The Writer's Long Road

Every now and then, I find myself despairing a tad over my lack of progress as a writer - well, as a read writer. Maybe despair is too strong a word, but as a writer, I'm going to exercise my right to use dramatic language.

It takes such a long time to simply get a project to where I want it to be. Even a short story can take months to write and edit before I give it my stamp of approval. And novels can take years. The Poison Box took me over 15 years to write and rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite…).

It seems like once you have completed something that took all your creative energy, all your courage, and all your free time, there should be some kind of energetic exchange with the world, right? Like, at the very least, people want to read it (and hopefully buy it). Or at least follow you on social media.

Well, I haven't found the equation to be quite that simple. I struggle with attracting social media followers (and often question the presence of social media in my life, in general). I struggle with getting my pieces published in magazines or blogs. I struggle with the process of attracting an agent. And I struggle mightily just getting people to review my work. Even when I give it to them for free.

I've been trying to find an agent now for over a year. I've gotten a handful of rejections, which I celebrate (it means someone is actually reading my submission, rather than ignoring it!), but no interest so far. And I've spent months reaching out to bloggers, trying to get them to review The Fox at the Door, my fairy tale for mothers in grief and the childless-not-by-choice. I believe in that story and I believe sharing our loss as mothers or the pain of not becoming a mother is something we, as women, need to talk about. This world of social media curated motherhood needs to crack and shatter and make room for everyone. Despite my attempts to share with bloggers and podcasters…crickets. Nothing is happening.

I forget that writers have to walk a very long road. Sometimes, we have to carry our stories such a goddamn long way just to get a handful of people to acknowledge the life force, the energy that is our story. We have to bundle that story up against the cold winds, hold it tight to our chest, and feed it the last crumbs in our pocket never having the assurance of knowing if anything will come of it.

I have to remind myself that not getting any interest from 33 agents is nothing in the writer's world. A writer might have to submit to hundreds of agents before getting any interest (if it happens, at all). I have to remind myself that spending months trying to get reviews for The Fox at the Door is nothing in the writer's world. It could take months. It could take decades.

The writer's road is one of the longest that I know. There aren't a lot of rest stops out here. Even fewer restaurants and cozy beds. It's one long, grueling walk, in your bare feet. There's no point in turning around because the road back is just as never ending as the one ahead. And there aren't any other paths, so the writer just has to keep moving and hoping that someday, please Muses, someday, our people, our readers, will start to find us and cheer us along to the next story.

Writing with Focus

I have recently decided to let go of my decision (which now seems arbitrary) to post here every single week. It was a good lesson in disclipline for 2017, and helped keep me focused on maintaining my online world, but it also took a lot of time and energy. I also had a goal of sending out two newsletters a month (which I almost met) and continuing some pretty major work on my next novel, and some adult fairy tales.

That’s a lot of writing and heck of a lot of deadlines.

I tend to get pretty locked into all the “shoulds” and “supposed tos” of the world. I’m supposed to keep my blog current, right? I’m supposed to maintain weekly or semi-weekly contact with my audience, right? I’ve even spent a lot of time researching the websites of my favorite authors to see what they feature there, if they blog, and how often they (or their web designers or assistants) update their content.

That didn’t help, at all. There were so many different types of websites out there for each of them – some with blogs, some without. Some websites were masterfully designed with animation or themes that matched their upcoming release. And some were downright awful – basic templates with zero detail toward design and branding.

So that research didn’t give any shoulds or supposed tos. But it did make me see that everyone is doing it differently. And that that’s okay. Some of the authors with the crappiest websites are some of the most successful authors on the NYT Bestseller list. It really didn’t seem to matter one way or another whether or not they were blogging or podcasting. They’re all doing pretty well, so far as I can see.

I feel a little relieved by that. Sometimes the pressure to blog makes me feel like I’m forcing the issue. And it genuinely takes away from my time writing the projects that matter to me so much more.

I also talked recently about how and when and where to share more honestly and that’s something I’m still debating. Is that something I want to live on my blog? Or do I want to go more deeply into my newsletter? That’s definitely something I’m thinking about.

In any case, as I consider my next steps, I know it’s important that I start putting more energy toward my high priority projects. So I might be posting a little (or even a lot) less around here. Or maybe transitioning into newsletters. Or podcasts. Or…?

There’s a lot to think about this winter, which is exactly what winter is for. Thinking, renewing, gathering energy for the next move. I know I need a lot of clarity about not only what I want to do…but WHY.

I know exactly how I got here

When I was 10, my parents decided to write book under a pseudonym - my first name and an ancestral surname. When I saw the name Yancy on their business cards above the word "writer," I knew with every fiber of my being that I was going to be a writer. I started my first novel the same weekend their business cards arrived.

I know exactly how I got here.

I wrote novels longhand in spiral bound notebooks all during my teenage years - because back in those days, families were lucky to have one computer for everyone. We had to share. It was easier - and more private - for me to write my romantic novels and mysteries in my notebooks, dreaming about becoming a famous novelist someday.

I know exactly how I got here.

Copyright: C. Martin, 2016

Copyright: C. Martin, 2016

My uncle gave me his old laptop - a funny name for the machines they had back then, which were really just smaller desktop models that weighed 20 pounds and only had one purpose - word processing. But hey, that was fine with me. It was all I needed. I started writing dozens of new novels on that machine, looking for the one that would capture my attention long enough for me to finish it.

I know exactly how I got here.

In the mid-90's, I was fortunate enough to get a real desktop computer of my own, which changed the game, entirely. Suddenly, with the speed of typing, I could pump out 10 pages a day if I was disciplined enough. I wrote three novels on that computer, certain that they would bring me the kind of publishing contract and  public recognition I was looking for.

I know exactly how I got here.

Oh, did I mention I almost never sent out queries to publishers? I was too scared for that. It felt so vulnerable to share my work with them. What if they thought I was a stupid, naïve little girl? (Well, I was.) I couldn't bear the thought. So my writing remained a secret from the world.

I know exactly how I got here.

In 2007 or 08, I took a big leap and decided to join all the other green bloggers around the world. A Green Spell was born and I was hooked. I made so many wonderful friends through blogging - some I'm happy to say I am still in contact with today. It was another world, back then - blogging was such an exciting platform for creativity and personal connection. Not so saturated as it is today. I loved it.

I know exactly how I got here.

In 2010, I took another leap and began selling the beauty products I had made to heal my skin. It was a big departure from the career in writing I had always wanted. But I enjoyed every second of it. There weren't nearly as many green bath and beauty vendors as there are today and people took notice of the care I put into my products. My shop and its blog, Five Seed (named after one of the streets in The Poison Box's fictional town, Salome - a novel I had abandoned by then), soon eclipsed A Green Spell, forcing me to put more and more of my time and attention there. Eventually, I knew I had to say goodbye to A Green Spell, a decision that was very difficult for me, but I was relieved to have more time to spend on Five Seed.

I know exactly how I got here.

It didn't take long for the market to become saturated with organic bath and body products. Competition became a genuine problem. And when a certain small business platform rolled out new policies barring natural beauty sellers from any mention of herbs, their history, and/or their healing properties, I was essentially put out of business. Sales went from the hundreds to less than ten in six weeks' time. Maybe there was a Plan B that I didn't see at the time, but I must have been pretty burned out because I let that disappointment end my business. And I can't say I'm sorry about it.

I know exactly how I got here.

The end of selling beauty products pushed me into another kind of production that I hadn't previously planned on: sharing the story of how I healed my skin. It started out as an idea for my blog, and then became a pamphlet. The pamphlet soon evolved into a book. Over 200 pages of what I had learned about skincare. The original plan was to make it into a PDF - and I had no idea how to sell something like that. But I soldiered on. I was quickly led to the world of self-publishing and my book became not only a Kindle book, but a real, full-fledged, paperback, as well.

I know exactly how I got here.

Suddenly, holding that paperback in my hands, I realized I had come full circle. I was finally an author.

I know exactly how I got here.

The next few years were filled with writing more books. Next came The Paris Diaries and Dear Me. I resurrected The Poison Box (to my delight) and then published Being Beautiful. As soon as Being Beautiful was finished, I knew I was done with my beauty books. I had been working on a huge series of beauty books prior to that, but I scrapped all those projects without a second thought. I knew what I wanted - I remembered what I wanted. And that's what I needed to put my energy toward.

I know exactly how I got here.

But the problem of my website still remained. After Five Seed closed, I made the quick and simple decision to set up a website under my own name: yancylael.com. That way, people could easily find me if they wanted to learn more about my writing. But I had to say goodbye to my old audience. Most were not interested in following me. I had gone from a natural beauty expert and product provider to a writer. A big leap for them. For me, though, I was just getting back to my roots.

I know exactly how I got here.

I started to notice that people were less engaged once I became yancylael.com. Was it because my name didn't evoke anything for them? Because I didn't have any cute titles like Five Seed or A Green Spell anymore? Because people weren't really sure what, exactly, I did?

I know exactly how I got here.

It didn't help, I'm sure, that I had a brief couple of years, during the promotion of Soulful Skincare and Being Beautiful, that I did beauty coaching and intuitive healing. I'm sure that had people a little confused. Was I a writer or. . . ?

I know exactly how I got here.

In the past year, I have tried to develop my website brand by calling myself what I am: a storyteller. Yet still, I feel a disconnect. Like something is not quite getting across. I often get the nudge that I have to perhaps remove Yancy Lael the writer from Yancy Lael the blogger, the seeker, the creative. As in, one site for publishers, for clients, for people looking for my books. And one site for people who want to connect more deeply with me and my stories and art. Perhaps I do need that website name that evokes something in others. Perhaps I do need to look in another direction.

I know exactly how I got here.

I believe in letting the wild world dictate what it wants. I believe in letting gardens find their own way to beauty and abundance. Hell, I wrote a whole book about leaving your skin alone and letting it finds its own way to health and beauty. Now how do I find that for my career? How do I let it go and let it find its wildness, what it wants to be?

I know exactly how I got here. But I'm not quite sure - yet - where I'm going.

What I learned about communication from the process of recording an audiobook

As I write this, I’m in the middle of the process of recording The Poison Box for its audiobook debut. I have always wanted to do this. I work so hard, in my fiction writing, in particular, to make my prose as poetic as possible, and the act of speaking those words aloud, in the tone and rhythm that I intended, gives me such a wonderful sense of completion. I love hearing my world come alive, and hearing the sound of my characters’ voices even though those voices are only my own (I’m not an actor, and as such, I thought it would be a wiser decision to just use my own voice with an attention to tone and timbre that would match the character and his or her emotion.)

 

This project has also taught me so much about myself and communication that I did not expect. For one thing, I learned that I do not enunciate very well. (Who knew?!) I had to record so many retakes, and later, it was discovered that there were even more enunciation issues that had to be fixed.

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2015-2017

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2015-2017

 

The culprit, I think, is talking faster than I’m thinking. There have been many times in my life when I felt that I was on a timer the moment I opened my mouth – as if I’m either actually being timed or I only have a certain allotment of words that I can use before I run out. There has also been the influence of my introversion, which eschews the spotlight, and as such, wants to finish speaking as quickly as possible so I’m no longer the focal point of someone’s attention.

 

But…what an absolute pleasure it is to experience holding that attention with my words for such a prolonged period of time. What a pleasure to learn to speak every word slowly enough to hear every phoneme. Slowly enough to taste each sound.

 

This attention to detail – to clear speech – has also brought other lessons to light. It is so important, I realized, to speak clearly and with incredible attention to detail and intention. What are we trying to communicate? Why? Is the tone clear? Are the words enunciated? Is there sufficient context?

 

Communication is so vitally important. Whether verbal or non, it is the bridge that connects us to another person. Words, whispers, glances, expressions, touch. I realize more and more as I work through this project that we should always be so mindful, so careful about how we communicate. All our forms of communication are literally the threads that bind us to one another. Unclear communication creates barriers that weren’t meant to exist. And worse, careless communication creates fraying at the threads of our connections.

 

Lastly, I am reminded of the importance of seeking and speaking truth – something that’s incredibly relevant to American culture right now. The Poison Box circles around a set of stories – “facts” that are carelessly (one might even say vindictively) circulated by people who were not witness to the events and who, as such, don’t actually know the truth. The reader has no reason to question these accounts, trusting, like we all do, their narrators (in this case, the characters who tell those stories) until, a few chapters later, I revisit those stories from the perspective of the person who was actually involved. Suddenly, the reader discovers they don’t know what actually happened, at all, and that everything that was taken as fact by other characters was either entirely untrue, or was true but with a very important piece of missing information that made the event look a whole lot different once that piece of information was gleaned.

 

Misinformation and assumption have been weighing heavily on my mind, thanks to the state of the media and politics right now (and honestly, for a long time). It’s so easy to listen and believe whatever we hear, forgetting that there might be an agenda behind the information that’s being spread. There might be falsehoods or, at the very least, interpretations that create inaccuracies.

 

It’s so important to go straight to the source when we want factual information. It’s so important to question what we hear, to recognize the filters that information travels through. It’s so important not to react to information until we’ve done some solid investigating. And it’s critical that we don’t share it until we know what we’re sharing. Inaccurate information is like a virus – it’ll spread quickly and destructively if we aren’t careful to keep the germs at bay.

 

As a writer, I’ve always known our words are a great gift. So much more so than I think we realize. The chance to communicate in any way is such a blessing. But we were given even more than that – the ability to paint pictures and evoke feelings with words. The ability to share our stories with each other in any way we please.

 

This is a gift that deserves to be honored for the privilege that it is. We cannot afford to keep throwing words into the world without forethought or intention. We have to be the stewards of truth, of thoughtful, considered speech, of impeccably researched information.

 

It’s easier and far more dramatic to let our mouths (or fingers, if you’re a writer) run away with us. Sloppy communication and incendiary information boosts the ratings. Because of this, I think it’s safe to say that the media will not change this trend. Politicians will certainly not change it.

 

The change is up to us. We don’t need to be writers or public speakers or journalists. Even in our small circles, being impeccable with the information we share will create huge ripples of change. In a world this full of noise, this full of incisive inaccuracies, people will take notice of deliberate, intentional communication.

 

So thank you, Poison Box, for a million gifts, including the reminder of how beautiful words are, how important it is to speak precisely, and how much this world longs for truthful, intentional communication.

 

Support the Arts and the Artists

We live in a time of rapid change where our systems and culture are going through major evolutions. Even the way we create and consume art is changing faster than we can process. Who knew, for instance, that CDs would become basically irrelevant someday, thanks to streaming technology?

There are so many new doors open to artists now than ever before – publishing on e-book platforms, whether you have a big-publisher contract or not, making your own musical CDs, recording audio books, creating online classes, digitizing (and mass producing from home) your artwork… We artists are incredibly blessed with these new options for creative expression and distribution.

However, there are iterations of artistic expression that I fear are being pushed further and further to the edge. Reading books – real, paper books – is one of those arts that seems to be wandering dangerously close to the path taken by CDs. (Why read and store a paper book when you can store all your reading materials on an electronic device, or listen to the audiobook, instead?) Letter writing comes to mind. (Who needs letters when we can email and text?) Even the practice of buying original prints seems to be dwindling in favor of mass-produced art.

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2016

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2016

Thankfully, I don’t think any of these “old school” art forms will ever truly disappear, thanks the conscientious people of the world who believe in supporting fellow human beings over corporations. It’s these people who gave us Small Business Saturday, these people who encourage us to visit the locally-owned coffee shop rather than…well, you know where.

Let’s remember a few more ways in which we can support all those who are trying to create more beauty in this world. Do your best to support artists, local or not. Buy original prints, attend art fairs, and share your love of your favorite artists’ work with others.

And of course, some special (and not at all biased) tips for supporting indie writers:

::If the small writers you love are selling their work via Kindle, Nook, or other e-reader services, support it. Oftentimes, this is how indie writers get started because it’s an easy platform to break into. Yeah, it’s digital, but every download helps an indie writer build an audience.

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2016

Copyright: Yancy Lael 2016

::If they have print books, please consider buying the print books. Buy copies as gifts for friends and family, too. It can be extremely challenging to get the word out about indie books – and there is no better way to spread the word than giving the book to others with a personal recommendation.

::Give an honest and clear review of the book. Reviews help enormously, whether it’s for a book, a podcast, or an Etsy shop. It’s okay if you hated the book – just explain why. Don’t give a book 1 star without any explanation.

::Get on your favorite indie authors’ newsletter lists and encourage those you think would enjoy that type of writing to do the same. This makes it so much easier for us to keep in touch and share our work with our devoted readers.

::If your favorite indie author is producing “slow literature,” do your best to support them in some manner. There are a lot of amazing writers, illustrators, and poets out there doing subscription services via the mail – and I mean the mail. Not email. I think this is incredibly original and fun, and it’s important to keep these types of offerings alive.

::Attend local events. It can be challenging for indie authors to put themselves out there. Give them a boost – fill up the room when they promote a reading/signing or other event. Bring some friends and smile a lot from the audience. And buy a book on your way out.

::Consider buying an extra book when you purchase your favorite indie author's latest release and donate the extra copy to the library. Indie publishing doesn't always have the same distribution capabilities, which means it's often harder to find an indie author's books at your local library unless they are donated. 

Let’s keep the art of paper books, storytelling, and intimate readings alive!


Many beloved programs supporting the arts and community service are in danger of being cut (again). If you support the National Endowment for the Arts, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AmeriCorps, and other such programs, please call your representatives and let them know!

The evolution of language and literacy

I have been longing to talk about reading, books, and literacy here on the blog for a long time now. After all, I’m a writer, and a former language arts teacher and Reading Specialist. But not so long ago, I felt like all I could talk about was skin care. Skin care and beauty will always have their place here at yancylael.com, but now it’s time to focus on my true love: all the many facets of storytelling (which includes, of course, the importance of reading).

I’ve noticed a fascinating trend* in youth over the past 10 years. During my years as a teacher, I found youth (from a very young age all the way up through the teen years) choosing smartphones and video games over books more and more often. (If you’re a parent, this probably won’t surprise you.) Many children genuinely have no interest in holding a paper book in their hands. If it isn’t on a screen, it isn’t worth their time.

When I first encountered this, I was shocked. I became a language arts teacher because I loved reading and I couldn’t wait to share the genius of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Morrison, Shakespeare, and Austen with my students. Of course, once I started teaching high school, I was a little frustrated working within the confines of very strict curriculum. Curriculum that, frankly, bored me. And if it bored me, I knew my students would be bored. I tried to jazz it up as best I could, but still, my students resisted every single assignment that required them to read – and in a language arts class, all the assignments required them to read.

It got to the point where every time I asked them to pull out their books, the entire room would erupt in one loud moan. Even when they were given time to read their own books, they resisted, tucking their phones into their books and texting their friends surreptitiously.

Why, I asked, again and again. Why this resistance to reading, which was (and still is) one of the greatest joys of my life? The answer I got, over and over, was that they hated the books that were chosen for them by school officials. Of course, I thought. That makes sense. Even as a passionate reader, I mostly hated the books I was forced to read in school, as well. Many students also shared with me that having been forced to read books they hated for so many years had given them an aversion to reading, entirely.

As my teaching career shifted, I found myself working with elementary-aged students who were struggling with literacy skills. They, too, had similar instructional circumstances as their older counterparts. They were given basal readers that they were required to read over and over (because many studies have shown that repetition in reading builds literacy skills and confidence).

Guess what? They hated it as much as the high schoolers hated reading Lord of the Flies.

Do they read at home? Not much, according to their parents (which contributes to their literacy challenges, by the way), even with the most well-intentioned parental guidance and effort.

I am both fascinated and troubled by this trend. Language and our interaction with language evolves over time. For instance, American English today has come a long way from American English of 150 years ago. Our languages will continue to evolve, of course, but today, we have an even newer factor at force in that evolution: code.

Technology is heavily influencing language. We have our text message acronyms which now pass for actual spoken words (even I catch myself saying “OMG!” from time to time) as well as other abbreviations and codes we have developed for the medium of texting. Then there is actual code. Make no mistake about it, technological coding (like HTML, CSS, etc.) is a language in itself, and more and more of us are becoming fluent or semi-fluent in these languages.

All of these factors will affect the evolution of our language – and how we interact with that language.

There is certainly some excitement to this. Though I admit I’m a bit of a neo-Luddite, I don’t believe that technology is all bad. Yes, I own a Kindle and I realize we must adapt with the changing times. It is important to meet kids within the world that they already live – not drag them back to 1985, when nothing excited me more than a trip to a Dalton Bookstore. Kids today live in front of screens, and as such, it’s our duty to meet them halfway. From my perspective, it seems like most kids have a smartphone these days – so why shouldn’t they have an e-reader, too? Yes, let’s give them the opportunity to read on their devices if that’s what it takes to get them reading.

However…I think it’s important to find a balance in this, as well. Though I don’t think printed books are on the road to extinction, it could happen. Ten years ago, I would never have believed CDs would basically become extinct and now I own only 5 - almost all my music is now in digital form.

Just in case, I think we need to hold on to the tradition of printed books. I think it’s essential that we teach children from a very young age the value and joy of holding a printed book in their hands. Take them to story time at your local library. Let them go to the store and pick out a new book more often than you take them to buy a new video game.

There are aspects of language and literacy that are going to evolve no matter what we do, whether influenced by technology or not. That’s a given in life. I think we can be mostly excited about what’s to come – there are amazing developments on the horizon.

However, I think it’s also important to hold on to the little things. The feel of real books in our hands. Flipping pages as we read. Closing a book and feeling its physical and emotional weight after finishing that last sentence. These are moments to cherish, moments we can’t experience with an e-reader.

Embrace technology, but don’t ever starve your home of real books. Make sure your children experience as much on paper as they do on their screens.

*Please understand that I’m writing this article entirely from my perspective and my observations from 10 years in the educational field working with hundreds of youth from the ages of 6 to 18.