I still have to go.

Let me explain.

Last week, Deanna Radford from my writing group (a wonderful poet who’s into some really interesting edgy music) mentioned a cocktail party that was taking place on Feb. 16 at a local hotel. It was part of an event where sales reps from book publishers meet with local bookstores to do business, but a new feature—the cocktail—was added to allow writers the chance to mingle with these publishing superpowers. Though I’m not a fan of social gatherings of this kind, I am trying to figure out the Montreal writing scene and thought this would be a great chance to get a lay of the land, so to speak, and agreed to go. Honestly, I had no idea what I was walking into. I figured the event would be held conference-style in a hall where I could sip wine in a dark corner and recon the room. If things got too crazy, then I could slip out ninja-style and no one would be the wiser. But right from the start, I was confounded. The event was held in a penthouse and it was a small group, maybe 30-40 people. This meant I would be in close proximity to people. And OMG, people would see me and I would have to talk.

And then it happened: a very nice, talkative sales rep entered my bubble and asked the question I was not prepared for: ‘So what’s your book about?’

Now, I write all the time about characters sweating bullets when under stress, but this was the first time in a while that I can remember actually feeling sweat ‘trickling down my back’ and ‘pricking at my brow’. Note that it is a horrible, horrible…horrible…feeling. I literally stood there thinking: Do I give her a log line? Tag line? Short or long pitch? Or talk from the heart? The traffic jam in my brain led to nonsensical stuttering until something—I have no idea what–came out. Luckily, she was very understanding, and seeing that I was a genre writer and independent, she very kindly hooked me up with the manager of a popular local bookstore.

From www.beyondanxietyanddepression.com
From http://www.beyondanxietyanddepression.com

By then, I was more than thankful for the counter stocked with wine. Lots and lots of wonderful, red, nerve-soothing, brain-numbing wine. I made sure my cup was full. The fuller it was, the less I had to talk. Oh, and the food table also came in handy for that.

The evening trucked on. The wine kicked in. My brain settled down. I met some lovely writers, two of which I gave my business card to once they showed interest in what I was doing (writing and this blog). I chatted with reps from some of the big publishing companies, sat across an ottoman from the Harper Collins rep, and chatted with the rep from Penguin-Random House from across the dinning room table about the power of social media and how it has become an essential too to writers and publishers. I smiled and nodded, happy to learn that, in this regard, I seem to be on the right track. I walked away going, ‘I just talked to the rep from one of the biggest publishing houses in the country. Say what?!’

Talking about myself is the hardest thing to do, as I can’t imagine anything more boring to a listener than hearing about me. And being introduced as ‘a writer’ with ‘one published book and another on the way’ was hard to get used to, especially being independent amidst people working under the traditional model. I mean, I write and have published, but I don’t have a label backing me. Who can vouch for my legitimacy as a ‘writer’? But, I was lucky. I had two wonderful friends flanking me (Cora Siré, a fantastic writer and poet and one of the most intelligent women I know, and Deanna already mentioned above). They introduced me to publishers and other people deeply involved in the Montreal writing scene that they already knew, and their lead-ins made for smooth introductions. Not only that, they talked me up. Listening to them made me realize that I had done some interesting things–stuff I was proud of–that were worth talking about. This realization enabled me to smile wider, shake hands with more gusto, and greet people with greater ease (dare I say confidence?).

I left the evening with my head swirling. What did I really get out of the experience? How can I apply it to what’s happening in my writing life now? Here are two thoughts:

1) As in independent author, the evening itself wasn’t that useful. None of my books are published by any of the companies present nor will they appear in bookstores because of it (I’ve learned that many bookstores don’t accept independently published books unless they are backed by a label of some sort). However, Deanna noted that it’s important to put faces to names. One day, if I manage to successfully publish with a traditional company, or try to set up a reading or a book-launch or other event, these contacts just might come in handy.  

2) I learned that independent/self-published authors are making strides and are earning respect. Most of the time, when I stated that I had self-published, I detected what I thought were looks bordering on respect and interest. One seemed to appreciate that ‘going it alone’ gave me the chance to learn the ropes. Another rep admitted that indie publishing has its place and that it was a good thing that writers have more options than before. I hadn’t expected these responses but they were definitely welcome.

I think my point is this: being a lone writer and staying behind the desk might be comfortable, but we’ve known for a long time that the market is changing. Writers are expected to ‘get out there’ more than ever before. We are being called to understand and to participate in the business side of things, including marketing, promotion, and networking, things that don’t have anything to do with writing itself. It’s not comfortable, but it seems to be becoming a must. Did everything go smoothly last night? Nope. But I survived. It was scary and challenging, but the experience was invaluable. My suggestion? Try to get out there, see what you can learn from other writers, about the relationships between the movers and the shakers. Start with small events and go with good friends who have experience with this sort of thing who can help you out when you need it. And then feel good about stepping out of your comfort zone.

What are your thoughts? Do you find it hard to talk about yourself and your work? What do you do to get over it? Do you like these kinds of social functions? What do you think about writers being called to step into the forefront more and more often?

Essays, Misc

When You Are Discouraged

I haven’t posted many articles about my ‘writer’s experience’ lately, mostly because I figured a series of depressing posts featuring my rants and raves wouldn’t be very interesting. Okay, maybe interesting but not very useful.  We all face moments of frustration and disappointment when we strive to succeed at something we are passionate about. The challenge becomes how to get out of that black hole and what to do with ourselves once we do. 

Months ago, when the first phase of this downward spiral hit, I was coming to grips with reality: finding success as a writer is extremely hard. Not to mention that no matter how good our writing might be, that is no guarantee that an agent or publisher will want to work with us.   

Reality check number two: wanting to reclaim control of my book, I cancelled the contract with the company that published it, but now I had the monumental job of doing everything myself: republishing the book, marketing and promoting it, figuring out the numbers and following stats and purchases, if there were any. I felt like I had made a huge mistake. The burden is massive. Fact is, I just don’t have the financial or time resources necessary to sell my books the way the experts say I should. And, I’m not an island. I have kids, a household to maintain and a fulltime job. No matter how much I wish otherwise, I can’t just dump my job to write fulltime. In order to maintain balance in my life, I had to sacrifice writing time to be present elsewhere. It was that, or burn out. 

Still, this current phase was different. I wasn’t feeling good about my writing. I’d produce something I thought was good, but the comments I got back all seemed negative to me. Then the doubts set in. Had I lost my touch? Were people just not into what I was writing? Did they not get it? And so on. And on…and on.

image from youthvoices.net
image from youthvoices.net

Part of this comes from the writing group I joined. The group itself is great. I love the social aspect. And chatting about the art-form we are passionate about while working together to improve our pieces is wonderful. However, we each have our individual styles, most often skewing towards literary fiction. I have often felt a little like a fish out of water. Sometimes I wondered if I would be better off in a genre-oriented group. But a big part of the reason I joined was to benefit from the lit-oriented environment. 

Anyway, I finally broke. And it was this breaking that led to getting out of that black hole. Below are two of the main things I learned: 

  1. Talk to the right people. I have a small circle of internet writing friends I trust, and they gave me a place to vent. I’m sure I tried their patience, but I appreciate their concern and the time they gave me. Then someone in the writing group mentioned an upcoming writing retreat, so I took a chance and contacted the host. Her name is Lise Weil, professor, founder of literary magazines, and award-winning writer, though I didn’t know this when we spoke. (Thank goodness because I would felt intimidated otherwise). Mrs. Weil ‘got’ my problem right away. When she voiced my own suspicion that my writing world had been ‘shaken up’, I immediately relaxed. The tension seeped out of me, like someone had just sucked the poison from a snake bite. Just having someone name your problem and empathize with you can get you back on track. Needless to say, I will be attending the retreat and I will be blogging about that. 🙂
  2. Always come back to your centre. Exploring new writing styles led me away from my own Voice. This insecurity caused me to seek approval and validation from others and to concluding my work was bad when things didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped. I forgot that failure doesn’t mean the work itself is bad, or that I suck. It just means I need to work harder. And I must be patient. Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about how I was feeling and inspiration led me to bang out a flash fiction piece to accompany it. It was raw and fuelled by angst, but it felt great to put my feelings in prose. The piece even won a flash fiction contest I was encouraged to participate in. Last weekend, I went for breakfast with Sharon from my group again, and we wrote short pieces based on paintings hanging in the restaurant. I had no idea what to write, but I shut out my doubts and let my fingers do the work. I was thrilled with the result.  The point is, these experiences reminded me that writing from the heart is what makes me happy, and that I most enjoy writing when I don’t always know where the story is going to go.  I feel alive when I’m not trying to be this or that kind of writer. When the most important critic of anything I write is me because what is on paper is my truth. 

And that is what I learned. I’m going back to basics, back to what makes me love writing in the first place—pure self-expression. Some will get on board and some won’t. I may never become famous, and people might not ‘get’ or like my work. But at least every piece will be me.

Picture by Amanda Staley
Picture by Amanda Staley