Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Writing Lottery

I’m putting the finishing touches today on my latest novel, Natalia, which has me thinking a little bit about its prospects.  I’m feeling pretty good about the book.  It has taken me quite a bit longer to finish than I expected, but in the end I think that it is something I can be proud of.  To me that is the most important thing, but I can’t help but wonder how it will end up being received.

Of course, whether a novel does well in the marketplace has to do with a whole lot of factors.  I’d like to think that the most important thing is the quality of the book itself, in terms of the writing, and the plot and the insightfulness and depth of the characters.

Other factors include the cover, the book description (blurb), marketing, reviews, genre, the whims of the reading public (what is “in” at the moment), and a whole lot of luck, good or bad.  Just because a book is good doesn’t mean it will sell and just because it sells doesn’t mean it is good.

This has me considering one of the big differences in the career of an independent writer like myself as compared to most sane and rational people who have more traditional jobs.  For most people, how much they are paid is directly the result of how much they work.

If you are a nurse, or a carpenter, or a lawyer, or a journalist, you do a job and you are paid a specific amount for your time, depending on your skill and experience.  If you are a writer, how much you earn from your work is a direct result of all of the various factors mentioned above.

If you have a contract with a traditional publisher, you might be lucky enough to receive an advance, but for emerging authors, those are becoming fewer and farther between.  For fiction writers it tends to be the big-name authors are given advances, especially for books they haven’t yet written.

For the rest of us, we spend years writing a book, doing all of the work, and only then do we release it into the wild to see if it either flies or crashes to earth in a big thud.  Either way, we’ve done the same amount of work.

Indeed, someone who writes a full-length novel that sells 100 copies in its lifetime has done more or less the same amount of work as someone who writes a bestseller that sells one million copies.  Both have poured their heart and soul and time into a project that makes one rich and leaves the other in the poorhouse.

Choosing to become a writer is indeed a lot like playing the lottery.  You do what you can to stack the odds in your favor, but at the end of the day it really is just one big gamble. 

You’ve got to be a dreamer to embrace this kind of uncertainty.  You take those dreams, spin them into words, and hope that others might be as inspired reading them as you were writing them.  Just a few more weeks and I’ll find out if Natalia can fly…

Sunday, June 17, 2012

New Sweet Ophelia Cover

It has been ten months since I launched my last book, Sweet Ophelia, a novel about the gritty streets of Hollywood, the film industry and second chances.  I originally had a woman's heavily made up face on the cover.  That didn't seem to work so well.  I changed it to a broken heart made of rose petals.  That didn't work so well either.  Finally I put in a cover with a woman wrapped in a towel, as seen from behind.  That worked a little bit better, but not too much.

Personally, I like this book quite a lot, though the sales have only been about a quarter of what they were for my first book, No Cure for the Broken Hearted.  Now I generally dislike when authors talk about sales at all, but I figured I'd explain why I've decided to change the cover up once again.  I've decided to go with this one:

I'm sure there are other things going on with the lackluster sales beside just the cover, of course.  Readers probably aren't as inclined to read a romance about a homeless man as opposed to a billionaire playboy like in the first book.  I also think that the title of the first book is more compelling.  That said, I figured I'd mix things up a little bit and try this cover out for a while.  Most likely this is the last change I'll make, but I'm proud of this book so hopefully it will give it at least a little bit of a boost. 

Either way, I'm moving on to the next one.  I'm hoping Natalia will be done in another few weeks.  So close now...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What I Learned from Soccer

When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, I played an awful lot of soccer.  Starting at the age of eight years old I played on local teams, all-star teams, traveling club teams, and later my high school team.

I went away every summer for a week long soccer camp to further improve my skills.  Not only that, but I actually had talent; the fastest player on every team I ever played on and always one of the stand-outs.  Still, when one of my teammates told me that he wanted to be a professional, I thought he was crazy.

Professional athletes, in my mind, were super-human.  They were like another species entirely.  Surely there was no way that I could ever reach those heights.  Right?  I mean, for one thing, I sometimes made mistakes.  Errant shots on goal, defensive breakdowns, bad passes.  It happened.  Despite my skills, I wasn't perfect and never would be.

By the time I got through high school I was so sick of all of the training, almost year-round, that I simply didn't want to even look at a soccer ball anymore.  I'd had enough.  And so I quit.  Cold turkey.

Cut to seven years later.  I was now 25 years-old and I started to realize how terribly I missed the game.  I began to look for an amateur team to join.  Eventually I found one, and while I was a bit rusty at first, before long it became clear that I was a much better player after my hiatus than before.  Perhaps it was the maturity that came with age.

In any case, I once again became highly involved in the sport.  I spent several years playing in some very competitive leagues in both California and Virginia.  After a few more years I began to think about the prospect of going pro myself.  But how to do it, after so much time off?  Maybe if I'd played in college it would have been one thing, but to make the leap after so long, where would I even start?

The truth was, I still didn't have the confidence.  I didn't believe in myself quite enough.  Sometimes I would play with former or future pros in my amateur games and I was always sizing myself up against them, trying to determine if I had what it took.

When I joined one team in Virginia, a former player had just been drafted by DC United in the newly formed MLS.  A bunch of us went to see his debut.  Could that be me out there next?  By then I was already 30 years old.  Way too old for a rookie, I knew.

And so I never made that push.  I never really went for it.  Of course I knew it would have meant a lot of hard work, and sacrifice, most likely starting out on a team in a second-rate, semi-pro league if I was lucky.

I tell myself that it wasn't so much my fault.  After all, there was no major professional soccer league in existence in the U.S. from the time the original North American Soccer League folded when I was 18 until the MLS was founded when I was 30.  My prime playing years.

But still, there were lesser pro leagues around.  I could have tried harder, if I'd really had the guts.  And if I'd tried, I'd know one way or the other if I really had what it took.  Instead I'll forever be left wondering.

Or course this all comes to mind because of the current European championships underway at the moment.  Whenever these major tournaments come around, I love to watch the games but it is a little disturbing for me as well.  For one thing, I realize that these pros are actually human.  They make mistakes, too.  Lots of them.

Just look at the Champions League semi-finals last month when three out of four players on Real Madrid missed their penalty kicks, costing them a spot in the final.  And these are some of the best players in the world, making tens of millions of euros each per year!

So I suppose it will be a tough few weeks for me while this tournament is going on, but why bring it up here, you ask?  Why bore you with details of me crying in my beer over childhood dreams gone sour?

The reason is that I've learned something from all of this, I hope.  I also still have at least one dream left that I can potentially accomplish, and I'd like to think I can apply this lesson here.  I'm 46 years old now, far past sporting age, but the dream that is still alive is to make a decent living and survive as a fiction writer.

Today on a writer's forum, someone posted a link to an article from Forbes magazine titled Why You Shouldn't be a Writer.  Basically it said, to all aspiring writers out there, 1) You have no talent, 2) It's too hard, and 3) You'll never make any money.

Now maybe these things are true, for me and the majority of other aspiring writers out there, but one thing I learned from my soccer experience is that it's an awful lot better to try and fail than to never try at all.

If you try and fail at something, you know that you simply didn't have what it took.  If you don't try at all you'll spend the rest of your life wondering, and there's not much worse than that.

So far I've been writing fiction for more than 20 years and never had more than a few short stories published here and there.  I started self-publishing my novels 18 months ago and have two up to date.  Earnings have averaged about $1,100 per month, but have now trickled down to about $3 per day lately.

It has been a tough road, but despite what the author of that Forbes article has to say, I'm not ready to give up yet.  Not by a long shot.  I've got another novel, Natalia, due to be finished in the next few weeks and lots of other projects on tap after that.

I sometimes think that if I'd had someone who really believed in and encouraged me more when it came to my soccer career, I might have believed more in myself and really gone for it.  Instead, this belief had to come from within, and that was a very tall order.

The same is more or less true of my writing, but this time I'm not going to let anything stand in my way.  I know I can do it, and if not, it's a whole lot better to try and fail than to never try at all.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Back in the U.S. of A.

Three months away from Orange County, California is always enough for a bit of reverse culture shock, but it's still good to be home.  I just flew in the other day after two months in Portugal and one in Budapest.  I'd thought I might stay in Europe for six months like I did last year, but in the end I decided to keep things legal this time around.  Ninety days is the limit for a tourist visa, unfortunately.

Last year I got away with overstaying my visa, but not without a bit of hassle from immigration on the way out.  Perhaps it's best not to push my luck two years in a row.  

And so I'm back to the land of fancy cars and plastic surgery, beautiful beaches and summer traffic.  I'll be here for a week or two with my parents and then on up to the mountains to spend some time at Mammoth, finishing my latest novel (so close now!) and working on my next project.

Living the itinerant lifestyle is always interesting.  In some ways I feel like I have a completely separate life in Budapest now.  I'm comfortable there, I know my way around, and I have tons of friends.

I remember the first summer I spent in Budapest, in 2009.  I went there because rents were cheap and I thought it would be a good place to write.  When I arrived I didn't know a soul.  Sometime during my first week there I took a walk around Margaret Island, a big city park in the middle of the Danube.

Groups of people were having picnics on the lawns all over the park.  When I looked at those groups of people I couldn't help but be a little jealous.  I wished I had a group of friends that I could have a picnic with, instead of simply walking around all alone.

Three years later, I think I have more friends in Budapest than anyplace else on earth, including California.  Last weekend my friend Alla organized a picnic on Margaret Island.

What a nice change from those first few days back in 2009!  Alas, it was very sad to leave this time around, but I can't complain too much.  You can't surf in Budapest.  There's no mountain biking either, or hiking without taking a tram all the way out to the Buda hills.

Budapest is a nice city to spend the summer in, as far as cities go, but how nice is spending the summer in a city, really?  Maybe two summers there are enough after all.  One thing is for sure, after some time away, it is always nice to come home.