Want a publishing contract? You bet I do. I need the check!
It’s time to start querying agents, which I’ve been doing all week. If you caught Monday’s post, you already know I’m shopping a children’s picture book around. I can’t draw my way out of a Pictionary box, so of course that means anyone who buys this book is also going to have to get an illustrator involved to help move my stick-figure-impaired behind along.
That’s the bad news. This won’t be a fast process, and I’m not going to get paid tomorrow. Or, as it turns out, the next day or the next day or the next day. I’ve heard it could be years before I see any green stuff. Better not rest on my laurels, such as they are. (Such as they are being my niece’s excited response to the little plot twist at the end, followed by a not-irrelevant inquiry regarding the addition of still more animals to her imaginary future menagerie.)
The worse news, of course, would be if I didn’t manage to sell it at all. Luckily for me, and other sales-averse, people-averse, poverty-averse writers out there, it turns out that we can hire somebody to do that. Cue rainbows, expensive dancing unicorn coffees, and baskets of puppies.
These magical, glorious people are called literary agents, and they live far, far away in towers guarded by dragons and evil queens who don’t want us to hire them. That’s what I’ve gathered, at least, because they don’t seem to be a talkative bunch, and there’s a gazillion other writers out on ye olde world of the webs confirming that jumping on the next hot author commodity (me, duh) and showering her with champagne and gold and glitter is somehow not the only item on their lengthy to-do lists. It might even–gasp–not be the topmost entry. Say it ain’t so.
Literary agents are mystical beings who live far, far away in towers guarded by dragons and evil queens who don’t want us to hire them.
A fair bit of snooping led me to at least one clue to harnessing their magic, however. It’s called a query. Since there are a kajillion posts already out there on writing query letters, and I’m bored just thinking about it, I don’t feel like writing another one right now. Go here and here and here and you’ll get the idea. Just remember query and
agent and magical unicorn salespeople.
I’m keeping the query process manageable by spacing them out. One a day, two max. That leaves me the rest of my day to write, haha, I mean chase toddlers and beg them to eat their cereal instead of chucking bowls at my dog. More to the point, it gives me opportunities to review and revise my query letter several times a week, increasing the likelihood that I’ll remember to actually target the right person and do this cool thing called “following submission guidelines.”
Freedom of the press has been attacked from all sides this week. By the public. By a glorified public relations rep. By the newly minted President of the United States of America.
I’m angry, and, like many others in my profession, I’m reeling both from the audacity and the vitriol. Make no mistake. Americans would not have the president they do today without the so-called “lying media” he’s doing his best to discredit. We kept his name and his messages at the forefront of conversation for months on end. We played right into his hands, and we helped put that person in that office.
Press freedom is writing freedom.
Collectively, we all did it. No, I haven’t been a beat reporter in years, but journalism is still my field. It is my heartbeat. These are my people. This is my world. And if we don’t all push back hard, now, it will be torn apart right in front of us.
Press freedom is writing freedom.
It’s intellectual freedom.
It’s dissenting freedom.
Where did we go wrong? Was it the campaign? No, it started much earlier than that.
When we turned to social media to find quick stories instead of going out and finding real people and issues on our beats, we alienated readers.
When we emphasized perceptions of fairness and equality of coverage time over facts, we invited the public to do the same.
When we began pandering to viewers with “viral video of the day” segments and harping ad nauseam about insignificant things somebody famous said, we cluttered the airwaves with meaningless chatter.
We fed the beast, all right. We stuffed it with as much cheap junk as we could possibly find. We shouldn’t be surprised that it’s grown into a raging monster.
The only thing we can do to weaken it now is cut off its diet, and that requires a return to reporting basics:
Is it true?
Is it impactful?
Is it relevant?
Is it prominent?
Is it timely?
It’s time to stop mindlessly parroting everything a famous person chooses to say online, time to stop jumping in with calls for the ax to fall every time someone misspeaks, time to stop rushing to publish “scoops” that aren’t.
It’s time to go outside.
It’s time to talk to human beings.
It’s time to point out when things aren’t adding up.
The president and his fellow politicians can yell all they want to on Twitter.
Your story is coming along swimmingly, until suddenly it isn’t. You’ve just realized that thriller you’ve been working on is morphing into a cozy. Or perhaps your fantasy novel is skewing toward sci-fi. Is your dramatic tale of forbidden love devolving into light chick lit?
Don’t panic. WRITE.
Go back to your hook.
Summarize your story in one sentence. A string of popular genres doesn’t count. “It’s an epic mysterious science fiction fantasy about baby dragons.” If what you’ve written looks anything like that, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. While your story can successfully draw elements from multiple genres, or simply not fit well into a known sales market, you should be able to identify the core premise of your work.
For example, the hook for Westworld might read as follows: “An android living in a theme park struggles with her newfound ability to remember abuses by humans.” The story incorporates setting details from classic Westerns, but it originates from a science fiction writer.
Identify the problem.
Does what you’ve written match your hook? Reread your story in order to pinpoint where things started going off track. Was it the introduction of a new character? A character’s decision or action? A change of language or slip in point of view?
Once you’ve confirmed what caused the story to shift, you can examine it further. Why did you write that section to begin with? What were you trying to accomplish? How was this character or that event supposed to advance the storyline?
Try another perspective.
Perhaps you didn’t set out to write this kind of story. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a mistake. Play around with characters and scenes. Could the story be better this way?
Make a command decision.
I ran into this earlier in the week, when I realized the story I’d been drafting was turning into a much lighter read and properly belonged in a different genre than originally anticipated. The problem turned out to be my protagonist. The character doesn’t work for the role I need to fill. So, I can either keep my protagonist as is and push forward with the lighter tone and a new genre, or I can make fundamental changes to the character. It’s my call, of course, but it’s one that I do have to make in order to progress.
National Novel Writing Month will kick off in less than two weeks, sending 400,000 aspiring authors, if last year is any gauge, into a month-long wordsmithing frenzy. The annual race purports to be a novice writer’s dream, dangling the promise of publication and literary bragging rights above our procrastination-loving selves. You, too, can have a finished novel at the end of just 30 days’ hard work! All you have to do is write at least 1,667 words per day, every day.
For a writer fast approaching the end of a year-long quest to draft a debut novel, with a very low word count to show for it still, NaNoWriMo should be a match made in heaven. We could all stand a little writing discipline, and NaNo, as it’s affectionately termed, is all about learning to make time to write regularly. At least, that’s what we’re told. Yet the more I think about signing up again this year, the more I realize that while NaNoWriMo might be a wonderful exercise for the right person, I should be sitting this one out.
NaNoWriMo is held at the wrong time of year. What cruel mental torturer decided it would be a fabulous idea to sit a bunch of hapless writers down and pester them to type like their little lives depended on it at the start of the holidays each year? November is smack dab in the middle of the Halloween-to-New Year’s rush. That’s when we’re all supposed to be baking up a storm and ordering Christmas gifts and decorating cheeseballs shaped like feathered farm animals, not plinking out 2,000 words daily. Besides, we don’t need any more excuses to give up all pretense of dietary control and dive into the leftover fun-sized candy in between coffee fill-ups.
Everybody is already doing it. How awesome to compete with one’s friends! Let’s all spark literary feuds on Twitter as we boast about our daily word counts! How droll. While the prospect of having others in the trenches with us–misery loves company, I hear–does carry a certain appeal, bear in mind that the fact that everyone else is writing hot now also means you will all quite possibly be overwhelming agents with your pitches around the same time later.
NaNoWriMo’s target isn’t novel length. The NaNoWriMo organization openly admits this in the FAQ section of its website. The official target is 50,000 words. The leadership doesn’t call it a novella, which is lovely, but in today’s publishing world, that’s what it is. Of course one could write more, but if you’re shooting for the minimum word count, it’s good to keep in mind that although you might close the month with 50,000 new words on your screen, you still won’t have a novel-sized product.
In short, you can “win” NaNoWriMo without actually writing an entire novel in a month. That’s what most people will do, if they even make it that far. If you follow the contest guidelines, you’ll have a head start on what could become a novel-length manuscript, but you’ll still have a long swamp to slog through.
Most of the writing will be crap. Certainly, we expect–or should expect–to edit our rough drafts and tweak our storylines. As I mentioned last week, however, many fiction writers are character-driven. They don’t do much to plan out their stories in advance, and NaNoWriMo itself doesn’t offer all that much in the way of structure. Plop folks down in front of a computer for a month-long drafting race, and their stories are likely to go off the rails at some point. A situation like that takes a lot more than a couple months’ worth of cursory editing and rewriting to fix.
An interesting study is NaNoWriMo’s own data on how many of its fiction writers get published. The contest began in 1999 and officially became a nonprofit in 2005. That means there are 10 years’ worth of publication figures under the organization’s current structure available. In 2015 alone, NaNoWriMo recruited 431,626 writers. So how many of these people got a book deal?
NaNo’s list of traditionally published books, going back 10 years, has 398 entries. Another 212 were self-published. Even if we assumed that some participants who eventually got book deals simply never credited NaNoWriMo with boosting part of their writing process, those numbers are depressingly low, averaging 61 NaNoWriMo participants who published any of their books per year of NaNoWriMo competition. Translation? Based on the 10-year publication average, last year’s participants’ success rate was one in 7,076.
Some agents hate it.Laura Miller’s takedown in Salon a few years ago is probably the most famous reference to agents’ rumored loathing of NaNo books, but she’s far from the only source on this subject. While I’m not opposed to NaNoWriMo in general (Miller’s take sounds positively disdainful at the thought of new novelists emerging from the woodwork), the warning signs are there for those of us willing to heed them.
Literary agent Amanda Luedeke objects to the structure of the challenge. Calling it a “crash diet for
those looking to get into some kind of healthy writing lifestyle,” she says NaNoWriMo sets writers up for failure. The project, she argues, has a way of discouraging writers who follow a slower process or simply have busier lives, while simultaneously encouraging would-be authors to engage in word dumps that are far from being in any sort of publishable state by the end of the month.
It suggests writers will enjoy success as long as they stick to the formula. If you buy this protein powder for three easy payments of $19.99, you can get a rocking bod, too. (Also, you will have to go to the gym and lift heavy things regularly, and skip the junk food, and drink this mysterious clear liquid called “water” a whole lot.)
At first glance, NaNoWriMo is forthcoming: Writers have to put in the work. We’re all on the honor system, but you don’t win by writing part of your story in advance, and you don’t win without hitting your word count goal. January and February, meanwhile, are billed as the “Now What?” months, in which writers are supposed to focus on editing their projects. So far, so good.
In practice, though, most people focus on NaNoWriMo’s big selling point: the prospect of a quick turnaround. The organization itself, meanwhile, does plenty to encourage this. “Write a novel in a month!” the organization’s home page touts. “We don’t use the word ‘novella’ because it doesn’t seem to impress people the way ‘novel’ does,” the NaNoWriMo website notes. Right, because calling it a finished “novel” is an easier sell, if a rather deceptive one.
It interferes with my writing process. I’m no gym rat, and quality writing is not a track race. It’s a strategy game. One does not simply sit at a computer and type whatever comes to mind until time is called. Writing well requires deep thought. It demands we take breaks, brainstorm, research, travel, experience. It calls for regular pauses to brew a cup of hot tea and take notes, a walk through the woods, a trip to the shooting range. If we cannot pause and think, we cannot truly push ourselves.
NaNoWriMo has its place. As exercise, as challenge, as goal-metric, it is admirable. The contest attracts hundreds of thousands each year: people who read, people who write, people who want to write more. The publicity it brings to the craft of writing and the efforts it encourages to get young people involved are highly praiseworthy.
It’s not for me, though. Not this year.
What do you think? Will you be taking the NaNoWriMo challenge?
It’s one of those inane questions every fiction writer is asked sooner or later: “Are you a pantser or a plotter?”
Pantsers, the stereotype goes, are those who like to “fly by the seat of their pants.” They’re spontaneous, fun, and none too keen on commitment. Pantsers are those tortuous people who like to deposit hapless characters into a world of their own creation and see what happens.
Plotters plot. Everything. They make outlines, they write character sketches, they keep index card files and sticky notes and color-coded notebooks around at all times. Their backstories have backstories. They know everything that is going to happen, and when, and why, and they’ll be waiting with cookies. They are the domestic divas of the writing world.
Then there are those who don’t really fit into either category. Sometimes dubbed “plantsers,” we are the ones who like to have a game plan but aren’t overly rigid about it. We don’t like to get in the car until we know where we are going and can confirm we’ve chosen the right shoes, but we’re cool with coming home whenever. Also, we aren’t big on being labeled.
Although they usually refer to creative technique, these terms, for me, more accurately describe the ways in which writers’ dominant personalities drive their craft. You don’t have to be a writer to be a pantser–a fun-loving free spirit who likes to go with the flow–or a plotter–Martha Stewart on steroids, before that whole prison thing. Recently I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I was now living with two unreformed pantsers. This far into a decade-long relationship, my partner mostly tolerates my incessant requests for upcoming plans with a reasonable humor. Actually making a reservation or committing to a travel itinerary, however, invariably falls to me. Having an ESL student at home who did not understand the concept of schedules and advance notice nearly drove me insane before we got to the root of the problem. Now that my pantsers understand each other–and I understand that they’re both nuts–perhaps I can resume functioning semi-normally.
There’s a much simpler way to understand the myriad ways authors approach novel writing, though. It’s all about starting points.
I have read The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray’s classic how-to novel-writing guide, often enough to permanently dog-ear its soft cover. It’s a straightforward step-by-step instruction manual on how to complete a novel draft during one’s typical off-hours over the course of a year. It’s well-written, informative, and filled with literary examples. It’s also never worked for me.
It’s taken me years to reach the conclusion that the problem isn’t Ray’s book, it’s that the chapter sequence is out of order for a writer like me. Ray’s overriding technique is character-driven: He starts by sketching characters, getting to know each one of them intimately. Ray’s overriding concern is understanding each character’s desires and fragilities. Only once he has pages and pages of backstory and descriptive detail does he begin placing them in scenes, and, after loads of scene-building, he moves on to plot. It obviously works for him; he and plenty of similar writers have the portfolios to prove it.
Sorry, gang, that’s just not how I roll. I’m a journalist. I write like one. I am a story-driven writer.
Reporters have to defend their stories in pitch meetings, often before they ever set pen to paper. A seasoned editor wants to know one thing: “Who cares?” If the story isn’t compelling and timely, it gets spiked. If we don’t start with the details of story, we may never get around to selecting all the people we want to use to help tell it.
In my writing world, characters exist for storytelling purposes. I’m writing to make a point, to tell a specific story, and I cast characters based on their ability to help move that story along. Their dreams, goals, backstories, motivations are secondary. We discover those things as the narrative unfolds, but only if they add richness to the story itself.
A character-driven novelist uses the wants and needs of his or her assembled cast of characters to determine what the story will be and where it will go. A story-driven novelist starts by deciding what story he or she wants to tell, then uses that information to choose which characters need to be written.