Friday, July 5, 2013

A Year of Writing: Eleventh Month

The year is coming towards an end. Two more months to go and we’ve met with our commitments. By this point, we have two novels in the work, one prepped for submission. Now that we’ve focused on the process of writing, learning about ourselves, and dug deep into the actual process, it’s time to consider the career aspects of the story.

Day 1. Write down a manifesto of a “good” book.

One of the more commonly skipped over aspects of improvement is defining what improvement is. This is because in most fields it’s obvious. How quickly you can do a math problem and get the right answer shows how good you are at it. But there is no right answer in writing (meaning that no matter what you do someone will tell you it’s wrong), and being able to do it fast is not necessarily an indication of quality.

Your manifesto is personal. It does not need to be universal, it does not even need to apply to books that aren’t yours. Consider what you want to be writing, not necessarily what encompasses all of the stories you love. For example, you might say that a good book is “Something with comedic characters over horrible and dramatic situations,” despite knowing that many great novels don’t fit into that category. This tells you what goals you specifically are aiming for and removes the issue of subjectivity when time comes for you to evaluate your own work.

Day 2. Read 30 pages of a novel.

Day 3. Show your friend’s comments on first book to another set of eyes.

This is best, of course, if the second person has read the story, but it isn’t necessary. By having another person’s opinion on the first opinion, you’ll be able to tell if the feedback is unclear, mean, or subjective. They also may help you understand it better, and even feel better about it. Even when the second person agrees with them. By talking it out, the catharsis will come.

Day 4. Write a blog post.

Have online deadlines finished a day early so I can update them on time. Mostly because I’ll procrastinate my way out of doing it. Write it today and post tomorrow.

Day 5. Go into the book store and read summaries.

I recommend for anyone who ever wants to do anything remotely competitive, to put yourself in the position of the evaluator. By being witness to the judgment process, you will often learn how ridiculous and arbitrary it can be.

Go to a bookstore and read the backs of at least 30 books. It is important that, whatever the number, it is a lot, because you will quickly understand how a view of quality is effected by mass comparison.

You may also do this online, but I think a bookstore is nicer.

Every time you find a book with a summary you want to read, keep it off the shelf. Every time you find one that you wanted to read until… keep it in a separate pile. Anything that stands out as really unappealing, keep in another pile.

Take the whole mess of books and note what specific sentences and words made you want to read it/not read it, what about them that worked/didn’t work for you, and why you think that is.

You will learn several things: how best to entice a reader and how cynical you are. If you had a hard time finding one book you wanted to read, and even then felt like you were settling, you’re a very critical person. This is a good sign for your own work, but also something you will struggle with your entire career (Am I being more critical than the average person will be?) If you have pulled most of the books into the interested pile, you are very open minded. This means that when you don’t like what you’re doing, you probably really are being harsh on yourself being that you aren’t hard on other people.

While at the bookstore, take a moment to find where your book would be in it, including the (presumed) genre and location by last name. Take a moment to gauge the size of the other books. Though we have been aiming for 90,000 words, it does vary from genre to genre.

Day 6. Read 30 pages of a novel.

Day 7. Write down a manifesto of a bad book.

This is like the first manifesto, but instead of writing what you want your book to be, write what you don’t want your book to be. Clarify to yourself the difference between a bad book and a mediocre one. Try and be as specific as possibly (i.e. why it is bad), but include everything such as “boring” along with really detailed and intellectual reasons.

Day 8. Read 30 pages of a novel.

Day 9. Write down your personal obstacles.

Now that you’ve written a hell of a lot, you’re starting to understand what you don’t do naturally. Good writing requires a balancing act, and generally with one strength comes one weakness. The most typical are:

Big picture versus little picture—Authors either focus on plot/setting or character/atmosphere. They have great, big epic adventures with shallow, stereotypical people or boring, dull events with motivated and colorful personalities. They write interesting places, but the images don’t settle around the reader, discussing the forest and not the trees, or vice-versa.

Believable versus desirable—There is a direct conflict between saying what people will believe and what people want to hear. While many people err back and forth (sometimes being too believable, sometimes being too, well, realistic), most tend towards one or the other. Is it likely that one man will be able to take on six highly trained soldiers in a fight? No. But does anyone want to read about the protagonist who got jumped and then died pathetically? Not really. Good storytelling combines elements of desire with elements of reality, giving the people what they want in a way that they can still pretend it’s not some story people are making up.

Mysterious versus clear—Basically, an author tends to overwrite or underwrite. Those who focus on being clear have this explanatory and often unatmospheric voice with repetitive word patterns and obvious explanations. Those who focus on maintaining mystery have long, winding sentences in which no one knows what the hell they’re talking about. Or why they’re talking about it. The benefits for both sides are obvious, and the key is to focus on whichever side you don’t naturally lean towards.

Come up with anything that you know you don’t innately do so that, for the next project, you can predict the problem and make editing a whole lot easier.

Day 10. Read 30 pages of a novel.

Day 11. Edit your query letter.

By this time, you should be looking for basic typos and grammatical errors. If you’re not in love with it, it’s time to look to yourself to consider why.

Day 12. Start looking up agents.

The intent of the Year of Writing is for an author to start a career. This is why we are going to take the traditional publishing route. There is not so much of a stigma against it now, but having a self-published novel that wasn’t a gigantic success will often be a black mark on your resume (at least for the time being.) You’re not supposed to mention it in a query letter, and if they find out you had one out without talking about it, agents are likely to be pissed too.

How to find agents:

Go to the bookstore, find books in your genre and look at the acknowledgements pages. They typical thank their agents.

Buy the Writer’s Market. This is a book that is easy to find and gives proper names and websites of a good deal of real, legitimate agents.

Go to the contact page of published authors and see if they have a contact through their agent. BUT don’t do this for hot trends like 50 Shades of Gray or the recent best seller. They’ll get a lot of unsolicited crap from people doing the exact same thing as you.

Writer’s conferences. (You can just find local writer’s conference’s websites and usually they advertise on names there, however, at the actual event you can meet them in person.)

Start coming up with a good list of possible agents, and include:

Specific agents name (spelled right for reference), web address (for quick referral at time of submission), the submission’s email address, any specific guidelines required, a response time (if they, unlikely, include one) and a check box for SENT and RESPONDED.

Get at least five names to start out with, but I would recommend ten.

Day 13. Read 30 pages of a novel. Write a blog post.

Day 14. Edit 1-30 pages of your second novel.

Day 15. Edit 31-60 pages of your second novel.

Day 16. Edit 61-90 pages of your second novel.

Day 17. Finish reading a novel.

Novels, of course, vary in length, so my assumption was that your book was less than 300 pages. If not, read on.

Day 18. Get feedback from 1st reader.

A month is up and we’ll assume that your requested reader has done her work. Seek her out and ask her to tell you what she thought of the book. The first person you should ask is the person you think will be the harshest and most thorough of the three, allowing you to ask the others what the hell the first person meant.

Whenever you feel confused in a critique, just ask, “What is the problem you are trying to solve?”

Day 19. Edit 91-120 pages of your second novel.

Day 20. Get feedback from 2nd reader. Write a blog post.

Remember, let them express their ideas first, then ask questions, then ask questions about other people’s feedback.

Make the second reader your nicest friend, the one who will probably say they like everything. They will build up your confidence after the first and probably give you a clear idea on what you should think about the first’s opinions.

Day 21. Edit 121-150 pages of your second novel.

Day 22. Get feedback from 3rd reader.

This has to be the one you trust the most. This is the person who you think knows what they’re talking about, who likes you, but who probably isn’t going to lie. They will confirm the good things that your nice friend said about you (which you probably have been doubting) and be able to clarify what your harsh critique might have meant. Let them know beforehand if there is any thing you’re sensitive about and need them to be delicate while discussing.

Take this time to express all your concerns with them and talk out the problems you are worried about.

Day 23. Edit 151-180 pages of second novel. Give copy to reader.

Finish up the third draft of your second book.

Day 24. Go through and notice what all four readers had in common and disagreed on.

The important thing is to pay attention to the problems they agreed on rather than the solutions.

A problem is a response the reader has that we don’t want and isn’t quantifiable, where as a solution implies an action and is arguable.

Problems: It is boring, confusing, pretentious, pointless, or unbelievable.

Solutions: Too many characters, always simplify language, don’t use passive sentences, doesn’t have a climax.

You can tell a problem because it is a negative no matter “how much” of it there is. Too boring and boring is the same thing. Not boring enough doesn’t make sense. Too many characters and many characters are separate things, not enough characters being a different problem altogether.  Sometimes people confuse solutions with problems, as in this scenario of “too many characters.” But it implies cutting characters, which is an action not a reaction. If the advice changes by removal of the word “too” it means that they’re trying to solve a perceived issue, not that it is a perceived issue.

You’ll notice how saying “You have too many characters” might seem less rude than “You’re boring,” which is the reason why people choose to tell you that way. It just is also hard to deal with, because “You have too many characters,” could mean either it’s boring or it’s confusing. Or both.

It’s important to consider the underlying problem rather than the solution because the answer is where people. Three different people find the story confusing, one might suggest making the wording simpler, one might suggest adding more description, and one might say it’s too busy and to cut down on the amount of information being delivered. By knowing that they just want it to be clearer, the author better understands how to tackle it.

Day 25. Edit pages 1-50 of your first book.

Using your newfound judgment on the piece, start a final draft of the book. Now we’re in the long haul. Reading your book quickly is the best means to achieve a big picture of it.

Day 26. Edit pages 51-100 of your first book.

Day 27. Edit pages 101-150 of your first book. Write a blog post.

Day 28. Edit pages 151-180

At this point in time, you should be confident in your work. The reality is that if you’re not, you should keep editing until you are. Or, maybe, put it aside and write a few more stories in between until you know how you want to improve it.

Having several drafts with outside feedback meanwhile is very beneficial, but hard to do. What you’ll often find is that as you tried to fix the problems, they are still lurking there, and each time you can test it out to see how well your solution worked. However, because my biggest failing in writing was waiting too long before submitting, I am recommending not following in my tracks and just going for it. Use your instinct, but realize the worst that can happen is they say no. And laugh at you, but you won’t be there for that.

Day 29. Edit query letter.

This is the last draft of the query, and by this point you should be fairly happy with it too. I wouldn’t be surprised if you aren’t ecstatic, but you should have some faith in it.

Day 30. Research your list of agents.

One of the things to include in your query is personal investment in each agent. One of the important elements to being successful is, pardon my French, but looking like you give a shit.

Agents are people too, and they can be insulted and insecure like the rest of us.

Think about it this way:

You’re a successful novelist. You always need some promotion, but you’re also really busy. Someone comes up to you and says, “I love your book. I love everything about your book. I want to write just like you,” and then proceeds to tell you everything about your story and how they loved it, having a full, clear understanding on the story. Then she says, “Will you come to my book club and talk?”


You’re a successful novelist. Someone comes up to you and says, “You’re a writer right? What do you write? Oh. That’s cool. I’m having a book club meeting this week and I was supposed to grab someone to talk. You think you could swing by?”

It’s possible you could say yes. You might be in the right mood, or it might be more interesting to you, or you see it as beneficial, but when considering that these people have the same sort of requests all the time, then if they’re remotely questioning whether or not they want to do it, the first person will make them give it a second thought—they probably want to help you—but the second would be easy to go “No way in hell.”

Again, people need genius proven to them, and in order to do that, they have to commit to hearing you out. Playing on people’s egos, being nice, showing you’re not blitzing them, showing them you can work hard, showing them that you really care and really want this (by doing it right) will make them more likely to look your one page query over again rather than giving a sigh of relief they can just toss it.

So look up one of your agents and find a reason why you think you should submit to them specifically. You shouldn’t have to lie and you shouldn’t have to be vague: “It’s a science fiction and you say you like science fiction.” You can tell them things like, “This novel’s dark yet comedic tone is similar to the book you represent, BLAH BLAH.” In a perfect world, you would have actually read the story, but I understand why that might not be reasonable. Although, if they do ask for a full manuscript, be sure to have read it by the time they can ask you what you liked about it.

Day 31. Send out a query.

With everything set up, this should be a quick day. Make sure to read the query one last time before you send it out.

It is very important to spell the agent’s name right and to not CC others on the same email. Only send one query to each agency, no matter how many different agents they have that might take your book.

Put your physical address, your email address, your phone number, and (only if it’s finished) your website address at the bottom. Make it as easy to contact them as possible.

Currently, most places are doing queries by email, but there are some that want snail mail. Whichever it is, they’ll tell you on the website. Follow the rules exactly. This is the prime indication that you have confidence in your work, that you are respectful, professional, and did your work.

Any jazzy gimmicks are thrown out. They say do not send presents, do not do letterheads. Make the font Times New Roman 12, (although I believe Calibri probably wouldn’t hurt anything either.) Some say Courier New, but I don’t suggest it; it’s a little harder to read and says, “I’M OLD.” On that same note, don’t double space after periods.

The query should be in third-person, even if the manuscripts in first, and it should contain information about the plot, any impressive/related background information, such as your short stories that are sure to be published by now, English/creative writing degrees, or related experience to the story. (It’s a crime novel and you used to be a cop.) Make sure to include your word count.

You may be asked to send in the first few chapters of the story, but the website will tell you if they want it or not.

If you can, try to send it on a weekday. While this doesn’t affect some agents, others explain they will come in on Monday with a huge pile of email they have to skim through. They read these as fast as they can to get through them all. During the week, however, they’re usually caught up and are more likely to take their time.

Congratulations, you have completed the first step to a long career: writing and submitting. Most people don’t get this far.

Now I don’t guarantee an acceptance. In fact, if you get one so fast, I’m going to be pissed. But for the next year you will be submitting and querying and getting horrible responses or worse, no responses, and the important thing is, in the big picture, it doesn’t matter. You’re taking chances and getting experience.

Just remember how ridiculous ways to make decisions can be, that rejections in writing always sound harsher than they are, that everyone has different tastes, and that their perception of you doesn’t matter; they’re just people.