|My favorite of her book covers. Grumpy Cat cracks me the hell up.|
Kelli Jae Baeli is different from most of the writers I interview here at The House of Fists in that it was her non-fiction that first drew me to her work, as opposed to the horror or dark fiction practiced by the other interviewees. I'm trying to learn more about writing, though, and not just about writing horror, so I immediately asked her to do me the honor of being interviewed here.
She writes very clearly and persuasively, her tone neatly balanced between the academic and the practical. I'm a smart man but certainly no great deep thinker, and I appreciate the pragmatic style in which she writes; her articles on atheism have done a lot for me here at a time when I find my own beliefs shifting radically.
On top of everything else, I do believe she has passed on the best piece of advice I've ever received: Don’t fall in love with your words; fall in love with your craft.
Thank you, Ms. Baeli.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I had always kept a journal from the moment I learned how to write. The impulse only grew stronger as I went along. As far as being an author who writes full-length books, that vocation sprang from my disappointment as an avid reader, trying to find books I could relate to in a certain genre, namely lesbian fiction. With few exceptions, none of them seemed to reflect me, my life, or my sensibilities. So I decided to write a book that *I* would want to read. Since then, I have continued to write (and rewrite) novels and nonfiction, in both mainstream and lesbian genres, and starting some 23 years ago, also publish this work. I was an Indie Publisher and Author before it was fashionable. Some essays on my blog about this:
What was the first thing you wrote that made you proud and why?
There is an element of pride in every project, when I complete it. I don't publish anything I cannot be proud of, and I feel this is often the mistake that self-published and Indie Authors make--they release their work before it is the best it can be, and they get caught up in the romantic idea of being a writer, rather than in the dedicated attention to craft.
What do you hope to accomplish with your writing, and what specific steps do you take toward that aim as you write?
One important thing I have learned along the way, is that love is love, pain is pain, people are people—whether gay or straight, we all have the same dreams, our own set of challenges, our own bouts with human nature. My goal, in the case of fiction, is always to write a story that is engaging, with characters a reader can truly care about, invest in; it is to devise a plot that moves quickly, and incites the reader to keep turning pages. There are memes, genres, archetypes, but that's where the adage, "there are no new stories" ends. The ways in which an author examines these elements are as plentiful and varied as are the molecules in the human body, the synaptic connection in the writer's brain. I always shoot for a fresh way to tell these stories, which is inevitably in the opposite direction from formula fiction.
What do you make of the notion that traditional publishing brings more respect than self-publishing?
Respect is not always earned, and that goes for both traditionally published authors and self-published ones. This question has several rows of teeth. It would be difficult to address it properly in a limited form. But to just touch on some of the points: There are cogent reasons why traditionally published authors are more respected, in general, than those who self-publish. Traditional publishers employ qualified individuals (i.e., editors/proofreaders who actually have a degree in that discipline) who act as gatekeepers to separate the wheat from the chaff. And literary agents are, ostensibly, a turnstile between the writer and the publisher. While a "good" book can be qualified by the fundamentals of "good" writing, the conclusion about its merit is at some point ultimately subjective. For instance there are many books widely considered “classic” or high-quality fiction, that I find fall short of satisfying me. This means that there can be many books which are considered "good" but are not, and conversely, many that are rejected which are worthy of print. There are many talented writers whose work is never known, never reaches its readers; in this sense, traditional publishing has put limits on our literary choices.
In the case of self-publishing, there are also many hacks and neophytes out there who make an egregious error in publishing their work before having a grip on the craft, and before paying their dues, but also many other writers who really have something to offer, and the advent of Indie publishing allows them to share their work with the world. So since self-publishing is a new paradigm, the old one will naturally have a stronger foothold in the perception of the reading public. But both traditional and self-publishing have a partial claim on respect.
Has self-publishing begun paying off for you in terms of what you’re seeking from it? If not, what do you see yourself changing in the future?
It has paid off in some ways, as I have now 33 books under my literary belt, but it brings its own cadre of challenges. For instance, the most popular fiction (i.e., that which enjoys the highest number of sales) are not the genres I care to write in. And "payoff" is both relative and subjective; I would more likely refer to it as "tradeoff." What I gain as an Indie Publisher/Author in speed of publication, independence, creative control, a larger share of royalties, is tempered by the amount of time I have to spend on the business of writing, rather than on the writing itself. (Recently, when I ignored the marketing long enough to JUST WRITE, for example, I published 2 novels and 3 novellas in the span of 6 months--Books 3 & 4 of my AKA Investigation series, Also Known as Syzygy and Also Known as Rising & Falling; as well as Curse of Cache La Poudre, Somewhere Else and Quintessence). I cannot fathom ever going the traditional route, now, and in fact, I have turned down two contracts in the past, because I didn't like the tradeoff they offered. My royalties would have been 10-15% instead of the 80% (or more) it is now---it simply does not emotionally compute that a publisher will make the majority of profit for all the work *I* did. This is compounded by the knowledge that unless you are the next Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, there will be no big advances, nor publisher-funded book tours. That's a myth perpetuated by the general public's IMPRESSION of what being a popular author is like, with no insight into all the other authors who struggle for years without much reward.
Going with traditional publishing also meant my book would have been packaged in a way I didn't like, the blurb would have been poorly crafted, the cover would have been horrible, the editors would have imposed their own intentions and opinions on the content, until the work would have become theirs and not mine. I don't like limits on my creative expression; I tell the stories I feel compelled to share, and not the ones I'm expected to, or the ones that fit neatly in a formula- or genre-box. But it means more work for me. The entire legitimacy of being a published author is predicated on a romanticized falsehood; the truth of it is much more sobering, and rather like selling your soul, or prostituting your writing.
What’s your favorite part of the writing and self-publishing process and why? Conversely, what is your least favorite part?
My least favorite part of the process is the marketing. It's time-consuming and stretches my tolerance. Part of that is the often infuriating tendency for some readers to post reviews that are either filled with spoilers, or with criticisms that reveal their lack of understanding. Thankfully, I have been fortunate to get almost all four and five star reviews, but every so often, someone will post a review that is pejorative only because they are not quite bright enough to understand things like nuance. It's a bitter pill, and I write about that periodically, such as in
One of the best things about being independent is the unfettered creativity. I can write what I want to write, when I want to write it. Douglas Adams said, "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by." I enjoy this degree of freedom. More specifically, my favorite part of the writing is when all the pieces of my puzzle begin to join, and it develops its own momentum to carry it through to the end. For me, that process is hard-won, as I am like a Quilter when I write a novel, rather than a conduit. (See http://jaebaeli.com/blog/2012/10/streaming-quilting-differing-methodologies-in-novelwriting/)
I do a great deal of research and look for all the interconnected elements until the plot emerges. (see http://jaebaeli.com/blog/2012/10/springboarding/
I'm a stickler for facts, and am never content with writing that strains credibility or demands credulity; I want everything in the story to not only SEEM possible, but BE possible. (This is, itself, a double-edged sword, as I pointed out in several essays, such as, http://jaebaeli.com/blog/2012/11/stranger-fiction-reviews-truthiness/ and http://jaebaeli.com/blog/2012/06/the-truth-of-fiction/ - there exists this concept: I may have failed to do the best job on a book, if I didn’t make the fiction seem like truth, even if the truth seemed like fiction.)
I wish I could be one of those writers who sit down and just wiggle my fingers on the keys until the story flows through me, but for me, it's a far more technical journey until all those pieces gel. The creative part, for me, is in figuring out how to solve the plot problems, how to reach the goals within the plot and within the characters, how to move the story at a speed and intrigue that will keep a reader engaged, how to balance reality with possibility, vividness with economy.
What advice or encouragement would you offer to other writers?
My most commonly offered caveat is this: don’t fall in love with your words; fall in love with your craft. That’s when you will begin the process of being a quality writer. This subject is voluminous, and I can’t do it justice in just a few paragraphs, but the other words of wisdom I will offer are these:
The competition to be a published writer is fierce. The dream of getting published has been overly-romanticized in the media so that many beginning writers think not only that writing is easy, but that they have a good chance of getting a contract from a major house. The odds are, realistically, one in a million–maybe worse than that. We hear about the success stories, not the ones who spend their lives toiling for that dream, to the exclusion of everything else, only to wind up poor, alone, lacking in social skills, and profoundly jaded that life has passed them by. There are so many unpublished writers who pursue this dream, and publishers and agents have had to crack down on the criteria to even LOOK at work sent. And it is very expensive for a writer to submit manuscripts, what with an ink cartridge costing around $30 and then adding the paper cost and the mailing costs, and that’s just PER MANUSCRIPT. Common advice tells us that we must do this hundreds of times, and continually if we ever hope to get traditionally published. You have to pour lots of money into the endeavor over a period of many years, sometimes. And more often than not, this investment does not return.
Often, then, self-publishing is the only option if a writer wants to get her work out there. There’s little point in spending your entire life hoping, while your words stay in a drawer. I believe as writers we are meant to honor that talent, and share it, otherwise, what’s the point of having it? Fortunately, we live in an era where technology allows us some autonomy and some tools to make this happen. So, do whatever you have to do to get your work out there. If it’s good, it might eventually get noticed and picked up by a major house or agent–that frequently has more to do with who you know, than how much you submit your work. So cultivate connections. And also try to go small or medium press. If you get a contract from one of them, you can use those books to woo larger fish.
*Please refer to my blog for essays on all these topics, and probably more alternative topics than you could possibly have time to read (my interests are wide). Here are a few, just FYI.