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An Open Letter to Self-Published Authors

magic bookYears ago, as a young writer, I sat in awe listening to a well-known book editor holding forth at a writer’s conference. “We always sort through the chaff,” he said. “Believe me, there is no Great American Novel sitting, rejected, in someone’s desk drawer.”

“Bullshit,” thought my polite, malleable self. “Bullshit.”

Several decades later, a successful author friend found herself at a party, chatting with a distinguished gentleman. When he found out she was a novelist, his eyes lit up. “How interesting. I’m a brain surgeon, but I’ve always wanted to try to write a novel!”

“What a coincidence!” she said, meeting the level of his enthusiasm. “I’m a novelist, but I’ve always wanted to try brain surgery!”

For me, the tension in the  landscape in between these two stories illustrates the promise and challenge of the ability of today’s authors to self-publish. This landscape is especially fraught for first-time self-published authors, but the choices they make ultimately affect all of us–which is why I’ve called you here today.

Ten years ago,  according to Bowker, 80,000  new book titles were published worldwide. Last year, 1.75 million new too-many-booksbooks appeared. That’s right, nearly 2 million newly published books were loosed on the world. The variance in quality, I’m supposing, was enormous. Not to mention, they were unleashed on a public that is becoming, on a whole, less interested in long-form writing.

Some of them, a very tiny percentage, made a good deal of dough.

meaning to writeBut, here you are. You’ve written a book. You’ve poured your heart and soul into it. The very act of writing it, of seeing it through to the end, cost you. Time, effort, and a great deal of emotion. I know. I hear you. I understand. To that alone, if nothing else, attention must be paid. Kudos must be delivered. I will tell you a secret: for those 2 million books that were published, 20 million people worldwide meant to finish a book. 200 million meant to start one. So you have accomplished something. You really have. We’ll take a moment of congratulations.

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks.

First, and most obviously, there ARE many wonderful, publishable books that have been rejected by many, many editors. Harry PotterGone with the WindA Wrinkle in Time, the list goes on–if the author had stopped at 11 submissions instead of 12, it would still be in that allegedly non-existent drawer. Some people never find the nerve to submit. Some can’t find the right agent, which is often as hard as finding the right editor. Many, many good books exist that, in the olden days of traditional publishing, would never have made it into print.

The corollary to this, of course, is that many books thought by their authors to be pure gold should never see the light of day. We authors, in fact, are often spectacularly terrible judges of our own material. To our further bad fortune, our parents and/or significant others are only slightly worse judges than we ourselves.That which we think to be gold is dross, and that we think to be unredeemable garbage is…well, usually it’s unredeemable garbage. But there is a stage in-between, where we cannot see clearly, and that we’re angsted over and turned inside out, can be truly magnificent…or is capable of becoming so.

So, let’s look, in ascending order, at the reasons you might want to jump into the 2015 class of 2 million, and parse out not only how true each of these reasons are, but what they mean to all of us who are writers.  If I lose you somewhere before number 3, you might want to consider keeping your day job.

6)  You want to be a famous, bestselling author.

This is the equivalent of wanting to become a movie star instead of an actor. It’s where we all start–as kids wishing we KNEW those guys! Wanting to be rich, and a brand, or at least beloved, with the products of our fertile imaginations a beacon to everyone.

Here is the truth: if this is what you want, you will be miserable, likely all your life. Look at the statistics. Even if you’re a very, very good writer, chances of becoming a famous, bestselling author are minimal. Lusting after it will turn you hollow. Becoming it (and finding out that fame, in itself, is hollow) will make you miserable, unless you’ve discovered the rest of the list. If this is what you want, stop right there. If you can’t get the fame thing out of your head, go into politics or make infomercials.

As we get older, many people move on to more grounded and attainable goals. Hopefully, if being an author is really your calling, you mature into a deeper understanding of what storytelling and writing actually means.

5) You want to be a Published Writer.

Honestly, to become a successful, productive author, I think you need this. Writing is hard. Negotiating the landscape that leads to publication is fraught with landmines. You’ve got to want to have written so much that you’re willing to write. This is where the drive comes to finish the manuscript, rework the manuscript, make it publication-worthy and get it published. Without this drive, it won’t happen.

Always before, the corollary to this was that you wanted to be a member of the exclusive club of not just writers, but published writers. This club was hard to join–someone else important–an editor somewhere–had to sponsor you for membership. Had to approve what you had written, deem it interesting and accomplished, and pay you for it. Oh, the joy! Oh, the ecstasy!

I belonged to the Published Writers Club for more than a decade–having published dozens of magazine articles, non-fiction books and biographies–before I was allowed into that most golden of circles: the published novelists. Holy smokes, what a day of rejoicing it was! Traditional publishers, back in the day before e-books, found it really hard to make money on authors who weren’t bestsellers. That meant, if they wanted to publish your novel, it didn’t just mean they thought you had a modicum of talent, it thought they saw potential to make money. You were not only talented, you were savvy! And salable! Give me the t-shirt, the tattoo, and let me into the Club!

From the beginning, I’ve always believed that every author is different, has different life experience and a different voice. There is room for many of us.

But, here’s the thing. As the story about the author and the brain surgeon demonstrates, everyone who talks thinks he or she can write. Writing is simply typing up your talking.

It’s not.

Now, if I’m in a group of people and someone asks what I do and I say, “I’m a novelist,” likely half the other people in the room will pipe up that they are novelists, also.

It doesn’t mean the same thing, and it never will again.

That’s why it’s so important, if you’re going to self-publish and let yourself into the club, that you please respect yourself, your writing, your fellow authors, and your audience.

4) You Are a Writer and you have to write

If you are, and you must, please respect this. Know that nothing trumps writing. Everything will try to–running errands, cleaning the kitchen, gardening, talking to your Uncle Roy. You must respect your muse. Tell her when you’re going to turn up, and then turn up. As my father told me on many occasions: the difference between successful writers and wanna-be writers is that successful writers write even when they don’t feel like it. When I was in college, I belonged to a small writers group called the BIC Clique. BIC stood for Butt In Chair. It’s where it all begins, and ends.

You only get to complain about writing if you are actually writing. The rest is whining and we don’t want to hear it.

3) it’s about the process

Here’t the thing: you don’t throw a bunch of words onto a page and call it a book. As Samuel Clemens said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” Sam knew something about the value of words. He was a typesetter at a newspaper in his formative years. He had the tactile experience of choosing words carefully, of paying for each one.

When I worked as a magazine editor in the Olden Days, I’d do a first draft, typing up each page inside the lines denoting the margins. Each time we’d edit the story, I’d have to retype the whole thing–sometimes up to 30 pages. You learned to be precise with your language.

The advent of word processing made words seem cheap. They’re not. They’re easier to replace, but they’re still your building blocks.

As a young writer, I saw a film called THE CHILDREN OF THEATER STREET. It was about how Russians trained their ballet dancers, starting at a young age–and for hours and hours every day. I left in awe, thinking that those of us who wanted to write for a living owed it to ourselves, and to our readers, to treat writing like a craft, which it is.

Respect your craft. Increase your vocabulary. Read as many good books as you can get your hands on. Do a full first draft (Never just endlessly redo the first chapter!)  and then start making it better. Learn to edit. Learn to shape stories, create full characters. Develop an ear for dialogue. These are the brick and mortar of your craft. Learn them. Perfect them. You are never done. You can always be better.

2) It is about the work

For a true writer, it has to ultimately be  about  the  work. There is a story you must tell. There are characters who must live and breathe. And, when you’re done, it will become separate from you, as a child is from you but separate from you. It will mean different things to different people. But it is your job to make that work exactly what it should be.

Again, here’s the thing. Not every Work should be loosed upon the world. Some Works exist to make you a better, more skilled writer. When I was 22, one of my novels of literary fiction was almost published by a top editor at a top house. As much as it pains me to say it. looking back now, I know that work was not meant to be published.

In fact, I’m going to make a flying leap here and say that fully 1 million of those 1.75 million books published last year should have stayed in the author’s “learning curve” drawer. (That leaves a full 750,000 that I am giving the benefit of the doubt. As opposed to 80,000 that were published in 2004.)

Many writers who have had their first work traditionally published now know what it’s like to have the edges worn down by a process that is brutal, but often brings your work to a place it never would have otherwise reached. I have a friend who this year became traditionally published. It took her 2 years, 4 agents and 3 editors. The work was substantially better than it was when she started, but she herself was somewhat worse for the wear. But let me tell you, she felt she EARNED that book in print.

So what am I saying? That traditional publishing is still the way to go?

Not necessarily–although many authors now triumphantly trumpeting the glories of self-publishing were themselves traditionally published, found a following and learned the ropes before jumping into the DIY waters. This does give them a huge advantage.

What I am saying is, please, whether you self-publish or go the traditional route, RESPECT YOURSELF, RESPECT YOUR CRAFT, RESPECT YOUR WORK, RESPECT YOUR READER, AND RESPECT OTHER AUTHORS. 

Final thoughts:

What you gain by never having been traditionally published

+ In an ideal world, money. The biggest gripe indie authors have against traditional publishing is that you, as the author and creator of the work, get pennies on the dollar, known as your royalty. When you publish it yourself, Amazon (and other distributors) will tell you how much it’s taking, and the rest is yours. (This is of the e-book).

+ No gatekeeper. You can write a book today and have it for sale online next Tuesday. No one can tell you what is or isn’t selling or why your thinking outside the box will never go. Publish whatever you want.

+ No crazy editor will make your book into something you never intended it to be. No one will make you cut 30,000 words out of your 150,000 word story.

What you lose by never being traditionally published

+ Money. Did I mention that 1.75 million books were published last year? One thing that traditional publishing does for its authors is marketing and promotion. You can do it yourself (in fact, you’ll need to), but you can get pretty hoarse yelling over 1.75 million of your colleagues to get the readers’ attention.

+ The badge that says you’ve passed the gatekeeper. Someone–someone professional and not related to you–has said your book has merit.

+ A crazy editor. There is a point at which you have done your best and have gotten to the Mountains of Final Potential, and you need someone else with vision and a clear map over the mountains. I cannot tell you what I learned about writing from the really, really good editors with whom I’ve worked at various publishing houses. People who are great editors are born with a special talent. There are many good editors on Elance and other sites. Unless you have a writers group made up of other professional writers, hire one. I will say here (as I’ve done both), that when an editor you’ve hired says, “You need more Yani,” you think, “hmm.  Do I agree?” while, when Jen Enderlin at St. Martin’s says, “You need more Yani,” my mind asks, “Okay, what’s the best way to get more Yani in there?”

+ Good copy editing and good proofreading, and an understanding of why those things are so very important. Again, if you’re self-publishing, Elance. Please.

+ Design. Your cover is crucial. The interiors are crucial. If you have to choose, pay for the cover design. There are many good designers online. Here is the thing: professional cover designers will not only understand a good look for a book, they can glance at a cover and tell you the five year window during which the book was produced. There are trends in book covers that you may only be noticing subconsciously. But they’re important in someone’s decision to buy.

+ Marketing and publicity.  Unless you’re James Patterson, who has his own full-time marketing team, your publisher is not going to give you the resources needed to promote your book. They will likely give you a 22-year-old for two weeks, and incidentally, the wrong two weeks. You still need to be your own chief marketer. But you at least got to see what they were doing so you could do it yourself later. This is the one you’ll be most tempted to cry over. Don’t bother.

+ Shelf space in brick-and-mortars. Unless you’ve got distribution and a sales team, not going to happen. Same with libraries. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

So: ARM YOURSELF WITH AS MUCH INFORMATION AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE. On all the points above. Professional writers tend to be a friendly lot, if somewhat reclusive. We will often answer questions when asked. And many of us teach classes and workshops.

(Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’m not making any sweeping statements about either Amazon or Hachette. Fact is, Amazon and traditional publishers are in business to make money. Neither of them have distribution models that are based on the needs of authors. I have no dog in this fight. Both sides behave abominably.)

1) Finally, respect your audience and the world of books

Please. Gain as much information as you can. Do not be precious about your writing. Do the work. Get the support you need. Decide who your audience is, your tribe, and somehow talk to the elders of that tribe. Do whatever it takes to get yourself into that respect-worthy top .75 millio

There are many talented and serious (and successful) authors who are both traditionally and self-published. What we’d really like to ask is that, if you’re thinking of becoming published, that you join the ranks of those who take their talent and their craft seriously. To my mind, the distinction has never been between traditionally published and self-published authors, but between serious and non-serious authors. 

I hope that will become your distinction, too.


Why I Love Benedict Cumberbatch and Charles Esten

Recently, a woman wrote a humorous blog for Huffington Post about how much fun it was to be a Benedict Cumberbatch fangirl even though she’s middle-aged. I suspect that folks who walk into my office and see my BC calendar might suspect she speaks for me as well.

Not exactly. Or, at least, not entirely. So why do I love Benedict Cumberbatch and Charles Esten?


1) Enormously talented and serious about his work, Mr. Cumberbatch spent decades honing his craft and getting a good footing playing fops and “child-raping chocolate magnates” and doing Ibsen on the stage  before his career and fame skyrocketed.  “The trajectory (of his meteoric rise) was extreme,” according to Martin Freeman, who ought to know.  You’ll notice I said he was getting a good footing–not paying his dues, as if there’s a certain amount you must pay and then you get to join the club. No such thing. But it makes all the difference in the world if you’ve gotten to work at your craft and know who you are before fame overtakes you.

2) His male co-stars go all fanboy on him. Even before the hairstylist for the second iteration of “A Study in Pink” got a hold of him and females world over took notice, seemingly every talented young man with whom he made movies had the best time ever with Ben.  I’m not sure what he and Tom Hiddleston were doing during the shooting of WAR HORSE, but whatever it was, when you see the grins they have when they talked about it, they were obviously having a grand time.  By his own admission,  Jonny Lee Miller, with whom he traded roles in Danny Boyle’s FRANKENSTEIN, used to call him up after each episode of SHERLOCK and “go all fanboy” in discussing his acting choices. But my favorite is Tom Hardy, with whom he made STUART: A LIFE BACKWARDS. There’s a video interview in which Mr. Hardy talks about Ben’s acting: “He has a sensibility and a directness and an oddness and a fantastic sense of humor…in acting, he  makes “next level choices…He’s a very generous, very sensitive, very focused, disciplined actor. ..it allows me to be free to do whatever I need to do.  Not everybody runs in the Olympics–[As an actor] Benny should be running in the Olympics.” OMG. Who freaking cares about the shirtless wonders of People’s Sexiest Man Alive” issue. “Talk talent to me” is way beyond  “talk dirty to me.”

3) He’s a gentleman. And he was long before Colin Firth held forth about it in his TIME Magazine tribute. There’s another video from STUART in which Ben arrives on set and introduces himself to all the day players, shaking hands and making them feel important and included.

4) He can chop onions. There’s a segment of a cooking show to prove it. My husband can chop onions, also. That is one reason I am married. I have little patience for men of no practical use.

5) He was nearly murdered and it changed him. He has spoken on several occasions about the time he and some of his fellow cast members from TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH were carjacked and kidnapped in South Africa and he really thought he was about to be killed. Apparently, this had a profound effect on him; he decided, once he was safe and alive, not to play it safe–that you never know when your life will end and you’d better ring every ounce of living out of it, take risks and chances. It seems he has, and it has paid off. A profound lesson for each of us.

6) He’s a silly dancer, but he doesn’t care. Have you seen him dancing to THRILLER?  He is also in good shape without having 6-pack abs. To my mind, 6-pack abs on actors is like a female actress having a size-0, prepubescent body with breasts. They’re both shapes that do not exist in nature and signify a horrific buy-in to the Hollywood zombie culture. But that’s my prejudice.  Ben is also handsome without being pretty. Much of his handsomeness comes from inside. Others could not wear the same face as well.

7) He is loyal. He is willing to work with his parents on SHERLOCK, which demonstrates an alarming vulnerability to me. He also did his best to stand up for Mark Gatiss Steven Moffat when CBS asked them to write a modern-day NYC version of Sherlock and promised they wouldn’t do one without them and then they did. Ben had a difficult dance because he was also doing his best to also be supportive of his friend Jonny Lee Miller, who was cast as Sherlock; yes, the yin and yang actors at it again. You can’t make this stuff up.

benedict-cumberbatch-perfectly-photobombs-u2-on-oscar-red-carpet8) He is an innately decent human being. He takes his art and craft seriously, but he also sees the bigger picture in the bigger world. He recognizes that, compared with many in the rest of the world, the problems he has (such as being labelled “upper class” in Britain), are “champagne problems” (as Brad Pitt advised).  Yet this guy photobombs U2. What more can I say?




1) Enormously talented and serious about his craft, he was spent decades being a guest star as everything from “Secretary 67” on MURPHY BROWN to a doctor on ER. He was a regular on one season of many many shows.

2) He is smart, funny and can carry a tune. Which came in really handy on 196 episodes of WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY?

10-14-12-chip23) He was known for years as Chip. Good ol’ Chip.


4) He has a wife and kids. And, God bless him, the same wife and kids.

5) He was into his 40s when he became a dramatic swoon-worthy, record-releasing leading man on the television show NASHVILLE. He now sings at benefits and, yes, at the Grand Ole Opry. Again, got his footing, plied his craft, and became a decent human being before “breaking out.” He also, apparently, sees a bigger world.

6) His young daughter nearly died from leukemia and it rocked his world. He and his wife now do a lot of fundraising and work for other families that have children with cancer.



1) First, and perhaps most obviously, I am no longer in my twenties, I have been plying my craft and getting a footing for a while now. And yes, half a million people have read the Eden Thrillers so far(!), but I wouldn’t mind a few more million. Could happen, right?

2) I can’t begin to describe the breeding ground for fiction that goes on in my mind. Nor can I describe how well both of these handsome, been-through-it decent human beings with a sense of humor are ripe with character potential.  (Have you read the movie mystery THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS? Written before I heard of either of them, but how could you tell?) They are EXACTLY who you throw into a maelstrom of intrigue and moral quandaries and then just step back and grab your laptop.

3) I don’t know these gentlemen, and likely will never know these gentlemen, but I will tell you these very same qualities are what force me to write. Biographies about Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish architect who saved 100,000 Jews in Budapest at the end of World War II. About Princess Kaiulani, heir to the throne of Hawaii who brought healing and aloha to the islands, and died of a broken heart at 23.  Like Jaime Richards, our protagonist in the Eden Thrillers, I am a sucker for nobility of spirit. This is also what attracts me to my closest friends, and made me marry my husband. And while I will tell you that B.K. Sherer, my Eden co-author, who happens to also be an active duty Army chaplain, is NOT the basis for Jaime’s character, I will also tell you that’s because B.K.’s own life and character is waaaay more compelling.

It’s important to me to remember that good guys win every once in a while.

Just look at Chip and Ben.

5 Things People Will Never Say About Me When I’m Gone

The other day I gave a farewell hug to my warm, wise and tiny friend Cari, and as I drove off, it occurred to me that, unlike her, no one will refer to me as “a little slip of a thing.” Ever. I was sad for a moment, and then I thought, you know, you get to a point in life when you’ve taken certain paths and made certain decisions, and are fine with the fact that not every door is open to you any more. When you’re you’re young, the world is a smorgasbord of potential. At least, to those of us who are Swedes. But hugging Cari got me thinking about the paths I have not taken.

In case you’re pre-readying my obituary, here are five things I can guarantee you will never be said about me when I’ve departed:

1) She was a little slip of a thing. No matter how thin I am, or how many inches I recede with age, just not going to happen. Squarely average will be the final stop.


2) She had an iconic sense of style. Makes me chortle, just typing it in. If it goes with black knit pants, I’m there.


3) She was a writer’s writer.  Again, no. I’m pretty sure I’m a reader’s writer. Which is to say, a storyteller rather than a wordsmith.

great writers

4) She was neat as a pin. As exhibit A, here is my desk. I only show you because it’s recently been straightened.My daughter seems to have gotten this gene. I still remember how, when she was in fifth grade, her teacher stood in front of her cubby and told us with some sorrow that “being neat doesn’t seem to be one of her core values.” And I’m right there with her. (Although her tack trunk is exemplary. We can do it when it’s necessary and/or prized by people in the outside world.) But I can usually put my hands on anything I need. Somehow, though, not being a desk minimalist gives permission to my inner world to be creative and crammed with possibility. Is that weird?


5) She can turn a dime into a dollar. Nope. But I could have about as much fun with the dime as is legally allowed.

And, for bonus points: She was way cooler than her musician brother. Don’t even try.


This, of course, gave rise to the other side of the sentiment: what would I most like people to say about me when I’m gone? What am I working towards on a daily basis (whether I achieve it or not)?

1) She saw the best in people and helped them to see the best in themselves.

2) She contributed to an extraordinary family and group of friends.

3) She liked her faith the same way she liked her fictional heroes: dangerous.

4) She loved life and appreciated every day.

5) She thought, and taught, that having adventures was more important than having things.

And, for bonus points: She loved this life, but couldn’t wait to move on to what was next!

So that’s what I know folks won’t say; and what I’m working towards.

What would they actually say?

Well, I guess that’s for you to tell me! 

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