Writing Wisdom

A Dan Piraro cartoon in Parade showed a medium sitting across a table from a customer with a netbook computer in front of her, and she’s saying: “We don’t use a crystal ball anymore. We just Google you.”

An editor interested in buying your book will Google you to get a sense of your presence online. Instead of a crystal ball, they’ll use a computer-generated profit-and-loss statement, along with feedback from colleagues, to help justify buying your book.

What wisdom about writing can I offer that will help you convince editors to say yes to your book? One or a series of books could be written about the wisdom you can gain from doing a job or practicing an art or skill. Some examples:

Biking

  • Riding uphill is harder, downhill more dangerous.
  • You have to know your bike, yourself, and the territory.
  • You have to expect the unexpected at any second.

Photography

  • You have to be the right distance from your subject.
  • You have to balance color, foreground and background, tension and harmony, and the elements in a composition to create unity.
  • Knowing how to use your camera will help increase your creativity.

Driving a Taxi

  • You have to look at what’s around you but also in the distance both for traffic and for passengers.
  • You will have slow and busy periods.
  • You will have good and bad luck; you hope that they will balance each other.

Writing

  • Reading is the doorway to writing.
  • The best reason to write is that you must.
  • You have to capture readers’ interest immediately and keep it as long as it takes them to finish your book.
  • If you have a problem with your writing, focus on something else, and your subconscious usually provides the solution.
  • Your proposal or manuscript is finished only when the people you share it with can’t figure out how to help you improve it.
  • You need mentors to supplement your learning about writing, agents, promotion, technology, and publishing.
  • The models for your books and career will light the way until you’re ready to find your unique path.
  • You have to maximize the value of your book before you seek and agent or publisher by test-marketing it, building your platform and communities of fans, and developing a promotion plan.
  • Promotion is more challenging than writing.
  • The writing you do about your writing is as important as the writing itself (Katharine Sands).
  • Publishers and literary agents are eager to find new writers as new writers are to be discovered.
  • Your passion for writing and sharing your work will see you through the challenges of being an author.
  • You will meet those challenges more easily if you’re clear about your short-  and long-term personal and professional goals.
  • You will succeed if you persevere, and the harder it is to achieve success, the more satisfying it will be.
  • And as I mentioned in the previous post, luck has a lot to do with a book’s success.

I found one of my favorite pieces of wisdom on a cloth bag that Workman Publishing gave away one year at BEA: “The more you garden, the more you grow.” You can grow by acquiring wisdom from any endeavor and you can apply it to writing. The more conscientious you are, the more you’ll learn. May you have all the luck you want, and may the wisdom above speed you on your way.

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.

Engaging Your Readers for Life

New York is a city where something exciting is going on all the time, most of it unsolved.

–Johnny Carson

Elizabeth and I are back from BookExpoAmerica and meeting editors in New York, and solving the mystery of why we go is easy. May in Manhattan heats up by the end of the month, but it’s a delightful time of year to be in the Big Apple.

The cozy, funky basement apartment we rent in a federal brick building on a quiet, tree-lined street in the West Village makes an enjoyable oasis from which to visit editors, promote our conferences, and meet with friends and family. (We also saw the wonderful production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta Jones.)

Going to BEA is the only way to get a sense of the state of publishing in one place. In addition to booths on the floor of the huge Javits Center showcasing publishers’ fall books, there are signings, free galleys, talks by authors, and panels on subjects of interest to publishers and booksellers.

Thanks to our marketing director Barbara Santos and the BEA, we had a booth for the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference (November 13-14, 2010; keynoters: Dan Millman and John Robbins; www.sfwritingforchange.org), and the San Francisco Writers Conference (February 18-20, 2011; keynoters: Dorothy Allison and David Morrell; www.sfwriters.org).

BEA was more upbeat this year than last, reflecting the improving economy. Even with 22,000 attendees, the convention is an annual reunion, because there are people, including out-of-New-York editors we only run into at BEA, as well as the unexpected pleasures of meeting people from around the country in a line, at a panel, or at an author breakfast. Booksellers and publishing people are in the business because they want to be, so their shared passion unites them as members of the family of the book.

Attending BEA, at least once, is a valuable experience for writers. It gives you a perspective you can’t get elsewhere on the business and the enormous flow of books into which yours will merge.

When we first went in the late sixties, it was held in the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. on the steamy Memorial Day Weekend. The holidays have always been the most profitable time of year for booksellers, so publishers used the convention to promote their fall books. Publishers had book jackets spread out on tables and special offers for  booksellers who ordered at the convention. I remember the air conditioning failing, but it was a bustling, relatively small event that gave independent booksellers the chance to meet with publishers.

The word from this year’s convention that stuck with me and will help you is engagement, because building communities has become as essential as writing, promotion, and having a platform. The web enables you to become engaged with potential book buyers who see whatever you choose to send forth into cyberspace: your site, your blog, your articles or short stories, your videos, your podcasts, and your profile and comments in social media and elsewhere.

Engaging a growing community of people you want to read your books is one of the web’s greatest opportunities for writers. Go get engaged. Your readers are waiting for you. Some of them will become life-long fans.

12 Ways to Excite Pros About Your Novel

A novel has been called a piece of prose that has something wrong with it. Here’s how to ensure your novel has nothing wrong with it: twelve ways to get agents and editors excited about your work.

            1. Your idea: new, creative, timely, informative, entertaining, transformative, commercial, helpful, aimed at a large, proven market

            2. Your writing: style, tone, humor, drama, inspiration, insights, voice

            3. Your irresistible first page: compels editors to turn the page

            4. Your readers: the community of readers who give you feedback while you’re writing your book and when you’re done

            5. You: your passion, commitment, track record, credentials

            6. Your platform, visibility online and off: blog, short stories, teaching, speaking, a blog, social media, networks

            7. Your test-marketing: a blog, podcast, e-book, self-published edition, serialization, website

            8. Your promotion plan: a list of things you will do, online and off, and how many of them, a budget

            9. Your book’s promotion potential: online and off, reviews, media interviews,   endorsements

            10. The markets for your book: consumers, libraries, subsidiary rights, reading groups

            11. Your future books: your book’s series potential, the synopsis for your next book

            12. Your book’s spinoff potential: merchandising products, short stories, music

There’s a Sipress cartoon in the New Yorker showing a medieval torturer in a dungeon standing in front of a guy being stretched on a rack, and he’s saying: “Don’t talk to me about suffering—in my spare time, I’m a writer.” Using these ideas will lessen your suffering on the road to publication.

I’m researching material for future blogs and looking forward to writing to you soon.

End Rejections and Obstacles Immediately

Where you stand depends on where you sit.

–Miles’s Law

It’s been said that you have about the same chance of winning the lottery whether or not you buy a ticket.

I received an email from a writer who I’m sure believes that you have about as much chance of getting a book published whether or not you write it. He is so discouraged by the process that he’s going to stop writing. I wrote to him, and here are my thoughts on his predicament:

As a writer whose work has been rejected often and an agent whose submissions to editors have been rejected thousands of times, I empathize with you. Want to stop getting rejections? Don’t submit anything. That and self-publishing are the only ways to do it. Otherwise, accept the inevitable. The New Yorker rejected a story by Saul Bellow after he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Publishing is a business that guesses wrong most of the time. More than 80% of the books that are published lose money, and agents and publishers reject bestsellers. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 has that title because it was published by the 22nd publisher to see it.

Publishers want to publish books with pride and passion. They love literary books as much as they need commercial books, and bestseller lists include both kinds of books.

I’m sorry you haven’t been able to connect with an agent or editor. Their jobs depend on them finding new writers and helping them succeed, and it’s the best part of their job. But they accept less than one percent of the submissions they see.

You’re angry because they send form letters. But  agents and editors receive thousands of submissions a year, so they can’t take the time to write personalized letters.

Your query letter may be part of the problem. Agent Katharine Sands says: “The writing you do about your writing is as important as the writing itself.” This is why you need readers who can assure you that every word is right, and your that letter has the impact you want it to have.

Your proposal or manuscript may also be the reason why you haven’t sold your book.

How many competitive books have you read to establish criteria for your book?

What books did you use as models for your book?

How closely does your work meet the standards they set?

How many drafts did you do?

How many qualified readers gave you feedback on your work as you were writing it and after you finished it?

Agents and editors can tell instantly whether someone can write and knows how to start a proposal or manuscript, and because they’re swamped, they must decide as quickly as they can whether to keep reading.

Are they infallible? No.

Do they make mistakes? You betcha.

At the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, bestselling thriller writer Steve Berry said that his first five novels were rejected eighty-five times. Five of Sue Grafton’s first seven novels were never published. After Danielle Steel’s first novel was published, she wrote five more that were never published.

Although technology can accelerate success in the arts, writing is the easiest of the arts to enter. All you have to do is sit down and start putting black on white. It’s also the easiest in which to succeed. You may feel better about your problems if you talk to actors, artists and dancers about the challenges they face.

You have to have faith in your work and yourself and keep writing. You’ll become a better writer with every book. Sure, you’ll go through periods of doubt, but if you persevere and have readers to critique and encourage you, you will work your way through the doubt.

Want to eliminate all of the obstacles in your life immediately? Eliminate your goals. No goals, no obstacles. The challenges you face are commitment tests. The larger your literary and financial goals, the greater the obstacles you will have to overcome to reach them. And the sweeter your success will be when you do.

Ray Bradbury once said that when you’re starting out, you have to learn to accept rejection. When you succeed, you have to learn to reject acceptance. I hope you’ll have that problem as soon as possible.

If anything can stop you from becoming a writer, let it. If nothing can stop you, do it and you’ll make it.

Comments and questions welcome.