Saturday, October 13, 2012

Write What's in Your Head, Not What You Think Should Be on the Page

I’m back!  So soon!  And I’m deviating from my normal posting-once-per-decade because I said I had a post for another time, and it’s another time, so here it is. 

What I said was: “you write what’s in your head, not what you think should be on the paper”.  And you may have said: “duh”.  Of course a writer writes what’s in her head.  What else will she write?  Unfortunately I can state authoritatively that too many writers, those with dollar signs where their work ethic or devotion to craft should be, think, “YA is selling.  Paranormal is selling.  Erotica is selling.  I’m good at the words-putting-together-to-make-sentences.  I will arbitrarily choose one of these to write.  I wonder where I’ll put my TV in the Tuscan villa I will buy with all that crazy author money?”

When I see things like this I want to drink gin until all the letters look like squiggly lines.

Because the fact is if you try to write to a trend, you are a) already too late and b) going to end up with something crappy.  (Sorry.  It’s my job to be honest with you.  Well, one of my jobs.  I teach, tutor, write, and I’m honest with you.  I’m a busy gal.)  I speak from experience.  Once upon a time, I was a member of the query-weary ranks.  Sick of rejection, I noticed that YA seemed so much more successful.  Hey, I’m a good writer, if I write YA then I can trick an agent into representing me.  Mwuhahaha.  And so forth.

Needless to say, it didn’t work.  It wasn’t the worst thing ever, but it was just blah.  It got requests, but it got rejected.  Then one of my friends, who reads everything I write, laid it on the line.  (Don’t you just love friends who are truthful with you?)  He pointed out a couple of weaknesses, but said in the end he just didn’t enjoy reading it as much as he enjoyed reading Blessed.  Can you guess why?  Because I didn’t enjoy writing it as much. 

I wrote it because I thought it was the easy way in.  And there is the harsh, ass-kicking truth: there is no easy way in.  There is one way in, and that’s good writing.  And you’re going to have a hard time writing something well if you’re doing it for dishonest reasons. 

I misspoke (miswrote?) when I said you have to write what’s in your head.  You do, but it has to be in your heart first.  I read widely, so I feel comfortable in a couple of genres.  I read some YA, but not nearly as much as other things, so I didn’t have “it”.  It wasn’t in my heart.  Blessed is in my heart.  Class of 98 is in my heart.  And believe me, the next one I write will be in my heart. 

If you really want to write a story then the characters will burst out of your head unbidden, ready to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting world.  And if you try to hold them back they’ll host a cagematch in your head.  The only loser is you.  But if you prop up cardboard characters because you think they’re your ticket to fame and fortune they’ll fall right over the first time a stiff breeze comes along. 

Now you might be saying, “Good one.  Thanks a million.  I already wrote what I love, and the phone just ain’t ringing”.  Yeah, that’s a tough pill to swallow.  The only thing I can point to is my own experience.  It’s the speedtrain that spirited Blessed away from Rejectionland and into Happytown (which, as it turns out, is Self-Doubt Village adjacent—but I digress).  It’s a three-fold plan.  Stay with me.

I wrote.  I wrote stories that weren’t Blessed.  I wrote whiny blog posts.  Words, words, words.

I read.  I read On Writing, Bird by Bird, Self-Editing for Fiction Writing, and Writing the Breakout Novel.  I actually read Bird by Bird multiple times, way before I actually decided to get into writing seriously.  It’s just a good guide to life.  If you haven’t read it, quit reading this and get it—it’s magnificent.  The point is, I studied what professionals had to say about writing.  And then…

I edited.  I Flipped This Novel.  I put into Blessed what I had learned and took out what made it weak.  Voila!  Better novel.  Funny how that works. 

So my point is: write what you should be writing, not what you think will make you a big shot.  And if what you should be writing doesn’t help you achieve your goals, then study, listen, and learn.  Do the work.  Fix it.  Make it shine.  Because that’s all there is.  Readers (this includes agents and editors, they read) don't care what's "dead".  They respond to what's real.

“The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse”*—don’t you want that verse to be something true?  Something personal?  Above all, don’t you want it to be the best it can be?

*Shout out to my homie, Walt Whitman.  Well, not my homie.  He and I don’t get along most of the time, truth be told.  But he occasionally said some stuff I can’t argue with.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Submissions, Advice, and Your Second Book

Your first manuscript is your baby.  Your pride and joy.  It’s going to get you an agent, spark a hot bidding war between 1-6 of the Big Six, and before you know it Oprah will be holding it up to a hoard of adoring fans.

Except here’s the reality check: maybe not.

I’m navigating the murky swamps of submission right now, and I fully expected to be a basket case.  Instead I’ve found that any rejections don't sting.  Thinking about possible future rejections, maybe having to go on a second round, having to shelve Blessed Among Women…nope.  Doesn’t hurt a bit.

And now you’re thinking: she’s crazy and a liar.  I may be the former, but as anyone who has been on the receiving end of one of my pathetic excuses will tell you, I am not the latter.  I’m being 100% honest when I say that I’m prepared to let go of Blessed (for a while) if now is not its time.

Why?  A couple of reasons. 

The first is that two weeks ago I had a couple of days of teetering on the brink of genuine tragedy that put the whole “is-my-book-gonna-sell” waterworks sharply in perspective.  I am not exaggerating when I say that those issues I was facing resolved in a miraculous way, and thankfully everything is going to be all right.  But facing true hardship showed me that everything that’s happened so far with my book has been a blessing (har har har), and I need to be grateful.  I am.

Another is that I was working on my second novel.  I got it up to a decent wordcount and sent it to my agent and my agency’s editor for a dollop of their signature genius on how to make it sparkle.  It’s a novel I started when I was deep in the late stages of querying Blessed, when things were really starting to happen, and it was nice to have a work-in-progress as a distraction.  Bonus: I fell as madly in love with novel #2 (Class of '98) as I did with Blessed, and I proved to myself that I could do the writing-a-whole-book madness again.  It’s completely different than Blessed—instead of a darkly sweet and tragic love story, it’s a frothy contemporary time travel—but you write what’s in your head, not what you think should be on the paper.  That's a post for another time.

Hence the point of this post: I’ve seen lately in various author communities a disquieting trend.  Statements like:

“Can’t wait to get an agent/self-publish/contract so I can quit my job!”
The problem: your agent isn’t going to pay you, submissions could take a ridiculously long time, and both traditional and self-publishing are not exactly the easy path to Big Money Avenue.  As a debut author your advance will likely be a couple grand doled out over several payments.  In self-publishing, there’s no way to be 100% sure how your book will do.   It’s fine to fantasize about huge advances and book tours, but think of it like winning the lottery and be aware that those things come with their own issues, which brings me to:

“If I write an amazing query, then agents/editors will be beating down my door.”
The problem: if you write an amazing book they will beat down your door.  If you fail to do that before you write an amazing query, then they will request your work, actually read it, and send you a very polite form rejection telling you to keep on trying.  And amazing means amazing to someone, not to everyone.  If you could write a book everyone would love you and Oprah would already be besties and you probably wouldn’t be wasting time reading this blog.  And even if you did write an amazing book, there’s still one more step…

You have to write another one.  No excuses.  No exceptions.

Assume that you aren’t Harper Lee.  Assume that if you want to build a career as a writer in whatever avenue you choose then you will need to build an audience.  And to build an audience, you need to write books.  Plural.  If you sign with an agent, he/she will be delighted to hear that you have other projects in the works.  If you self-publish your readers will be glad to hear you have another title coming out.  And no, that doesn’t mean ideas.  Ideas are cheap.  They’re easy.  Books are grueling, put-in-the-hours work.  And if you have two or three ready to go, then if the first book doesn’t sell, NBD.  You’re ready to try again without having to spend months or years of your life trying to get another book together.

So yes: believe in yourself and your story.  But make sure that you have a realistic picture of what the future holds and your role in making that future a reality.