Thursday, January 24, 2013

Beating Today’s “S” Curve (or Why an Editor is Every Writer’s Best Friend)


There’s an interesting phenomenon going on out there right now. Maybe you noticed it. Economists are all abuzz with it. Social scientists and psychologists are gossiping to each other about it:  the exponential growth curve—or “S” curve—that we are currently in the middle of is fuelling our food shortages, oil shortages, inflation, economic collapses, tensions between countries, population rise, and everything else to do with humanity on this planet.

Ecologists have long been studying this biological—and sociological—phenomenon in nature. The typical “S” curve has three parts to it: 1) the beginning, where it lags and shows a slow rate of rise; 2) then the steep rise of exponential growth; and 3) the eventual levelling off when the supposed carrying capacity is reached. There is another kind of curve, the “boom and bust” curve that instead of plateauing at the end toward sustainability, plummets just as steeply back to or below levels in the first step (that’s a whole other topic and blog post). 

Why am I talking to you about this? Because it has everything to do with your writing. The publishing industry is currently experiencing its own version of the “S” curve and the “boom and bust” curve (for traditional publishing houses, I’m afraid). We are currently witnessing a growing influx and legitimization of self-publishing and Indie publishing. Thanks to a few crazy success stories and the new affordable paradigm of POD digital publishing, publishing hasn’t been easier. This new model heralds an unprecedented renaissance of self-expression and creativity, shared worldwide.
Consider these statistics:  in 2009, Publishers Weekly reported over 750,000 self-published/micro publisher titles, over twice the number of traditionally published titles that same year. The figures (I couldn’t find more recent ones—let me know when you do) are assuredly much higher today. From 8,000 to 11,000 new publishers currently enter the field every year and most of them are self-publishers or small indie publishers. Seventy-eight percent of titles brought out come from a small press or self-publisher. Fifty-two percent of books sold are not sold in bookstores; they are merchandised through mail order, online, in discount or warehouse stores, through book clubs, and nontraditional retail outlets.

As a function of this renaissance of self-expression, the number of books hitting the market is rising at an exponential rate. There’s that “S” curve again. Check out Amazon: they have over seven million books on their virtual shelves. And now, thanks to their new policies, it’s growing exponentially. What does this mean for you?

It used to be that the screening for excellence in books occurred behind the closed doors of prestigious publishing houses; if a book wasn’t deemed worthy of the standards or didn’t fit the style of that publishing house (with its own reputation), it was not accepted and didn’t see the light of day. The rejected and dejected author often went back to the drawing board to improve their artistic work before resubmitting. That was then. Now, works are published without prejudice in the open for the world to see.  It used to be that writers complained of their writing being “sterilized” by the editor of the publishing house, which was only conforming to the house style and their vision of what is salable. Now authors wishing for creative control simply self-publish.

Self-publishing has created a kind of anarchy in publishing; anything can be published (so long as you have the money). And while this is incredibly liberating for authors around the world, it is also incredibly dangerous. Here’s why: once you publish your material, it will be out there for the world to see forever. That means FOREVER. It becomes a permanent record of your standards of excellence and taste; essentially a statement of who and what you are. You had better be proud of it then and for a very long time. It is no longer the responsibility of the publisher to determine publishing worthiness; the onus is on YOU, the writer. What will you do to ensure the best possible work for your readers?

Competition will become ever more fierce AFTER you’ve invested and AFTER you’ve published; your book will then compete with a world of self-published authors in addition to those published by traditional publishing houses. In order for your book to rise above the massive competition, it’s more important than ever to produce a concise, clean, clear, polished-to-perfection manuscript that you are proud of. With an awesome cover (see my post on book jacket covers).

Self-published author Dave Bricker shares that, “Poor editing is the number one complaint heard from critics of the independent publishing industry. Though the standards of mainstream publishing houses are overrated, I've read many indie books where spotty spelling and lack of polished prose present barriers to enjoyable reading. Unedited authors sully the publishing waters for the rest of us.” He’s talking about poor packaging. Poor manuscript presentation can seriously undermine an author’s chances of being taken seriously. A good reputation is earned slowly and tenuously; a poor reputation, like the plummeting “boom and bust” curve can end a writer's career.
Why not produce a pressure-tested product that has already withstood the scrutiny of a professional critic whose standards are much higher than those of the average reader?” says Bricker. “As with your typesetting and cover design, the best route to success is to engage a professional.” He is right. If you want to be treated as a professional (by readers) then be professional and engage professionals.

What do professional editors do?

Editors aren’t proofreaders, although this might be one task in several they can provide. Most editors are what are variously called structural or story editors; someone capable of commenting on the work objectively and with competence. Is the story believable? Are there unexpected temporal jumps or unexplained threads in the narrative? Are the article’s assertions properly supported? As with affairs of the heart, it’s easy to understand the problems of others and difficult to acknowledge what we’re too close to see—and if you think writing isn’t an affair of the heart, you haven’t started your book yet. Get that third-party perspective.

No one likes to be edited. Of course you feel protective of your material; that is natural. You’ve put so much into it; how could a stranger possibly understand and treat it with the respect it deserves?
Professional editors are accustomed to interacting with authors in a mutually respectful relationship. Editors have to make a living, and they would quickly find themselves unable to if they treated their clients in any way other than professionally and respectfully. A professional editor is more likely to serve your true interests in getting published than a friend or relative who likely knows little of “storytelling”, plot and character; and may side-wind you with inappropriate advice or platitudes. In fact, showing your work to a friend or relative may be the reason why you have decided that you “don’t like to be edited.” Before I was published, I once showed my work in progress to my husband, who was too close to the subject and its writer; he made very unprofessional remarks that were more damaging than helpful. If you go with a professional you will not have this problem.

Throughout history, authors have relied on their editors to be their sounding boards, to represent the eye and ear of the reader, and to help bring a viewpoint that can't arise spontaneously in the author's head. In the past, the traditional publishing house has typically provided this service. Many publishing houses now expect the writer to provide a manuscript that has already been edited. Indie and self-publishing scenarios leave the onus on the writer.
Two of the most common excuses that authors find for not engaging a professional editor include cost and venue.

I can’t afford an Editor: can you afford to put out a book for the world to see that is full of mistakes? If you aren’t serious enough about writing and publishing to invest in your career with good guidebooks, courses & workshops and coaching and editing, then perhaps you should rethink your career. No one would think twice about training and getting professional help to become a successful nurse or pilot. Writing is the same. For it to be successful, it requires investment. Especially if you are considering self-publishing.

Self-published author Dick Margulis reminds us that “Self-publishing is a business - the publishing business - and if you hope to succeed in it, you have to manage it like a business. You have to look at your skill set and decide which of the many tasks associated with publishing you are suited to doing yourself and which can be done more effectively and more economically by others. Your time has value, and you have to decide how it is best spent.”

It’s Just an E-Book: a common mistake, particularly with digitally published books, is the notion that because you haven’t invested in typesetting or printing you can fix the mistakes later. That is a poor notion. And a risky approach that smacks of laziness. Letting your readers find your mistakes for you is a poor show and will hurt your reputation as a writer (no matter who publishes you). With books, no matter what format, the first impression is critical. For some readers that may be the first and last time they meet you and your work. Make sure it counts. Word gets around pretty fast on the Internet. Ensure that it’s a good word.

Check out my site, www.NinaMunteanu.me for more cool advice, resources and links and to sign up for my writing coaching services. My new series of writing advice e-books on Kindle is currently available for $0.99 each (like the one pictured above). Each ebook contains informative and useful articles on all aspects of writing and publishing. 



Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Welcome to 2013, The Year of the Snake


Happy New Year!

When I entered the post office recently to buy stamps I was reminded that 2013 is also the year of the snake. The stamps displayed elaborate and stylized images of the water snake in celebration of the Chinese Zodiac.

I’m told by followers of the Chinese Zodiac that people born in snake years always seem to have money flowing their way. They are described as intelligent, creative and adventurous. Chinese astrologers use the color black to depict this year. Black is the color of space, the arctic night and the darkness of the abyss and deep waters. The black snake, say the astrologers, will bring people unexpected changes, instability and change. In the wake of “the end of the world” and the dawning of a new age (the seventh golden age) this is not surprising (see my last editorial).

I was born in the “year of the horse” and checked out my prospects for the year of the snake. They were mixed: I was told that “horse people should do everything by themselves instead of turning to others. By that, they can get good fortune. Also the expense will not be that much. In general, their fortune will get better bit by bit.” (Oh boy! Looking forward to those bits!). Astrologers told me that my career life would not be smooth but that I would make good money (sigh with relief!). I was also advised that I should donate blood in early 2013 because I might have an accident in this “snake” year (oh dear!); a kind of karma-thing happening here, I guess! LOL!   

Snakes can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Biologists recognize over 3,400 species, ranging from the 10 centimeter Thread Snake to the reticulated 8.7 meter long Python. Most species are non-venomous. Snakes are thought to have evolved from either burrowing or aquatic lizards during the mid-Cretaceous Period.

The snake remains a mysterious creature, steeped in controversy. Considered vile and “evil” by many, it often elicits strong feelings of dislike and fear. It is an elegant cold-blooded reptile, and smooth to the touch (contrary to what most people think: NOT slimy). The snake embraces a rich and metaphoric history, representing a wide range of symbolism that encompasses change, metamorphosis and transformation. In The Dictionary of Mythology (1961) Gertrude Jobes recites a long list of symbols that span from the wicked to the sublime. Perhaps her extensive alphabetized list serves a good representation of this, our year 2013: androgyny, circle, convalescence, cunning, danger, death, deceit, destruction, divine emanation, evil, false appearance fertility, guardianship, generation, grief, health, intelligence, jealousy, lasciviousness, malice, materialism, misfortune, phallus, pleasure, power, prophecy, prudence, renewal, revenge, self- creation, self -indulgence, self -sustenance sensation, sensuality, sin, subtlety, temptation, treachery, the unfathomable, universe circle, vexations, vice, wiliness, wisdom worldliness. Emblem of lightning, physicians, witchcraft.

J.E. Cirlot in A Dictionary of Symbols (1971) suggests that, “If all symbols are really functions and signs of things imbued with energy, then the serpent or snake is, by analogy, symbolic of energy itself—of force pure and simple; hence its ambivalence and multi-valencies. Another reason for its great variety of symbolic meaning derives from the consideration that these meanings may relate either to the serpent as a whole or to any of its major characteristics—for example, to its sinuous movements, its common association with the tree and its formal analogy with the roots and branches of the tree, the way it sheds its skin, its threatening tongue, the undulating pattern of its body, its hiss, its resemblance to a ligament, its method of attacking its victims by coiling itself round them, and so on.”

The serpent’s portrayal as the most common symbol of God—in human psychology and spirituality from Moses, to the Freemasons, Baptists and psychologist Carl Jung and many others—has puzzled anthropologists for years. To Jung, the serpent reflected the Omnipotent and Omnipresent power of God that lives within every human: “The serpent is an adversary and a symbol of enmity, but also a wise bridge that connects right and left through longing, much needed by our life… I have united with the serpent of the beyond.  I have accepted everything beyond into myself.”

The ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead tells us that the darker side of one’s own nature may reveal itself in serpentine form in the afterlife. It becomes a mirror through which a person may encounter the feelings or thoughts they repressed when alive.

Chaldeans had only one word for life and snake. The snake’s elegant undulating form symbolizes both soul and libido. In the Hindu tantric belief, it represents the lotus of Kundalini, the coiled force of transcendence that begins at the base of the spine and travels up the chakras toward enlightenment. In Indian mythology, Lord Vishnu sits on a thousand-headed snake, which sets off the primal vibration and the vital source of the Universe.  Scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell suggested that the symbol of snakes coiled around a staff represents the Kundalini physiology. The staff represents the spinal column with the snake(s) being energy channels. In the case of two coiled snakes they usually cross each other seven times, a possible reference to the seven energy centers called chakras.

In religion, mythology, and literature, serpents and snakes represent fertility and/or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing they symbolize rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. Snakes embrace the paradox of creative-destruction in the form of an Ouroboros, the serpent biting it’s own tail. It reflects a cyclic sexual union within itself, a constant self–fecundation and a perpetual transformation from death to life.  The serpent represents sexual desire and passion in the Abrahamic religion and Rabbinic tradition. The circle of the Ouroboros symbolizes eternity but only through the perpetual cycle of regeneration: life from death. The Ouroboros is a ubiquitous symbol of the “all-in-all”, the totality of existence, infinity and the cyclic nature of the cosmos. Believed to have been inspired by the Milky Way (“the serpent of light residing in the heavens”), Ancient Egyptians associated it with serpent gods Wadjet and Hathor. Jormungandr, the World or Midgard Serpent of Norse mythology encircled the world in the ocean’s abyss, biting its own tail.  

Every night the Sun enters the underground world ruled by serpents, to become the serpent itself in order to fight them and to reborn in the morning.  The Vision Serpent of Mayan mythology lies atop the World Tree as a symbol of rebirth.

Christianity portrays the serpent negatively but sacred texts testify its double aspect. The regenerating Christ itself is sometimes represented as a serpent on the cross. During Medieval times the serpent on the cross was interpreted as the serpent of Eve.

The serpent-encircled staff of Asclepius, the God of medicine and healing, has become the symbol of modern medicine. The snake's venom is associated with the chemicals of plants and fungi that can heal, poison or provide expanded consciousness. The snake was often considered one of the wisest animals. Its divine aspect combined with its habitat in the earth between the roots of plants made it an animal with chthonic properties connected to the afterlife and immortality.

Serpents often guard temples, sacred spaces and deities. At Angor in Cambodia, numerous stone sculptures present hooded multi-headed nagas as guardians of temples and other sacred sites.
In Ancient Egypt, Ra and Atum became the same god, which took on the form of a serpent: The two-headed serpent deity Nehebkau (he who harnesses the souls) guarded the entrance to the underworld. He is often seen as the son of the snake goddess Renenutet or Wadjet, the Egyptian cobra, the patron and protector of the country.

In many myths the chthonic serpent lies coiled around a Tree of Life in a divine garden. In the Genesis story of the Torah and Biblical Old Testament, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil sits in the Garden of Eden together with the Tree of Life and the serpent. In Greek mythology Ladon coiled around the tree in the garden of the Hesperides, protecting the entheogenic golden apples. Nidhogg, the dragon of Norse mythology, eats from the roots of the Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Lastly, the Buddha sat in ecstatic meditation under the Bodhi Tree of Enlightenment. When a storm arose, the mighty serpent king Mucalinda rose up from his place beneath the earth and enveloped the Buddha in seven coils for seven days, not to break his ecstatic state.
The image of the serpent as the embodiment of the wisdom transmitted by Sophia was a Gnostic emblem.

OK. So, what does all of this have to do with 2013 and the Year of the Snake? Why, nothing… Perhaps everything. It depends on whether you are mindful of the symbols around you; whether you think and write metaphorically; whether you are fanciful and whimsical; whether you appreciate the ancient wisdom of humanity and its link to the divine… Whatever your inclination, I wish you a wonderful and productive year of transformation and wonderful surprises. I for one am looking forward to 2013. I’ve decided to embrace the multi-faceted and transformative energy of the snake and intuitively let my muse lead me here. Last year I began to research and this year will be writing two books whose subjects are “medieval wisdom in healing and wellness” and “water”. Appropriate, don’t you think?


P.S. My upcoming book on water entitled Water Is... will be published by Pixl Press in Summer 2015. It brings my over twenty-years experience as an aquatic ecologist to explore what water means to each of us. Part history, part science and part philosophy and spirituality, "Water Is..." combines personal journey with scientific discovery that explores water's many "identities" and ultimately our own.




Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.