As a writer, the bottom line is simple: you want to get your books in front of as many readers as possible. This article is about how you can do that.
• Traditional publishing has some very serious drawbacks writers need to understand
• Self-publishing has different strengths than traditional publishing, but a whole set of its own drawbacks
• Print books still outsell ebooks 4 to 1 as bookstore are making a comeback (and why that’s important)
• What to should consider when determining if you should self-publish or traditional publish
Many writers, from the famous Seth Godin to writers such as James Altucher and Hugh Howey, have written or spoken about how obsolete and doomed traditional publishing is. Traditional publishing still has some big advantages, but self-publishing companies and self-published authors are making the case that traditional publishing is nearly as obsolete as those compact discs gathering dust in your closet.
These critics of traditional publication make some great points. Let’s take a high-level look at some of the most damning observations of traditional publishing.
Traditional publishing does offer far greater prestige, sizable advances to even beginning authors (if you have a good book proposal), seasoned editors who can offer incredibly valuable creative and practical feedback, the ability to more easily sell things like international and subsidiary rights to your book, and professional, in-house designers to create great book covers. While few publishers will do all your marketing for you, good ones will actively support your marketing efforts.
But is traditional print publishing really dying a slow death? Let’s take a closer look.
There is an assumption: everything is moving quickly towards digital, which plays against traditional publishing’s strengths and into their weaknesses. After all, one of traditional publishing’s biggest strengths is getting physical books into physical bookstores, in front of the eyes of physical buyers. Without this, they are taking another step to being like record stores without records, and we all know how that went.
The Pew Research Center survey released data in December of 2012. The report showed that the percentage of adults who have read an e-book rose modestly over the past year, from 16% to 23%. But it also revealed that fully 89% of regular book readers said that they had read at least one printed book during the preceding 12 months. 
Bottom line: As of late 2012, electronic books had 22% of the total market, not exactly the domination and ass-whipping that had been predicated. That means almost 4 out of every 5 books sold is still a print book. 
Bookstores had a rough time in the first decade of the 2000’s. About a thousand small and independent stores closed their doors, Borders Books went out of business, and the media reported often on the dire state of the industry.
But something strange is happening. Bookstores are growing again.
According to the American Booksellers Association, since 2009 the number of bookstores has gone up (very modestly mind you), from 1,404 to 1,567. Independent bookstores currently sell 10% of the books, with Barnes and Nobel selling 20%, and Amazon 29% (the remaining 40% of sales are spread thinly through another 10 or so mediums, from Wallmart to resales outlets to audio books). The independent booksellers holding their 10% of the market are finding novel ways of staying relevant to their communities. 
Bottom line: It seems a safe bet that the book industry is not going to be the music industry, Part 2.
Self-publishing seems like it offers everything a writer could want. Print-on-demand. Design services. Fast turn-around. Copyediting services. Minimal financial risk. High rates of return per-sale (from 50-85%, as opposed to 8-15% in traditional publishing). The ability to write the book a writer wants to write. No risk of rejection, even for bad ideas and poorly written books.
These are all true. And some writers, such as Jan Strnad, Rachel Schurig, EL James, have made lots and lots (and lots) of money self-publishing. But it isn’t all sun and sunshine, either.
So what is a writer to do? How does one determine if they should pursue self-publishing or traditional publishing?
You have a book, or want to write one. Great. That’s the easy part. The hard part is selling it in this golden age of television, Netflix, Facebook, and Smartphones. The world is busier and faster than ever before, and we are all very, very distracted. A great book by a great author is no longer enough to capture and hold the attention of our culture.
All writers should create a book proposal for their book. Why? Because no publisher is going to swoop in and hand you a marketing plan and a best-seller, even if you get picked up by a big publisher. Likewise, you’re not going to make 6-figures off of your self-published book without a marketing plan. If you doubt that, I’m taking bets. Seriously.
Publishers can be a huge asset and partner on the path. Mine have been. They can also be a rip-off and do nothing for your book. I’ve experienced that kind of publisher as well. Self-publishers often position themselves to be the same as traditional publishers (only better!), but usually they won’t deliver anything you don’t pay them to do. And even then, most have a very limited reach. (A great cautionary tale about vanity and self-publishing can be found on Salon.)
It is up to you to take responsibility for your career and your book. Self-publishing a good book, and then hoping it will sell will not work. Getting a traditional publishing contact and then hoping the publisher will do all the marketing isn’t going to work. You must know your target audience, identify similar books and writers, and fine-tune your marketing plan. You.
After you write your book proposal, ask these questions:
• What kind of a deal you do you want from a publisher? (hint: if you don’t know, you won’t get a good deal)
• What are they willing to do to promote your book, and you?
• What are they willing to offer in writing?
• What kinds of media interest and attention can they secure, if any?
And then ask yourself those exact same questions. If they’re not willing to do very much at all, you probably are better off self-publishing. If you’re not willing to do those things either, you might as well save your wallet and your ego a drubbing, and not self-publish.
No matter which path you choose, your book will need a marketing plan and a way to get your message out there. Your book’s success will, 99 out of 100 times, hinge on your willingness to keep promoting it, through blogs, Facebook, interviews, and creative offerings.
Writing your book is the first step to getting it out in the world. It’s also the easiest part of the journey.
The good news is that you are not bound to take one path or the other. Many writers, myself included, have both self-published and published traditionally. So long as you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and go to work on behalf of your book, you just might find yourself with some success on either path.
On Monday, July 15th, I did something I’ve never done before. I asked, very publicly, for support from friends, family, and the general public for something I haven’t yet created but about which I am tremendously passionate.
Through the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter, I created a fairly elaborate (and I hope funny) movie and page explaining why it would be a good idea for someone like you to join someone like me.
This was and is very edgy, for a number of reasons.
With Kickstarter, if you don’t get 100% of your funding, you get 0% of the money. It’s like an emotional game of Blackjack, except I’m playing with a novel I’m incredibly passionate about, and a big chunk of my self-worth on the line. Now that’s gambling!
What keeps me up at night, though, isn’t the idea of not getting the money – at least, not as a reflection of my self-worth. I’ve fought through too much rejection at this point in my career to let something like this turn me back.
No, what keeps me up is the worry that I won’t be able to afford to write the book, one that has been burning inside of me and is dying to get out.
I resigned, when I started this campaign, that I would be grateful for anything that came my way, even if it all ended up going back to the donors. A lot of financial generosity has flowed this way, but much more than that I’ve been struck by how many people have expressed their belief in my work — people like Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi, Ken Wilber, Robb Smith, and lots and lots (and lots!) of my friends, colleagues, fellow artists, and family.
To you all: a deep, deep bow of gratitude. And here’s why those aren’t just empty, blubbery New Age words.
I’m not a masochist. Nor do I particularly like putting myself out there. And I’m not hooked on the thrill of huge challenges. The truth is much more mundane (and much more beautiful), even if it’s a little on the mushy side: I’m happiest when I’m counting on my friends and family.
My first book (“Mysterious Divination”) was done in the odd hours of life, packed into weekends, late nights, and early mornings. That’s why it took about 10 years to create, and I stubbornly relied on virtually no one to help me with the book. I landed a lousy contract with a shitty publisher, but I got it — all by myself. I didn’t even go out to dinner to celebrate, because it was a hard, long, and lonely process that left me embittered, broke, and cynical.
For my second book (“A Heart Blown Open”), I tried a different approach. I sought support from a men’s group here in Boulder. I asked my parents for their emotional support and blessing. I shared how the process made me feel, well, naked. I found a woman who loved me and deeply support my work. And my friends and family backed me, 100%, when I decided to sell my house so that I could take the time to write it. As I fought through the book, I leaned on friends and family, hard. The experience left me elated, connected, deeply grateful, and feeling luckier than any man has a right to feel.
The third book, (“The Heart of Zen”) with Jun Po Roshi — coming out in April 2014 — was privately financed by investors who believed in Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi’s work in the world, and in my ability to capture it. This was a new experience for me — accepting others’ financial generosity to help me do this thing that I do.
It’s going to be as deep, grand, and amusing as I can possibly manage. It will, at the very least, be the very best work that I can do. Beyond that, fate, talent, and luck will combine in their weird and magical way.
But I literally can’t do this without you. Forget the platitudes or empty New Age slogans. Without your help, I have no audience and no way to live so that I can take the many thousands of hours this book will demand.
And one way or another, it all draws to a close on August 15th. No matter how it turns out, I’ve learned and celebrate how much I rely on the support of others.
The Kickstarter campaign came down to the wire. With about 22 minutes to go, we met the goal of $30,000. This book will now become a reality!
Simply put, Generation X and the Millennials are facing challenges in love, career, and life their parents could never have imagined, problems tied into the ways we were raised and into where the world finds itself. But many of us are struggling, even sinking, under this weight.
In the next few weeks, I’m going to be doing 20-minute interviews with numerous thought-leaders, teachers, and creators on this topic, all in anticipation of my next novel, Only Everything. You can watch the interviews and share your voice on Only Everything.org. They include Ken wilber, Tripp Lanier, Ali Shanti, Sara Avant Stover, Shawn Phillips, Kelly Notaris, Jun Po Roshi, Robb Smith, and more! (12 total, starting July 17th).
The Baby Boomers worked to create the counterculture and a life outside of then-social norms and their parents’ expectations. The mandate they were given was to work hard, settle down, and play by society’s rules, a mandate many of them rejected.
They gave their own children an entirely new mandate. Most of us under the age of 45 were told some version of “you can be anything you want to be.” Joseph Campbell, in 1963, admonished an entire generation: “…follow your bliss…”. A 1980’s mega bestseller was called Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow.
Millions of us listened, and are living with these ideas driving our daily thoughts, expectations, dreams, and self-worth. Gen X, faced with the hugeness of “you can be anything you want to be”, guarded itself with cynicism and a “slacker” culture, and is now marching into middle age as “the ignored generation” (Time Magazine). The Millennials (half of whom still live at home), were raised in a much more “you’re special and deserve a gold star” culture, but seem uncertain how to even step into life.
Clearly most of us under the age of 45 do feel some sense that we are special, something that is, at a minimum, reflected in our Facebook posts, Tumblr feeds, and Instagram pics.
The article,“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” was the most widely read story ever on The Atlantic’s website last year, and landed its author both a book deal and spots on Today and Colbert.
What no one asked her, or is asking, is why do we even expect that we can have it all? Is it because we were raised to believe we could be anything we wanted to be, and that if we followed our hearts, our wallets and homes would be full?
The belief we are special is an empowering one, of course, but one that can also lead to narcissism, which is window dressing for the deeper reality of purposelessness, frustration, and self-doubt. Narcissism, in other words, is directionally proportional to its seeming opposite, insecurity.
Time Magazine ran an interesting cover story back on May 20th of this year, and the cover was: “The ME ME ME Generation: The Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents :: Why they’ll save us all.” It started to look at some of the burdens, and opportunities, faced by the Millennials and, to some extent, their older peers (Gen X-ers like me).
As someone born in the middle of Gen X, I can speak to my own experience of a sense of entitlement (yes, it’s there) and narcissism (yup, there too). Truthfully, the mandate “you can be anything you want to be” has created huge currents of shame, guilt, and insecurity for me, as well as the stubbornness to push through huge rejection and resistance.
A complicated legacy, to say the least.
Why? Well, if we can be anything we want, why the hell is life so hard? Why is success so stubborn? How do I tolerate jobs I dislike? And why am I still an unknown? Doesn’t this mean I’ve failed somehow, somewhere, and the fault must be mine?
Perhaps most importantly, if I believe I can have it all, how can I settle for anything less? How can I be happy with anything less than everything?
What are the implications of this mandate for us? The Boomers broke free of their mandate (“follow the rules, settle down, work hard”), and helped to change the world in radical ways. Might we do the same? What would that look like, for us?
The world is in great flux right now. We’re living through the collapse of the old economy and the full birth of a new one. Case-in-point: my 77-year-old father worked for a single employer his entire career, and moved from being the 8th of 9 children in the Depression-era South to middle class success. A world with that kind of opportunity simply no longer exists, at least not for Westerners. With much of Europe plunged into economic crisis, and much of the U.S. still mired in recession, the entire idea of how one entered and stayed in the middle class is in question.
Or, as CEO and entrepreneur Robb Smith says in my interview with him, “In the next ten years, it’s going to be much better to be a Chinese teenager than an American one.”
Why? Well, two-thirds of all Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck. Millennials and Gen Y are saddled with nearly $1 trillion in school loan debt, profoundly affecting the housing and private lending markets. They’re holding an additional $1 trillion in household credit card debt. Companies are now mostly focused on the next financial quarter, not the next decade. And even tried and true industries, like hospitality, can be turned on their head with the emergence of something like Air B&B. The truth is, we couldn’t live the lives of parents lived even if we wanted to. And how can we follow our dreams when we can’t afford a home, a new car, or the security of knowing we’ll have a job in a year?
This is the central theme of my new novel, Only Everything. What are your thoughts on this? How has this mandate affected you, or those you love? Where do you see it all heading?
A Heart Blown Open has been nominated for Book of the Year by Foreword Reviews. It was chosen from among 1,300 entries from small and academic publishers.
It has also WON the Silver Medal Award from Nautilus Books, for 2013.
On January 21st, I signed a contract with North Atlantic Books for my third book, called “The Heart of Zen: Enlightenment, Emotional Maturity, and What it Really Takes for Spiritual Liberation.”
The Heart of Zen takes a step-by-step approach to what has become a vexing problem in spiritual circles. While we are more and more familiar with popular ideas of Enlightenment and spiritual Awakening, life still comes at us full-force, and hope can turn to frustration as the gulf between our spiritual belief and our everyday life seems to loom ever larger.
What is missing is integration. If Awakening truly transforms every part of the life of a person, where are we getting stuck? How can things like anger, shame, envy, and jealousy continue to arise? How do our relative egos relate to Emptiness, and what does this mean for our intimate relationships, our emotional bodies, our views of the world and its problems?
The Heart of Zen represents the next generation of spiritual books, because it is not content to merely talk about Awakening and spiritual life. These topics are addressed, of course, but within the context of creating lasting change, through the integration of spiritual insight into the flow and flux of everyday life. Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi and I talk about how a well-trained meditation students may learn to be non-reactive to emotions, but they seldom learn how to transform negative emotions (and the ego that holds them) as part of a more deeply integrated, lived spirituality.
This book describes, in great detail and with many exercises for the reader to follow, precisely what this means. Part discussion on these intricate topics and part experiential guide, The Heart of Zen offers a one-of-a-kind take on Enlightenment, emotional maturity, and the integration required to take one’s seat in true liberation.
Stay tuned for excerpts!
Q: How did you and Jun Po meet?
We first met in Boulder, in 2007, at a weekend conference on how Integral Theory had changed/affected out lives. Jun Po, recently in remission from Stage-4 Throat Cancer treatment, was remarkably candid about himself and some of the mistakes he’d recently made in his life, not a common experience one has when talking to a “spiritual teacher”. They tend to be long on teachings and short on personal revelations that might put them in a bad light, but not Jun Po. I was intrigued.
Q: How did you come to write the book?
Jun Po contacted me in the spring of 2009, and asked me if I was interested in writing his life story. I said, “maybe…”. He flew me to a retreat center in Massachusetts, where he told me his life story over two days, then asked again if I was interested. It was the most remarkable life story I had ever heard — this guy has done everything from trained with the who’s who of spirituality in the 20th Century to served time in Federal prison — so I readily agreed to write the book. (Eyebrow-raising excerpts can be found on the madness of his upbringing, on his experimentation with LSD , on amazing experiences in India, and on meeting the Dali Lama).
Q: How long did it take you to write this book?
I started the book in July 2009, and finished the first draft in May of 2010. After critical feedback on the manuscript, I decided to completely rewrite it, which took another year. From then, it was off to the publisher for editing (big thanks to Manny Otto and David Wright), and finally came into print in February 2012.
Q: What was the hardest part of creating the book?
There were two hard parts. The first was that when I was first offered this book in the summer of 2009, I realized that it was a story more extraordinary than I had ever heard before. Denis Kelly’s life is like a Hunter S. Thompson bioptic that somehow ends up with a Zen master at the end of it.
Amazing. But how does one afford to take a year, or two, off of life to write a book, full-time? Although I was living in Boulder, CO, I still owned and was renting a house in Philadelphia. I sold the house in August 2009, and used the money to live on while I wrote the book. I’ve never regretted that decision, even though the chances are slim I’ll ever make that money back.
The second hardest part was when, in the summer of 2010, the book was rejected by a major New York literary agency because the writing wasn’t strong enough (detailed here). I nearly threw in the towel and decided to give up on my dreams of writing, but after a long night sitting with it, ultimately decided to “double down”.
Q: It’s an unusual format for a biography, and reads more like a novel. Was this intentional?
Very much so. I wanted the book to recreate the emotional and situational elements of Jun Po’s life, so that the reader got as close to possible to experiencing what his life was like instead of merely reading about it. I labored to get inside of his mind and emotional state, and to create the scene and setting of his life events so that the reader would have a deeper and more emotional experience.
I’m happy to know that many people have been deeply touched by this approach.
Q: Did you find that your own spirituality or view of the world conflicted with Kelly’s?
No — Jun Po showed me the missing pieces in the my own practice. I had been trying to “get away from” my ego and “negative” emotions in my practice. His teachings showed me I had everything I needed to transcend — and include — all of myself on my spiritual path.
Q: So you became his student before writing the book. Didn’t this create a conflict of interest?
Possibly, but I worked to offset this as much as I could. I distanced myself from him for the two years I was working on the book, and also collaborated many of the stories in the book to get differing opinions on what happened. Most importantly, Jun Po was not eager to cover up or hide the places in his life where he made serious mistakes and had large breaches of integrity; those, in fact, are some of the most interesting and telling points of the book. Part of what makes him unique is his willingness to discuss the places where he made mistakes, even big and embarrassing ones.
Q: Had you written a book before? Or a biography for that matter?
My first book is a collection of short stories called The Mysterious Divination of Tea Leaves. I had never written a biography until A Heart Blown Open.
Q: What universal takeaway should a reader expect from reading the book?
Anyone seeking true emotion freedom in their lives — freedom to truly show up as a partner, parent, friend — will be inspired by the book. Kelly’s life isn’t just an exploration of how to “wake up” and attain spiritual liberation, but how to live that liberation in the mess of daily life. That means viewing what used to be “problematic” emotions like anger, shame, and jealousy as gifts that can teach us how to truly live and love. My own takeaway from the book can be seen in my first reading of it at the Boulder Bookstore.
The last few months a strange thing has happened. I’ve been interviewed, quite a few times in fact. This is an interesting turn of events for a number of reasons.
The first is that it’s never happened before, which makes the experience a novel one, to say the least. Second, and perhaps most importantly, I’m being interviewed about A Heart Blown Open, which was published in February. What’s strange about this is the biography, unlike Walter Isaacson’s wonderful tome about Steve Jobs, is about someone who is very much alive and well and able to speak perfectly well on his own.
The third thing that makes it interesting is my naiveté. I’m green with envy at writers that have personal publicists to help fine-tune their messaging. I’ve read these publicists are masters of spin, not only with the media but most importantly with the talent they represent. (So, for instance, it’s never ‘what could be done better next time is X’, but instead a bit of a compliment sandwich, like ‘that was wonderful! It might be helpful next time to mention your website. Great job on that last question – that was a tough one!’). It would seem we writers are a sensitive lot.
As my own underpaid and rather unskilled publicist, I must listen to my own interviews to pick up on things that went well while grimacing at the things that sounded great in my mind, but were somehow lost on the journey to my mouth. This, I don’t mind admitting, is a humbling process. It probably doesn’t help that my girlfriend and partner-in-crime is so damn fluid and seamless in her interviews (my favorite is this one, where she’s interviewed by a kinda crusty old guy on a San Francisco TV station, about her book for women, and knocks it out of the park).
The first time I was interviewed, for Westworld Magazine here in Colorado, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. It was over the phone, thank goodness, so my nervous pacing went undetected in a way that would have been a little harder to mask in-person (where I might have knocked over a table or two). The interviewer asked great questions, but after I got off the phone I realized that I had never considered how I might present the book to someone who had never heard of Jun Po or me, and didn’t know much about Zen. Jun Po’s life story is amazing, but the truth is he’s not well known, nor am I, nor are the intricacies of Zen, beyond what most people get from pop culture (“dude, does that mean you’re like zoned out all the time, and shit?”). It was something I was going to need to consider.
By the time I made it to Vail to do a little spot on Vail TV in May of 2012, I had found a message to relay (I made a few blunders, like saying Jun Po was raised in poverty — he wasn’t — but oh well). Since then I’ve been interviewed on Buddhist Geeks, The New Man, and Integral Life (two of three forthcoming), and the results have been, well, mixed. So when the time is right, I’ll put on my publicist hat, and give myself a big, fat compliment sandwich. After all, we writers are a sensitive lot.
My experience of the creative process is one that is often painful, perhaps because I’ve spent much of my life producing writing that falls short of what I see in my mind and feel in my heart.
The curse of writing is the compulsion to do it; it compels me to continue to strain and struggle to take something that exists in such Platonic perfection and translate it through the muck and mire of my brain and experience. The curse is also that feeling I get, deep in the belly, when what I tried to write comes out in a way that is strained, contrived, dull, or cliched. It’s like looking for something familiar in the fog; you know where you’re going, but can’t see it or how to get there. That feeling of being maddeningly far from your destination while knowing exactly where you want to be can generate a feeling I can only describe as despair.
Heres’s an example from “A Heart Blown Open”. In an earlier draft, I had ended a powerful scene like this:
Twenty years later he saw Silvia working as a bank teller and she seemed, in her conservative pantsuit, as far removed from the magic of the 1960’s as if that had been in another lifetime. Kelly certainly was changed from the mid-1960’s, the last time she had seen him. He was wearing the modest clothes of a Zen priest, his head and face cleanly shaven. Only his eyes might have seemed the same or given some indication of the man she had once known. But their eyes had never met, and Kelly had done his banking and been on his way. Some things, he knew, were best left in the past, where their magic remained forever undisturbed by the passage of time and the changing of perspective.
Word came to him a few years later that Silvia had lost a battle with cancer, and that her unique expression of humanity had returned to the source. He sat with the news, thinking about how she had saved his life and his sanity, and realized that although he hadn’t seen her in 20 years, he would miss her terribly.
The passage above made me wince every time I read it. It was so far from what I saw in my mind as this passage played out; I felt Kelly’s heartbreak as if it were my own, and knew it was something that touched at the very core of what it meant to be a human being. There was a universality to this experience that I had utterly failed to capture, and it was maddening. Because of the discomfort between what I felt and what I had written, I labored on this paragraph stubbornly and relentlessly, sculpting and fine-tuning until I came up with something a little closer to that Platonic perfection:
After that night, Kelly and Silvia’s paths crossed less and less, and by the late sixties he had lost touch with her completely. In 1982 he went into a bank in San Francisco to withdraw cash and was astonished to see Silvia standing behind the counter in a conservative pantsuit working as a bank teller. Her hair, once magnificently long and as dark as a starless patch of the night sky, was short and graying. He looked at her for a long moment.
Kelly too was much changed from the days of a shaggy beard and shoulder-length hair, and only his eyes might have given some indication of the man Silvia had known so many years before. Yet their eyes never crossed, and Kelly did his banking and left. As he stepped out into the gorgeous California morning, he knew that some things were best left in the past, where their magic remained forever undisturbed by the disillusioning passage of time and the changing of perspectives. Silvia and Kelly’s bond belonged in another era, in a different world whose time had come, and gone.
Word came to him a few years later that Silvia lost a battle with cancer. He sat with the news of her passing, remembering how she had saved his life and his sanity, and felt the depth of sadness in a world where nothing could be held and where everything slid inexorably, and inevitably, to ruin.
When I finally got these words to come through me, I felt the magic of what I do for a living. I had managed to steer myself out of the fog and to that perfect dwelling sitting right in the center of my being; the words came tantalizingly close to capturing an Ideal. For that day, at least, magic had won.
Whether I experience writing as a curse or something magical largely depends on the day, the weather, the stars, my karma, God’s will, or some other vector that I don’t seem to be able to capture, manipulate, understand, or control very effectively. So I slug through it day after day, and let passages like this one inspire the many other passages that have me gritting my teeth in frustration. Perhaps this is why we writers are stubborn, reclusive folks. Perhaps, too, this is the very thing that stands in our way. Either way, the compulsion to write beats its relentless rhyme inside of me.
Back in June of 2009, I put my house in Philadelphia on the market, divested myself of all my savings, and put everything I owned and had into creating the memoir of Jun Po Denis Kelly, A Heart Blown Open.
My house sold in August of 2009 (in two weeks, actually), and I did indeed use the money to fund two years of intensive, 6-days a week writing and editing. I sacrificed everything for this book. It was a leap of faith, and of belief that this story simply had to be told, and told by me. I have never been so scared or so sure of anything in my life. What an interesting intersection of faith and fear and confidence!
In the summer of 2010, after I finished what I thought was the final draft of A Heart Blown Open, I sent it off to a major literary agency to seek their representation. My whole strategy hinged on them picking up the book, which meant they would be willing to walk the manuscript through the door of a major publisher.
A few weeks after submission, I got an email from the agency, saying exactly this: “…although we’ve both been really intrigued by such a ripe story, I’m afraid I just didn’t fall in the writing as much as I’d hoped. The story has all the details and events, but seems to have a… ‘and then, and then’..type of quality without really transporting to the reader into time and place. Much of this feels like a recited life and not one that leaps off the page into contemporary biography. And without these elements, I’m afraid it will be a very difficult sell in this incredibly volatile publishing market…”
I read those words, and looked around me. The sun was close to the mountains outside my window, in a clear blue sky. It was warm, and a window air conditioner rattled in the next room. A copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind sat to my left, a pad of paper with my scribbled handwriting to my right. The apartment was otherwise still.
After that pause, my world imploded around me like a slow-motion reel of a submarine being crushed at the ocean’s bottom. I could no longer breath. Another rejection — how many did that make? 305? 320? 400? I’d lost count. And not just any kind of rejection, but one that explicitly said that it was the writing, not the story, that was causing them to pass on the book.
I wanted to throw up, scream, weep, but all I could manage was raspy breathing. I limped out of my office into the living room, noticing sunshine streaming in from the window, a world away from my reality. I sat down hard enough on a chair to nearly break it, too upset to do anything but collapse into a stunned, embittered silence.
What am I doing? Who am I kidding? Why do I think I can pull this off?
As I sat thinking these things, and worse, I looked up from the floor. My dog, Amia, was sitting ten feet away from me, staring lovingly. Her ears were flat against her head and mouth pulled down, and her entire body was quivering. She was the very picture of the emotional devastation I was feeling. She looked pathetic and, I realized after a moment, funny. She was reflecting my own intense heartbreak, feeling my pain inside of herself, and unintentionally mirroring me. Amia looked as sad and pathetic as I felt: in an instant, I burst out laughing at my own ridiculousness. Okay, I thought, maybe this isn’t the end of my world. Maybe it isn’t as bad as she looks.
That night, I went out and got staggering, stinking drunk to blow off the steam of the rejection. With a crushing hangover the next morning, I sat down at my computer with a cup of coffee and glass of water, a handful of aspirin scattered along side the computer. I opened A Heart Blown Open. The writing wasn’t good enough. Okay. I would see what I could do about that.
The book’s first sentence read:
“A few weeks after his 28th birthday, Denis Kelly was sitting on the floor of a friend’s beach house in full lotus position, both feet tucked onto the top thigh of the opposite leg.”
I considered. Yeah, that was a shitty start. After a few moments, I deleted the opening sentence, and typed:
“Denis Kelly was about to commit ritual suicide.”
I allowed a guarded smile. That was better.
And it came to me as the first aspirin went down: the agent had been right — I had been cutting creative corners, being lazy with descriptions, and not giving the book my full potential. I realized that part of me had been holding back so I could tell myself, “Yeah, but I didn’t really try” when rejection inevitably came. Part of me was terrified of that rejection, and had come up with a brilliantly self-defeating strategy to live with it: don’t really show up. Don’t try as hard as you can. Over the next nine months and maybe 1,500 hours, I labored over every sentence, every paragraph of that book, until it was the best I could do.
This time I held nothing back, and if the writing wasn’t good enough now, I could at least say that I could do no more, write no better. This was me at my best, and there was no more to give. I put everything into this book — time, money, sense of self, purpose for being, and every single ounce of talent I had.
At 38 years of age, I finally became a writer because I finally understood what that meant.
I found the perfect home for my book with a small but dedicated publisher, and A Heart Blown Open is now out in the world, and receiving almost universally glowing praise, both for the story and the writing.
Whatever else you may think of the book, it is the very best of me.
And I still have a dog who sometimes gives me those sad, sappy writer looks, because sometimes I’m still a sad, sappy writer.
Some things don’t change.
You can listen to an interview about this, and the entire process of me writing this book on the New Man Podcast.
Update, May 30, 2013: A Heart Blown Open has won the Silver Medal Award from Nautilus Books, for 2013, and was nominated for BOOK OF THE YEAR from the prestigious ForeWord Reviews.