We live at a time where one might wonder if books are going the way of the dinosaur. Not because there’s a shortage—I can’t imagine when there was ever more of a book glut than now—but because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to eek out a living writing them. I’ve heard story after story of even well-known writers whose success has been measured by the number of books they sold on the New York Times, USA Today and other best-selling lists, facing publishers who can’t or won’t pay these authors enough money to write their books.
The writing occupation has always been a bit of a gamble, so the phrase “starving writer” is apropos. In the 26 years I’ve written for a living, I only made what was truly a middle-class income for 11 of them. The rest of the time, I qualified for some form of government assistance, whether it was food stamps (now called SNAP) to feed my growing family or a medical card for my children’s health-care needs.
Writing is a solitary profession, which I enjoy, but it can also be a discouraging one. Especially in today’s economy, where companies like Amazon have both helped level the playing field and changed the book publishing rules. If you’re a professional writer, or hope to become one, it’s important to rub shoulders with people like me who have done it for decades. Who haven’t given up on this intrinsically rewarding way to earn a living.
I’ve gone to conferences and other literary events most of my adult life and can confirm they are essential for professional development. Not only do you learn basic writing skills, or how to hone the natural ones you were born with, you meet people who are rooting for you to succeed. Like Pam and Ralph Hanson, former beloved WVU journalism professors and, in Pam’s case, an author with more than 40 published books to her name.
West Virginia Writers’ Conference was probably the first such conference I attended, somewhere in the late 1980s or early ‘90s. Held the second weekend in June at Cedar Lakes in Ripley, it boasts a peaceful, picturesque setting, but it also offers interaction with some top-notch professional writers who love paying it forward.
All I had to do was say I was trying to finish the sequel to my memoir, which my writing friends tell me is a romance (I know, imagine that!), for one such veteran, multi-published author to pipe up: “I’ll help you!” All I had to do was walk into Karin Tauscher Fuller’s hotel room at the conference, for her to insist on giving me the cutest red dress to wear to the awards banquet. All I needed to hear was that another author had no ride to the airport, and I volunteered to play chauffeur. These were just three examples, but I know other writers displayed such generosity of time and spirit throughout the weekend.
Writers are some of the best people in the world to pay it forward. Kambri Crews, a publicist and comedian whose own book about her deaf father, incarcerated for trying to kill his ex-girlfriend, spoke about this during her workshop. Kambri encouraged aspiring authors to never be afraid to ask other successful, even—dare I say it—New York Times best-selling authors, for book endorsements. That’s because Kambri learned firsthand how willing most of us are to help newbie writers break into this elite, albeit not necessarily financially lucrative, business when she began asking for book blurbs herself.
So did I, when I reached out to Asra Nomani (formerly of the Wall Street Journal), Jacqueline Campbell (of Johns Hopkins University), and Bob Edwards (of NPR and Sirius Radio fame). In addition to some pretty amazing blurbs, they actually also offered helpful feedback I haven’t forgotten. Most important, their help instilled within me a sense of accomplishment that kept me writing.
With that I’d like to follow suit, and give a shout-out to Jessica Nelson and Anastasia Knudsen, two award-winning teen writers. Jessica, from Morgantown, W.Va., was 14 when she garnered her first West Virginia Writers’ award. Last year she carted off four. Now 18, it’s obvious Jessica’s future has writing in it. Most immediately, it has West Virginia Wesleyan in it, since Jessica won a scholarship to attend the private college.
Ana is 14, homeschooled, and also from Morgantown. Saturday night she set a record for West Virginia Writers. When she first entered, Contest Coordinator Eric Fritzius told me Ana was nervous about submitting in what is normally considered an adult category. “She said, ‘I probably won’t even win,'” Eric said.
Then Ana—who has won some other writing contests but does not have a cell phone, which I think might just account for her award-winning writing—went on to do what many adult entrants have never done: she floored everyone at the awards banquet when she walked away with second place. For what looks like a very intriguing book about time travel. That was judged blind, from among 32 entries, by none other than the Pinckney Benedict. Wow!
Even though some of us didn’t win this year—Marie Manilla, whose book, The Patron Saint of Ugly, was just published by Mifflin Harcourt; Diane Tarantini, nominated for a Pushcart Prize; Karin, whose weekly newspaper column consistently offers fine reading; Sheila Redling, a best-selling Amazon author, Carter Seaton Taylor, who’s on tour for her newest book about West Virginia artisans, Hippie Homesteaders; and me, who hit the New York Times list in March—it’s because we were simply so busy with our writing careers we didn’t have time to submit an entry.
Which just goes back to paying it forward to teen writers like Ana and Jessica. We’re here because someone helped us. And because we’ve sharpened our skills at one of the best annual writer’s conference you’ll ever find.
At a conference that is sure to turn out even more great authors, who are destined to ensure that books never become dinosaurs.
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I have three books, soon to be four. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is being used in colleges and some high schools; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), due out July 8, 2014.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and Sister of Silence placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”