just got back from one of my favorite places on earth, the Wolf
Sanctuary of Pennsylvania. I’ve featured the furry, four-legged
residents in about a dozen of my novels, and in my last book, Shawnee
is the star. She’s a lone wolf and has to fight for every scrap of
food, every treat, every nanosecond of human and visitors’ attention.
(Personally? I think the other wolves—especially the girl wolves—are
just jealous ’cuz she’s a natural blonde.)
What’s that got to do with
today’s topic? I thought you’d never ask!
To learn all the fascinating and
amazing facts now stored in my thick-skulled head, I’ve had to do some
serious research on wolves, which included hanging around with people
who, thanks to decades of one-on-one work with the magnificent
creatures, understand what makes ’em tick . . . individually and as a
pack. So in addition to their limitless patience and deep love for all
things wild, these amazing men and women have been excellent teachers.
Teaching folks about writing
isn’t all that different from teaching wolf enthusiasts about Canis
lupus.. We’re all a little wild and crazy the first few times
we park our butts in front of a computer screen, paws hovering above
the keyboard to craft our debut novel. (Oh, who am I kidding? We’re
always a little wild and crazy . . . we’re writers!)
While we’re in the process of
“learning the ropes,” we don’t know who in the industry we can trust.
How much research is necessary? What’s the right balance of dialogue
and narrative? Should we join a critique group? Good idea to attend
conferences? Smart to enter contests? The list of questions goes on and
Then we get a lucky break. An
agent or editor takes a chance on us. We sell something! And, oh, what
a wake-up call, seeing the offer on our first contract. It’s never as
much as we’d hoped. It’s definitely not as much as friends and
relatives presume, but we’re thrilled with our paltry advance check all
Sadly, the thrill wears off as
we plod from idea to development to submission and the long
editing process that precedes publication, all the while trying to make
that advance check stretch until our first royalty payment arrives.
We have to learn about marketing
and promotions because these days, unless your name is John Grisham or
Nora Roberts, publishers never invest in cross-country book tours. So
we do book signings, bookmarks, postcards, newsletters, Web sites,
blogs, and a dizzyingly lengthy list of “stuff” to help sell our books.
So how do we make ends meet
while all that’s going on?
I have writer pals who don
disguises so friends and family members won’t recognize them: waitress
aprons, McDonald’s caps, plumbers’ tool belts, and cleaning lady
sweatsuits. Not to worry . . . if anybody catches ’em at work, they’re
prepared to smile and whisper, “I’m researching my next novel . . .”
Me? I write articles about
writing, give speeches on writing, but mostly, I teach “Where Do
Writers Get Ideas” to “How to Submit a Professional Proposal” and
everything in between. I’ve been to Canada and Europe and a whole lot
of cities in the good old U. S. of A., sharing learned-the-hard-way
lessons about the craft and the industry with audiences of a host of
writers’ organizations. I’ve taught online, in college and university
classrooms, at corporations that encourage their employees to write.
Why, I even taught classes for the National Security Administration’s
Pen and Cursor Society!
sessions. Weekend workshops to help writers of all genres and ability
levels discover what’s keeping them from getting that first contract,
or making the leap from one genre to another.
has paid more than a few bills at my house over the years. It also
helped garner some free publicity (as schools and organizations
“hawked” the upcoming events in an attempt to increase attendance). I
enjoy every “light bulb moment” I see in the eyes of my students. I
love editing their manuscripts, sharing the joys of their victories . .
. and assuring them that the agony accompanying rejection is only
But teaching, sadly, hasn’t kept
up with inflation. These days, believe it or not, it’s actually costing
me money. And because I’m whittling time from my writing schedule to
update and photocopy handouts, to show up on time for every session, to
edit and critique student submissions . . . well, I think you can see
where I’m going with this.
So when the local college
approached me to learn if I planned to re-affiliate next year, I had to
ask myself a tough question: Can I afford to say yes?
The answer was even tougher than
the question. Because if I hope to stay on the right track in this
oh-so-competitive industry, I literally can’t
afford to say yes!
Will I miss sharing lessons with
hopeful, talented writers? You bet I will! Will I miss seeing their
eyes light up every time an “I get it now!” moment happens? Absolutely!
Will I miss helping them understand that with perseverance,
persistence, and patience, they’ll achieve their goals? Sure I will!
But I’ll have to do all of that
from a distance now, in a word-of-mouth way. And isn’t it a dirty
rotten shame that this part of my writing life, the “pay it forward”
part I’ve so enjoyed, must end?
I refuse to see the situation as
a slamming door. Instead, it’s a different door
opening to a new phase of my writing life. Just as my students hope for
that magical moment when an editor or agent calls to say, “We’d like to
offer you a contract!” I pray that along the way, I can continue
mentoring and making friends with writers who share my publication