Well, that last part isn’t that good. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
If you’ve got romantic notions about being a writer, you oughta know that there’s nothing romantic about an 80K word novel when you’re less than halfway done. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t hit the mid-point of a long project and start to question their ability to pull it off. That’s where I am now. I like to call this emotional trek the “First Draft Blues”.
My new project seems so ridiculously big that I’m tempted to scrap it every day.
When I’m at my desk.
That’s the point. It’s always the point. KEEP WRITING.
Through the doubts, or the boredom, or whatever. Here’s how…
You’ve heard this before, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, you’re just hardheaded (as my mom would say).
If you commit to a set time each day, then all you have to do is sit down and put some words on the paper. Doesn’t matter if they suck. Just know that if you sit down enough times, eventually a book is born.
Word count. Page count. Chapters. Whatever works for you, set a small goal. Something you can accomplish in a single sitting every time.
Me, I shoot for at least 3 pages a day. If I can do more, great. But, I rarely do less. Do the math with me. 3 pages x 10 days = 30 pages. That’s 90 pages a month. Or a novel in 4 months give or take a few days.
If you’ve been struggling for years to write a single novel, maybe you should try adjusting your goals into smaller manageable chunks.
Writing is hard. Sitting around talking about writing doesn’t make it any easier. If you follow this blog regularly, then you know I often refer to writing as The Job. That’s what it is. Work. And here’s what I mean about Big Picture…
Why would a major publisher waste time and energy on a writer who can’t produce through depression/boredom/heartache/grief/distractions or anything else that contributes to the First Draft Blues?
If you make it through the FDBs, guess what? Second Draft Blues. Third Draft Blues. Fourth Draft Blues. Poor Sales Blues. Bad Review Blues. Lackluster Contract Blues. Cancelled Contract Blues.
If you ever get The Job, you’ll face some or all of the above Blues. Might as well get used to working through them now.
At this time last year I took a graduate course on writing in digital environments. My incredibly fun professor asked us to develop our own internet etiquette rules. I happened to glance at the assignment and thought they’d be a fun re-post.
In the early days of email, we were all excited to get messages in our inbox. It made us feel important. And, because we felt important, we had the mistaken impression that all of those messages were important. And credible. So, when we got that email about Bill Gates beta testing something that would net us a cool $50,000 is we forwarded the message to everyone in our address book, it had to be true. When guys were putting syringes filled with Ebola in movie theater seats, we started going to Blockbuster more. I understood those reactions in 1995. However, the time of being bamboozled has passed. I no longer want to know the obscure story about some unidentified woman being lured to a rapist’s den by some lost-child-as-bait ploy. Could it really happen? Sure, anything is possible. But if it doesn’t come from a source that gives actual names and locations, DON’T SEND IT.
Social networking has provided incredible opportunities to connect with people we may never have spoken to again in life. I’m talking old classmates, former colleagues, even exes. For that, it is a marvel of modern civilization. However, if we haven’t spoken in years, my excitement at reconnecting fades quickly when you start a sales pitch. Would I like to make some extra money? Sure. Do I want to do it selling $50 bottles of fruit juice or Man Girdles? No. It doesn’t matter how small the initial investment is. Your friend status will be rescinded.
Okay, we’re Facebook friends even though we never said two words to each other in high school. That’s cool. I often wish I’d gotten to know more people outside of my immediate circle. However, it’s not cool when you confess your secret crush then email the photo realistic sketches you drew of me during our junior year Spanish class.
Fonts are neat. I like the one that kind of looks like the metal stamping they used to put on old refrigerators. That doesn’t mean I should send you an outline of my dissertation in 16 pt Magneto. Furthermore, red letters on a green background aren’t festive. It makes your email look like Freddy Krueger’s sweater and will likely cause someone to have a seizure.
Proper grammar and accurate spelling are not outdated. That is all.
I’m serious, Mom.
I’m serious, Dad.
Someone Tweeted a particular political/religious/pop culture point that rubs you the wrong way. So what? Haven’t you seen how quickly people update those things? The thing they said that you don’t like, will be gone in 9 seconds.”Going In” on someone does not prove you’re the hardest 140 character thug on the web. It’s pointless. Take a kickboxing class or something.
Just semi-seriously. The Inter Web is a vast place. And it wouldn’t be much fun if everyone did things the way we like them. I’m a pretty mellow guy and none of the above points bother me too much (except for the creepy spanish class sketches). Moderation and respect are the keys to everything. Don’t forget The Golden Rule.
I love television.
When I was a kid I had a TV Guide subscription. While other kids memorized baseball lineups, I anxiously anticipated Fall premiers. I could recite the prime time schedules for every major network better than my classmates could recite their ABCs. I was a boob tube junkie, and heard more than once that my brain would rot from all the hours I logged in front of that screen.
It didn’t though. In fact, I learned some valuable writing lessons from the so-called ‘idiot box’. Don’t misunderstand, watching television is no substitute for reading, as I mentioned in my last post. But, television shows have to be written before they can be filmed, and I learned a lot once I took time to understand the correlation between visual and written mediums.
Pay attention. You might learn something, too.
An hour-long television drama isn’t really an hour. It averages 45 minutes to make room for commercials. In the days before TiVo you had a couple of choices when the screen faded and the Charmin ad started. 1) Get up for a bathroom/snack break then hurry back 2)Sit there and amuse yourself with all the catchy jingles (remember jingles?) 3)Change the channel.
To keep you from choosing Option 3, the greatest tool that the television writer employs is the cliffhanger. The final scene before the commercial break gives you some juicy unexpected piece of info, puts the hero in danger, or otherwise shocks you into needing to know what happens next.
The compelling writer will do the same with their section/chapter breaks, enticing the reader to keep going and find the next hook that pushes them forward. Changing the channel isn’t a threat for a novelist, having the reader put down the book is. And that’s much, much worse.
Good writing should help the reader visualize what’s happening. Television writers have the benefit of actual visuals, so it’s a little less arduous for them, but there’s still a lesson to be learned.
The words you use, the phrases you choose, should be a vivid as Hi-Def Television.
The images some cinematographer or special effects wiz puts on the screen shouldn’t be able to touch the pictures you can conjure in a reader’s head. Whether you like it or not, you’re competing against visual and interactive mediums.
Yet, despite the amazing things you can see through your television (and there’s some great stuff on TV these days), how many of them can’t hold a candle to your favorite book? My favorite novel ever is Nightworld by F. Paul Wilson and I don’t think there’s enough money in Hollywood to do Wilson’s apocalyptic vision justice.
And that’s how good you have to be.
“Being a writer is like having homework everyday for the rest of your life” ~ I don’t know how said this…but I guess it’s true.
If it is, I say take a break. Watch a little TV. Try to understand how you can apply techniques from popular shows to your own writing. There’s definitely a benefit to learning how to hook your audience, and really, that lesson is more important for you than the scribes writing those weekly episodes out in Hollywood.
Books don’t have reruns.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot…reading is the creative center of a writer’s life…you cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.” ~ Stephen King, On Writing
When I was a kid, I would go shopping with my mother and I always wanted her to buy me stuff. Cereal with cartoon monsters on the box if we were in a grocery store. A dog if we passed a pet store. Lord help her if a toy store was nearby (for the record, I was seriously hooked on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). No matter where we went, I wanted something.
In retrospect, I understand my mother’s frustration (and she did get frustrated). My wants had no financial grounding. What child understands the value of a dollar?
My lofty requests were often denied, which led to disappointment/anger (emotions I didn’t dare express in any quantifiable way…Mom’s patience only went so far). I was no dummy, and I soon picked up on a pattern. Mom would most likely deny wasteful requests (toys become boring after awhile and disappear into the closet; 3/4 of the Count Chocula box gets tossed because it doesn’t taste as good as it looks). But she never, not once, denied me a book.
There I was, a kid who ALWAYS wanted something, discovering an endless well to sate my desires…provided those desires where printed, bound, and paperback (hardcovers were pricey back then, too).
Maybe I didn’t get a Feudal Japan Michaelango with Swinging Nunchuck action, but I got something a lot better that lasted much longer. My calling…
I’ve met a number of people who say they want to write, or have started, a novel. When I ask them what they like to read, too many respond, “I don’t have time.”
I could go on at length about this, but Stephen King’s quote from above says it best. I will say this, however. Every profession requires some sort of reading (particularly if you want to be proficient in modern techniques). Doctor’s read medical texts. Carpenters probably read some sort of carpentry journal.
Why on earth do people think they can skip the all important task of reading and still be trusted to string together words others want to read?
When my Mom fed me a steady diet of words, I thought it was because books were cheaper than toys or Nintendo games. In reality, they weren’t, not the way I flew through them. But, I think she had innate understanding of the point I’m trying to make.
Reading can prepare you, if only minimally, for anything.
For my desired profession, the minimal is not enough. I’m a writer, I read all the time.
What about you?
Thoroughly enjoyed this. Had the pleasure to meet Brian several years ago at a conference when he was achieving Rock Star status with his debut zombie novel THE RISING. This was a nice re-introduction to his work. Will definitely pick up more from this author.
Next on the Reading List: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
It’s starting a little slow, but I’m determined to stick with it. With all the buzz this series has gotten, it’s almost a mandatory read.
What are you reading?
“When you can snatch the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.”
If you’re not familiar with this little pop culture gem, then pretend I made this up. Really, it’s okay. I’m that clever so it’s believable.
A young Kwai Chang Caine is a pupil of Master Kan at the Shaolin Temple. He is told that when he snatches the pebble from the Master’s hand, then he has learned all he can in the temple. To continue his lessons, he must set out on his own and let the world be his teacher.
I could bore you with musings about Master Kan’s wisdom, and Caine’s youthful bravado, but the bottom line is Kan’s a bad mother[bleep] and Caine isn’t good enough to take the pebble. Yet.
Again, if you’re familiar with this, you know what eventually happened. If you’re not, continue thinking that I came up with this great metaphor about writing advice on my own.
Caine trains, becomes wise in the ways of Kung Fu, and eventually snatches the pebble from Kan’s hand.
It’s time to step out on his own.
If you’re serious about your writing career, eventually, you’ll have to as well.
I’ve had the opportunity to be mentored by some great writers, some of them are my personal heroes. They’ve been gracious enough to answer my informed questions about the business…
[We interrupt this blog for an important message]
Notice the emphasis the previous sentence. Informed. That means before I ever approached any professional writers for advice or to simply converse about the publishing industry, I did my homework. There are so many sources of information available to get a newbie writer started. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing something, but you can’t be lazy about getting information that is available to everyone.
Am I not making sense? Let me clarify. Real working writers don’t have time to answer the following questions:
-How do I get my book published?
-How do I get an agent?
-Can you read my story and tell me what you think?
If you’re asking a pro questions of this nature–questions that can be answered with a simple Google search–you’re not ready to snatch any pebbles. You may not be able to find a pebble. In a rock garden.
[We now return to our regularly scheduled blog ]
As I was saying, I’ve gotten great advice from great writers over the years. I couldn’t have gotten as far as I have without their help. But, there comes a point where there are no more questions for them to answer, at least not at the level you’re currently at.
You have to snatch the pebble, get a moving truck, and get your futon out of the Shaolin Temple. So to speak.
As a writer with pro aspirations, you have to recognize the point where your skills have surpassed what the internet can teach you.
And what your mentors can teach you.
And what this blog can teach you.
However, there should never come a time when you’re beyond taking good advice or accepting constructive criticism.
Caine was not a master when he left the temple, but an advanced beginner (don’t misunderstand, to re-use a phrase from earlier, he was still a bad mother[bleep]). Being that, he was able to apply the lessons he learned with sound judgment while still adding to his skills and wisdom in the face of new challenges.
You have to have the confidence to go into the world on your own and take your lumps. That means no more obsessing about perfection. Finish your drafts in a reasonable amount of time. Learn about the industry while you hone your craft.
Snatch the pebble, then go kick some publishing ass…
I’m 30 now, and just yesterday my agent–who I signed with 2 months ago–submitted my Young Adult mystery novel to several major publishers. So, your math is right…it took me 10 years to get the right query into the right person’s hands. And, that’s just to score representation, there’s still no guarantee of a sale.
For a decade my query package (letter, sample pages, and finally, the entire manuscript) didn’t garner the results I wanted. In the beginning, I accepted the rejections I received as Badges of Honor, something every writer goes through. At some point badges became bitterness. Gone were the lofty ideas of Rites of Passage.
It became the agent or the editor’s fault. They weren’t recognizing good writing.
Their assistants weren’t trained well enough to distinguish superb from slush.
The submission guidelines were too generic so I couldn’t stand out among the other 100+ queries that arrived the same day as mine.
It was all a giant conspiracy to keep my book off the shelf…
All of that was bulls***. The truth nibbled at the back of my mind, a truth I didn’t want to admit for a long time.
My query didn’t work for two reasons: 1)I just wasn’t good enough yet. 2) Even if I was a good enough writer, I wasn’t producing salable material.
Quality writing is a must, but it must also be writing that can GENERATE MONEY.
That’s the part the New/Frustrated/Stubborn Writer never wants to think about. A publishing career is not built solely on the ability to craft beautiful prose. Agents and Editors have bills to pay, so every hour they spend with a client/acquisition must have some benefit to their bottom line. That’s not to say they don’t love words as much as you do, or that they aren’t sensitive, friendly people who love cats, and ice cream, and taking their kids to the park. But publishing is their BUSINESS.
In a successful publishing career the New Writer will wise up (some, like me, more slowly than others), and begin to tailor their writing and queries towards salable. They may still be the Frustrated Writer for awhile, but will break through eventually.
The Stubborn Writer may never wise up, and will continue to write what they want (sometimes referred to as ‘write what you know’) instead of writing something that can make money.
And they’ll have more Badges of Honor than anyone…
If you plan to query anytime soon, you need to LIVE THIS MOTTO.
As great as it is to see a good sample query letter (like you’ll find in Writer’s Market or at any number of sites that feature sample queries), it’s even better to see bad (horrible…terrifying) queries.
Two blogs stand out, and if you’re not reading them, you should be:
In my opinion, Query Shark is the most helpful query critique site on the web. Agent Janet Reid brutalizes willing submitters, breaking down the (oft-common) flaws in their query, even calling out the exact moment when she’d stop reading the letter. Sound harsh? Good.
Here’s the thing, those who end up as The Shark’s chew toy have the option to revise and resubmit for another chomping. While each subsequent feeding is just as brutal as the first, many submitters eventually get it right, earning a full manuscript request from The Shark herself.
If you’re serious about doing queries the right way, swim here.
Though posts in Slushpile Hell rarely exceed two sentences, the lessons are invaluable.
Anonymous agents submit a single line from a single, sad query and offer a sarcastic/snarky/mean humorous response. It can be enjoyed for pure comedy, or it can be studied. Dissected. Branded into your mind.
Never do what these writers do.
The query letter formula is all over the web, but for easy reference I like The Nelson Agency’s break down. Study the right way and the wrong way.
Next time, I’ll talk about what to do when you’ve followed the formula and it isn’t working…
It finally arrived. My new Kindle was dropped off by my UPS guy bright and early this morning, and now that I’m off the day job, I’m able to play with my new toy for a bit. So, short post today.
There’s been so much talk about how e-books and e-readers are changing the world of publishing. Detractors of the e-book say the e-sale numbers are exaggerated. Detractors for print say paper books are already dinosaurs akin to the 8-track.
My verdict: They all make good points.
I can’t speak for THE MARKET, as that’s a job for economists, and analysts, and guys who didn’t choose their college major based on what required the least math classes (hey, sue me). I will say this, the Kindle sure makes things convenient, and I can certainly see opting for an electronic version of books I’m on the fence about. But, I will still purchase hardcovers (as long as they’re available) from my favorite authors.
That’s the thing, though…why go through the extra trouble of driving to the bookstore, using my legs to walk into the store, and paying twice the (ebook) price for a book? Aside from the fact that moving and leaving the house help me not to become a diabetic hermit, the ancient way of buying a book could very well become a collector’s novelty, like the search for classic vinyl records.
And if it does?
Some folks will bitch and moan and tell stories like, “When I was your age we read our books on dead trees…”
But the world will keep spinning and our cars will keep flying (wait…that hasn’t happened yet…I have to stop revealing the secrets I learn during my time travel adventures with my eccentric scientist friend).
Anyway, you get my point. Life will go on.
At least until the Robot Maid Revolt of 2087…
Anyone got any hot Kindle recommendations for me? If so, leave ’em in the comments. Later…
True story: An Accomplished Writer who has sold and published nearly a dozen novels attends a conference. While having a drink, a New Writer takes the bar stool next to her and strikes up a conversation. They chat about the industry, how the conference has been, what they’ve read lately. Finally, they get to the subject of self-promotion.
The Accomplished Writer is impressed with the New Writer’s use of social networking, web radio, conference hopping and mail campaigns to promote their project. The Newbie is way ahead of where the Accomplished Writer was at a similar point in her career. The New Writer even has a fancy t-shirt featuring their new book’s cover.
Totally willing to support this New Writer, the accomplished writer asks, “Do you have any copies of your book on you? I’d like to buy one.”
To which the New Writer responds, “Oh, I haven’t written it yet.”
In my previous post we talked a bit about “Writing Stuff”, or the activities that writers engage in to reach more people. It involves everything that relates to your writing but isn’t your writing. Now, I want to talk about the writing itself.
Believe it or not, your craft should be your top priority, though it’s easy to see how it can fall into the 2, 3, or 4 spot behind all the other stuff that’s a part of the 21st Century Writer’s life. Put it in perspective, let’s say you’re a great marketer. You Tweet like nobody’s business. You’ve got 5,000 friends on Facebook. Everyone who knows you knows your book is coming. They’re excited. Then, they get the book…
…and it sucks.
Or, it’s never finished.
Or, it’s never even started (though having t-shirts printed does show initiative).
Never forget that writers write. No matter what.
Not having enough time is NOT an excuse.
I’ve often heard that writers should write everyday. I guess that’s a good thing, but it’s not something I’ve been able to stick to. I do write at least 5 out of every 7 days, and I focus on one project until it’s completed (unless someone pays me to do something else).
This is one of those areas where you have to keep the schedule that works for you. My schedule works for me (I’ve sold work, have a great agent, one of my novels is going on submission in 2 weeks) and I’m still able to hit the gym. However it breaks down, you have time to write. You may currently call it Desperate Housewives time, or Madden 2010 time, but you can easily re-allocate that time to your writing.
If you’re not willing to manage your time in a way that incorporates your writing, you don’t really want the job.
Oh, and just to clarify, writing means putting new words on the page. AdviceToWriters.Com has an interesting quote from E.L. Doctorow that sums it up nicely, “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
Steven Barnes says, “Perfectionism Is Procrastination Masquerading As Quality Control”
That means you can’t revise forever. Yes, writing means re-writing. And if you’re just writing for yourself with no further aspirations, feel free to tweak and tinker to your heart’s content. But if you’re serious and want the job, here’s where I give you a hard and fast rule to follow.
1 Draft -> 1 Revision -> Get quality feedback from someone (other than yourself) -> repeat as necessary
If you know anything about Quality Control, then you know the QC Evaluation is never conducted by the product’s creator. There’s only so much you can do given the emotional investment you have in your manuscript. And stalling the revision is just a way to avoid taking your lumps.
Guess what, after all that solo revising, it’s still going to suck.
Boom! We just got that out of the way, so there’s no need to be scared. It can’t get worse than that. Just know every time you get some new, crucial piece of feedback your manuscript will suck less and less until it’s just unsucky enough to get you where you want to go.
It can’t do anything for you sitting on your hard drive while you swap out commas.
Congrats!! You’ve completed your project. You’ve done what writers do despite the Writing Stuff and everything else life throws in your way.
Now do it again.
There’s nothing wrong with getting your queries and proposals together. If you get a few rejections then go back, tweak some things and try again (that’s what landed me my agent).
Keep writing, keep putting new words on the page. Sound daunting? Think about this, if you get the job you say you want, you’re going to have to come up with new stuff all the time. Might as well get some practice in now.
And when you’re doing all that Writing Stuff, you’ll have plenty to talk about…
If you follow the publishing industry, particularly with aspirations of being a professional writer, you’ve likely heard things like “you have to own your career” and “writers can no longer take a passive role in promoting and selling their work”. Gone are the days of the full-time writer having a hermit-like existence, only surfacing to buy scotch and pipe tobacco while waiting for royalty checks. Heck, let some tell it, gone are the days of the full-time writer.
As with anything, there are exceptions. But, most likely, you (and me) aren’t.
Which means we’re going to have to balance the “writing stuff” in our careers with the actual “writing”.
This question may seem simple. You can probably tick off a good sized list of “writing stuff” you’ve done, are doing, or plan to do. In quick succession, it probably looks a little like this:
-Develop and maintain a web presence (site, blog, social networking, message boards)
-Meet other writers with career aspirations similar to your own and nurture those friendships
All of the above are good efforts, or at least that’s what we’re told. However, without a clear vision, good planning, and the ability to evaluate the effectiveness of your efforts, all that stuff can easily become a time suck that takes away from the most important part of your career: writing.
I’ve met a lot of writers who are hesitant to say exactly what they want from their careers, as if stating the desire for full-time income/notoriety based mostly on writing will jinx the possibility of it ever happening. Really, it’s quite the opposite. By not clearly quantifying and qualifying goals, your efforts will start to resemble those of a driver who is lost, but won’t ask for directions.
They’ll drive straight for awhile, but when they don’t like how the road’s looking they take a left. Then they’ll randomly decide that was wrong, and make another turn. And so on.
Compare this to the driver who knows where they’re going. It doesn’t matter if the road is narrow, under construction, or congested. They stick to it with their mind focused expressly on their destination.
Once you know what you want, you have to make a solid plan to get it. No one accomplishes goals accidentally.
How you go about this will vary person to person. Obviously, one of the goals you should be planning around will involve a certain amount of writing on a regular basis. But, we’ll discuss that in Part 2 of this topic.
In regard to “writing stuff” part of the planning will center around gaining an understanding of the industry as a whole, then specifically the area you want to work in. I can’t tell you exactly how to do that. Like I said, it varies. But, I can point you to some great conventional (and not so conventional) resources.
The value of the items above may or may not be apparent, but the key is to find what works for you, and that’s mostly going to come through trial and error. Thus the next point…
You gotta be able to see what’s NOT going to work for you. Video blogging may not work for you if you’re camera shy. Building a Twitter following may not work for you if you only tweet once or twice a week. Selling your work on the cheap through digital platforms may not be your thing if you’re not a diligent online promoter.
There’s nothing wrong with trying any and everything, but in order to control your time (which you need to write), you’ll have to figure out which avenues are worth taking, and which ones justify a detour.
We’re going to leave the writing stuff alone and focus on what you can tweak in your writing to help you find that road to success a little faster. If you have any specific questions you’d like me to address, please leave them in the comments section.