Making it Personal

La Conscience (d'après Victor Hugo)
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I have this almost childish need to hide behind my writing. I use big words, skimp on the imagery and pretty soon there’s this wall of words in front of my reader, just because I feel like I am the elephant in the room – and I’m clearly all self-conscious about it. I’ve had it pointed out to me before. I didn’t like it, and it stayed with me – because it’s a real problem.

Such is the case with my Wicca and Handparting (Divorce) book that I’ve  been working on since 2002. I’m facing the double whammy: I’ve never before completed a work of its intended length (around 360 pages) and the subject…well, the subject is very unpleasant, which is one of the reasons other authors have stayed away. No one wants to deal with divorce. No one wants to talk about glaring relationship mistakes best moved on from, or reveal what protection they had to create for themselves.

I sure as hell don’t.

However, every time I do expose myself to my community I find several other someones foundering as I did, and while I can’t have their answers for them, I can hopefully give them something that would work as a flotation device or at the very least as a doorstop while they’re hauling their stuff out of their old residence.

Ultimately, as much as I really don’t want to, I have to make what I’m writing personal. I don’t have the option of hiding behind some priestessy title or carrying on about the laws of my tradition – I have no tradition (and I’m happy that way, as I find my conscience just fine without making it wear a corset.) Just like a few thousand others, I just have had to figure it out for myself, and the process was very, very painful.

I have to tell what I went through. Otherwise, there are thousands of books already written and I have nothing to add.

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You Have to Market Yourself

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I’ll talk more later about the strange glow cast on writers in occult fields by their audiences, but for now I want to point to this excellent post at Writer’s Weekly. In a nutshell, it says what nearly every publishing professional I’ve met with has told me for the last ten years:

These days, you have to do your marketing yourself.

Sometimes you’ll get a lucky and a publisher will do this part of the job for you, but ultimately, it’s up to you and to the personality you create around yourself.

A quote from this article: “The reason: the publishers will support an author’s first book with this type of effort because they need to gear up the author’s fan base. As time goes on, they project the number of copies the work will sell and scale down this specific expense accordingly. Once they feel the author is set at a level that will generate an acceptable sales level, they drop the review copy effort entirely.”

Read in entirety. It’s an eye-opener.

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Evaluating Non-Paying Markets

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There’s a lot of demand for free writing – too much, really. For the most part unless you’re only starting to build up your clips or if you’re the sole author (usually self-publishing via blog) these freeby feels don’t offer much. However, once in awhile, a non-paying gig is well worth doing.

  • When looking at a publisher that might not pay you but may have other things to offer, consider the following:
  • What’s the circulation? How many people are reading this pub?
  • Who is reading the publication? If a small market is filled with powerful readers – especially ones who fit your market niche – it might be worth giving up a little bit of your skill in order to reach them.
  • Will you be given an opportunity to market your own projects? If, for example, you teach workshops in tarot reading, will this give you a chance to talk up some aspects of tarot right before a convention in that area?
  • If you’re new to the area, does this help you introduce yourself and establish a foothold in your given market? Will it make it possible for you to network with individuals who share your interest?

If the market offers any of the above small payoffs, it may well be worth pursuing because of indirect payoff. As in all businesses, writing is partially in who you know – and being strategic about how you get your writing out there will help you develop those contacts.

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About Feedback and Criticism

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One of the meatier staples of university writing programs – at least, the ones that I attended – is the feedback loop. Feedback at the college I attended first was mostly an opportunity for the head writing professor to slag on you while you alternately cringed and scrambled to give him what he wanted – which had nothing to do with getting your work to convey what you were trying to say. At the university I never completed graduate work at, the system was possibly explained better and the feedback was usually presented well.

Feedback happens before a work is complete and after a work has been through at least two drafts. This comes best from other writers and extremely erudite readers who can elucidate clearly what message they perceive in your work.

Criticism happens after a piece is released to the public. It’s the final comment on the final product. You can produce new products or revise the product and release it, thus making it a new product once again.

Writers are as sensitive as other artists, and I suspect in terms of sheer hits to the ego we suffer more frequently just because writing can be rewritten much more easily than a canvas may be repainted or a photograph may be reshot.  So sometimes feedback is hard to take, which is unfortunate, as sometimes the most enthusiastic feedback – the responses that come from someone who really truly likes you work – can sound like criticism, and what is meant as a suggestion to make something good really great is taken as a “you suck!” message.

I was accidentally on the giving end of this once, when a friend asked me to read some of her work. I really enjoyed her writing and I was excited to talk to her about the potential of the piece. Unfortunately, she saw the markings on the pages she’d given me and said “Oh God, you hacked it!” I did my best to reassure her that I really liked the piece, and a sign of my liking it was that I found places to make it stronger. I’m still not sure she ever believed me.

It can take awhile to distinguish quality feedback from drek feedback, and like writing, giving it is a skill.

Presumably when a piece is ready for feedback, the grammar and spelling errors are already polished away. ((This is usually the case, and as is usually the case, a few errors sneak through anyway.)) Each feedback person has their own process, and this is simply mine:

  • Read the piece twice. Once, to see if I absorb the meaning and intention. Twice, to look for places where the meaning and attention might need extra support.
  • Set aside opinions about content and focus only on opinions about the writing. If I’m reading a radical right-winger’s essay on why s/he is pro-life, I will point to places that an argument could use better support or where a metaphor might be tightened. I will not jot down in feedback “here’s how you’re wrong” even though that probably is what I personally think.
  • Note metaphors and anecdotes; see how they fit.
  • What images stay with me? What throw me off track?
  • Do I understand cultural references within the piece? Is the reference so obscure that a quick Google search won’t clear it up?
  • How are the transitions?
  • How is the conclusion?

Feedback when done well has proved invaluable for my own writing, and I always try to get it from at least three practiced sources before passing it on to an editor. I recommend the practice, whether you form your own writing group or whether you loosely connect with other writers through private means.

Forthcoming Work

Some of you are probably peering ahead and smiling at my article in the 2009 Witch’s calendar, an article I wrote in 2007. For that, I thank you. I haven’t been writing less so much as I’ve been blogging more, and on other subjects, but as it is with an immanent spirituality, spirit has found a way to work me since working spiritually becomes terribly inorganic. When you start treating your spiritual life like a chore rather than a journey, you lose something – it starts with perspective, but it ends sometimes with your faith lost.

New changes are already on me: on December 31st, my longtime partner proposed, and I accepted. I now wear a symbol of our future together on my hand, and it makes me smile every time I look at my hand (although there was the awkward moment where I accidentally scratched my face with the stone.)  My perfumery is growing. And I am looking for new ways to make the most of my writing career.

I’ve been recognizing and admitting to myself I’ve been creatively blocked for awhile, and I’ve also managed to get past my own tough-mindedness wherein I accuse myself of laziness. I am organized, and motivated. My friends still comment on how driven I am, though I very nearly drove myself to destruction in years past. Because of this, I engaged in the process of the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and it has set me back on a track of real experience with the divine. It’s been valuable, and I recommend it with the understanding that your experience will never be quite like mine, but there will always be experiences to share. In the spirit of continuing to mine the why of my inability to finish lengthy works, I have chosen to continue this path with Finding Water, and you can read about my exploits/experiences of myself and my creative cluster over at I Plant the Seeds blog. The writing there is revealing, and can be discomforting, but it is necessary, like cleaning an attic of all the junk so you can install something better and more functional – like a writing space or a yoga studio.

I have beauty to contribute to this world and I’d like to make the most of it one word at a time. I hope you can join me. It’s so hard to be positive and aware, but it can be done, and that positivity begets change.

I believe that this is the year to Make Something Happen. Whatever it is you’ve been striving for, dreaming for, this is the year to get it done. I’ll check in. Will you?

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Why I Won’t Write for Your Pagan Publication

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I think I’ve been around the writing block long enough to see some changes – and NOT changes – in what I could loosely call the Pagan mentality in terms of publication, writing, and the writing profession in general.  The occult section still fares somewhere between historical interest and the bastard children of new age, which is fine even if it has become a less than lucrative market of late. While I am still considering arguments that this status is good, that the occult should never become in any way mainstream and its hard-to-peg classification is part of this, I’m enough of a business woman to recognize that 1)that would never really happen anyway, because the entire point of occultism is to exist slightly outside of society ((with many clarifications and brawls as to what the role within society should be))  and 2)we’re screwing ourselves over with the same bad business practices that have been used since the 1970s. Not everything “the Man” does is a bad idea and to assume the sweeping attitude that it is is a form of bigotry in and of itself.

Because pagans are the last sector of society to associate fame with book publication, and because poverty has been wrongly mythologized as a virtue ((rather than an objective state of being)) Pagan magazine publishers get away with a lot of things they shouldn’t and wouldn’t anywhere else in publishing. This list is part of why I rarely write for Pagan pubs anymore, concentrating instead on other sectors despite occult writing being my first love:

I won’t write for you because

  1. You aren’t paying me.

Too many Pagans are in the something-for-nothing game, and not only does it make us look bad, it creates an endless devolution because you wind up with people who either go the workshop route to support what they teach (and get criticized for living on something other than sheer dedication) or who end up leaving the field – and the interesting things they have to say about it – altogether. Asking for free writing is a practice of entitlement that completely devalues the considerable skill of writing well.

I witnessed one publication that would not even give their writers a sample copy for their portfolios essentially browbeat the community for not submitting work because it was a “community publication.” Not once was there any recognition that the reason they weren’t getting submissions was not only did they not offer any reward, but they acted as though they were owed that work. Given the poor quality of writing from the staff itself and that the Internet had replaced the crowning achievement of their calendar, the entire situation was doubly ridiculous, made even more so when a staff member demonstrated no awareness of how libel law could apply to an editorial. ((and when corrected by someone with a journalism degree, refused to believe it.))

Writing is a skill. While there are those of us who have a natural talent for writing, even the naturals spend many years honing their ability to write, improving their vocabularies and studying how to relay their true meaning via print. It may all happen between head and hands, but a good writer still stokes a considerable fire to get there. To act as though these services are not worth paying for, and that they are simply owed to you, is shameful. You deserve remuneration of some sort for what you assemble for your community and for yourself, as do the writers who contribute to your grand schemes.

Payment does not have to be money, but it has to be something of value. Offer advertising space, or a small gift, or a gift certificate. Allow that person a feature article. Exposure is not payment, nor is it a reward. I do book reviews in part because I get to keep the books. I write for  perfumer’s website because my shop link is prominently featured. I write for other blogs from time to time because it drives traffic to my blog – there is an inherent reward in that type of work.

In print, writers should always receive a print copy of their work. If your publication is so tight that you can’t afford to do this for the writers you need to revisit your business model. Writers should never, ever have to pay for that. This is especially true if the writer is also a subscriber.

2. You’re recycling the material and subject that you were 10 years ago.

I’m Wiccan. I know darn well we’re a seasonal religion based on an agrarian calendar and that many aspects of our spirituality are cyclical. I’m also aware that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. At some point, these wheels have overlapped.

Every so often an article will pop out at me because it is truly different from the usual fare, and every once in awhile so will entire publications, but for the most part it’s the same “Sabbat”-“yay nature” – “I have this personal rant about the community” stuff. Anything truly original tends to get buried in politics and paranoia or ignored because it’s outside the very limited expectations of the social culture establishing the publication. If I can’t get interested enough to read it, I’m not going to write for it.

3.  You want entirely too much in exchange for entirely too little.

I’ve turned down solicitations where the requested pitch would have been just as much work as writing the article. While I appreciated the attempt to instill some professionalism, make-work is not the way to do it.

4. Your publication schedule is dodgy.

If you have a long history of missing deadlines it will suggest to me that you aren’t very organized and it will make me hesitant to write for you because any number of accidents can happen when a publisher doesn’t coordinate processes well.

Yes, there are some things that are fair to expect in return:

1. You should receive your work, formatted as you requested, on or before your deadline.

2. Those of us who write are not necessarily grammarians. I am notorious for my good writing and yet bizarre grammatic errors. It is your due that your writer make an effort to a)run a spell check and b)ferret out as many of those grammar errors as possible.

3. Because of the above, and also because the only constant is change, it is reasonable that a writer respond graciously should you request a rewrite of  some sections of a piece submitted. If you want the whole thing rewritten, except in special circumstances, you might want to consider rejection, and if the rewrite is sent back to the writer more than twice, you may also want to scrap the piece or pause and ask yourself what you’re really looking for the writer to say – and why you’re not just saying that to the writer.

These are my feelings about writing for short term pagan publications these days. It was fine in the 90s when I was a bit more naive, but on into the 21st century things are very different, and I’m choosing more carefully where I land. I suspect that other Pagan writers are as well. There’s a lot of misplaced beliefs about virtue among Pagans but more and more are recognizing how they’re misplaced and moving forward – and I expect to see more of that change rippling into the small Pagan magazines of the world, soon.

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On e-books | By Umbra Fisk | Grist | Ask Umbra | 10 Dec 2008

Dear Umbra,
I have noticed that digital book readers have started to enter the market and wonder if they are more ecologically sound than conventional books. I am interested in buying one but suspect that they are full of metals that damage the environment in their production. Also, they would use up energy when in use, but I have heard that this is minimal. On the other hand, paper books take a lot of production and transport to reach the reader. Which would be the more eco option?Jonathan A.Glasgow, Scotland

answer Dearest Jonathan,It hurts to say it, but e-books are looking like a good option, even perhaps the better option. Ouch. Usually for these which-is-better questions we have to gather a few tidbits of Life Cycle Analysis, paste them together with our assumptions, and call it good. But Life Cycle Analysts are excited about e-books and e-newspapers, for some reason, and there is a shocking amount of data analysis out there. Enough to make my head feel all fuzzy inside. There are caveats as usual, but I am forced to report the general conclusion that e-books produce less CO2 emissions and use less water than conventional newspapers and books.

On e-books | By Umbra Fisk | Grist | Ask Umbra | 10 Dec 2008

So, our books are moving to electronics at last. There is technology that lets you hold the book in your hand but still has it on an electronic page. It’s not just the Amazon kindle. I want to try it; I can use the bookshelf space for so many other things!

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