Everyone's happy about their book until no one reads it.
I call this The Book Graveyard—a cycle of the publishing process that few talk about but is a very real thing for many books or most books that get published especially by small presses.
What is The Book Graveyard?
Well, after its first year (when the launches are over, the readings dry up, and the reviewers and review outlets are focused on the next season of books)—if a book hasn't been lauded or won awards, it will die a quick and painless death—although not painless for its author.
The Book Graveyard can be a disorienting and disappointing experience—especially if you are a new author or have very high expectations of what your book can do for you. You will blame yourself and others. You will wonder what happened and why.
Social media will make the experience much worse.
Most authors feel like they are the only ones whose books are in The Book Graveyard.
But the good news is there are few authors who are not in The Book Graveyard—you’ll find even the most celebrated authors there.
It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's part of the industry.
In fact, it’s part of most artistic industries. Out with the old in with the new—except when it’s your book, it can feel tragic.
Before landing in The Book Graveyard, I was in The Film Graveyard where I had my first experiences of having to cope with my expectations and the feelings of loss once a film is done its festival run. Because a couple of my films didn’t get into an important festival, I thought they hadn’t done that well—even though they had played at over 20 festivals and had won some awards and honourable mentions.
A few years later, I spoke with a granting officer who was checking on my eligibility for a grant I was applying for when he made a side comment about how well my short films had done on the festival circuit. I thought that was a strange comment.
Later I was on a granting jury for mid-career media artists, and I discovered when looking at the applicants’ CVs that my films were either on par or surpassed (in terms of number of festivals and/or awards) the applicants I was reviewing.
So for about five years, I had lived with this feeling that the scripts I had written had failed the production and the directors because they didn’t get into a coveted festival. I didn’t enjoy the other festival achievements or awards that the films received because of that one festival. What a mistake and waste of time and energy.
My first book of poetry was published when I was 40. I’m so glad I had that film experience behind me because by the time the book came out, I knew to keep my expectations in check and to get over it and myself.
I knew to enjoy the process, to not focus on the rewards because likely they wouldn’t come or wouldn’t come in ways that I wanted or expected. I knew to enjoy the launches, the readings, and I knew to delight in every achievement or success.
I had poisoned my film experience, and I was not going to do the same with my poetry.
Because I survived The Film Graveyard and The Poetry Graveyard (with four books six feet under), I’m offering some tips for coping with The Book Graveyard should your book find itself among the dead ones.
Have low expectations after your book is published. Easier said, I know. But really there is not an alternative. If you don’t have low expectations, you will suffer unnecessarily. This is the key to surviving for the long term. If your expectations are high, and you are imagining winning all the awards and your life changing overnight through the publication of your book, you will be disappointed. That happens for such a small number of writers. It’s a lottery. If you win, that’s great but don’t cry in your soup if you don’t. It’s just not worth it.
Enjoy the process of writing, working with an editor, and getting to publish a book. It can be really fun (even though it's stressful). There are so many writers who would just love to have the opportunity of that. Don’t take it for granted.
Delight in every big or small achievement—a blogger who wrote a kind review, a friend who sent a lovely email, a placement on a long or short award list, a reading you were invited to, meeting new writers and making new friends.
Instead of dwelling on what your book did or didn't do, focus on your next project.
Find ways to help pull other books out of The Graveyard by reading and sharing books you love that are two or more years old; by writing reviews of older books; or by inviting writers with two+ year-old books to your reading series.
The hardest thing about maintaining a consistent writing practice is staying motivated.
I don't know a writer who hasn't at one point or another thought—what's the point? Why am I doing this?
Many writers have a strange contradiction: we want to write yet we resist writing.
Recently I took a one-day workshop with screenwriting coach Corey Mandell, and he asked us this question:
Why is this your dream? What is motivating you to pursue writing?
This is a great question to ask a writer at any stage of their career. And it can help us remember why we are doing this in the first place.
All I know is that before I became a writer I had few interests and wasn't very good at anything in particular. After I took my first writing workshop when I was 20, I thought—I'm doing this for the rest of my life.
There's something about the words on the page that excites me. I'm also excited about the possibility of getting better or changing my style or moving between genres.
I haven't looked back despite the few highs and many lows. Somehow I've managed to keep trudging along. It hasn't been easy. It's mostly been hard. And the hardest thing is staying motivated.
Some Tips to Get You Going
So below are are a few tips if you are having a low moment where either you don't feel like writing or don't see the point in it.
Ask yourself why are you a writer? Why is this your dream? What motivates you?
Do a morning free-write. Just write anything don't worry about what you are writing. Just keep your pen on your paper for a set amount of time (15 or 30 minutes).
A Cemetery for Holes by Tom Prime & Gary Barwin (Gordon Hill Press, 2019)In A Cemetery for Holes, poetic language bends and breaks, resists and reforms under the stress of family trauma. Consensual reality shifts with nonconsensual harm. It is this history of violence which is ultimately, confronted, fought against, and overcome. While engaged in this struggle, the poems also strive to rebuild, to console and to rediscover the world, its beauty, tenderness, humour, and joy.
Although the new year can feel like a new start for some, I'm not particularly interested in New Year's resolutions.
There's something daunting about promising myself I'm going to become a completely different person living a perfect, idealized version of myself in my career or my personal life.
For me, it's a set up for failure.
For my writing life to work, I learned early on that my writing process has to cater to my personality (including my shortcomings) rather than me expecting my personality to change to achieve some idealized writing process.
For instance, I'm not someone who can do the same thing every day. I get really bored and distracted.
So that's why I need to work on multiple projects at once. The downside is that it takes me longer to complete many different projects, but the upside is that if one project doesn't work out, it's not the only thing I've invested in.
But more importantly this is a way I can write that keeps in line with my personality and supports who I am as person.
Likewise, I can't write every single day. It's just not who I am. It used to make me feel like a failure to not write write every day until I realized that the writing process isn't always about writing.
When I'm not writing, I'm doing things that contribute to writing like reading, observing, thinking.
So for me to make a "resolution" about writing every day is pointless.
A few years ago, I found out about "Morning Pages" which is a free-writing concept developed by Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist's Way. Cameron describes the Morning Pages on her website:
"Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages—they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind—and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not overthink Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page ... and then do three more pages tomorrow."
This is a writing process I can get behind because it doesn't involve pressure or expectation. And I find doing the Morning Pages clears my mind for other tasks I need to do and makes me more productive overall. Often I get ideas for my works in progress when I'm doing Morning Pages.
I still can't do the Morning Pages every day, but instead I do them as often as a I can. I try to have a goal of three days a week, and I make sure to do them on a day when I know I'm going to work on a longer project.
This is how it works for me. It's a change but is still in keeping with who I am.
On Goal Setting
While I don't like the term resolution, I don't mind setting achievable goals and doing realistic planning for the future. I'm also a big fan of to-do lists.
Living the life of a writer is about having a goal and taking a series of actions to achieve that goal no matter the situation that you are in.
For most writers, there are no ideal circumstances.
If you work a full time job, you need to find achievable writing goals that will fit into your life. Most of us are not able to quit our jobs so that we can write.
For example, I teach during the school year, and I can't expect myself to complete big projects during that time. So instead of having an unrealistic goal of finishing a novel or a feature film script, I assign myself smaller goals when I know I won't be able to write as much.
Sometimes I'll decide to work only on poetry or short fiction during the school year.
Or I'll take a screenwriting or comedy writing course to keep me on track.
Or I'll find a contest that I want to apply to and write for that deadline.
Often I'll revise or edit larger projects.
Sometimes all I do is send work out.
I even count showing up at readings and launches as part of the writing process.
These are the things I know I can achieve during this time when I'm distracted and focusing on the writing of others.
Instead of imagining the kind of writer you want to be or the kind of process you want to have, ask yourself who you are as person and what writing processes can support you rather than you conforming to someone else's ideal.
What do you like? What don't you like? When do you work best? When don't you work best? Do you write every day? Do you work better with or without structure or deadlines?
Write a paragraph about what you know about yourself and your habits and then come up with an individual process that caters to your personality.
List the three main projects that you want to work on or one if you're the type of writer who needs to work on one thing at time.
Next list three or more actions for each goal that you need to take in order to achieve this goal. These actions can be related to any part of the process: research, outlining, drafting, submissions, networking, publishing, etc.
For example, one of my goals is work on a collection of short stories.
Here are some actions I can take to achieve this goal.
Do my Morning Pages
Listen to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast
Read a short story every day
Revise an old story from the collection
Brainstorm on the theme of the collection
Make a list of all the subjects I want to write about for this collection
Make a list of places where I want to submit stories from this collection
Write my project description for this collection
Apply for a grant for this collection
Go to a reading
If I have this list handy, then I use it when I'm feeling stuck or blocked or don't feel like writing. I can add to it. I can change it.
I use a free platform called Trello for making lists and brainstorming ideas. I can use it on my phone, so instead of scrolling mindlessly on social media when I'm waiting in line at a store or for the bus, I go on Trello and work on my projects.
I wish you all the best with your writing in 2019, and I hope you have a wonderful and productive year!
Mockler's writing workshop
Here are some courses I'm offering in the new year!
Thrilled that a story I edited for Joyland has been selected for Best Canadian Stories, 2018 (Biblioasis), Edited by Russell Smith! The story is "A Dozen Stomachs" by Tom Thor Buchanan.
Now in its 48th year, Best Canadian Stories has long championed the short story form and highlighted the work of many writers who have gone on to shape the Canadian literary canon. Caroline Adderson, Margaret Atwood, Clark Blaise, Tamas Dobozy, Mavis Gallant, Douglas Glover, Norman Levine, Rohinton Mistry, Alice Munro, Leon Rooke, Diane Schoemperlen, Kathleen Winter, and many others have appeared in its pages over the decades, making Best Canadian Stories the go-to source for what’s new in Canadian fiction writing for close to five decades.
Selected by guest editor Russell Smith, the 2018 edition draws together both newer and established writers to shape an engaging and luminous mosaic of writing in this country today—a continuation of not only a series, but a legacy in Canadian letters.
Best Canadian Stories 2018 features work by: Shashi Bhat, Tom Thor Buchanan, Lynn Coady, Deirdre Simon Dore, Alicia Elliott, Bill Gaston, Liz Harmer, Brad Hartle, David Huebert, Reg Johanson, Amy Jones, Michael LaPointe, Stephen Marche, Lisa Moore, Kathy Page, and Alex Pugsley
Had a wonderful conversation with Jessica Johnson (Executive Editor and Creative Director of The Walrus) and David Bezmosgis (Program Director of Humber School for Writing) on the Short Fiction Todaypanel at Word on the Street 2018!