Courting Lady Luck: Writing for Your Dream

Madison, WI

The harder I work, the luckier I get.

–(tc)

With my patient mentor Phil Neumark leading the way, I bicycled 54 miles yesterday, the last leg of my Midwest tour. Hot, a few hills but good shoulders and a bike path part of the way, altogether a fine ride. After biking 73, 60, and more than 90 miles on previous days, it was relatively easy. Arriving on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, made me appreciate how Lady Luck had smiled on me: I had biked more than 270 miles in four days of riding and arrived safely.

(Riding a bike makes you appreciate things like seamless, light-colored pavement, a rare combination.  A national bike path is in the works, adapting unused railroad tracks when possible. Wouldn’t it be great if it was covered symbolically yet practically in light green pavement?) 

Madison is a very nice, beautifully situated city surrounded by lakes. Although it’s the state capitol–with a beautiful, art-filled building to attest to it–more than 50,000 UW students—Go Badgers!–make it more gown than town. And the first six, tree-lined blocks of State Street are college-town central: a collection of shops, restaurants, bookstores, and Yellow Jersey, an excellent bike shop from which I Fed-Exed my bike back to Citizen Chain, another fine bike shop, in San Francisco.

Courting Lady Luck

To have the best chance for maximum sales, your book needs a lot of luck:

* The right idea 

* Writing that makes every reader a salesperson

* A passionate agent who can

  • Make sure your book is as strong as it can be before submitting it
  • Get the best editor, publisher, and deal for it

* An editor who can 

  • Help you improve your book even more
  • Be a passionate in-house agent for it

* The publisher that can do the best job 

  • Copy-editing, designing, producing, selling distributing, and reprinting your book
  • Selling subsidiary rights
  • Collaborating with you to market your book to the trade and consumers with the right promotion plan

 * The right response from booksellers

 * The right time for your book to be published

* Selling reviews in the right places

* The right media breaks

* Word of mouth and mouse from readers

This magical combination of elements rarely coalesces on first books. Authors usually reach the bestseller list by writing a series of related books that build an audience for their work. Then they write the breakout book that lands them on the list, and by that time, they have enough fans to keep them there. Sue Grafton’s first hardcover bestseller was H is for Homicide, the eighth book in the series. (Part of the price she paid to get there: five of her first seven books were never published.)

A bonus: once you’re a best-selling author, you can write other kinds of books, and your fans will make them bestsellers too.

Eight Steps for Seducing Lady Luck 

* Use books you love like yours and their authors as models for your books and career. 

* Learn about writing, publishing and promotion, and from your mistakes. 

* Have a dream:  a clear, motivating vision of the success you want. 

* Create a plan for achieving it. 

* Dedicate yourself to producing your best work. 

* Be passionate about your books. 

* Get the help you need with writing and promotion. 

* Let nothing stop you. 

New writers succeed every day, and you don’t have to hit the list to be one of them. I hope you have all the luck you need to become as successful as you want to be. You can do it! Make it happen!

11 Important Elements in a Novel or Memoir

A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in history, with the possible exception of handguns and tequila.

–Mitch Ratliffe

Your computer ends the physical drudgery of writing. But it can’t prevent you from making mistakes or ensure that what you write is salable. You may have only seconds to seize the interest of agents and editors who are swamped with submissions. In descending order of importance, here are the eleven most important elements in a novel or memoir:

  • The idea: Will it excite editors because it’s new or a fresh take on an old idea?
  • The first page: Do the first sentence, paragraph, and page compel readers to keep going? (For more about this, please see my earlier post on The S Theory.)
  • The story: Do your conflicts, story twists, and subplots make readers want to know what  comes next?
  • The people: Will your readers connect with your characters and care what happens to them?
  • Page-turnability: Does the pace vary and does the tension or suspense keep your readers turning the pages?
  • The dialogue: Is it varied and distinctive enough and to portray the characters through  tone, emotion, and the way they speak?
  • The writing: Is it good enough for the kind of book you’re writing?
  • The setting/s: Does it reflect, enhance, or drive your story?
  • The structure:  Is how you constructed your story the most effective way to build tension until the climax?
  • The ending: Is it the perfect dessert at the end of a great meal?
  • Your future books: Do you have a synopsis or proposal for a follow-up book?

 Also Worth Noting

The synopsis: Does it tell the whole story in a way that will make agents and editors who read part of the manuscript eager to read the rest of it?

Rising Fast in Importance

  • Your promotion plan: Will it help get enough books to the cash register?
  • Your platform: Do you have continuing visibility, online and off?

You need knowledgeable readers to help you answer these questions. Ask them to use this list when you share your work. My partner Elizabeth Pomada, who handles the fiction and memoirs in our agency, and our assistant, Claire Cavanaugh, helped with this list, which doesn’t claim to be definitive. These elements may vary in importance.

Two suggestions to help you:

  • Make your models first resource: the books you love that inspire you to write yours.
  • As in all things, trust your instincts and common sense.

Writers Do it One Word at a Time

No good book is ever too long. No bad book is ever too short.

            –Anonymous

Hemingway rewrote the last page of For Whom the Bell Tolls 39 times. When someone asked him what the problem was, he replied: “Getting the words right.”

The book that tells how to do this most concisely and that most affects my writing is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, Jr.  The rule on composition that guides my writing is number six: “Omit needless words.”  This is the ultimate rule of writing, because if you eliminate needless words, the only words you have left are those you do need.

As powerful as it is brief, this rule is a testament to the power of less. Your time-starved readers, online and off,  make being relentlessly rigorous about your prose more imperative than ever. It means that:

  • Form is as important as content.
  • Every word you write must justify your readers’ most precious asset: their time.

This timeless, universal rule challenges you to make your writing impeccable. It doesn’t mean that what you write has to be short, only that you must serve your readers well or you’ll lose them faster than ever.

You also have to make your work a pleasure to read by ornamenting it with grace notes—warmth, passion, life, humor, inspiration, and stories that help you achieve your literary goals. The more people you want to reach, the simpler and more enjoyable your prose must be.

Every word you write must pull its own weight both in communicating your message and strengthening its impact.   It’s a disservice to your idea and your readers to present  your work before it is ready.

Agents and editors read for a living. They can tell from the first sentence whether someone can write. The first weak word or idea will make their editorial antennae quiver. If it’s not too serious, they’ll keep reading but with an uneasy, usually justified, dread that enough transgressions will follow to justify a rejection.

Michelangelo believed that his statues were waiting for him inside blocks of marble waiting for him to chip away at until he liberated them. The idea for your book is a block of marble inside of which the best embodiment of your idea is waiting for you to bring it to life. So keep chipping away at your idea until it becomes the reality you want it to be. Only your last draft counts.

Comments and questions welcome.