Thursday, December 26, 2013

My new year's resolution: Listen to the mirror

(Note: I first published this as a "note" on my Facebook page in late 2011. Somehow, it never made it to my blog - and two years later it still rings as true as ever. Enjoy!)

This is the time when people start thinking about their resolutions for the coming year. They decide to do things like lose weight (always a good one in my case), save more money, or be nicer to people.

Here's mine: I am going to spend more time in front of the mirror.

No, this isn't about my looks (especially at my age :). Standing in front of the mirror actually has a much more personal and spiritual meaning for me. Allow me to explain:

Many years ago, when I was 28 years old, I stood in front of my mirror one day and said to myself, "OK, Rich. Right now you're an overworked software engineer in suburban Los Angeles. But what do you really, really want to be in another 28 years?" I was surprised at the answer that popped out, almost without thinking. "I want to write, teach, and work with people."

This answer bothered me. I had spent all this time earning an engineering degree, like everyone else in my family, and my career was humming along nicely. And, I quickly reminded myself, how many people get to program supercomputers, create computer graphics, and have lunch in Newport Beach whenever they want? So I pushed this thought back into the "pipe dream" corner of my mind and went back to shaving.

A few years later, now living in New England, I was still restless, changing jobs, and not what I would call particularly happy. So I asked myself the same question. This time the answer was a little more detailed, but it didn't bother me any less. "I would really like to be one of those author-speaker-psychotherapist types that I see on television. Not that I want to be famous. I don't, really. But I bet I would have a lot of fun, and help others in the process."

Once again, I quickly summoned the forces of reality: Don't be ridiculous. You have a wife, a car payment, and a mortgage. You have reached the leadership level of your profession. You serve on government advisory committees, and chair conference sessions. Everyone will think you are nuts if you ditch all of this and "follow your bliss." So forget about it already.

Except this time, I didn't forget about it. I started brainstorming about what life could look like, even if I still wasn't quite sure how to make it happen. I thought of all things that excited me when I was younger: writing and acting in my fourth-grade play; wanting to become a Catholic priest and help people when I grew up; my inexplicable dual major of psychology in engineering school. And it struck me that somewhere along the way I had traded all of it for someone else's idea of success.

Soon, after another job change and a move to Pittsburgh, I started consciously shifting gears away from my technological world. I read about Carl Rogers and spirituality. I started writing seriously, sketching out book projects, and even getting published. And then when rumors started to swirl about layoffs at my large company, I did the unthinkable – I went to my management and said, "Me, me, please pick me!" and left with a modest consulting retainer.

So here I was at age 40, moving back to my native Ithaca and starting my life completely over as a freelance technical writer. And you know what? It felt surprisingly good. Instead of fear, there was a delicious sense that life went on, there were always doors to knock on and temp agencies to work for, and that I was still waking up with a beautiful woman every morning. And ironically, as I slowly started building a platform as a writer, a speaker, and later a therapist, the biggest surprise of all started to dawn on me – I was much more successful than I ever was as an engineer.

Recently it struck me: nowadays, in my 60th year, I am finally living the life I described in the mirror to myself at age 28, more than half my life ago. And if I had simply done a better job of listening to myself back then – or for that matter, in fourth grade – I probably would have been living this life a very long time ago. But better late than never. I frankly felt old back then, and feel much younger now. And I still have a lot more to learn.

God speaks to people in many ways, and in my case He sometimes uses a mirror. So what is your mirror telling you?

Friday, December 20, 2013

An open letter to a frustrated wannabe author

I just got an e-mail today from a self-published author, announcing that he is quitting his newsletter, and railing about how real people have almost no chance of getting published. He points to everything from the growth of electronic self-publishing, to the number of "charlatans" out there who sell services to wannabe writers, to people not showing up at his book events. His conclusion seems to be that most people have no chance of ever succeeding as writers, and that they may as well give up.

I hear things like this all the time, and it saddens me because most of it simply isn't true. I am not going to respond personally, because I don't want to call him out - or get involved in a back-and-forth exchange I really don't have time for. But if I were to respond, I might say something like this:

"Dear Wannabe Author,

I hear your frustration with the publishing industry. And I wanted to share my thoughts with you, as someone who does write a fair number of royalty-published books.

Personally I have seen a lot of fiction and non-fiction writers get published over the years - usually mere mortals like me. I have also seen a lot of people struggle to become authors and eventually self-publish or give up. I do NOT believe that the deck is stacked against them. But I do, however, see a huge difference between the two groups.

The first group almost always works backwards from the market. They study what sells, first. Then they adapt their style around what sells. They write tight queries, good "hooks," and intelligent competitive analyses. And they keep at it until they smell like published authors. I was always the guy standing in the bookstore deconstructing top-selling business books to see how they tick. I don't copy other people, but my writing has always been informed by what people are buying right now.

By comparison, the second group is usually focused on themselves. They don't vet either their ideas or their writing against what sells. They aren't necessarily bad writers, but their end product is almost always out of step with what people are currently buying. Inevitably they rail about what a poor chance anyone has of ever getting published. Except it isn't true.

A good litmus test is to read other self-published books in your genre, then pick up some popular royalty-published books. For those who see a difference, there is hope. For those who don't, less so.

I had an interesting discussion about this with my literary agent a couple of years ago. You are probably aware a typical query has about a 5% chance of getting accepted by a given agent. What you don't know is that more than half the queries these poor agents receive are *horrible* - completely out of step with the market and/or any sense of good, readable writing. Get rid of those queries, multiply these odds by the number of agents open to submission out there, and my experience is that a serious, professional writer who studies the marketplace is looking at a much more realistic 50/50 chance.

Trust me, I've had more than my share of no-show book signings, and even though I coach non-fiction writers myself, I share your disdain of most paid services. But when I hear people say that normal people can't get published, I have to politely disagree. I know way too many who do. But they do act differently.

I completely respect whatever you decide to do with your own writing. But if you try again, I hope you decide to think like an agent or an editor, and become a student of the marketplace. Good luck!

Your friend, Rich Gallagher"