Is Writing like Farming?

I was trying to find an analogy for writing when farming came to mind. A new novel is like a farmer’s new crop. Consider what goes into getting the novel to that stage: first there are the seeds of an idea, then the first drafts, then the feedback, the hunt for a publisher, chasing the market by promoting the work, and later, counting the pennies as royalties roll in (if they roll in!). Finally, wiping the slate clean and writing the next book.

Farmers too plant seeds of various kinds: tried•and•true varieties like canola, soy and corn, or specialty organic seeds, just as the writers develop their ideas in either mainstream or literary fiction. Aren’t trial crops like drafts, isn’t the weather at times just as hostile as literary criticism and rejection letters, isn’t the hunt for buyers of farm produce in a commoditized market difficult, and aren’t the pickings slim? Isn’t the harvest like a book launch? Isn’t Fall the most lucrative time of the year for a farmer as it is for an author? Is letting the field lie fallow over the winter before re•planting in spring like letting the imagination rest and re•invigorate itself for the next novel?

Some farmers sell out to conglomerates and co•operatives and work for guaranteed prices and quotas, much like contract writers or journalists. Others take their chances at selling their wares at country fairs and friendly co•ops like self•published authors do. Some writers even peddle their work at weekend farmers markets, rubbing shoulders with their buddies•in•hardship? There must be an unexpressed kinship and bonding taking place at these venues among these silent types. Oh, and lest we forget, Canada Revenue likens farming to writing as the only profession in which the practitioner is not expected to make a profit during his lifetime!

The only difference between these two vocations I find is that as farms wane and farmers exit their industry today, writers are entering theirs in droves and we are awash in new literature delivered via traditional and non•traditional forms. Writers are at a different end of their cycle than farmers, it appears. But cycles do go around. The recent rise in global food prices is a harbinger of what happens when farmers are not given their due respect. Perhaps faming will return to its once held place of pre•eminence among the trades once global food scarcity levels hit a higher notch, if we aren’t there already. It be nice to see writers return to their once lofty pedestal too, being provided just reward for their sincere toil, for unreservedly sharing their imaginations with the world. Ah, but then I am a dreamer.

There is another glitch to realizing this dream. Farming produces stomach food while writing generates soul food. And in the human hierarchy of needs, farming will always come first. We have not evolved as a society yet to recognize that soul food is as important as belly food. I wonder if I would be treated with more respect the next time I introduce myself not as a writer but as “a farmer of soul food?” Would I be embraced graciously or would I be asked a dumb question like “Can I buy your stuff at the grocery store? Which aisle?”

My Lessons from Blogging

I have been at this gig now well into my third year and I need to pause and take stock of what I have learned from blogging. There are a lot of pros to this endeavour, I have discovered, as much as there are pitfalls. Here is a list of both for those of you out there considering taking this leap, or for those veterans of the blog post who will either agree or disagree with me:

1) There is no publishing hierarchy to navigate. You simply think, write, then you publish, and the world reads you (or not)
2) This is an outlet to communicate the authentic YOU, warts and all. I have had the opportunity to not only communicate my observations on life, but also my political, religious and social views from time to time. And I have taken the liberty to reflect upon my pet world through my blog– the world of the writer – again, with warts and all
3) It is a way to gather a following (and to lose one, if the message is unpalatable) of readers around issues that are important to you, to elicit feedback, and to learn from them
4) It conditions you to synthesize your ideas into a few lines (I try to stick to no more than a page per post) and yet follow the arc of a story, with opening and closing punch lines
5) It forces you to think. A blog needs content, intelligent content, not always popular, but always thought provoking

a) The recommendation to constantly refresh content –post at least once a week – can lead to occasional crap filtering in
b) Your content defines you, and is your voice – guard it. Do not compromise quality for quantity. There are days when I think of posting a “Gone Fishing” notice on my blog and taking time off to reflect on the next level of content, however long that may take
c) Not everything is publishable. There are a lot of blogs I have written and later shelved because they don’t make the world a better place but only portray my neuroses. Why add to the insanity out in the world already?
d) You will lose fans occasionally when you write about the issues closest to you, which others may not share in. You may even make enemies
e) You will never be paid money for this endeavour, unless you open up to advertizing. And then you have to figure out if you want your site to be controlled by third parties or by yourself.

These have been my experiences to date. Will I continue to blog? Yes. Will it be as frenetic as before, with artificial deadlines of one post per week? That will depend on my muse; if she takes a vacation, my blog will take a vacation too. Will my blogging be on deeper issues that might even make me unpopular? Yes, there is only so much chatter and saccharine•coating one can engage in, and a writer’s obligation is to tackle the tough issues, for isn’t the pen (or now, the keyboard) mightier than the sword?

For those considering this endeavour, I hope you find these points useful. For the blog veterans, I look forward to your views and counterviews, for isn’t this what blogging is all about – a community of minds agreeing to disagree while respectfully sharing our thoughts?

In the company of great minds

I love to sit in my libraries (one at home, and one in my office) during my spare hours, and when not reading or working, I try to visualize the tears, fears, joys and adventures that led to the writing of the tales within the pages of those many books on the shelves. Sometimes, when stuck on a plot point in my own stories, I thumb through these books for a prompt that will get me going again. And I stop to silently thank the writer concerned for the nudge to my stalled creativity.

I glance through the spines of murder mysteries, histories, Canadian literature, American literature, Asian, European and Jewish literature, children’s stories, “how•to” books on writing, and on business consulting, books on wine making, golfing, encyclopaedias that I never refer to now thanks to Wikipedia, dictionaries that I rarely refer to because of, books on nutrition, or on how to make money and retire early (I never read this latter category now because the formulas did not work for me), fantasy novels, magazine and finally even copies of the novels I have written, and the magazines and anthologies my short stories have been published in, and I feel in good company.

I try to visualize the angst these writers suffered to experience, create and bring to fruition their works, works that have outlived the lives of some of their creators and continue to give us pleasure and wisdom today. Many of the dead writers would have passed on with no clue as to the merit their hard work would garner beyond their life spans.

And I feel a sense of loss, because all these books will soon be condensed into a small electronic tablet that I will cart around with me henceforth and read whenever I need an injection of intellectual stimulation in the printed form. I will have to imagine all these great minds and their wisdom squeezed into a mini computer chip. I wonder what I will do when I have to add new books to my present libraries; will there even be tangible books in the future? Or will my present collection remain stagnant, with every addition arriving in electronic form?

I do know that my new e•reader will be many times more efficient, reducing space in my luggage, giving me instant access to books that pique my fancy, letting me sample chapters before I decide to buy, giving me dictionary and encyclopaedia access to words or passages I come across, even read back to me when I am too tired to exert my eyes. But will it give me companionship with the masters, where by sitting quietly in my library and touching those old tomes, I would connect with the spirits of the great writers who contributed so much to the literary canon, and who inspired me to follow my life path? I wonder?

A day in the life of a shameless self-promoting writer

Bill sets down his second coffee cup, rubs his eyes in the early hours of the morning and starts on his blog. In it, he declaims world hunger, the war in Afghanistan, greedy corporate types and the malaise among readers who were still migrating over to TV, twittering and texting, and leaving the printed word in the dust. East week he writes the same article with variations on the theme. “Stick to the core message” was what he had been taught at Writer’s School.

On his third coffee, he opens his query letter template, scans the agents he has targeted from the week before, there are five left in his list of 45. He cuts and pastes, adds the customary links to his website and blog, attaches the standard chapter of his novel which is so well edited for grammar and punctuation that it has lost its spirit, and puts the three envelopes in the mail tray – later he will take them down to the post office, where he has become a regular.

Then he enters his standard five short story contests for the day, all sourced from the internet the day before. Each has a differing word length and he picks from his 500 word, 1500 word, 2500 word, 5000 word and 10,000 word stories, depending on the rules for application. Today’s contests have higher entry fees, $50.00 in some cases, instead of the customary $15.00.

After a lunch of bread and butter, washed down with more coffee, Bill get onto his social networking sites where he has to maintain his presence: Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon and a few new ones that are sent to him daily via his “network”. He comments on the various online forums, where he is reputed to carry a heavy stick and is known for his literary flair, always ending by listing his website address. He sources more contests for entering tomorrow.

By 2pm he is dozing in his seat – time for his nap to re•charge the brain cells.

He wakes with a start – it is 3.30pm – he has really dozed off. The sun is warm outside and the skies are blue. It is time for a walk down to the beach, where he could blow the cobwebs of sleep away and find out if any grains of inspiration have been planted during his temporary visit to Dreamworld. He returns at 4.30pm after a brief stop at the post office, having found no grains other then the grains of sand sticking to his shoes after walking the beach.

Time to write my three pages a day. He dives into it with gusto. He is writing this crime novel in which he does not like the heroine, she just sort of came to him from that Dreamworld place. So halfway into his writing he gives her a cancerous tumour and sends her off to hospital, while her husband has wild sex with his administrative assistant on the office couch. Feeling vindicated, Bill ambles off into the kitchen and fixes himself a tuna sandwich.

Now for that grant application. Bill hates begging for money, but he needs it – he has not sold any work in six months, the last being a freelance journalistic article. His only published novel never made the top ten, and sank into oblivion soon within three months of its launch. His publisher never called him back.

At 9pm, Bill yawns – it’s been a long day. Time for bed. Tomorrow he will repeat the cycle. Eventually, something will give. Spoiler alert: Wannabe Writers – this could be you!

Left and Right Brain balanced – wise man or muttonhead?

As a student, I was often told by a wise teacher that we needed to have balanced personalities, so that humanity would not tip the world over its axial tilt where it hangs precariously today, askew by about 23 degrees. That meant that we needed to keep our left (analytical) brain in sync with our right (creative) brain, and have one side always question the actions of the other because power on one side alone corrupts absolutely—so I was told. That is why there are two houses of parliament, a government and an opposition party in the colonial democracies, the division of powers in the USA, the Cold War, and so on.

As soon as I was able to figure this out, I enrolled to become an engineer and also signed up for a creative writing course. But I quickly ran into trouble. My math teacher told me that I was not enough of a linear thinker; I kept getting sidetracked with side•plots, and I always wanted to know “why?” My creative writing instructor called me a freak, because, frankly, “engineers did not become writers”—period—in his world! Besides, I was anal about plotting in those days and he wanted me to drift all over the place and get lost instead. My Myers Briggs personality scores were never consistent, because I was a NT (intuitive thinker) or a SP (sensory perceptive) depending on which mood I was in when I took that very reliable test.

I never became an engineer or a bestselling author in the end, although I worked in project management for a number of years and a few of my novels were published. When we hit a tough problem on a project, I took time out to tell my team a story that may have provided them some relief, or hinted at some answers. I like my short stories and novels to have a beginning, middle and an end. I could never be one of the “boys”, or even one of the “girls.” I was just a fringe dweller and even named one of my books after that moniker because I was so used to it applying to me. And as I progressed through life as a jack of all trades and a master of some, I wondered whether I was indeed a freak, or if the rest of the world was perhaps being a bit harsh due to its own shortcomings. I guess it’s easier to take a position and raise the flag for one side than to wonder what is really going on, on both sides.

But I also wonder if we care to develop both sides of our God•given brain, would the world be a lot different than it is today; more peaceful and understanding, more patient and tolerant, perhaps? “Use it or lose it,” they say; and between the artists and the engineers, we are losing a lot of wisdom due to one•sided brain power. Half•brained people are more inclined to take the easy way out and look externally for answers to questions that perplex them, and blame everyone else when the answers they find are not satisfactory to their one track thinking. Perhaps, all along those answers reside in the undeveloped side of their brains. What was that saying, “the Kingdom of God lives within you”? Ah, another side•plot worth investigating, much to my old math teacher’s chagrin…

Winding down the year

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?” The refrain hangs heavy on my mind. Like a stock•taking superimposed by some divine deity who is counting down the hours in my life left on this earth.

I learned a few home truths this year. I learned that I could write books and stories in my sleep, but without a strong sponsor or benefactor, they were going nowhere, unless I gave them away for free on the Internet (still an option that I am actively considering). I learned that the commercial world had burrowed deep into its foxhole in 2009 and wasn’t taking any chances on “new and enhanced” but sticking merely to “tried and true.” I learned that Social Networking is great to become famous (sure, Google me and see the number of places you can find Shane Joseph, Writer) but not necessarily rich. It takes more than blog articles, tweets, and online postings before customers will buy into your brand. I learned that the tried and true media outlets are still the most influential.

I learned that people, even those closest to me, were fallible, just as I am, and that I cannot always hold them to the high standard I hold for myself. I learned to pursue dreams and accept when they came up short in reality. I have learned that money is only given to us for safekeeping and for deploying wisely; if we fail in that task, it will be taken away. I learned about the circular nature of time – events will take place only when they are meant to; all we can do is prepare for their occurrence. And so, even though I continue to record appointments in my calendar and plan for achieving defined goals within certain time frames, I am fatalistic about their actual outcomes. I have learned that the expression “Shit happens,” really happens!

Therefore I would respond to that old John Lennon song and say that I grew wise, marginally. I grew patient. I became poorer in the pocketbook but richer in my soul. I grew older by a year. I planted a lot of seedlings in this rather fallow year, which I am hoping will bud in 2010. And I have bided my time, waiting for the next chapter to unfold.

To all of you who have been reading my blog posts, I wish you Season’s Greetings and all the very best in 2010!

Hammered by the Blockbuster?

I was doing my writer’s math again this week. It’s pretty basic – debits and credits – mainly debits, as we don’t get a lot of royalties and the bills are still, well, the bills – they don’t go away. Some statistics lay in front of me:
1) The average male adult reader reads only 4 books in a year, and 1 in 4 adults has not read a book in a year.
2) Book readership declined 10% between 1992 and 2002. No stats yet on the decline since
3) The number of writers has been increasing, thanks to self•publishing
4) Dan Brown’s five blockbuster books sold 120 million copies and JK Rowling’s super•blockbusters have sold 350•400 million copies (source Wikipedia), taking out many from those numbers of readers who only read, perhaps, one book a year.
5) On average, “other books”, mainly self•published books, sold 72 copies per title
6) Despite all of the above, people are reading more today, thanks to blogs, wikis, tweets, texts and e•mail – mostly talking about newsworthy items – like blockbusters!

My permutations quickly made me realize that as blockbuster sales increase and readership declines, this double whammy will soon reduce the publishing industry to “blockbuster•only” publishing. Print•on•Demand notwithstanding, there will be so few buyers of non•blockbusters, that eventually the POD industry will be forced to consolidate like the traditional guys have been doing for ages. Non•blockbuster writers will become tellers of tales around a campfire – where it began once upon a time, before the printing press was invented. For why bother to write it down anyway, if no one bothers to read it?

There are of course the many side•options for eking out a living in this trade: writer•in•residence, creative writing instructor, editor, proof•reader, freelance writer, corporate speech writer, marketing communications writer, political speech writer, screenwriter, playwright, writing contest organizer (I like this one – read my other blog on this topic), writing retreat organizer and blog writer for hire – all options that the writer could dabble in to pay the bills. Or he could simply throw his hands•up and apply for government grants to keep hunger at bay. Writers might also become performers of their work, like Dickens and Twain did successfully. In that vein, I am loading up my upcoming book launch with poets and hip•hop singers and others who could make it a memorable event – i.e. performing words instead of merely reading them.

Or we could throw the whole damn thing out, get a day job and die unhappy.

I am generally an optimistic person. I don’t believe in dead•end day jobs, or in being limited to sitting around the campfire, or in empty blockbusters that only entertain but do not educate and enlighten. I think that determined writers will continue to write, and as a last resort, use the most potent weapon in their arsenal: the Internet, the same medium that helped fragment their universe in the first place. They will pour out their creativity into blogs, wikis, web sites, and provide free content on the Internet in the hope that in some near future, this unleashed creativity will become the bedrock of a new, more literate generation. And so, I live, and write, in hope.

Too late, the writer

The aged writer puts down his most recent rejection slip and says, “Enough. I have pursued this endeavour for too long. I was told that rejection is a necessary rite of passage for a writer, but this is ridiculous – 50 rejection letters! I am 75 years old. For the last 10 years, since retirement, I’ve indulged in creative writing, caving in to that suppressed childhood urge only when I was safe on the Canada Pension Plan, because, ‘writers did not make any real money.’ But 50 rejections? I’m tired.”

This writer has been prolific during the last 10 years. The accumulated flotsam—of multiple careers, multiple marriages and children, of living in multiple homes and locations, and of having multiple jobs—has given him the grist to churn into his writing. He has written novels, short stories and poems during this span. But the dexterity of sentences, the intensity of emotions, his passion, have all been expended on other pursuits in the years prior to retirement, when he was doing everything else but write. And what he has written is tepid, tame, civilized and boring – like him. And he now realizes that it is too late: too late to excite publishers, too late to get an agent to respond to his query letter, too late to look dashing and intriguing on TV or in a newspaper photograph, too late to build his platform of ardent fans, too late to make the world realize that he has attained wisdom.

There are many writers like this old man living in our world of narrowed publishing outlets and mushrooming media channels. Many of these orphaned writers have formed tribes of lawless, self•published renegades in the tradition of Henry Miller, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, shamelessly self•promoting themselves in a fragmented media universe, reaching millions with their hype yet selling less than a 100 copies of their book apiece. They blog, twitter, webcast and podcast, and fume at their luckier counterparts who write to a tried and true formula and sell millions of copies while refusing to look into their souls. And there are others like him who sigh, and keep plugging away, until their hands no longer move on the keyboard and their brains muddle up the scenes and characters, and finally, even the sentences; at best they spit out a memoir, to be vanity published and circulated among immediate family and friends, leaving a feeble stain of presence on the world before departing it.

But back to our senior citizen writer, who sighs and accepts his fate. He chose comfort over doing the right thing and now pays the price. He therefore writes a final letter to his progeny, advising them that they should never suppress their true calling, whatever that may be. He urges them to pursue vocation over vacation, calling over career, martyrdom over money, to live happily within though impoverished without. He seals the letter and places it alongside his will – his only legacy and lesson to the world. Then he burns his novels, short stories and poems, because they have come too late and missed the bus. He hopes that perhaps he will get another chance in another life, when he will start young. He sits back and feels the yoke lifted, the responsibility taken away. Now, he can enjoy what’s left of his golden years, and embrace comfort without guilt.