Looking Back, Looking Forward

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Zoë did a brilliant thing in her post last week – a looking back and looking forward at her career as a writer, and JT said something about all of us maybe doing it.  Which is just like JT, who is so good about one-year plans and five-year plans and that kind of grownup thing.

Well, maybe Steve’s post yesterday scared me into acting a little more like an adult, because I decided to do the career review thing for myself today, and the rest of you can do what you want.

A career is always evolving, I guess, it’s not just a writer’s career that does. And it’s interesting to look back over my career and see how certain patterns emerge. Today I’ll be looking at the fairly positive ones, not the horrific soul-crushing mistakes that take years to recover from. That’s another post.

So a first really clear pattern is that every 5 to 10 years I have moved from one medium to another, always incorporating what I’ve learned from each previous incarnation.

I started off not as a writer but in theater, at eight or nine, first acting (a lot of it) and dancing, then directing and choreographing. I didn’t start writing until college.  But in theater,  without meaning to,  I was learning all the jobs required to write: acting, directing, set design, lighting design, choreography, musical direction, props….  I also did a stint in video production in there somewhere.

I graduated from college and worked for a couple of years in an improvisational theater ensemble, which was more great training, and a totally fabulous time. But I started getting these– feelings. Whispers, you might say. They weren’t all that coherent really, but I was picking up on a message that sounded suspiciously like: “No one’s ever going to pay you to do political theater in Berkeley.”  It’s a coals to Newcastle kind of thing.

So since I’d already been to New York, and I knew I didn’t want to write for Broadway (or Off-), I decided – not all at once, but in a sort of gradual tipping point from “maybe” to “okay, let’s just do it” – that I’d move down to LA and become a screenwriter. Yes, just like that. You really have to love California; from birth we are completely inundated with T-shirt and bumper sticker messages like “Follow your bliss!” “Do what you love and the money will follow!” “Feel the fear and do it anyway!” 

Even more amusing- we actually believe all that.

So I moved down to LA and became a screenwriter.  Pretty much just like that.  Well, I worked in development for about a year and a half while I was writing my first script, and of course I was working my ass off learning the craft and the town and everything it takes to actually accomplish it all, but it really did happen pretty much like that. 

This is another example of a pattern that established itself early in my life. I’d be subliminally pushed to do something and then I’d power down, one might say obsessively, and make it happen. I directed my first full-length play at 16 by pretty much the same process; I landed an unheard-of gig (for a 17-year old!) in college directing a full-scale musical every year with an actual budget and in fantastic theater venues.  The Universe is very supportive of inspiration, I find.

I won’t go into my Hollywood years, it’s too convoluted a story for one blog and I still have the PTSD issues. I’ll just say I made a good and sometimes great living as a screenwriter for a long time until I started getting those feelings again– this time more like something was going terribly wrong in the industry. A lot of this was coming from being on the Board of Directors of the WGA, the screenwriters’ union, and getting an insider look at changes happening in the film business. I started getting whispers again– something like: This is insane. Save yourself.  Get out.  Or at least, diversify, as they say in the financial business.  And so I wrote a book. At night. Screenwriting became my day job as I sweated over the novel, one page at a time.  Sometimes one paragraph or one sentence at a time.  But that’s how a book gets written.

And that book sold and was nominated for a couple of awards and suddenly I was in another career. Just at the right time, I have to say, given what’s happened in the film business since I wrote that first book.

So now for the last five years I’ve been making my living at books. I have five published novels out, with numerous foreign editions, and a non-fiction workbook of my Screenwriting Tricks workshops. I have contracts for four more books, and every day I am incredibly grateful to be making a living at what I love (or some days, love to hate) in the middle of this terrible recession.

But –  I’m getting that feeling, again.  That – “Time to change” feeling.  “Diversify,” the voice whispers. Sometimes it’s not much of a whisper; sometimes it’s a bolt straight upright in bed with a voice in my head screaming DO IT!!!!  kind of thing. I mean, I have contracts for now, but what’s the business going to look like in a year?

Yes, I am talking about indie publishing.

We’ve been having these backstage discussions at Murderati about where we want the blog to go from here, and my own very strong feeling is that we need to be talking even more about e books and indie publishing. So I am putting my blogging where my mouth is and am going to do a series of posts on how the changes in the publishing business are affecting me and how I personally am dealing with it all.

I already have a toe in the e book business. Screenwriting Tricks For Authors is up on Amazon for Kindle, and I’ve been loving getting that direct deposit to my bank account every month; it really helped back there around Christmas when my advance check was taking about forever to show up. And a few weeks ago I finally buckled down and figured out how to get the book up on Smashwords, in all those formats that Smashwords does, and on B&N for Nook. And once I did, I felt like a complete idiot for not having done it before.  It is instant money that I could have been getting all along.

Back to the portfolio analogy for a moment:  it’s an income stream. As a professional author, I have many income streams. I get advances for my new books, I have a backlist that generates royalties, I have royalties from foreign publishers, and now I have e book income, soon to have much more, if things go as I’m planning – all in concert with my agent, of course.

The thing writers don’t talk about enough, I think, is how we actually manage to make that combine into a real living.  Well, I can tell you for myself, and for most of my friends who have NOT broken into the huge advance category but are still making a full-time living at writing books: how it’s done is by constant, grueling work to get more product out there to create more income streams – on top of writing the best book you can write every single time. It’s not very pleasant, truthfully – it means firing on all four burners 24/7.  But that’s nothing new – it seems to be the job description. Everyone I know does it.

Now, e books are a freaking ton of work that I’ve just added to an already overflowing plate. I am now responsible for lining up all kinds of support people that my publisher has always provided: proofreaders, editors, cover designers, formatters, technical services – and there’s a lot of new technical stuff I’ve had to learn myself, which I must say is not my forte. It’s overwhelming, which is why I haven’t fully done it before now. But I think it’s going to be crucial to have some eggs in that basket, so I’m biting the bullet, for real.  To mix all kinds of metaphors, as you all know I love to do.

And honestly, the control and flexibility you get with indie publishing is exhilarating. One thing I’ve discovered is that you can create your own formats. For Screenwriting Tricks, I have been working on and off for most of the past year on an extensive revision of the first book, incorporating all the things I’ve been learning in my own workshops. And then I realized – Why revise the first one?  At a $2.99 selling price I can put out another book that has a different focus, and people can choose which book is best suited to their needs, or get both – two whole workbooks for the price of one paperback novel! That’s an incredible thing. And I can price it that way and still make money because the royalties are so high.

So, in the next couple of weeks I am going to be releasing two new e books, the second Screenwriting Tricks book and a spooky new original e book novel: The Space Between – plus the Thriller Award-winning short story that I based that novel on: The Edge of Seventeen. And I’m going to write some posts documenting the process I’ve been going through and the resources I’ve discovered that helped me do it all.

It’s a whole new world, but it’s an exciting one, and I hope I can convey it in a way that might open some doors for other people thinking of taking the plunge.

So, a couple of questions.  Do any of you do periodic reviews of your careers to see how far you’ve come and where you want to go from now?  Do you find patterns?

And what about this e book thing?  Have you done it?  Are you thinking of doing it?  It’s coming up on Solstice, time for some serious manifestation.   Follow your bliss!!!

–  Alex

31 thoughts on “Looking Back, Looking Forward

  1. Phillip Thomas Duck

    Definitely review the career from time to time. Introspection is good for the soul. And also a big fan of the e-book revolution. It has allowed me to make work available I might not have had the opportunity to publish otherwise (novellas, books outside of my traditionally published genre, etc)…and an additional income stream (yes!)

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Phillip, yes, it does suddenly take off the shackles and allow for some exciting experimentation. It took a while for that to sink in, but indie publishing is a terrific name for it, actually – it's the difference between mainstream Hollywood movies and independent film.

  3. Brett Battles

    I seem to be in a constant state of career review, but these days I almost think you have to. Things change so much it's easy to miss opportunities or changing trends. But it is exhausting!

    And you know my answer on ebooks. 🙂

    Good luck with THE SPACE BETWEEN and the short! I'm sure you'll do great.

  4. Sarah Shaber

    I think you're right on target, Alex! We need to be looking at all the possibilities. Traditional book contracts, our backlist, either still in print or as self-published ebooks, and maybe an indie book that we know readers will love even though a traditional publisher won't take it. Very overwhelming!

  5. Louise Ure

    Oh man, Alex. I read that work history of yours and first thought, "She's had some lucky breaks." but luck probably had very little to do with it. It shows a talent, tenacity and daring that not many people have.

  6. Richard Maguire

    As a reader, Alex, there's one thing that has me puzzled about the huge change taking place in publishing… If books, having been rejected by publishing houses, go on to sell a lot of copies as indie books, why aren't the traditional publishers taking a long hard look at what they're doing?

    In posts here over the last few months, I've read of books being "wonderfully rejected", or an editor saying, "The writing is wonderful, but how do we market this book?" Well the answer to these editors is obviously, "You market it as an indie book." Which many of the rejected authors have done, and their books gone on to sell very well indeed as e-books. By which time the ditor has proven himself/herself to be very short-sighted.

    Is there a change in outlook taking place among traditional publishing houses? Or is their business plan still driven by the very same marketing guys who've been wrong so many times since indie books took off?

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Good morning, Sarah!! Overwhelming, yes, but the good news is that you have a great backlist, a cool indie book almost ready to go, and the traditional contract on a rocking new series. Talk about diversity! You're it, baby!

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    LU, I know, it looks so effortless, right? But when I graduated from college I had FIFTEEN YEARS of theater experience under my belt. That's a whole career right there, before I was 21 years old. That's a glacial overnight success. 😉

  9. billie

    Alex, all I can say is bless you – I have wondered off and on what a series about the indie book world would look like from your eyes and I am THRILLED you are taking this on to share here.

    Today I'm in day 2 of teaching a writing workshop – sitting in a cabin on top of a mountain, deck hanging over a waterfall/stream, huge rock formations around me, thinking how cool is this? I am teaching a few things I've learned, in the company of beautiful spirited women writers who are serious and talented, and doing my own writing in fits and starts. That I am writing book two of my middle grade series, The Magical Pony School, and the title of book two is Fiona and the Water Horse, just happens to be perfect. If a water horse lived anywhere, this is where it would be. I met him for the first time in real life yesterday. 🙂

    I'm doing, as you know, the e-book thing. I have four books up on Amazon for the Kindle and now 2 are on Smashwords. Once I get the other two on Smashwords, we'll do Barnes and Noble and then Createspace POD and THEN I can get back to writing full-time to get the next 3 out there. The one thing I am loving about this is the control, and the fun of doing the work. I am loving seeing how one thing ripples out to another in terms of marketing and publicity. Because it's all sort of living on my computer, I can easily see that when I do X, Y and Z happen. I'm not breaking any records (though the magical pony school book one was #1 on Amazon in its category several times) and claire-obscure was #1 in literary and suspense on Smashwords for nearly two weeks) but I am getting PAID every month and the amount each month is growing.

    Best of all, my head is clear of the four finished books. They've left the nest and I can focus my energy on the new books. I can't even express how wonderful that is.

    I can't wait to buy The Space Between… so so glad you're going to be bringing your knowledge and expertise and perspective to this indie/e-book world.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Richard, that would just make so much sense, wouldn't it? But publishing has become based on the blockbuster/bestseller model. Publishers don't grow new writers anymore and they drop their mid list writers and new writers who don't turn into instant bestsellers – without a second thought. So part of the exhilaration about indie publishing is that now WE can grow our careers for ourselves.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Wow, that sounds just transcendent, Billie.

    You really started on all this before I did – we'll have to have you on for a roundtable, too. I have so much less to say that so many other people who really KNOW what they're doing – but as always I feel like if I just report on my stumbling around in the dark it will encourage other people ("Well, if SHE can do it, I should be able to!"),

    Have a terrific time this weekend.

  12. billie

    The thing is, though, YOU have a gift for organizing material into a package that is both in-depth AND manageable w/o being overwhelming. Your Screenwriting Tips For Writers is doing well b/c of that gift for pulling a LOT of info into such a manageable whole. I can see you doing the same thing for a book on indie publishing, if you want to do it.

    I'll be teaching through Monday, then here writing through Wednesday, so I'm definitely enjoying this time and space. It's perfect for a PIsces – water rushing and flowing – and stone for grounding.

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    This is a fantastic idea, Alex. Thank you letting us sneak into your life at this crucial moment of change. Of course I'm having the same thoughts – wondering how to address the ebook phenom. Unfortunately, I don't have any product to work with – I just have the current WIP I'm struggling with. I'm just trying to write the best book I can, then give it to my agent when I'm done. I may decide to publish it as an ebook, I may decide to go traditional. In the meantime, I'm diversifying by building a career as a screenwriter. I'm thinking maybe I'll write one novel a year and have two screenwriting assignments. But that's just what's in my head. I really have no idea how it's going to work out. It's a bit scary and I wake up anxious every morning.

  14. Gayle Carline

    I came to the (writing) party late in life, but I'm scampering as quickly as I can. My career story goes like this: started life as an artist, spent midlife as a software engineer, chucked that to invest my time in writing. If there's such a thing as reincarnation, I prefer to have it within one lifetime.

    My debut novel was published by an independent press. It was a good experience, but not the one I thought I'd have. On a whim and a prayer, I published a book of my humor columns (I write for the Placentia News-Times) on Createspace/Kindle/Smashwords. I liked it. So when my second mystery was complete, I shopped it around a bit, then said, "Why not just take the wheel and do it yourself again?"

    Interestingly, the day the new mystery (Hit or Missus) went live on Amazon, my humor book sales shot up (What Would Erma Do?).

    Good luck! You'll probably sell gazillions.

  15. Alafair Burke

    Your balance concept is a good way of thinking about it. It made me realize that I'm basically in the same place, but with a different kind of writing – my academic writing. I hope ebooks continue to treat you well!

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, thanks, Billie, but when I write about craft I'm drawing on a whole lifetime, practically, of experience in different angles of different media – I don't have the same depth and breadth of knowledge in this subject. But – a lifetime of focus on production might mean I can bring some insight into it from a purely production angle.

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    SJS, part of all this is you have to follow the money. You're following the money in screenwriting right now, it's a great thing to have that channel open. But yeah, scary!!!

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Alafair, that's interesting, I forget that you're pulled in two different writing directions in sort of the same way I am. Sometimes I wonder why in the world I ever started on this nonfiction thing, but I know I'm doing something that no one else is doing exactly the same way, so I keep being driven.

    I need two lives, though….

  19. JT Ellison

    Alex, I'm thrilled to see you chronicle this. I think it will be fascinating, and liberating for many of us. We can stick our heads in he sand and say I'll never look at epublishing, but the fact of the matter is, especially with your traditional publishing coming to authors to renegotiate ebook rights, you must. Whether self-pubbing or renegotiating ebook rights, it's a brave new world that we can't ignore.

    I just finished printing out my 9 1/2 novel. That number astounds me. I'm almost a decade into writing now, and 6 years into the publishing game. I love to look back and see the path, see the choices, the mistakes. And I love to look forward. One thing I've realized – and I'm shocked it took me so long – is that as a writer, I am in complete control of my career. I'll expand on that more next Friday, when I carry this mantle further. Thanks for the shout out about the planning. It's kind of fun, especially if you're as anal retentive as I am : )

  20. billie

    I was thinking exactly that – your experience from the production angle – having to compile lots of different skillsets and pieces of a whole to pull off a production – in some ways very similar to indie publishing where one is constantly learning, doing, pulling all the pieces together. Juggling and finding help where/when one needs it with formatting, social media, cover design, what's new that can enhance and set this ahead/apart, etc. etc. I am guessing it would come directly from your posts on the subject.

    What I wish for on a daily basis is a newsletter/digest type of thing, or a consulting professional that/who summarizes all the new technical possibilities (specifically applied to e-books and indie publishing) in an easy-to-read/follow format for non-tech folks. That's the empty niche in at my table right now.

  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT, you're absolutely right. Maybe we always were in complete control of our careers – but never more than now.

    Which would be so great if it weren't so very grown up! 😉

    Looking forward to your Friday post.

    And Billie – if you find a newsletter like that, PLEASE let us know! I will, too.

  22. KDJames

    I'm still very much in apprenticeship mode, as I've come to think of it. And grateful to other writers who are also teachers or are willing to share their experiences. I don't have enough of a "career" in writing to look back on. All I can do is look ahead. It's great to have options, but there is the constant worry of deciding which path to take, which opportunity to pursue, wondering whether you're about to make a huge mistake that will have long lasting consequences. But I guess that's true of any career. You do the best you can. Live and learn and constantly try to do better.

    You do have a unique perspective on various things, Alex. It's how your brain works. I'm glad you decided to discuss this.

  23. Rob Browne

    I think, like Brett, I'm in a constant state of career review. Right now I have a book about to come out in hardcover and all I'm hearing is that hardcover is dead, so, of course, I'm feeling a bit anxious about that. My timing seems to be off. I went from hardcover to paperback original and now back to hardcover right when the bottom is allegedly falling out. Fortunately, it's one of those high-concept blockbuster supernatural epic type of novels, so maybe that will give me some traction.

    Maybe. Who knows?

    In the meantime, I'm writing short thrillers under a pen name and contemplating diving into the ebook fray with some backlist and possibly some originals.

    I'm also considering the idea of helping other writers get their books on Kindle, etc. I've designed a few covers for Brett's short stories, and have become a bit of an expert in converting manuscripts to ebook formats.

    Not that I have any real time to do this, but in this business you never know. When one contract is done, there are no guarantees you'll get another unless you're a writing super hero–and let's face it, most of us will probably never get to that status.

    And I think even the writing super heroes should be a little concerned right now, in between cashing checks, of course.

    I think the bottom line is that any creative type who makes a living at it, needs to be ready for just about anything.

  24. Alexandra Sokoloff

    KD, I haven't gotten to spilling about my huge mistakes yet – that's going to be a scary post! I try to remember that the path is a spiral. It's not linear at all, so what looks like a mistake can actually turn out to be a bridge to a whole different level.

    But you know what, I do have a unique perspective on this subject in this crucial way. I was on the BOD of the screenwriters' union. For whatever crazy reason I threw myself into that kind of advocacy for writers – especially how to make a living in these constantly shifting times, and that's what I hope we are doing here and will continue to do on Murderati.

  25. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Rob, I don't think you have anything to worry about with the hardcover. At the very least having a hardcover release right now is a huge advertising campaign that you don't have to finance! And I'm sure the book is going to to great.

    I didn't know you were doing formatting, hmm….. no, as your friend, I would NEVER try to hire you to do that on top of everything else you're doing. Your workload cripples me just thinking about it.

  26. David Corbett

    Adapt or Die.

    I have to admit to being similarly behind the curve in embracing the eRevolution. I just felt I wanted to watch a little of the dust settle before I jumped in. Now, I've landed at a digital publishing house with a great PR arm, and will be published under a highly respected imprint; though my royalties will be lower I think my ability to reach a broader audience — specifically new readers — will be greatly enhanced. (I'll give details when the ink is dry — just happened this week.)

    I admire your drive, Alex, your resilience and your fire. Oh, and the whole talent thing.

  27. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Sorry to come late to this. It's been a stressed weekend! Thank you for the kind words, great post, and I am about to take the plunge into the whole e-thing. I'll let you know how it goes … ;-]

  28. PK the Bookeemonster

    The conversation has moved on to another day but I had some thoughts from the reader side of things. The ebook thing is on the cusp of becoming a huge industry and authors are learning their way. Here's a couple things in the theoretical world that I ponder over:
    – The authors who are beginning to see success in ebooks are ones that started with "real" publishers and have established a name/brand and readership. They are a "known". It will be easier for you to create a revenue stream in this way. You have a before and after from which to pull. You've earned your reputation with readers.
    – Authors who do not go the route of creating a career through the publishers first will have a much more difficult time. They are not a "name" author to readers. And I'll admit, as a reader, I have the bias about self-publishing/vanity publishing. It would take a heckuva lot to get me to buy or even pay attention to an "unknown" self-published author.
    – So is this really only an option for anyone other than those who are leaving "real" publishers? For those who are in the later part of a writing career?
    – With my newsletter, I've been having to think about how to include this new type of publication. I truly don't know yet whether to include ebook-only releases or not.
    <shrug> Interesting times, eh?

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