These days my fledgelings, that is, those new writers who come to me for advice (I tend to call them “my children” but of course some of them are older than me. Although since I am fortunately getting older – as opposed to everyone else – there seem suddenly to be a great number who could be my children. Disturbing thought, that) and therefore immediately prove themselves less than sane, tend to stand around wringing their hands and saying “What do I do, what do I do?”
I envy them a little.
Look, when I broke in, there wasn’t much choice. The choice was only “Try to get published or get used to the idea that you’ll never sell anything.” The funny thing is, in retrospect, I might have made the wrong choice. But there is was. I’m of a practical disposition and I found that “writing to feed the drawer” didn’t satisfy me. I wanted to be read, not to write for my own satisfaction with no hope of the story ever reaching an audience.
Which is why the one time I managed to give up attempting to write for publication or almost a year, I wrote Jane Austen fanfiction which I posted at a fan site. Because at least that gave me readers. But even then, my being practical, eventually it got to me that I shouldn’t just be wasting time, even if it was only the couple of hours after the kids had gone to bed and before I fell asleep – writing when it would never make us ten cents of money. I mean, I could use those two hours to make the kids new clothes, or perhaps to learn something I could use to help family finances.
So, reluctantly, I went back into the fray and started re-submitting stories. I made my first sale a year later, which saved me oscillating between “just giving it all up” and continuing to try – for at least three years, until the first trilogy tanked.
Until recently I was used to thinking my disposition was normal for writers. After all writing wants to be read and story wants to be told, right? And we owe it to our kids/family/ourselves to do the best we can monetarily, so if we know an activity to be unprofitable, we don’t devote a ton of time to it, right (this probably explains my lack of practice in art, right/)
All of which brings us to my realizing recently that no, I’m not normal. Not only do people have twenty or thirty novels in the drawer, but novels they polished and cleaned up until they’re thoroughly professional.
See, I do have novels in the drawer – probably eleven, if I emptied out every drawer – but they’re either unfinished (a lot of them. Probably 30 or so.) or they are at the level I’ll kill anyone who publishes them, should I die suddenly and should my family be so lost to all dencency.
But there are people who worked at these novels till they shone, sent them out, got them rejected everywhere, then wrote the next one, and the next, at two a year for the last twenty years. And now, they brought them all out over the last two years and are making six figures.
I’m heartily jealous of them.
If I had the ability to send just one message back in time to, oh, thirty years ago, or even twenty one when I moved here, it would be “Other than Baen, stop trying to get published. Just write, polish, work as hard as you can and feed the drawer. Two novels a year, chop chop. There will be a market later, trust me.” (Of course, chances are I wouldn’t trust me. I’m a notoriously shifty character, after all.)
And now, I’d have thirty or forty or however many novels Baen hadn’t bought (and the chances of their buying mysteries without an ounce of the fantastic are always, for some reason, slim.) ready to go up.
But I didn’t have a crystal ball, and anyway, that is the conclusion I’ve arrived to after being “burned out” by the establishment, and it’s what my career has been, shaped by my own peculiarities, including the refusal, as a foreign born, Latin female, to write the sort of story that the NYC establishment KNOWS they can promote and push from foreign born, Latin females. (I’ve been trying to pin down their expressions, and I finally figured it out. They reminded me of nothing so much as gym teachers in high school when they realized that despite being a freakishly tall female for my generation, in Portugal, I was NOT going to play basketball and, what is more, didn’t want to.) It is not, nor should it be, the advice I give everyone.
So, what advice would I give my fledgelings, starting out now?
A modified version of what I would give myself. Sort of. Sideways. So, let’s try for a list:
1- Write a lot. How fast you progress in your craft is not so much tied to how much time passes, but how fast you write. This is because it’s a craft. There are things you can only learn by doing.
2- Read a lot. Your field, sure, but not just your field. I know some of you gentlemen would rather gnaw off your arm than, say, read Romance, but don’t. You can find useful technique everywhere and even if we’re trying to woo men back into reading, right now the majority of the readers are female, and romances are designed to appeal mostly to females. Steal their techniques. (No, it’s not all soft porn. Actually it’s not MOSTLY soft porn. Even the soft porn, for women, has a strong component of emotions, so reading Romance is a good way to learn how to heighten the emotional content of your writing. Yes, I do have a list of “tolerable romances” should you feel a need.)
3- Read how to books. Here, proceed with care. Most of the books out there are not so much “how to write good books” as “how to capture an editor’s fancy.” Those always got outdated quickly and since indie… well. As always, I’ll recommend Dwight Swain for basic craft. If I have money when you approach me and I realize you’re working at writing not just “wanting to” I’m likely to send you a copy of Techniques of the Selling Writer. I’ve bought probably a hundred copies for various people over the years. IF they bother to study it, their writing always improves.
4- If you’re starting out now, remember that publishers can take two to three years or more to answer a submission. (Agents are quicker, but I’m not sure I’d recommend agents if you’re starting out now, unless you absolutely must to get to the house you want.) So, write three books every year, two for indie and one to send out. Your backlog of books waiting an answer will grow.
5- Don’t write your for-traditional-submission books all in the same series or in the same series as the books you’re putting up indie. (and for that you should have two series. More on that later.) Yes, this means you will have to create more than one world. Good. It’s been my experience your first world always has holes you can drive a mac truck through, and anyway you don’t learn how to world build consciously if all you have is the one world.
6- Alternate between two series (at least. I’d do three) in your Indie books. Yes, this might cost you some readers (weirdly fewer than you think) but it will lessen the chances of burnout. No, seriously. Most writers, even those with hyper successful series, burn out by book ten, if not before. So have three worlds or so you play in. And if you’re like me (you poor thing) make them different genres.
7- Learn how to put up indie books: covers, tags, blurbs. Work at it. The field has gotten generally way more sophisticated. Just throwing amateurish covers up there, won’t do. I recommend Kris and Dean’s WGM Publishing workshop on covers. The workshops are linked off Dean Wesley Smith’s page. And don’t tell me “I don’t have the money for it” – of course you don’t. Who the heck does. BUT you also don’t have money to pay a designer every time you put a book out. OTOH if you do have the money and not the time to learn and not the slightest desire to do covers (say you have a day job and are packing the writing around the edges as is) our very own Cedar Sanderson is setting up shop as a cover designer, and she’s a d*mn good one. You could do worse (and probably will.)
8- Going to conventions and meeting editors might help with your goal to be traditionally published.
9- Don’t fret too much about promoting your indie publishing. No one has found an effective method to do that, yet. And for the love of heavens, don’t pay a publicist. They know even less than you do. The best way to promote your writing is to write the next book. The second best way is to network. So fit the networking around the writing, not the other way around.
10- If/when you get a traditional contract, don’t take any wooden nickels. Please show the d*mn thing to an IP attorney already. There be dragons in most of those, and some are… interesting. This is even if (particularly if) the contract is from an agent. Heck, I’ve seen contracts for short stories that try to grab the rights to EVERYTHING ELSE you ever wrote. Don’t sign just because your agent/friend/mother says all publishing contracts are like that. If you need the contact of a good IP attorney, ask me. I’m here every Wednesday and over at According to Hoyt pretty much every day, at least in the comments.
11- Write. Write. Write. Improve. Improve. Improve. In my day, I’d have said “and good luck” but while luck is still a factor, with indie it’s becoming much more of a meritocracy. So, do the best you can, and may you succeed beyond your wildest dreams, and even mine.