Venice in the Moment

Imagine painting a portrait of a uniquely beautiful person. Your model is nude, hiding nothing, displaying supple skin and curls of hair that absorb the light. As you sketch and fill in, the sun and shadows keep moving – revealing new details. Now you add tiny lines you didn’t notice around the eyes and mouth. As the sun begins descending, you become aware that the hair is two shades darker and seems to be uncurling. Now the flesh appears a little looser, and you realize: What you tried to capture at the start of this encounter no longer exists, and what existed five minutes ago also is gone. Your subject is still pleasing to look at, still distinctive, but when did this person begin… showing their age? Anxiety sets in as you imagine finishing your painting, not as a portrait, but a still life of ashes.

This is what it’s like looking everywhere in Venice, Italy. Sure, craftsmen constantly repair and replace the Byzantine facades and triumphal monuments. The bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica still looks like it did in 1514, even though it collapsed in 1902. The stone walls and walkways lack any sign of occupation by Napoleon’s and Hitler’s armies. But increasing floods from climate change scoff at all this restoration. As I write this, I’m looking at a day-old photo of people wading through knee-deep water near the Vallaresso Vaporetto stop. It looks bad, but other cities recover from floods, right? Well, yes, if they’re not sitting on saltwater. The moment the brine started seeping into her brick and timber bones, the Queen of the Adriatic was doomed.

That is, unless you count all the other times doom came, and stayed — all the way back to the Roman refugee who, fleeing barbarians, drove that first timber into the muddy lagoon a thousand years ago. Venezia has been dying longer than perhaps any other city.

This must be why artists and those who chase beauty obsess over her canals, bridges, and cathedrals. The main attractions, such as the Bridge of Sighs and Doges Palace, reveal some if you’re not hurried along by the crowd. But those who sit, and listen, might hear the walls whisper what I thought I heard two years ago:

Go ahead, gawk as I slowly sink, and my population shrinks. I’m aware the cost of preserving my 14th Century glory keeps going up. And, yes, the day will come when I won’t be worth saving anymore. Until then, watch, record each moment, and understand that beauty breaks the flow of time, compelling you to look now, and now, and now again – bearing witness to that fleeting space between what was and is.

If you hear this, and your heart breaks, you’ll be more than just a traveler. You’ll suffer the eternal disquiet of a conoscitore. Hopefully, I’ll be in a nearby café, ordering grappa for you and me to mourn in silence.

 

“Embrace Rejection” Speech to Writing Students

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Here’s a speech I gave last April to writing students at Rock Valley College:

Congratulations in advance to the writers who will be recognized tonight. I look forward to reading your work and sharing the stage with you at future author events. And to those who don’t receive an award: Take heart, you will be recognized one day. And, one day, you might even get the publishing contract your novel, academic paper, or memoir deserves. But I think we should all prepare ourselves for an industry that is structured to say No to your work.  That’s the default. Your job is to be so brilliant you force publishers and agents to flip the switch when they encounter your words.

I’ve published many times, but I’ve also been rejected hundreds of times. In 2016, I got my first traditional contract for a novel – actually, a fictional memoir — about a woman who’s a veteran, cop, and single mother.  I realized I’d need some reviews, so I sent another round of query letters. The reviews couldn’t have been more varied. They ranged from “Unconventional and refreshing” to – quote — “It read like the ramblings of a crazy woman, and for a short amount of time that’s fine, but not for 267 pages!” Then she added: “Many thanks to the author for providing me a digital copy of this book.”

I am living proof that bad reviews and rejection letters will make you stronger…if you let them. One of the people who inspired me is not a writer but a freelance I-T worker featured on NPR’s “Invisibilia” podcast. His name is Jason Comley, a 30-something who spiraled into depression and paranoia after his wife left him. She found someone who was taller than he was and wealthier. Comley’s feelings about himself got so bad that he became afraid to leave the house and meet new people. In his words: “I had nowhere to go, and no one to hang out with… so I just broke down and started crying.” Comley realized he was afraid, so he asked himself: afraid of what?

“I’m afraid of rejection,” he realized.

So Comley resolved to get over his fear. He decided to make a game out of rejection, and this is what I recommend you do. He made a point of getting rejected at least once every day by someone. After a while, it felt good to get rejected all the time because, as Comley put it: “I disobeyed fear.”

Disobeyed. Comley really hit on something there. I never thought that fear depended on our obedience. But it does. And it’s not like fear is the criminal justice system – it can’t lock you in prison if you disobey. There’s no enforcement mechanism! And if nobody can prosecute you for disobeying fear… then rejection is an empty threat.

So how does a writer play Comley’s rejection game?  You write something, you submit it to a publisher. Pick a publication you aspire to be in or an agent you want to represent you. Then pick several more. Write, submit – don’t even wait for the replies because those take weeks. Write, submit, and embrace the “No thanks” emails when they start coming in.

And remember: The publishing industry has No as its default. Even after you get a good edit, the gatekeepers who are flooded with manuscripts will try to find a reason to keep you out. Dare them to. Because content is subjective and if they don’t like your work now, they might like it later. Or another publisher might take a chance with you.

It’s worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on all the times publishers got it wrong. They said No to authors who’d go on to be blockbusters. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter pitch was rejected a dozen times. John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, got 24 rejections. Stephen King rejected himself initially — He threw out the first chapters to, Carrie. Fortunately, his wife fished the crumpled pages out of the garbage and made him finish it, which he did. Then it got thirty rejections. The list goes on and on, so I’m guessing several people here could – eventually – land a major contract or get into a prestigious journal. You just have to keep trying.

Some of you may have been studying the market for the type of writing you do. You have a pretty good idea how your manuscript will fit in, and you can tell an agent or publisher at least three titles that resemble your work. That’s a benefit because publishers would rather repeat someone else’s success than take a chance on something unfamiliar. If you take this route, I hope you make lots of money. There is no shame in playing it safe and cashing a check. It means one day you’ll have the freedom to take a risk, to experiment, to try to advance the craft in the way you think it should go. When you’re ready to do this, that’s the book I’ll read.

For those here who don’t care about the existing market and who insist on being original… you’re after my own heart. You’re the writer other writers will love – and maybe even give you a couch to sleep on when your meal ticket dumps you. One day, and it may take a really long time, enough of the reading public will catch up to you. They’ll like how you test the limits of their expectations – even their patience. They’ll appreciate how you helped them see the world differently. But for many years, all those risks you’re taking with form, character, and plot will be poison to publishers. And when you do finally publish, the reviewers will savage you.

Embrace their attacks. Any professional reviewer who takes the time to bash you in public has at least taken the time to read your work. You got under their skin and they will remember you.

(lean in) Send them another book. Let them shoot you full of arrows again. Someday, long after, they’ll encounter you at a writer conference or online chatroom, and they’ll see you survived them. You kept writing – despite their criticism – and managed to find an audience and build on it. They couldn’t keep you down. They will respect that.

A moment ago, I said “You managed to find an audience and build on it.” This is inevitable for any writer, or any artist, who has talent and keeps working to improve. Malcolm Gladwell writes about the theory that it takes 10-thousand hours to become a master of your craft. He explores this in his book Outlier. In one chapter, he calculates all the hours the Beatles rehearsed privately and played publicly before their landmark album Meet the Beatles came out in 1964. Ten thousand hours. In another chapter, Gladwell calculates all the hours Bill Gates wrote computer code – starting in high school — before co-founding Microsoft in 1975. Ten thousand hours.  I think it’s safe for you to expect a similar time investment. The Beatles were in their early 20s when they hit it big. Bill Gates was the same age.

How old are you?  Take a moment and think how many hours you have been writing and re-writing in class or on your own time. You might be closer to 10K than you realize.

At some point in your efforts to get published, you’ll walk into a bit of luck. I’m a big believer that people who strive make their own luck. The agents and publishers who have the power to keep you in obscurity just can’t help themselves when they see someone struggling to get their manuscript through the door. In my case, a handful of agents offered advice – They took precious moments from their day to write me an email saying why my manuscript wasn’t working for them and offered suggestions for improving it. If this happens to you, treat that advice like gold. Thank them, revise again, and then re-submit.

Speaking of submissions… Industry insiders will tell you they don’t like it when you submit to every publisher who handles science fiction or horror or literary criticism. They do have a point when they say “Hey, we invested valuable time reading your submission and then you went with this other publisher (or agent).” My thoughts on this are simple and direct: They have all the power. You are at a disadvantage. You need to do what’s best for your manuscript, so I recommend you don’t become too concerned when they complain about investing a little time in you. THAT’S THEIR JOB. Now, you can play fair and say in your query letter that you’re submitting to everyone and that you’ll inform them when you get an offer. Do this but know you don’t owe them anything more.

Let’s fast forward a few years. You have a brilliant manuscript and got a professional edit. You finally found a publisher who believes in your book or article and signed the contract. Congratulations — Welcome to the world of literary promotion!

You might know that each author must be the chief marketer of their work. Even large publishers with marketing staff can only do so much. Most publishers will give you resources and advice, but they don’t have the staff to sell your book. So how do you pick up their slack and start selling?

You can spend a lot of money paying for marketing services and, believe me, there are a lot of people out there who offer various packages and rates – and none of them can offer you any metrics on how successful their services are. Let’s be clear: marketing is an art not a science. With this in mind, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned through my own experience, and that begins with this: Never pay for promotion.

I’ve never paid a penny. But I have spent many more hours marketing my writing than actually writing. I still don’t know how I feel about that, and I cannot point to any metrics saying my marketing efforts are paying off. But I feel like I’m moving the ball forward and that’s got to mean something. I’m still in the game. I’m… here… after all, so I must be doing something right. So what did I do?

I looked up book bloggers. These are readers, just like you and me, except they maintain blogs containing their reviews plus other cute features like “First Line Friday” or “Short Story Sunday” or “Monday Memoir.” Each one has a TBR or “to be read” stack that’s a mile high and I wanted to see if they’d move my book up. So I pitched them with the following line: “Looking for extra content for your blog? How about an email Q & A?”  And a surprising number of bloggers jumped on this. They sent me a list of questions, I answered within a day or two, and – Voila – there’s my interview on their blog, plus my photo and a link to the Amazon “buy page” for my book.

It was the easiest thing I could do with my time, and now I have bloggers who are curious about me and my work. And it only takes one if they’re part of a network, so I recommend you focus on these. Many bloggers have agreements with other bloggers where they share posts on their websites, and then post the links on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Let me give you an example:

Two years ago, Love Books Group reviewed four of my vampire stories that will be included in my next book. This Scottish blog gave me a good review, included a photo of me, and links to my other work available on Amazon. That’s not remarkable. Here’s what is:

18 UK-based bloggers shared it on their sites and tweeted it. Each member of this network averages 15,000 Twitter followers, and they’re also active on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.

15,000 x 18 equals… I don’t care what the number is, THAT is a network that’s too important to ignore.

It includes blogs like Chat About Books, Keeper of Pages, Linda’s Book Blog, Between the Lines, Bits About Books, and Swirl & Thread. Each of them got to know me after I pitched an interview. Then I pitched my first vampire story “The Caretaker” and three of them gave enthusiastic reviews.

In my experience, when one of them likes you, you’re in. It’s not necessary for them to like everything you write. The blogger at Swirl & Thread, for example, doesn’t like vampires. Keeper of Pages loved my story “The Caretaker” but was not happy with my novel Shepherd & the Professor.  This experience taught me something about what works and what doesn’t with certain readers.

That’s how I got free publicity and laid the groundwork for sales of my forthcoming novel. If you write creative fiction, I recommend you get in this network or something similar. If you’re an academic writer, find a journal that gets quoted in popular media. And in both cases, be sure to let your local media know about the attention you’re getting — because reporters tend to chase the same stories and, depending on what else is going on in the news, you might be the story for one day.

It seems ridiculous to have to say this, because you’re all polite people, but being nice makes all the difference. Sadly, not everyone gets this, and I feel sorry for the writer who responds angrily to a bad review. The bloggers I know consider an attack on one an attack on all, and they will shut out any author who insults them.

When I saw this on Twitter, it resembled an excommunication. I felt certain the offending author’s writing would never again see the light of day, and he would die frozen and alone knowing it was his own damned fault. Which, of course, it was.

It doesn’t need to end this way. Don’t like that two-star rating? Suck it up and say “Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea,” and thank them for their time. If the reviewer had a specific complaint, consider that when you write your next book or article. Then pitch them again.

It’s worth noting that amateur bloggers devote enormous amounts of time reading books and maintaining their sites. Ever wonder why? The ones I know don’t get paid for reviews, although they make a little money from selling ad space. They do it because they love books so much that they need to share their feelings about them — even to total strangers. They also enjoy getting to know authors. They really want to shout your name from the rooftops. All you have to do is give them a reason to do so.

Another way to promote your writing is through podcasts. Authors writing on any subject can reach new audiences by producing their own podcasts or getting invited on better-known ones. Any podcast that allows you to read an excerpt and talk about your work is worth investigating. A very well produced one lives on the Rockford Writers Guild website. Their “Guildy Pleasures” podcast features two Pushcart-prize winners, plus excellent emerging authors. I was the first guest, reading five of my vampire stories. Podcasts are great for authors because they’re sharable on social media, and you can track metrics like “full listens.” But the audience is getting more and more sophisticated so there’s less tolerance for schlocky production than, say, a decade ago. If you get invited to a podcast, make sure you do your part and rehearse the excerpt you want to read, and make sure you know exactly how you’ll answer basic interview questions like “What inspired you to write this book or article?” Nobody wants to listen to meandering answers, and nobody wants to hear an author stumble their way through a reading.

The same applies to bookstore or radio appearances. I can’t tell you how many times I attended events where an author showed up and it was clear they weren’t prepared. Or they stood, chin down, quietly reading their words without any emotion or emphasis. Remember: You have one chance to make a good impression on your audience – so knock ‘em dead.

I hope I made a good impression with you. One day when my career has stalled, and you’re headlining a publishing or academic conference, I might want to hitch my wagon to your rising star. In the meantime, I’ll do what I can to help your career. If you think it may help to drop my name, feel free to do so.

I gave you A LOT of things to remember tonight. The short version is: write your very best work, get a professional edit, get 100 agents to reject you, pay nothing for promotion, be nice, and rehearse.

Thank you for inviting me. And remember me when you’re famous!

What I’m Learning About Online Publishing

Audience growth is my obsession lately. If you’re a writer with the same goal, you might benefit from what I’ll share below about online publishers.

Online publishers present your work quickly and to a high standard. They’re less prestigious than literary journals, but more so than self-publishers like Wattpad. If a good edit is important to you, and good art to accompany your writing, you’ll get it with the two that published me: Public House Magazine and Logos Literature.

Since February, both re-issued a handful of my vampire stories, each of which is a chapter in a forthcoming novel. While I’m not being paid, these one-time licenses keep my writing in circulation which allows me to reach new readers.

I also debuted a story with Logos which could be the opening chapter of a future novel.

The main benefit of online publishers, beyond their quick turnaround, is the shareability of their content. This is not the case with print publications which operate differently. Even when they offer online content, it isn’t always available via a direct link.

Every day, I spend more time sharing my stories than writing new ones (I still don’t know how I feel about that and may address this in a future post). Twitter is where I spend most of my efforts because I can schedule tweets using Tweetdeck, and monitor hits using Bitly. My recent efforts scored a third invitation this year to appear on WCGO-Chicago’s “Playtime with Bill Turck & Kerri Kendall.” And I keep getting more followers which will help during my 2020 book launch – an event I hope will finally generate income.

Another benefit of online publishers is the speed at which they build your brand, which is essential to growing your audience. You probably know a brand is basically a promise to your customer that when they buy your product (or devote precious time to read you), they’ll know what to expect each time. I’ve been branded “that vampire guy.”

I’m hoping to elevate this to “literary vampire guy,” but have embraced the label for now, and have every intention to deliver what my readers expect: stories about creatures that will kill you if you’re not careful.

You might prefer a different venue for your writing, and I’m curious to know where your path is taking you. What’s right for me – an author in his 50s who still has a day job — may not be appropriate for someone in her 70s. Or a college-aged writer still trying to find her voice.

But if you’ve written something quirky, or perhaps a bit dark, visit the above websites. You might find them a good fit for the current phase of your journey. I, for one, will encounter your work much sooner this way. I look forward to reading you.

Best,

DK

Keynote Address for In Print 5 Year Celebration

Thank you for inviting me here — and congratulations on five years of connecting writers to readers…to visual artists through Word of Art…and for connecting writers to each other. Anyone who writes knows how lonely it can be sometimes.

Before I continue, I’d like to know how many writers here made it past the gatekeepers and got published. First, how many people have a traditional publishing contract?

How many have a “hybrid” or self-publishing contract?

It’s good to see writers getting their work out there. I’m excited to be joining you next month when my first book comes out. So I’m speaking to you, not only as a journalist who covers literature, but as a novelist…and both of these perspectives will inform my comments today.

In five years, In Print has become the #1 resource for Rockford-area writers, with author interviews appearing on Mendelsohn Club’s radio station — and an affiliation with the Chicago Writers Association. Through Word of Art 1 & 2, you bridged the gap between written and visual expression, proving that authors and artists can create a powerful experience when they collaborate. Being a judge for Word of Art 2 was a great honor for me, and it truly opened my eyes to the depth of talent we have in the Rockford area.

When I started the WNIJ Book Series — four years ago — I had it in my mind that I would discover the “literary voice of northern Illinois” or the “Rockford writer’s voice.” I was looking for that…thing…that makes writers here unique. To be honest, I was envious of the attention southern writers get because of their unique voice and sense of place. I kept thinking of a phrase I heard about the south, and this phrase so captured my imagination that it came to symbolize my search:

“The South is a place. East, North and West are merely directions.”

Anyone who ever read southern literature understands this, and the unique qualities of the people and culture below the Mason-Dixon Line — qualities you don’t find in other points on the compass.

But that phrase, “The South is a place. East, North and West are merely directions,” is especially notable for what it ignores:

The MIDDLE. We who live in the “fly-over states.” Why don’t more people in New York or LA…or even Chicago…care about what’s going on in the smaller cities and rural towns in the Midwest? How come it’s so hard to pitch a story set in your neighborhood to an agent?

Concerned that I might live in a place where the people and their stories might never be heard by those on the coasts…or in the mountain states…I decided to go and find the “voice of the flatlands” in the WNIJ area. And I did find it in a guy named Chris Fink.

Chris chairs the English Department at Beloit College. A few years ago he wrote a collection of stories called Farmer’s Almanac. In it, he writes about Wisconsin dairy farmers struggling with low milk prices. He writes about a fur trapper who’s being cheated on the prices for his pelts…L and a train engineer who’s haunted by the memory of killing someone at a rail crossing.

Many of Fink’s stories were inspired by real-life events he covered as a newspaper reporter.  After reading his book, I felt like I understood the working people of Wisconsin a little better. And I felt that my project was off to a good start.

But the more authors I interviewed, the more I realized how many transplants from those other compass points are here in our territory.  I started meeting authors who brought their own “sense of place” with them. Kelly Daniels, at Augustana College, wrote a memoir called Cloudbreak, California, in which his beach-bum father tells him – when Kelly is eight – that he killed a man and has to flee the country. After graduating from high school, Kelly also leaves, bumming around Mexico and Central America until – many years later – he has a bittersweet reunion with his dad on a southern California beach.

Not a Midwestern tale, but a really a good one – and I included his book in the series. At the time, though, I was a little confused: Where does this leave me and my “mission” to capture a regional voice, or sense of place?

So I had to rethink what a “sense of place” is. Is it completely made up, like Lake Wobegon – “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children above average?” Garrison Keillor is a master at putting you in a place that feels so familiar – yet I’ve been to Minnesota and I never saw anything resembling Lake Wobegon. Maybe Garrison is remembering something that existed sixty years ago…something he longs for…and THAT’S why he created it.

Once I viewed Lake Wobegon as a response to nostalgia, I began to look at “place” differently. I started looking at the spaces where people gather, and the stories they tell there, and slowly I understood that people make the place, not the other way around. And it didn’t matter whether those people were in a bar or a virtual chat room. They gathered because they were hungry to tell, and hear, stories.
Now, in an ideal world, the people telling these stories make a decent living telling them… so they’ll be encouraged to tell more stories. But for far too long, writers toiled away in isolation, not getting informed feedback, not getting a decent edit — and not learning how to write a decent press release, which makes groups like In Print so important. After all, news editors are always looking for stories in their community. A local writer with a well-written and well-edited book makes a nice feature for a newspaper or a radio station. And we all understand how important these interviews are for building an author’s platform.

Of course, sometimes the interviewers need a little schooling.  During my first Book Series, I was really focused on that “sense of place,” and tried to label one of this area’s best fiction writers as a “Midwestern writer.” Her name is Molly McNett and the interview was about her debut story collection, One Dog Happy. Now, in fairness to me, all the stories in this book were set in Illinois. And Molly lives on a farm in Ogle County that’s been in her family for five generations. It doesn’t get more Midwestern than THAT, right?  So I presumed she would want to promote a kind of “regional identity.” But during the interview she gently redirected me away from that. We had a nice talk, and it sounded good on the radio. But it could’ve been better if I just let Molly be Molly. A year later I interviewed her again, and I did just that, and we had a great interview about her latest story, which was about (pause) a music teacher in medieval England – a story that’s as far as you can get from the modern Midwest…and one that was included in the 2014 Best American anthology next to stories by Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle and Ann Beattie.

By the way, Molly practices Buddhist meditation so in that first interview she resisted being labeled by NOT resisting – by being the stone that, when dropped in water, just keeps displacing water as it heads to the bottom. Only in this case, Molly rose to the top of American letters.

So my mission keeps evolving. When reading for the Book Series, or just reading for pleasure, I’m always on the lookout for a writer who transports me to a different patch of earth…or who helps me discover something new about the place I inhabit.

Occasionally, I have time to read the best-sellers, and I’m always amused at how many of them are set in New York City, with young, sexy people living the “New York lifestyle” (whatever that is).

Obviously, that’s because the big publishers are located in Manhattan and the people who work for those companies like reading about themselves. But…more and more publishers are starting up in those large, square states – and here’s where I think we’re on the verge of a literary revolution.

As more and more editors and publishers locate here, more and more stories get published here. With competition in the marketplace, you’ll see writing contests offering bigger prizes.  Who knows?  Maybe these companies will start offering advances, and authors can quit their day jobs to write full-time.

Of course, we’re still talking about book publishing which doesn’t help the writer trying to publish a short story, or poem or essay. Which brings me to a point I want to make. Not so much a point, but an exhortation to plan for an even greater literary future. If you’re looking for a soundbite from this speech that you can post on your website or Facebook page, here it is:

In Print…start a literary journal.

There is enough writing talent – here in this room — to fill a quarterly magazine of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. And I suspect there’s a good amount of editing talent here. Best of all, it would be so much fun — think of all the icons of Rockford history you could use when naming the journal: The Screw City Scribbler. Or maybe, Cheap Screed. Or, if you want something a little edgier: Die, Sock Monkey, Die.

In Print, as it is now, is a place where Rockford-area writers can share their stories and learn how to be better story-tellers. When you become a journal, you’ll become an even bigger space because writers from all over will want to join you – to be a part of the creative vibe we have here. As a result, every writer who appears in this journal will be taken more seriously by editors and publishers across the nation.

Think about the knock-on effect it will have. Once Rockford gains a national (or even international) reputation as a place for great writing, people who read will wake up and realize what they’ve been missing — here in their own back yard.

And maybe, just maybe, someone will open a bookstore again.

WNIJ can’t make this happen, and neither can the Register Star.  In Print can, and I want to reiterate: you have the talent here to do it. And the money’s out there, in the form of grants or donations.

What’s more, the media attention is out there. When you take your service to the next level, and do something truly ambitious…that becomes a news story. WNIJ and the Register Star, and the Rock River Times, will all pay attention because it’s been a long time since Rockford had a literary journal. And, just between you and me (and the video camera there) news editors and reporters all have a secret desire to write the next Great American Novel. I’m willing to bet they’ll be among your first story contributors.

So, when the In Print Literary Journal (whatever it’s called) has its launch party, I look forward to sharing the news with all the readers, and writers, who listen to WNIJ.

And finally…we’ll all be able to say, “The Middle is a place. East, West, North and South are merely directions.”

 

Thank you, In Print, for inviting me. And here’s to the next five years!