Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rules for Writers(and wannabes)

One item that is always on my desk is a copy of Diana Hacker's book, Rules for Writers.  I just bought myself the sixth edition of the book after using my old one to death.  The book is a must have for teachers, librarians, students and anyone who decides to play with words.  It's full of information on grammar, punctuation, usage, research...anything technical you'd want to know.  What it doesn't have is how to deal with the problems that come along when you want to be a professional writer. (I do think the title is a tad misleading, don't you?)  There are no rules for wannabes, so I figured I'd take a crack at it.

Rule #1:  Realize from the outset that the road to publication is bumpy.  Bumpy? That's an understatement.  If you're like me you have a full time job.  And a family. And a house.  And no matter how much your family says they will support your endeavor, they still need you, so interruptions will never go away.  The job?  Well, eating is good.  Paying the bills is good.  I need my job even if I would rather spend my days working toward becoming a published novelist and the reality is that even after I get published, I'm  keeping the job. At least for a while.  So the short version of this rule is this:  many things will get in the way of your writing; you have to deal with it.

Rule #2:  Your friends and family will think your first completed work is amazing.  Many will think this even if it sucks.  Do you know why?  Because you wrote a book.  For most people writing more than ten pages of anything is a feat.   If you've written 300 hundred pages of story, even if it's the most ridiculous drivel, they'll tell you that you are the second coming of Dickens.  Keep their praise in perspective.  They love you and want you to be happy, so try to find people who are more objective to evaluate your work.  It's fine to get opinions from friends,  and yes, they can be valuable, (I've gotten some great feedback from friends) but also get opinions that are constructive, that are technical and that may require you to rethink your story.

Rule #3:  Getting an agent is harder than writing a book.  I mean this.  It's hell.  If you thought getting through the sagging middle of your story was tough, getting an agent makes writing a full length novel feel like child's play.  Oh, the agents try to make you feel like you're the one in control here.  The rejection  letters and e-mails come back with things like "I'm afraid I'm going to have to take a pass"  or "I'm not the right person for this" or "You deserve someone who will totally commit to this project."   When you break down agent speak these mean,  "I don't think your project will sell."  Publishing is a business and agents are supposed to sell books to make money for you and for themselves.  If an agent doesn't think a book will sell she will not accept you because you turn a pretty phrase.  There are always stories of people who found the agent of their dreams and sold their first book in record time.  Those people are the exception, not the rule.  Be prepared for rejections.  Lots of them.

Rule #4:  Trends do sell and while everyone always says to write the book of your heart, people buy trends.  One thing in particular is bothering the hell out of me, and it has to do with the YA market.  So I will say this: don't try to write for the Young Adult market unless you have a YA voice.  Where did this come from?  YA lit is hot.  Ever since Stephanie Meyer birthed the Twilight series full-grown from her dreams, YA  has surged.  Some agents only want YA authors.  However, I can tell you as a high school librarian, not everyone is cut out to write YA.  I've read more junk in the past two years than I care to tell you about.  I've also read some really good work.  You need to have a strong teen voice, so no matter how hot the trend is, no matter how much you think you should do this, be honest with yourself.  Don't write YA because you see it as a way to sell a book.  Write YA because that is what you were meant to do.

That honesty thing goes for everyone. If you write to a trend, any trend, that's fine, but make sure you are writing honestly.  Agents, editors, and readers will thank you for it.

Rule #5:  Your ego will be battered. You will feel like a failure.  There's no way around this.  But if you really want to be a writer, don't give up.  Don't ever give up. Just remember your three "R's":   Rethink, rewrite, resubmit.

I have a query letter that is failing me miserably.  It's time to rip it apart and start over.  I have my books, my ideas and my nerve all ready to go.  Wish me luck.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Flashing Cursor

I have this idea in my head, but I’m having trouble getting things down on paper. So I spent the last two hours staring at a flashing cursor and writing things in my notebook.  I have character names, ages, and professions.  I’m having trouble with the location, but I think I’m staying local in this one—it will cut down on my research.

But I am considering a big change.  My unsold manuscripts, the one I’m shopping now and the one that almost made it, were contemporary single titles.   One is 110,000 words and one is 95,000 words.   The stories are complex, multi-layered, have a good group of characters and are getting me nowhere.  So I’m wondering if I have to bite the bullet and write for the category market.  My word count would drop some, my stories would be more focused and I might actually have a chance to sell. 

The problem is I don’t know if I can do it.  I’ve made it a point to start reading more 'traditional' romances.  Sorry lit snobs, no bodice rippers.  Instead of my usual fare of Luanne Rice, Kristin Hannah and Susan Wiggs, I’ve been devouring Kristan Higgins (love her books), Jennifer Crusie, and Susan Mallery. They write well, their characters are vivid and the stories are fun and well-crafted. The books tend to be a little shorter, have fewer sub-plots and fewer characters.  They write straight romance and they are funny.  Really funny.  And I don’t know if I can be funny.  Damn.

You want an abusive ex-husband?  Done.    An orphaned kid? I can do that.  A stalker?  I’m your girl.    But I don’t know if I can write humor. 

The flashing cursor awaits.  I have the idea, and a general sense of how I should proceed.  I’ve even mapped out a simple plot skeleton, which I never do, to keep me on track.  I’ve eliminated extraneous tragedies, and I’ve basically decided that the female main character has only one enemy in her quest to find true love—herself. 

Kind of like me in my quest to be published.   Damn.