Friday, May 18, 2007

WRITING 101

This section of my blog site is where I plan on sharing some of the many experiences and insights I have gained as I've spent the past few years trying to get published. My hope is that it will help you avoid many of the pitfalls I made as I have learned the "business" of publishing, while at the same time, give you the advice that may help you to become a published author yourself.

Disclaimer: The suggestions that I offer on my website, ones in which I consider are ways of helping you become a good writer, perhaps a publishable one, are just that—suggestions. I do not intend to hold them out there as an absolute guarantee that if you follow my ideas, you will become a published author, a better writer, or even a good one at that. As with any skill, some of us are better at things than others. What I am offering you are my experiences, the lessons I have learned that have helped me gain a tentative foothold into the crazy and beguiling world of the written word.

If you go to other websites, you will probably get a different perspective about what it takes to get published. The plain and simple fact is that there are many roads writers have taken to land on that all-important bookshelf. Use what is most beneficial to you. If it’s not, that’s okay too. If I have helped just one person move forward as a writer, then I have done my job well.

What, then, is the secret to good writing? If I had the answer to that, I would be a rich man indeed. You ask that same question to writers and non-writers alike, and you are bound to get as many answers as people. The plain and simple fact is that there is no secret. The one and only way of becoming a good writer is sitting down in front of your computer, or typewriter for those traditionalists out there, and do it. And by doing it, I mean a lot—hour after hour after hour. Writing is a skill that takes practice.

Now mind you, I’m sure there have been people out there, three or four tops in the world, who woke up one day and decided to write a book. They planted themselves in front of their computer and typed away for the next couple of months. When finished, they took it to the first publishing house they found on a listing somewhere, and BAM!--they're on the New York Times bestselling list. Like I said before, three or four tops. For the rest of us, we toil in front of that computer screen for years on end before we get any kind of positive response from a publishing house or magazine. It is not my intention to discourage you, especially if you are just getting into this crazy world of writing, but you should know the truth from the get-go so you know exactly what you are signing up for.

With that said, there are some things you can do that will better your chances of getting published. While not an exhaustive list by any means, the suggestions I offer below will at least give you a strategic approach that just may pay off for you in the end. Hey, it worked for me.

Step 1: Getting Started

Unless your last name is Gates or Rockefeller, you probably work 40-50 hour a week job. This means you will do most of your writing before work, after work, and on weekends. Depending on how fast you are, you will probably crank out a few pages of really good stuff a day. On a personal note, I have heard it said that many of the established writers today hold to the proverbial “1000 words a day” standard of writing. That about 3 ½ pages for you math whizzes. If you can maintain a 3-page a day discipline, you could conceivably write the “Great American Novel” in 100 days. Again, that’s just over three months for you math whizzes. When you think about it that way, it does not seem quite so daunting.

Of course, what you’ve written will probably need a bit of polishing. I’m certain there are a handful of people out there who can form an entire novel in their head, and then put type it out like they are taking dictation. For the rest of us humble writers, our first step is getting the words onto the page. Don’t worry about how good or bad it is. Just get it written down. You are creating. Think of yourself as Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo. You are the great master of creativity. Put it out there. There is no right or wrong at this point. In your mind, it’s all good, and treat it that way.

Step 2: Put It Down For A While

The next thing you should is put what you’ve written away for a while. This can apply to a paragraph, a section, a chapter or group of chapters. Whatever block you write at any one sitting, set it aside for a certain period of time. Let it grow cold in your mind. If you don’t do that, and try to edit your work while writing, all the ideas, images, and scenes are still fresh in your mind. The problem is, whatever doesn’t quite make it onto the page, our minds tend to fill in the gaps. That’s great for you, but someone else reading your story doesn’t have access to your thoughts. They can only judge your writing based on what is on the written page. If there are gaps in the story, misspelled words, omitted words, or you tend to repeat certain phrases or words (which most writers do by the way), then the person reading your work will pick it up in a second. Hopefully, these are the things you will catch yourself, long before you send it off to a publishing house or literary agent. If you don’t, they certainly will. And believe me, they will let you know it. Their job is not to pat you on the back and say it’s a great story despite all its flaws. No. If the book is a mess, they reject it on the spot and move onto the next submission on their ever-growing pile of other hopeful submissions. Editors and agents are interested in a story that is written well, has intriguing characters, and a compelling plot the reader cannot put down. That is always the standard every writer should adopt for himself. Those are the kind you find on the shelves of book and grocery stores. All the rest were rejected long before.

Step 3: Edit, Edit, and Then Edit Some More

Once you have started on your project, you will probably need to go back several times to work out all the kinks. It could be anything: word usage, sentence structures, character development, or the tone of your story. For most writers, this is a difficult and humbling process. A novel is their baby, their creation. To think that it is flawed in some way is anathema to many of them. The trouble is, it is almost never right the first time around. How many times have you written a note to yourself, only to wonder what it says when you read it later? A single word can change the meaning of a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, perhaps the entire story. I know this sounds extreme, but a writer who is making a serious attempt at getting published should give his very best. Just phoning it in won’t do. Dialogue between characters should crackle in the reader’s ears. If it doesn’t then you go back and change it. Do your descriptions paint a picture like a Renaissance master? If not, go back and add a bit of color and splash. Are your characters authentic? Are their actions consistent? Is there too much information? Should you take out parts of the story to keep it moving forward? Does the reader have a reason to turn the next page? All these kinds of questions should be in the forefront of your mind when you are creating your story. Going over every page with a critical eye helps this happen. That is the beauty of editing. Whatever doesn’t work, you always have the ability of making it right.

Step 4: Get Some Feedback

It is always a good idea to get some feedback. A little honest criticism never hurts. This is a chance to see if someone else gets what you are trying to say. Are your characters believable? Does your dialogue ring true? Does the plot hold together well? These, plus a hundred other questions, need to be answered before you even consider getting your work published. But who do you get? This can be a bit tricky. Our temptation is to give it to a friend, or perhaps a family member, and get their opinion. I myself did this on several occasions. The problem is, these are your friends and members of your family. They tend to have a huge blind-spot—they know you. No one ever wants to give bad news to a close friend or family member, especially when you have such high hopes about your work. So you often get general platitudes, such as they say they liked it, it was really good, it was interesting, or whatever else comes to mind. Unfortunately, you walk away thinking you have a winner on your hands instead of the truth.

The other problem is that most people do not have the ability of critiquing someone’s work in a literary sense. It doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. Writing, like many disciplines, has its own rules, its own do’s and don’ts. Do you have a problem with point-of-view (POV), do you tell the reader what’s going on instead of showing him, is your writing forced and unnatural, or do you use too many adverbs to describe characters or scenes? The layperson probably will not be able to identify those particular traps many young writers fall into, myself included at times. They may have a general feeling something isn’t write, but won’t be able to verbalize it very well, if at all. Whoever you give your work to, make certain they know a thing or two about the mechanics of good writing, and have ability of letting you know where your writing falls short. The only way we can improve is when we are told where our problems are. Mind you, it’s no fun getting something back you have poured your heart into, only to hear there are areas that need fixing. But like I already said, you can always go back and make needed repairs.

On a personal note, there were some parts of my novel, When the Sky Fell, I probably had to revise 30-40 times before I got it right. That may be a bit extreme, but it sometimes takes hardheaded people like myself a while before we recognize how many of the writing traps we have fallen into. The question then is, “Who should read your work?”

There are, of course, professional people who do critiques for a living. If you decide to pursue this route, there are several thingss you should consider first before signing on with someone. First, talk with those writers who have worked with that particular person in the past. Were they easy to get along with? Did they return your work within the promised time frame? Are the authors this person is working with getting published? Are this person’s rates reasonable? How long have they been doing this? You should decide well who you should pick since that person is going to exercise quite a bit a influence as to the direction, style, and tone of your novel. This person can polish it to a high sheen, or he can just as easily cut it up into an unrecognizable mess.

There are also writer’s conferences. This is an excellent place for you to show off your skills as a writer. While the services vary from conference to conference, a good many of them let attendees submit the first 20 pages of work to be evaluated by a published author, literary agent or acquisitions editor. Some conferences build the cost of this into the registration fees, while others charge separately. These are people who are in the business and know what they are talking about. They can usually spot the flaws in your writing pretty quick.

You can also join a writers group. This is a chance for you to share what you’ve written with other aspiring writers. You then hear what people liked about what your work, plus those areas that need to be revised. You also have the chance to do the same for others. Critiquing other people’s work helps you develop an ear for snappy dialogue, good description, and a plot that keeps moving forward. Plus, you also get a chance to experience other styles of writing. As a writer, you should always be looking for new ways of approaching your material.

In a similar vein, there are online websites that serve a similar function as a critique group. You have the opportunity of submitting your work for other members to critique, and then do the same for them. The only problem is that you have no idea who these other people are. You don’t know their tastes in writing or how long they have been writing themselves. If you do take this route, just remember to read their critiques with a grain a salt, unless of course, they loved it.

Step 5: Now That You’re Done, How Do You Get Published?

After several thousand hours of work, all the writing, revisions and polishing have finally ended. You have completed your novel. Go out and celebrate! You have done what very few people have done—written a novel. If your work never gets published, it is still a laudable event in your life, worthy of praise. But after the hoopla has settled down, you now must roll up your sleeves and set about the task of getting your novel published. If you ever get a chance to talk with a published author, you are likely to hear an interesting story about how they got it onto a bookshelf. But if one were to distill the essence of their tales, there are basically three avenues to publication.

The first is self-publishing. Simply put, you pay a publishing house that specializes in self-publishes books for a pre-negotiated fee. While the fees and packages vary from house to house, the responsibility to sell your book is on your shoulders. The “publisher” may put your book on their website, and may even help in promoting it, but after that, it’s up to you. You are the one who talks to booksellers, the one who creates the buzz, and you are the one who finds ways of getting your novel into people’s hands. It’s a lot of work, but if you feel passionately about what you’ve written, then this might be the road for you. Many notable authors have gotten their start this way. They had the drive, ambition, and solid marketing plan to make the sales.

If you feel your novel has what it takes in the vast marketplace of capitalism, then you can decide to send it straight to a publishing house. While laudable, especially when you are just getting started, you may find this a difficult route. Publishing houses, particularly the bigger ones, typically receive dozens, if not hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts every week. As you can imagine, competition to get published is fierce. With this many authors vying for the attention of an acquisition editor, they can be pretty choosy about which books they want to publish. Unless your work stands out from the crowd, you haven’t got a chance of getting past the first screening. Even if you do, your chances of getting approval from the senior editor, marketing people, finance people, plus a whole lot of other people I’m not aware of, also have to give their blessing to the work. If any one of the departments says your book won’t work, then it’s pretty much dead in the water at that point.

You are also competing against writers with an established track record. Now mind you, they were that unknown writer at one time, but someone decided to take a chance on him. Now that they are a known quantity with a verifiable track record of sales, they definitely have a leg up on you. Hey, no one said it this was fair. Getting published is extremely unfair. Your submission will probably only get a cursory glance from an editor. If the first couple of pages don’t grab him, he is done with you, and onto the other several hundred unsolicited manuscripts sitting on his desk.

Chances are, this won’t even happen since most publishing houses no longer look at unsolicited manuscripts. They simply don’t have the time to go through the thousands of submissions from hopeful writers that 999% percent of the time are going to be rejected anyway. Also, it also comes down to dollars. These days, the cost of publishing a book is between 50-100,000 dollars. They are taking quite a financial risk on you. Since the reading public tends to pass over new authors, or authors they’ve never heard of, the number of books sold will probably be on the low side. The publishing houses know this. And so to minimize their risk, they like to go with a winning author who knows how to write. The avenue they turn to is the literary agent.

The literary agent is the person who has the experience and connections to know the best place to pitch a novel. They have become quality control for the publishing houses. The houses know an agent can sniff out a bad novel as fast as they can. The books that pass the smell test are the ones the agent tries to sell to the publisher. But getting him to sign you on as a client is almost as difficult as getting a publishing house to publish your book. Like the publishing houses, agents also receive thousands of submissions from hopeful writers. Unfortunately, most literary agencies tend to be on the small side: the senior agent, maybe a couple of other agents, and a few staff people. Suffice it to say, they have little time to evaluate new manuscripts. Agents and staff focus most of their energies toward selling books from the writers they have already signed with, pitching new writing projects, finalizing business deals, and the like. They can only manage so many writers at any one time. Again, the thing that is going to get your foot in the door is a great story accompanied by fabulous writing. No matter who you are, the first question any agent asks himself is, “Is this novel marketable?” If he feels it won’t sell, then you’ve just joined the growing pile of rejected submissions. But if you have written a masterpiece the whole world wants to read, then, believe me, he’ll be the one doing the begging.

In regards to this last point, it is always best to find out what the agent wants included in the manuscript submission. Every one is different, and has his preferences. Some only want a query letter, while others want a query letter and the first chapter. Still others want the first three chapters of your novel, and a synopsis. Like I said, everyone is different. But be well advised. If the agent says he only wants to send him a query letter, then don’t include a sample chapter. This tells him you are not respectful of his wishes, and if you're like this at the beginning, how bad will it be down the road when a potential sale is at stake. Whatever list they have posted, you follow it to the letter. Also, make certain the agent works in the same genre as you. If you have written a murder mystery, and the agent doesn’t work with that particular genre, then you’re just wasting his time and yours.

In my humble opinion, the undiscovered secret for people trying to get published is writer’s conferences. While they have been around for years, most young writers don’t see much use for them. They could not be more wrong. When you go to a writer’s conference, you are rubbing shoulders with published authors, literary agents and acquisition editors. It’s like getting a fast-pass at Disneyland. You are granted access to the very people who hold your publishing future in their hands. Through them, you are learning the techniques that help you make a better writer, and/or how to avoid the pitfalls suffered by so many wannabe authors. You are also making important contacts. You have a chance of sitting down with an editor or agent and pitch your story idea to them face-to-face. They get to hear your passion, your zeal for the story as you tell them about the main characters, the setbacks, the triumphs, and how this is going to be the next big seller in bookstores. You just can’t buy that kind of access. If they ask you to send them more, then you have jumped over a very big hurdle indeed. In effect, they are putting your manuscript on the top of their pile.

On a personal note, I literally had that happen to me after a writer’s conference. An editor asked me to send him the first three chapters of my manuscript. When I hadn’t heard from him in a few months, I decided to call and ask if he had a chance to read it yet. The editor apologized and said he had been very busy. As we were talking, the editor promised to put my manuscript on the top of his pile. The only way this happened was because of the contact I made at a writer’s conference.

Another reason to go to a writer's conference are the seminars they offer, covering all the important aspects of writing. Since no one person could possibly go to every seminar, most conferences record them on tapes or CD's. Buy the ones you feel are the most helpful for you as a writer, and listen to the pearls of wisdom flow through the speakers. Compare what they say to your own writing. I know I have needed to go back to my stories and make quite a number of revisions. Making it fresher and tighter can only improves your chances of catching the eye of an editor or literary agent. Again, the better your writing, the more likely your manuscript will get published.

In the meantime, you write, and then write some more. There is always another writer’s conference coming around the corner. And you never know. That could be the one where an agent or editor takes notice of what you’ve written and is willing to take a chance on it.

4 comments:

Zellie said...

I'm curious about writer's conferences. Initially, I had dismissed them with the thought that they were focused on traditional writing-mysterious, chick lit, short stories, poetry. I write sci-fi/fantasy. But it looks like your book is sci-fi....are there sci-fi/fantasy specific conferences or are those genres included in typical conferences?

~Zellie

http://zellie.bigcreepymansion.com

About Me said...

Zellie,

Since I don't know where you live, I cannot really point you to a conference that is in your area. So I decided to give you a general listing of conferences and workshops that that include Science Fiction. There are not many writers conferences that focus just on SF. Mostly, the editors and agents that attend them look at manuscript submissions from all of the genres you listed. The Internet is a wonderful tool. You can always go online and try and find a conference that is in your neck of the woods. With that said, here are a few options you may want to consider:

The Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer's Workshop

San Diego State University Annual Writer's Conference

The Odyssey Summer Fantasy Writing Workshop

Clarion West Science Fiction Workshop

Creative Journeys: Writing Workshops for Women

The Backspace Writers Conference

Vancouvery International Writers and Readers Festival

Writers' Workshop in Science Fiction

Viable Paradise - A Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers Workshop

Science Fiction Research Association 2007 Conference.

I hope this helps.

Mike

Robert Treskillard said...

This is good advice, Mike. Thanks!

gzusfreek said...

Mike, This was helpful and good timing for me. Thank you for taking the time to write it!