Playing the numbers game: how getting published is NOT like getting married

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Saturday Evening Post - November 28, 1903

It’s a good guess that the submission process in 1903 did not resemble the process of today. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s no secret that the Internet has changed pretty much every facet of our lives over the last twenty years.

That’s just as true for writers as for everyone else. And it’s true not just in terms of how we research, write, and edit, and how our readers find and read our work, but in how we reach the organizations that publish it.

I invite you to take a trip down memory lane with me as a reminder of how much has changed. In the days before almost every aspect of our lives went online, here’s what a short-story writer would have done to try to get published in a literary journal. Continue reading

For going viral, naked flesh beats naked emotion every time

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Giving it away

I recently began giving away Dance of Souls on Noisetrade, in the spirit of indie author experimentation.

Noisetrade Download

If you download a copy and leave a tip before September 30, I’ll send half of your tip to support the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.

Also, as an experiment, I purchased a featured spot in the Noisetrade newsletter to promote it. (Sorry to disappoint, but those newsletters, like most in the publishing world, are curated not by editors but by money.)

The experiment was a success in that I made a start at building my e-mail list, albeit a very small start. The percentage of downloads compared to the size of the Noisetrade e-mail list was so small that my calculator insisted on displaying it in scientific notation. (I did the conversion; it was .1 percent, which as a download percentage is actually not too terrible. If you’re familiar with direct response e-mail you know that fractions of a percentage in terms of opening e-mails is considered normal.)

Getting taken

This experiment was going on around the same time the story broke about the celebrity-account-hacking-and-nude-photo-distribution scandal.

I mention this not to comment about the wisdom of taking nude photos of oneself or where the responsibility lies for the unauthorized access to such photos, about which you can read many accounts online, like this one. I mention it because the temporal juxtaposition of these two events—celebrity photo kerfuffle and the availability of my novel for free downloading—highlighted one of the cruel ironies of the publicity world today, one that is especially cruel and ironic for an indie writer.

If you are already famous, it’s easy to become more famous—even in ways you’d rather not.

If you are not famous, it’s really, really, hard to get anyone to pay attention to you.

The Internet is essential to this irony and to the celeb photo story, which wouldn’t be possible without digital media and a means of distribution. (Richard Heppner wrote an interesting reflection about fame on and off the Internet.)

Going viral

If only, I found myself thinking, my novel would gain such currency as the celebrity photos have. Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to be famous. I want my work to be famous.

CelebPhotoSearch

Audrey Kalman Search

A search for “nude celebrity photos leaked iphone” yielded 20 times more resluts (oops, results) than a search for “Audrey Kalman.” What am I doing wrong?

But then I might end up like J.D. Salinger, the famously reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye, who detested the trappings of fame and stipulated that much of his work not be published until fifty years after his death (2060), although some will apparently be published between 2015 and 2020.

Putting out

Celebrity, fame, writing, and becoming known on social media all connect to the central theme of Dance of Souls and many of my other stories: Our abiding need, as human beings, for connection to other human beings.

Unlike personal connections—which so often are unsatisfying since real people are flawed and make emotional demands on us—the relationship of author to reader, celebrity to fan, Twitterer to follower, has none of the mess of real human relationships. You get admiration, approval, sometimes even adulation. And that feels good.

You also, of course, open yourself to the possibility of exploitation and cruelty, loss of privacy, and to hearing words spoken about you that people might never bring themselves to say face to face. And, as ardent as your readers or followers may be, they won’t get up with you in the middle of the night when you’re sick, or rub your back when it aches, or put an arm around you when you need a hug.

Am I putting my work out there just to feel good or fill some aching emptiness unfilled in my personal life? I think not. But, on some level, I do hope for a connection to my readers.

Would I want the kind of attention lavished on the truly famous? I think not. But I would like a few people to read and enjoy my work, and in the cacophonous world that passes for a public square these days, that’s becoming increasingly difficult.

Are you famous? Have any photos of you ever gone viral? How do you feel about “putting yourself out there“—whether it’s in the form of a work of art or something else?

Fruits of our labor

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Fruits of the workers’ labor

I am honoring Labor Day in typical U.S. fashion. By working.

Because I am self-employed, I can choose to work on any given day and take off some other day. This often results in my working longer hours than I would if I had a 9 to 5 job.

Hard work has brought me to a place of relative security and freedom—but not hard work alone. I was lucky. Lucky to be born to well-off parents. Lucky to have had educational opportunities. Lucky to have been born in a time when women can have careers beyond schoolteacher or nurse.

By Teemu008 from Palatine, Illinois [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument in Forest Park, a national landmark (1893). Read the history at Wikimedia Commons. By Teemu008 from Palatine, Illinois [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Lucky, in other words, to be privileged.

Not so lucky are the millions of minimum-wage workers who must work when they can, often at more than one job. Not so lucky are the children of those workers, who may attend struggling schools and return home to parents too exhausted or busy to help with homework. Not so lucky are the people who work hard all their lives only to be wiped out by medical bills or a home loan gone bad.

Does work = worth?

Whether it’s the lingering influence of our Puritan ancestors or some other force, we seem to believe that more work translates into higher moral standing. Even among the a-religious, laziness is a major sin. I know, because there’s some of that belief in me. But carried to its logical conclusion, this belief leads to absurdities like only twelve weeks of unpaid leave for new parents and the idea (whether real or perceived) that using all your vacation time will be detrimental to your career.

I don’t consider myself a socialist or a Marxist, but I do like the statement “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” attributed by Wikipedia to the Frenchman Louis Blanc and popularized by Karl Marx.

Call me whatever names you want, but I hope that on this Labor Day you’ll contemplate your position in society, your relationship to work, the sacrifices of those who fought (and still fight) for better working conditions, and our responsibilities to one another as human beings.

In doing research for this post, I was fascinated to see the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2014 Labor Day page. They must have gotten some hot-shot new media designer to work on it because it looks about as unlike a government web page as anything I’ve ever seen. Check it out—there’s also some good information behind the pretty pictures.

Fruits of my labor

September is turning out to be a big month for me. Two seeds planted months ago in the form of short fiction submissions have sprouted. Both are free to read/listen to online.

Watch Twitter and Facebook for an announcement of the Boundoff publication, and I’ll add both to my READ STORIES page.

Also this month, I am featuring “Dance of Souls” on Noistrade.com for free download.

What’s the catch? There is none. Please download—and tell your friends. The file is available as a .MOBI for Kindle or as a .PDF.

Noisetrade also allows you to leave a tip. I hope you will, especially because from now until September 17, half of all tips I receive from Noisetrade downloads will go to support the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. BFWW is an amazing month-long celebration of writing sponsored by Bard College at Simon’s Rock and spearheaded by my good friend Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez. The festival will soon enter the planning stages for its fifth season in 2015.

The other half will help support my continued fiction writing: one novel under consideration by a publisher and another in progress.

It’s a cliché to say “win-win” and even more to say “win-win-win,” but I think this is just that.

Book review: “Enchanted Objects”

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I don’t usually post book reviews, but I just finished reading Enchanted Objects, by David Rose, which I undertook as research for my speculative fiction work-in-progress.

Enchanted ObjectsThe book jacket copy describes Rose as “an award-winning entrepreneur and instructor at the MIT Media Lab, specializing in how digital information interfaces with the physical environment.” My brain began whirring the moment I heard about the book and I was excited to hear him speak at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park in July as part of his book tour.

His talk both enchanted and disturbed me, as did the book itself. A few things I found enchanting:

  • that the book begins with the question “What makes something magical?”;
  • that smart people like David Rose are asking what relationship we want to have with technology;
  • that “the most promising and pleasing future is one where technology infuses ordinary things with a bit of magic to create a more satisfying interaction and evoke an emotional response”—and that this enchantment should be based on fundamental human drives that have their earliest expression in myths and storytelling;
  • that optimists like Rose see technology evolving beyond the “black-slab” so ubiquitous now in the form of our ever-proliferating screens.

I have a harder time articulating what disturbed me. Partly it was the obvious fact that any technology can be applied for good or ill. For example, cloud-connected objects open the door to hacking, government surveillance, and further erosion of the membrane between public and private life. (Just look at the potential problems inherent in unsecured devices like Fitbit or “smart” homes controlled by not-so-in-control software.)

A bigger and less specific discomfort arises from one of the questions that is sparking the research and writing of my current novel:

What is our relationship, as a culture, with the ideas and artifacts of progress?

Rose is an unapologetic technological optimist—as well he should be, given his work at MIT’s media lab and the many tech companies he has been involved with starting. To his credit, Enchanted Objects doesn’t ignore the potentially darker side of an Internet of Things. But—optimistically—he believes that humans’ desire for good will check and balance any Big Brother scenarios.

I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s my pessimistic nature, or my fear of unintended consequences, or the creep-factor inherent in a world of inanimate objects that respond to you as if they were aware. Some of the worst problems in the world have arisen not from the actions of dedicated evil-doers or nefarious anti-heroes but from millions of small and seemingly inconsequential decisions by individuals. Each decision, on its own, seems benign and even positive, but the sum total of these decisions end up leading us down a garden path toward a future much darker than the one we envisioned.

Whether you are an optimist or pessimist, I recommend Enchanted Objects as a chronicle of the important work currently being done by leading technology researchers and thinkers. It’s written accessibly, without jargon, and holds together as a summation of the arc of Rose’s career to date.

We may wish to slow or even reverse humanity’s relentless pursuit of technology, but given the impossibility of that wish, I suppose we could do worse than to end up in the world Rose describes in Enchanted Objects.

What do you think? Would you be charmed or disturbed by an umbrella that tells you when it’s going to rain?

À la recherche du temps perdu*

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Last month, I answered some questions about my writing, one of which was “Why do I write what I do?” My answer focused on the “what.” In the weeks since, I’ve realized there’s a deeper reason for the “why.”

Back in the days when photography required developing, a chemical fixative would stop the development of the image and preserve or fix it.

"DevelopingFilm1937" by Flickr photographer dok1 / Don O'Brien - Flickr photo. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“DevelopingFilm1937″ by Flickr photographer dok1 / Don O’Brien – Flickr photo. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Writing, for me, has always been a fixative for time.

I’ve felt since my twenties that time was accelerating. Sometimes I joke that the reason bills go unpaid or food spoils in the fridge is that I cannot accurately perceive the elapsed time since I paid last month’s bill or stashed the yogurt on the second shelf. Of course, this is merely a perception—albeit a powerful and disconcerting one.

Ron Friedman, writing about the time acceleration phenomenon for Fast Company, cited a plausible explanation (apart from biology) for this feeling. The Habituation Hypothesis rests on the idea that as we get older, more and more of our daily activities become reflexive. This habituation causes an inattention that leads to the feeling that life is an ever-accelerating merry-go-round of repeated activity.

I’ve been experiencing this more lately as I pause before bed to reflect on the day in my journal (yes, I still keep a hand-written journal). My changing journal entries embody, with distressing accuracy, the crux of the Habituation Hypothesis. When I was younger, I wrote page after page about new experiences, new people, new emotions. Now I find it difficult to come up with anything that differentiates one day from another. With rare exceptions, each day resembles the one before, if not in content, then at least in form.

Oddly, I enjoy this repetition at the same time that I find it distressing. I enjoy my daily rituals: making a pot of tea each morning, taking a late afternoon walk, and cooking dinner each evening while listening to the news and sipping a glass of wine.

Embracing opposites

The real revelation is not that time seems to accelerate as we age. Instead it’s that, as we get older, our ability to embrace opposing ideas and emotions expands. We can love our habits while at the same time feeling distressed by how they make life seem to fly by. We can recognize that embracing the new may serve as an antidote to the acceleration of time, as Friedman suggests, but that new experiences make us anxious. And we can feel compelled to fix the moments of our lives on paper while knowing this fixative is as fleeting as any electrochemical flash of memory in the brain.

In contemplating all of this—which is, inevitably, tied up with feelings about mortality—I return to one thing that seems to function as an all-purpose salve for both existential and visceral woes, something that any of us can practice, at any time.

Mindfulness.

Paying attention to what is happening in the current moment is an anti-fixative. The purpose of mindfulness is not to hold on but attend to what is before you and then to let it go. Paradoxically, this focused attention and letting go can turn habituated moments into magical ones, a jumbled rush of frantic activity into a captivating tableau, or an ebbing life into a series of savored moments.

More on the perception of time

A brush with death slows time – Radiolab story
Time Warped” – Claudia Hammond’s book

* Thanks to Marcel Proust for lending the title of his seven-volume novel to this post. The title is usually translated as “Remembrance of Things Past” but a closer translation is “In Search of Lost Time.”

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