Froma Bird's Eye View

Commentary by Author Raven West

What Writers Need to Do When We Run Out of Gas

out of gasThere have been numerous articles written about writer’s block- that horrific time in our lives when our “Muse” takes a vacation and all creativity comes to a screeching halt. Web sites abound on the subject, with many experts giving their opinions on the causes and solutions, most of which we’ve all heard before. But the topic of this article is not about this well known malady, but a more serious affliction: writer’s stall. What happens when we run out of gas on the “Road To Riches”?

With every two steps forward we take as writers, it seems we get pushed back three. It’s hard not to get discouraged and harder still to continue writing when the odds are being stacked higher and higher against us.

In this day of electronic publishing, it only takes a small investment to become a “published” author. iUniverse, Xlibris and a host of other print-on-demand publishers opened the door to hundreds of hopeful writers eager to see their years of hard work finally appear on bookstore shelves. But the door was quickly slammed shut as store after store refused entry to these “vanity press” titles.

E-books were a hot idea when they were first proposed and a number of writers flocked to these publishers in hopes that readers would enjoy the convenience of reading their work on-line, or through the use of the new technology of the “Rocket E-Book Reader”. But the cost of the device was out of reach for most people. Given the choice of “paper or plastic”, fans of the printed word still preferred the traditional pulp novel over the futuristic metallic device.

Organizations such as the National Writers Union and the Authors Guild have been fighting the legal battle over reproduction rights for years, taking our case all the way to the Supreme Court. Yes, we won the battle, but now it appears we may have lost the war as magazines now demand we give up all rights, including electronic ones, or they won’t buy our submissions.

And it’s not any easier on authors. Once that first book is in your hands, the hard work of promotion and marketing is left almost totally up to you. Unless you’re a Stephen King, Anne Rice or another “name” author, getting your book into stores or attracting public attention is an exhausting effort, with most of the effort returning zero results. It’s become a viscous cycle of frustration. In order to make it onto the bookstore shelves, you need to be a “name”, but you can’t make a name for yourself unless you’re on the bookstore shelves!

Once your book is published the road becomes laden with even more detours and obstacles. You send your novel to fifteen reviewers and no one responds. You hold book signing events and only three people attend, two of whom are your family and the other one wants information on finding an agent for their novel. You receive excellent newspaper, radio and cable television coverage, but sales are still under 100 for the month. And as you stare at a blank screen and an obnoxious blinking cursor at three in the morning, you begin to ask yourself: is it all worth it?

Bookstores are covered with titles from authors who have written ten, twenty or more novels and you can’t even begin the first sentence of the first chapter of your second one. The plot is in your head, the characters, the story, every detail mapped out perfectly. Yet it remains trapped for months while distractions always seem to get in the way, and you begin to wonder if you will ever be able to free it onto the written page. And if you do, will it be as good as the last one or will anyone read it, or will it too be stuck in the traffic jam on the “Road To Riches”?

Then you read about some infamous political figure who just signed a multi-million-dollar book contract and you’re thinking “I’m sleeping with the wrong Bill.” (Providing your partner’s name is Bill!) And you start having doubts that your writing is any good. Was it just a case of temporary insanity that caused you to sit at the computer for hours writing and re-writing page after page of a story no one may ever read?

Self-doubt begins to creep in, as the money begins to drain out. Hours spent working on a web site hundreds of people read, but no one hits the “donate $1.00 per story” to help sustain. Cyber pats on the back and accolades from around the world feel good, but they don’t pay the monthly access fee. So, the column slips by another month. You miss the deadline on the short story contest you were going to enter and all you have to show for your next novel is the title. Your engine is stalled, your gas tank is empty and there you sit. Stranded. Alone on a deserted highway on a very lonely road without a cell phone or an emergency flare, you start to question why you began this journey in the first place.

Then a minor miracle happens. A voice in distant cyber space “yells” at you to get off your butt and send three chapters of your novel by Thursday or else. After helping your teenager with an essay, she calls from college to tell you you’re not a good writer, you’re a great writer. Your daughter locks you in your office and won’t let you out until you’ve finished the column. The local university calls to tell you five people signed up for your class. Your e-box is filled with mail from readers saying how much they enjoyed your latest contribution to their Association newsletter. A magazine editor you highly respect asks you to interview a very “interesting” author who spends an hour and a half reminding you why you started on this journey. Not for the fame, not for the riches, but for the sheer joy of the ride.

And you discover there’s just enough gas left in the tank to start the engine. Just enough to begin the journey again, no matter where it leads. In spite of the hazards, in spite of the road blocks and in spite of the occasional stall on the “Road to Riches”, there isn’t any other road you’d rather be on, because writing isn’t what we do, it’s who we are. And we love it!

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