GREETINGS FELLOW WRITERS, AUTHORS, AND MEMBERS OF THE BOOK TRADE, PLUS OTHERS WHO STRAGGLE IN! This is my first posting on YOUR SHELF LIFE. Why did I create this blog? There’s a story:
A couple of months ago, something was bothering me. I didn’t know what it was, just that I felt like I’d swallowed a granite egg. I went about my business of reworking manuscripts my editor had shredded, planning publicity for my new book, Numenon, and hobbling around on my ruined ankle.
Every time I passed the slight depression in the dirt by the side of the garage that marks the location of our septic tank, I thought: marketing. I would rather take a dip in our septic tank than degrade myself by doing some of the stuff the mega-marketers suggested. And yet I knew that if my books didn’t sell, my writing career would be over.
Friedrich Nietzsche could have done something neat with this; I just felt like I’d swallowed a rock.
In this life, you don’t get to sit with something too long before something else happens. In my case, the egg began to hatch and the little darling inside it began to claw its way toward daylight. I felt worse. Conflicted. Weighed down. Desperate.
I felt as though my soul was about to don a slick suit and a plastic smile and hit the bright lights suggested by the big marketing guys. I would begin sending emails to my list three times a day and advertise seminars that promised nirvana for a thousand bucks.
I’d rather die.
By purest happenstance, an old friend contacted me. We chatted, catching up. Boy, had she been through it. Terrible life trials, the kind that have you thinking, I’m glad that happened to you, not me.
Much to my surprise, as she outlined horrible and very expensive events requiring lawyers, she said, “I kept thinking about that horse show you wrote about where you worked really hard preparing, and you kept losing and losing and losing …”
That could be almost any of them, I thought.
“And then finally, at the end––you won the prize for the best barn in the show!”
Oh, yeah. That one.
I wrote about the show on my Rancho Vilasa web site and forgot about it.
A revisit to the article revealed that I wrote it ten years ago. My ten year old write-up gave my friend strength to face the hurdles before her.
The words shelf life popped into my mind. I realized that what had been eating me was the concept of shelf life. What is the shelf life of my work? My life? Our work and lives? Does shelf life matter? Those questions led to contemplation, and sparked an insight leading to the blog you’re reading.
I rewrote the article about that horse show where I lost until I won. Here it is: ON SANDY’S OTHER BLOG. I recommend that you read it. It’s lavishly illustrated, full of spectacular horse photos, lore from the glamorous horse show world (“Barry, where did you put the manure fork?”), and a huge life lesson that I was dragged out of me with red-hot tongs. It’s also longer than a standard 900 word blog entry. It’s more like a book chapter, which it probably will be some day.
The bottom line of the article is: I went to a horse show. I am a compulsive competitor and winner. It just kills me to lose. I will do anything moral and within the rules (of the universe and humanity) to win, including driving myself and everyone around me crazy. I went in one class at the show. My horse and I were unschooled, unready, and out of shape. He bucked every time I asked him to do anything. Buck. Buck. Buck. All around the arena. Judges frown on horses bucking in pleasure horse classes. We came in last.
Whoa! Did I freak out. The article above is about my freak out and how when I finally went, “I lost. So what?” The instant I finally let go, the horse show committee called my husband and I into the arena and awarded us a gigantic perpetual trophy for being the best barn in the show. I started bawling.
Talk about an enlightenment moment.
But it lasted. I wrote about it and ten years later, a friend told me it helped her.
We got something here. I’ve been through the publishing mill. I’ve read all the books and gone to writing groups for 11 years. Done some big seminars. I’ve popped out my best, best, BEST query letters only to have 22 year old literary agents not even reject me until I called them and asked for it. Me with my massive resume and vast collection of horse show ribbons.
I know the world that writers face: I am one of you. Inevitably, the question arises: Why am I doing this? The literary world is the screwiest I have ever seen, and after the places I’ve gone, that’s saying a lot. Why am I doing this? And why can’t I stop?
What do I want from the enormous task of putting what I think and feel into words so that I can figure out what I really think and feel––and that other people can benefit, too? I didn’t know at the beginning what the granite egg was–-now I do.
What are we really going for? REAL PUBLICATION––meaning publication by a traditional press where they pay you for your words? This is the mecca of the scribbling world.
I’ve seen it many times: “When I’m published …” The speaker’s eyes glaze over and she looks into the distance, the way saints are often depicted on bird baths. The eyes of the members of her writing group look similar. Their heads nod in agreement. “When I’m really published …” My life will begin.
This is bull shit. It’s sick. I know all about it.
Say you manage to snag an agent. Your writing group explodes in applause. The group leader is euphoric.
That’s the bare beginning. Your agent likes your work, but sees a few ways it could be improved. (So why didn’t he/she write it?) You comply, happily. The eventual publisher also wants changes. Big ones. It’s not your work any more––but you sold it. What are you going to do, give the money back? The changes happen. The book hits the streets three years after your agent sold it, which was two years after accepting you.
Your book is out, only five years after your agent got it! You get an author copy and do one book signing. The publisher goes belly up, and your book is pulped.
Your shelf life is about three months, unless a miracle occurs.
If you self publish or start your own micro press, you can go a little longer: until your money runs out.
So here I am, in my writing life. I’m thinking about how long my work will last, how I can get it out without going broke, and without being further insulted by an industry I consider ludicrous.
Let’s consider some books with long shelf life:
You see, the possibilities for books with long shelf life are many and varied.
Hence, YOUR SHELF LIFE. Why worry about it? Because even if you work and slave and diminish your world so that all the vast grandeur of the universe becomes compressed into squiggles on paper or electronic surfaces––you shelf life will be about three months unless a miracle happens.
I believe in miracles!