Welcome back to Member Monday. It’s a pleasure to introduce member Troy Racki. Troy is a local dentist and is running for Vice President of Writers Forum. Here’s Troy’s account of our March meeting featuring Keith Raffel.
Raffel on Writing
by Troy Racki
“Writing is a life of poverty and disappointment. Doing each book is as frightening a process as the last. Being a writer is a difficult life. So, do I still have your attention?”
On March 9th, Redding Writers Forum had the unique opportunity to host four-time novelist Keith Raffel at Shasta College. The avid horseplayer turned congressional hopeful turned Silicon Valley cloud computing trailblazer had a lot of insight to offer concerning the lifestyle of an author and the difficulties of being successful in the ever-changing field of publishing.
“Writing a novel is like starting a company,” Keith explained. “Decide what your objective is when you start writing your book. If you don’t set out with your goals in mind then you won’t know when you have been successful.” Like every business selling a product, an author needs to identify who will be their customers and how they put those books into the hands of their readers. If an author approaches book writing as a publisher first and develops a plan for marketing and distribution prior to ever writing a word, chances are they will be more likely to succeed at beating the odds.
The odds are steep. It is estimated that approximately 500,000 books go to print each year, yet only 40 manage to sell more than 100,000 copies their first year. The majority of these books published sell less than 150 copies, mostly to just friends and family.
Despite all the challenges, Raffel looks upon writing with great affection, punctuated with sarcastic humor. “You know, writing is the only socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. You are creating and living in a more appealing reality than your own. But there is nothing better than having visitors to your world. By writing you are inviting readers to enter your world. Many write for different reasons whether it is for entertainment, to create a legacy, or to pass along a message to help others improve their own lives. If you produce a book you will have done something wonderful with your life.”
Raffel then gestured to the projection of a snow-capped mountain on the screen behind him. “The saying goes, ‘every person should walk to the top of Mt. Fuji, but only a fool does it twice.’”
After reading a passage from his most recent work of fiction, A Fine and Dangerous Season, Raffel opened the floor to questions. One of the most poignant was on the direction that publishing was headed. Raffel made his stance known that in general traditional publishing – putting physical books in readers’ hands – was the financially wrong way to go. Through e-book publishing, Keith explained, you can bank three times the royalties while readers pay one 1/3rd the cost over traditional trade paperback sales. However, most successful e-book authors are ones who have built a following first through traditional sales.
Next was the question on the rules of writing. “There are no rules. You should do what you feel is correct. Be careful about ‘dumbing’ down your book. Generally your leaders are very intelligent so approach them that way. Remember with dialogue, people talk simply. So keep dialogue natural.” And when doing research? “The key to doing research is that you want your world to seem true. You want to find out what people were saying or doing at the time. The internet can be a good starting source but I prefer to look at pictures and read newspapers. Get direct information from that time period.”
What about the process of finding an agent? “First, you need to have something-an idea or manuscript that is compelling. Then find agents who specialize in a particular area of interest that you are writing in. Take two months to write your query letter and then send it in. Remember, it is a numbers game. Don’t query an agent and wait. Eighty percent of the time you will never hear back from them. Expect to query at least forty agents for your first novel, but it may take you up to four hundred. The most important thing is to find an agent that really believes in you. Never take on an agent that hasn’t been listed in their author’s acknowledgements page.”
As Mr. Raffel concluded the meeting he left everyone with this final thought. “What is the number one lesson I learned from working in Silicon Valley? Nothing in life worth having comes easy.”
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