Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What does it take to get published?

I think this is my hard questions page, and because of that I'm going to pinpoint some things that I think prevent people from getting published. (Disclaimer: I'm not published yet, so I include myself in the not-there-yets. Also, you are free to disagree with me, especially if you are a published author, an editor, or an agent. But after hanging out with writers and being one for the past many years, these are things I see as barriers.) And yes, I know there are a lot of variables that writers simply can't control, and sometimes timing and taste have more to do with it than the writing. But the variables are only part of it. So these are common problems I've seen and/or experienced:

Not willing to stick with a project and revise deep enough before sending it out. If you only lightly revise, you can send out your book before it's truly ready, and get rejected everywhere. Then if you decide to go back and do that revision after all, there's nowhere left to send it. Put the brakes on! Revise, take a break and work on something else, then come back and see if it's still as glorious as you thought it was the day you wrote "the end." It's hard to tell when it's time to truly pack away a ms. But there are some that get packed away that are almost there, and with a little more polish, might be somebody's favorite book. This is heartbreaking.

Revising one book for years at the expense of new, better books you could write. It's hard to find the line sometimes, but if you've really revised and gotten nowhere, maybe it's good to take a break and write something new. You can always come back to that first book once you've grown a bit and learned from other books.

Assuming you know all you need to already. Learn all you can. Read recent books. Take notes on books you read. Why did this one succeed? Read agent and editor blogs. Go to conferences. Hang out on boards like Verla Kay's. Read books on craft. Don't wait for information to magically drop into your head. It's your writing future; you are responsible for how much you choose to learn.

Discounting the value of critiques, especially the ones you do. It's not all about you. I've said this before, but you can learn more from critiquing others' works than you can from just getting crits of your own stuff.

5. Staying where it's too easy. Swim deep. Seek out opportunities to interact with writers whose skills are slightly above yours. Read books that editors use. If everyone who reads your stuff is only saying good things, maybe you need to find someone to critique your book who will be a little more...critical.

6. Lack of attention to craft. Work on these two things: nouns and verbs, and overall plot structure. The attention to word choice will help with voice, and the large-scale plot structure will make sure your book is a cohesive story.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Things no writer wants to hear

Much of the time my writer friends and I spend is in trying to encourage each other and suggest ways to improve something that's already there. But there are those other things that we don't like to think about, that we gloss over and pretend aren't there. Today I'm daring to think about the big, bad things that make writers question their existence, and trying to see if there's any hope to be had. This is not directed at any particular situation; I'm just thinking about things I've felt in the past or been aware of, and since I'm having a fairly good day at the moment, it's probably a good day to confront these issues. But if you are having a bad day, have just gotten a rejection or are questioning why you are even writing at all, DO NOT READ THIS.

1. Your writing is good, there's nothing really "wrong" with your book, and it isn't a clear clone of something else--it just doesn't stick out enough to sell. That is bad news because if enough people say that, there may be something wrong with the core of your book. Like, you might have to just scrap it altogether. RIP. Thinking about this, though, I wonder if a story that "doesn't stick out enough" is another way of saying that "it isn't personal enough." Maybe there's still hope if you dig deep enough and reveal enough of yourself that it starts to hurt? (This is probably tied to the elusive "voice.")

2. You pay big $$ to go to a writing event and an editor raves about how much they love your work. You send in your stuff to them and hope, and a year goes by before you get a [form] rejection. What went wrong? I've heard editors and agents say how incredibly hard it is to reject someone to their face. They want to encourage writers. But encouraging someone to keep on writing until they get there and seeing something that's ready right now are two different things. Again, looking for hope: they may see the kernel of talent in you and want to encourage that, if even you aren't there quite yet.

3. You write a book. You go through critique and revision multiple times. You have major Good Vibes about writing being your thing, and about this book. You get all rejections back. Say you even feel confirmation that Writing is What God Wants You to Do, and yet, things don't work out. Well, now we get into questions of self-worth and maybe even God, and How Could He Let This Happen? Since I hang out with writers/artists as well as religious people (including people who are both), this is something I am well familiar with. The hard fact: yes, your book can be the best thing you have ever written. You can feel inspired as you write. But it can still not be at the level of craft it needs to be. And this is a very hard thing to take. Looking for hope: the market might not match what you're doing right now. True. But also, if you're willing to make the sacrifice, there might be more in it for you than you originally dreamed of. I like to think of Eustace Clarence Scrubb, who got off as much dragon skin as he could in that pool in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But it wasn't enough. And when Aslan came and tore off huge clods, it hurt. But that was the only way he could reach his goal/potential. Maybe you aren't there yet. But I still say to listen to those voices that tell you Writing is For You if you feel them, because the potential you're capable of reaching has got to be even better than what you can imagine right now. So keep working.

Okay. End of depression warning!

On agents

While revising one book and working on a new one, I've been paying a lot of attention to other people's agent searches. Especially to the searches that are for a second agent. One thing I notice is that people who are on a second agent have not necessarily parted ways because the agent couldn't sell their first book. Maybe the agent had a YA romance connection (because they normally sell adult romance), and when the author wanted to do a YA historical mystery, the agent was out of their element. In other words, the range in which the author and agent overlapped was very small. One thing I have heard more than once is that an agent, even a good one at a good agency, needs to have connections in the genre you write in. Which means that you can have an awesome bigname agent in adult lit, but that doesn't mean they can sell a midgrade novel. Or even YA.

I'm willing to allow for first-timers because everyone has a first time. But I still think that even if you're an agent who's decided to branch out into the YA market, you have to know something--and love something--about that kind of book. It HAS to be more than seeing dizzy dollar signs after the words "Harry Potter." An agent has the right to ask how serious an author is about their career and where they see themselves in the publishing world. But I think an author should also find out where that agent's heart is. What their favorite books in your genre are, what their favorite recent books in your genre are, why they like yours, and where they see you and your work fitting into the market. I know that is something important for me as I research agents. Just like the form rejection you see floating around, you can't just like the genre--"in this business, it's gotta be love."

On critiques and critiquers

I've recently done a rather large-scale revision and now it's out with quite a number of guinea pigs--er, critiquers--who I hope don't regret volunteering for the job. Now I'm waiting rather nervously and trying not to think about the reactions I'm going to get. I like getting critiques because I want to improve, but I have a hope that someday I'll pass inspection, at least with an A-. Anyhow, I've been thinking of the kinds of critiquers one could choose, and their usefulness (or not). So here's my evaluation. (And in case you're wondering, I sent my ms to all awesome critiquers!)

The reader who loves you and can't bear to criticize anything. They don't get how critiques work. They can be great ego-boosters if they like it, but if they don't, you are unlikely to ever hear the title of your work ever cross their lips. I had one like that once. If I were to attempt another crit with this person, I'd make a list of question for them to answer so they didn't feel afraid of a personal attack.

The reader who thinks a critique is ONLY a criticism. Again, not so helpful, because if you don't know what you're doing right, you don't know what direction to go in. A good critique lets you know the good stuff, too. I haven't had one of these, but I've known people who have.

The reader who doesn't get the book/genre. This can be a very frustrating experience. The reader wants something that you were never intending to write, and their comments are either critical because you aren't doing that, or suggesting you change the very nature of your story. Again, questions here would be helpful for the reader. Unfortunately you usually don't realize this until you get your critique back.

On the other hand, the reader who doesn't normally read your genre can be a useful kind of critiquer because they will notice things that other minds will skim over out of familiarity with the conventions. They can be very helpful in recognizing how well the story works as a story. So don't discount this critiquer!

The reader whose writing ability/publishing experience is slightly above yours. Awesome. Remember to be this critiquer for someone else as well.

The reader who is an expert on some technical element of your story. Again, awesome. Although, realize that while they might be a trained psychologist, they may not be a trained plot-ologist. But if you have an expert on hand for some element of your story, that's a good thing.

The reader who reads widely in your genre and connects with the main point of what you're trying to do with your book, and who also can articulate themselves well. Awesome. Bingo, bingo, bingo.