Do you have a book “inside” you, waiting to be hatched? I’ve spoken to fellow Grays who have wonderful ideas for a book; however, the process of writing one and getting it published seems daunting. Although it’s hard work, when you hold that finished book in your hand with your name on the cover, it’s hard to beat the pride and satisfaction you’ll feel!
When I began turning gray . . .
I made a career switch from being a business consultant to writing novels. When I was working in the hospitality industry, I wrote scripts and produced videos for staff training programs. These scripts were getting more and more plot-oriented and story-like. A client finally said to me, “Gen, I can’t have romance in a training program about restaurant sanitation.” When I related that incident to a friend, she suggested I write fiction. That was a turning point in my life! Since then, I’ve written four novels and never looked back.
I convinced myself that it wasn’t too late to make a career change.
When I first thought of writing a novel, it felt as if I were in St. Louis, and I wanted to get to Atlantis. How could I get there? I started with a couple of short stories and then managed to complete a novel. I tried but couldn’t get an agent or a major publishing house, so I self-published the book. It turns out that the novel won five literary awards, received testimonials from a Nobel laureate and a former presidential candidate, and became an Amazon bestseller. I learned how to overcome the obstacles and make the career switch.
I personally know of other Grays who embarked on new careers and added pizazz to their lives. At the young age of 70, my neighbor ran for city council—his first public office—and he defeated a 12-year incumbent. That seemed like too high a mountain to climb, yet he did it, and he’s enjoying the opportunity to help shape the future of our growing city.
I know a businessman in the healthcare field who, in his sixties, decided to buy land in California and start a winery. Today, that winery is a thriving family business with award-winning labels. When his wine was chosen to be served at a major gathering of heads of state, the owner quipped, “I guess the president of France will now get to taste a good red wine.”
With the wisdom and life experiences that we Grays have, we could actually be at an ideal time of life to make a career change.
A writing career has many advantages
Unlike starting a winery, the good news about a writing career is that there are very low up-front costs to enter, especially with the introduction of ebooks and print-on-demand technology for print books. More good news is that now you can bypass the “gatekeepers” of traditional publishing—the agents, major publishing houses, and brick-and-mortar bookstores—and sell directly to customers. Amazon and other online retailers offer a way to reach your customers without having a traditional bookstore carry your book (the brick-and-mortars are hard to get into).
Ebooks offer even greater advantages. When Kindle ebooks came along, my sales soared. As an indie author and publisher, I now have a way to sell books at a cost that gives me an advantage over the big players.
Because of the substantially higher royalties you can earn for selling an ebook—up to 70 percent of the list price, as opposed to a 10- to 15-percent author royalty from a traditional publisher for a paperback or hardcover book—you can afford to price your ebook low enough for readers to take a chance on a new author while you still make a reasonable or even better royalty than traditional publishing could offer you.
With a 70 percent royalty on your $3.99 ebook—which is almost $3 per book—you’ll earn more than you would if you had received a 10-percent royalty on a $29.95 traditionally published print book. If readers can buy your ebook for the price of a latte, they’re more willing to take a chance on you. The major publishers can’t sell ebooks for as low a price as the independent author-publisher. I sold thousands of ebooks of my novels.
A print edition is also very economical for the self-published author to produce with print-on-demand methods. You can order one or a few copies at a time at a low cost, so you no longer need to incur the expense of a large offset print run in order to have a paperback or hardcover edition of your masterpiece. Through ebooks, print-on-demand, and online bookselling, a large number of authors can realize the American Dream and not just the one or two percent that they would get through the old publishing model.
To hatch that book you want to write, explore indie publishing—there are no gatekeepers to stand in your way, you have freedom to write your book your way, and you can publish far more quickly. If you don’t have to depend on a major income (unfortunately, I can’t promise that!), there is incredible satisfaction in writing something you’re proud of and in cultivating a dedicated fan base that benefits from your wisdom.
Five writing tips to hatch your book and make it a winner
Although I learned these lessons from writing fiction, much of the advice also applies to nonfiction. I may be a rebel as I sway from conventional wisdom, but this advice enabled me to write four novels. My new one is just out, while my three previously published books have won 12 literary awards. So the advice worked for me.
Write what excites you. A writer I met at a writer’s conference came into a meeting that an agent was holding. The writer said to the agent, excitedly, “I did it! Last year you told me that you needed novels with a woman sleuth, so that’s what I wrote.” The agent replied, “Well, that was last year. I don’t need that kind of novel this year.” I learned from the crestfallen face of the writer that you can’t write a novel to please someone else or to be trendy. It has to be a story that absolutely excites you. It’s the only thing that makes the torture (okay, the “sweet torture”) of writing it worth the time and effort.
Consider Jean Auel, who wrote The Clan of the Cave Bear. No one was looking for a novel about a cave woman. She generated excitement with her own creative idea. She was able to get a top agent, sell the book for six figures, and get a contract to write five more novels.
Another example is The Martian. No agent was looking for a novel about someone stranded on Mars. That novel was initially self-published, but it became so popular that a traditional publisher re-released it, and a movie sale followed.
For nonfiction books, the timeliness of issues and trends, of course, plays in. But for fiction, you decide the subject, and the sky’s the limit. Although the success stories I cite are rare, they stemmed from the author writing an original, creative book—not writing to please the agents or anyone else.
You don’t need to take too many writing courses. There are a lot of artificial rules that can stifle your writing, and I think it’s best to avoid them. For example, I had an agent once tell me that you have to begin the book with a lot of dialog, rather than narrative passages. But that can’t be a general rule. One of my novels logically begins with a man alone in a prison cell as he begins a daring escape. There can’t be dialog in the opening pages of this particular novel because there’s no one for the character to talk to!
Regarding screenwriting, it’s also been said that voiceover narration is a no-no. Well, that depends, too. Take the film adaptation of A Christmas Story, one of the funniest and most beloved holiday tales. The whole story is voiceover narrated. It’s a childhood recollection, and the narrator is the leading character, a young boy, after he’s grown up. You’d lose all the jokes if you didn’t have the voiceover in that movie.
When I was studying the craft of writing, I learned that you can find exceptions to much of the advice you’re given, and conventional wisdom might not work for your story.
The best advice, I think, is to stick to the basics: develop and hone the plot, characters, theme, and style. Create the world of your book free of artificial notions that could constrain your story. A few more of those are: Your main character has to have a transformation by page 60, and he or she has to be proactive, rather than reactive, whatever that means. (I told you I was a rebel.)
I suggest learning from the masters, the writers themselves. For the novels you love, try to identify the writing techniques used. For the passages you love, ask yourself, What did the writer do to create that great effect? I learned a lot that way.
For example, I learned suspense writing from various novelists who are great at that, like Ira Levin. His first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, is one of the most suspenseful novels I’ve ever read. Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs is another nail biter. I wouldn’t write the stories that they did, and I have no interest in horror, but I learned writing techniques from them. For example, how to end a chapter with a teaser that makes the reader eager to turn the page. Or how to have two parallel stories going on—what the bad guys are plotting and what the good guys are doing to catch them—a technique I use in my latest novel.
You don’t need to offer your unfinished material to group review. Ten people will likely give ten different opinions of what they like, dislike, and think you should change. I believe that you have to keep the essence and continuity of the story as your only focus until you finish. Then you can get advice from your editor and selected beta readers. I don’t ask for advice from everyone, just a few close friends whose opinions I trust. After your manuscript is completed, you can submit that to readers. In this way, they will be commenting on your story, not creating their own.
Find a good editor. Get one who will make your voice shine. The two editors I’ve used did a remarkable job of respecting and maintaining my voice while polishing the prose and improving the writing. I knew I’d like one of the editors I met when she told me that when she goes to a restaurant for dinner, she starts copyediting the menu.
Try not to reread too many times while you’re writing. If you memorize your passages, you’ll lose objectivity. Save the rereads, as much as possible, for the editing process. Get the first draft out, then let it sit for two weeks to recapture your objectivity, then edit it yourself. Now you’re ready to give it to a few beta readers. When you’ve edited again to incorporate what you can use from their comments, you’re ready for a professional editor.
Now that I’m turning seriously gray, I think it’s time to tackle yet another career goal.
It’s the dream of my life to see my stories dramatized. I wrote the screenplay for one of my books. However, movies are expensive, and it has proven very difficult to land a film deal. That led me try another route. I wrote the stage play adaptations of two of my novels. I think the pathway through stage plays is more promising. The world of community theater is exciting, with great, talented people in it, and the production costs for a project are a very small fraction of what a feature film would cost. I’m hoping to arrange for some local theater performances of my plays next year. That will be another milestone for me!
If your interests include writing that book you’ve been putting off, I say Go for it! But beware, it might become a passion.