Sunday, September 13, 2009

Are You a Real Writer?

Side profile of a boy sitting in a classroom

Recently, I had a rather startling experience. One of the writer's groups I belong to wanted people who had been published to sign up as “Published Authors.” I checked out the criteria and discovered, to my surprise, that the only criteria for becoming a”Published Author” was having an advance from a publisher. This seemed a rather narrow criterion, so I asked the person in charge if I was reading it correctly. I was assured that I was, and further, this meant anyone published by a small publisher, ebook publisher, self-published, or unlucky enough to have a NY publisher who didn't give advances, wasn't a “Published, or Real, Author.”

This experience led me to ask the question: What makes you identify yourself as a real writer? There are many criteria. Do you have to have a NY publisher? I know several people who don't feel like “real writers” unless they have a “Big Publisher.” At the present time, many big publishers are in deep financial trouble. They're consolidating, dropping publishing lines, mid-list authors, editors and generally trying to downsize. I applaud these moves from an economic perspective, but is this a criteria we should tie our understanding of ourselves to?

If you're published by a small publisher, are you a “Real Writer?” Many small publishers have excellent lists. Sometimes they publish, and have in the past published, outstanding novels that didn't fit the mainstream publishers. Classics have come from small publisher imprints. Are some of our best writers not "Read Writers," because they took a chance on what they wanted to write rather than on what a publisher thought would sell?

Ebooks are taking the world by storm. While sales of hardback and paperback books are declining, the sale of ebooks last quarter was up by 134 percent. Admittedly, they had a smaller base to work from, but to me, it's a sign of the times. The champions of ebooks aren't the NY publishers, they're book sellers: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Google. What happened to the publishers? Some of them are trying to jump on the bandwagon, but they're running fast to catch up. Aren't you a “Real Writer,” if your publisher specializes in ebooks?

People who self-publish, are they somehow a lesser breed of writers? In the past, many books that have subsequently become best sellers were published by the authors. I suppose these writers weren't “Real Writers” either. We have all sorts of pejorative terms for self-published writers, but is that only because we're afraid that they have more guts than we do? Believing in yourself is critical. If you truly believe you have something to say, why not self-publish. In today's internet age, we have Lulu and Create Space who publish books not only for their own websites, but have them listed on the big sellers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon. There are other options like iUniverse and First Books. If writers use these mechanisms to get their message out, aren't they “Real Writers?”

Personally, I believe that anyone who has the guts to get his or her ideas in front of other people is a “Real Writer.” I admire people who believe in themselves enough to self-publish, use ebook publishers, small publishers, or any other mechanism to get their ideas out. I may not want to read their books, but then, I don't read all the books that come out of NY either.

So the question is “What makes you feel like a “Real Writer?” I talked mostly about book publishing, but that's not necessarily what makes a "Real Writer." Don't be shy, tell us about your criteria. If you post on your blog. I promise to come and read what you have to say, if you let me know where you are.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Life Begins at 60 by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Permission is given to print this essay in its entirety, including byline and tagline.
No charge will be incurred by the publisher.

Beating Time at Its Own Game

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Sometimes the big barriers in life aren’t abject poverty, dreaded disease or death. Sometimes it’s the subtle ones set upon us by time and place. The ones that can’t be seen and can’t be acknowledged because we don’t know they are there. They creep up silently on padded feet and, if we sense them at all, we choose not to turn and face them.

The decade of the 50s was a time when these kinds of barriers faced those with dark skin, those who lived in closed religious communities, and those who were female.

When I applied for a job as a writer at Hearst Corporation in New York in 1961 I was required to take a typing test. I was piqued because I wasn’t applying for the typing pool; I was applying for a post as an editorial assistant.

I was told, “No typing test, no interview.” I took the test and was offered a job in the ranks of those who could do 70-in-a-minute. I had to insist upon the interview I had been promised. I was only twenty and had no real skills in assertiveness. Today I am amazed I had the wherewithal to do that.

The essentials of this anecdote lie in the fact that I was upset for the wrong reasons. My irritation was a reflection of hubris. However, that pride was probably what goaded me into speaking up; pride is not always a bad thing to have.

It never occurred to me that this requirement was one that applied only to women much less that I should be angry for the sake of my entire gender. Prejudice is sometimes like traveling on well-worn treads; you have no idea you’re in danger. It also feeds on the ignorance of its victims. They benignly accept their lot because they know no better.

Something similar was at work when I married and had children. I happily took a new direction to accommodate my husband’s career and the life the winds of the times presented to me. I left my writing with hardly a backward look. Back then, in the days before women had been made aware, the possibilities were not an open book to be denied or accepted. I just did what was expected by the entire culture.

Things are so much better now; I don’t think women younger than their mid-fifties have any idea or how ignorant most women were to their own possibilities. That there was a time when we didn’t even know we had choices is not fiction. Most women were full time mothers and often didn’t drive or have their own transportation.

I had always wanted to sit in a forest or an office or a newsroom with a pencil in my hand. I dreamed writing, lived writing and loved writing. I wanted to write the next “Gone with the Wind” only about Utah instead of about the South. I had a plan that was, itself, gone with the wind.

It was the 1950s and women in that time, and especially in that place, had no notion of who they should be, could be. It was difficult to think independently; most everyone around them had difficulty seeing the difference between society’s expectations and their own.

“You can’t be a nurse,” my mother said. “Your ankles aren’t sturdy enough.” I also was told I couldn’t be a doctor because that wasn’t a woman’s vocation.

“Be a teacher because you can be home the same hours as your children, but learn to type because every woman should be able to make a living somehow if their husband dies.”

Writing was not a consideration. It didn’t fit any of the requirements. So when I gave it up, it didn’t feel like I was giving up much.

When I began to put myself through college I took the sound advice and studied education so I’d have a profession. I made 75 cents an hour (this was, after all, the 50s!) working as a staff writer at the Salt Lake Tribune. That I was making a living writing didn’t occur to me. I met a handsome young man and we were married. His career took precedence; that was simply how it was done. Then there were two children, carefully planned, also because that was how it should be done. By the 70s we both yearned for a career with autonomy, one where we could spend time with our children and be in command of our own lives.

My dream was a victim of the status quo. It never occurred to me to just strike out in my own direction when my husband and children needed me. The pain was there. I just didn’t recognize it so I could hardly address it and fix it.

My husband and I built a business. We raised a lawyer and a sociologist, grew in joy with a grandson, lived through floods and moves, enjoyed travel. For forty years I didn’t write and, during that time, there were changes. Women had more choices but more than that they had become more aware. The equipment—the gears and pulleys—were in place for a different view on life. In midlife I became aware that there was an empty hole where my children had been but also that the hole was more vast than the space vacated by them. I knew I not only would be able to write, I would need to write.

Then I read that, if those who live until they are fifty in these times may very likely see their hundredth year. That meant that I might have another entire lifetime before me—plenty of time to do whatever I wanted. In fact, it’s my belief that women in their 50s might have more time for their second life than they did for the first because they won’t have to spend the first twenty years preparing for adulthood.

One day I sat down and began to write the “Great Utah Novel.” I thought it would be a lot easier than it was. I had majored in English Lit. Writing a novel should be pretty much second nature.

It wasn’t long before I realized that it wasn’t as easy as writing the news stories I had written as a young woman. There were certain skills I didn’t have. It was a discouraging time. I might not have to learn speech and motor skills and the ABCs but there sure was a lot I didn’t know about writing.

Somewhere after writing about 400 pages (easily a year’s work), I knew something major was wrong.

I took classes at UCLA in writing. I attended writers’ conferences. I read up on marketing. I updated computer skills that had been honed in the days of the Apple II. And all the while I wrote and revised and listened and revised again. This Is the Place finally emerged.

It is about a young woman, Skylar Eccles, who is a half-breed. In Utah where she was born and raised, that meant that she was one-half Mormon and one-half any other religion. Skylar considers marrying a Mormon man in spite of her own internal longing for a career. By confronting her own history—several generations of women who entered into mixed marriages—and by experiencing a series of devastating events, she comes to see she must make her own way in the world, follow her own true north.

Much of what I wrote about is my own story. If my novel were a tapestry, the warp would be real but the woof would be the stuff of imagination—real fiction.

I think I bring a unique vision to my work. Utah has a beauty and wonder of its own. The Mormons are a mystery to many. I tell a story about Utah in the 50s that could only be told by someone who lived in that time and place and who was a part of the two cultures—the Mormon and the Nonmormon—that make it a whole.
I am proud that I did it. I’m glad that I waited until I was sixty. Forty years brought insight to the story in terms of the obstacles that women faced in those days.
I also like being proof that a new life can start late—or that it is never too late to revive a dream.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the award-winning author of This is the Place, Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered, and Tracings, a chapbook of poetry. She is also the author of The Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher Won't. and The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success, both award-winners. This tip sheet is one of many she uses to share her publicity secrets with fellow authors. Learn more about her at or

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Meet Carolyn Howard-Johnson

As a college freshman, Carolyn Howard-Johnson was the youngest person ever hired as a staff writer for the Salt Lake Tribune--"A Great Pulitzer Prize Winning Newspaper"-- where she wrote features for the society page and a column under the name of Debra Paige.

Later, in New York, she was an editorial assistant at Good Housekeeping Magazine. She also handled accounts for fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert who instituted the first Ten Best Dressed List, where she wrote releases for celebrity designers of the time including Pauline Trigere, Rudy Gernreich and Christian Dior. She was also a consultant for the Oak Park Press in the Chicago area.

Her nonfiction and humor have been seen in national magazines and her fiction and poetry appear regularly in anthologies and review journals. She has been a columnist for The Pasadena Star News and is now a columnist for Home D├ęcor Buyer, a trade magazine, and and others. She writes movie and theatre reviews for The Glendale News-Press.

She studied at the University of Utah, graduated from USC and has done postgraduate work in writing at UCLA. She also studied writing at Cambridge University, United Kingdom; Herzen University in St. Petersburg, Russia; and Charles University in Prague.

The author’s first novel, This Is The Place, and her book of creative nonfiction are award-winners. She also wrote a screenplay, The Killing Ground. Her book The Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher Won't was named USA Book News' Best Professional Book of 2004 and won Book Publicists of southern California's Irwin award.

The second book in the HowToDoItFrugally series is The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success which also won a USA Book News Best Book nod. It is also the winner of Reader Views Literary Award and a finalist in the New Generation Indie Best Book Awards. Her marketing campaign for that book took top honors for marketing.

Howard-Johnson’s stories have appeared in anthologies like: Pass/Fail, edited by Rose A. O. Kleidon, PhD; Calliope’s Mousepad in review journals like California State University at Stanislaus's Penumbra and the Mochila Review.

She was honored as Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment Award by California Legislature members, Carol Liu, Dario Frommer and Jack Scott. She is the recipient of her community's Character and Ethics award for her work promoting tolerance. She was honored by her city's Character and Ethics committee for promoting tolerance with her writing and was named to Pasadena Weekly's list of 14 women of "San Gabriel Valley women who make life happen"

Born and raised in Utah, Howard-Johnson raised her own family in sunny Southern California.

Blogs on Writing Topics:

Sharing with Writers is a blog on all things publishing with an emphasis on book promotion. It was
named to Writer's Digest 101 Best Website list.
The New Book Review is a great way for readers, authors, reviewers and publicists to get more
mileage out of a great review. Guidelines for submitting (and recycling) good reviews are in the left
column. Scroll down a bit. It's free.
This is a blog where participants in in my HowToDoItFrugally cooperative fair booths exchange idea
that make a ho-hum booth into a sizzling success. We keep it open so all authors can learn from our
successes and mmmm...challenges.
This is the Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor blog. It covers everything that has anything to do with
editing from grammar to formatting. The question and answer format encourages you to get the answers
you need.