(in no particular order)
A. I have no idea. Although it’s a lot easier now that three of them don’t live here anymore (ostensibly) and the other two have finally figured out where the kitchen is. However, since babies aren’t self-cleaning (or feeding), and toddlers are rarely content to sit and play quietly (especially with each other) for longer than three minutes at a time, if you’ve got wee ones in the house, you learn to write in snatches, during naps, early in the morning or late at night. Or not at all – there’s no shame in not writing while your kids are little. They do eventually get big enough to leave the house, even if only for a few hours at a time. And once they reach the point where they can be left alone without fear of doing themselves, the cat or your house grievous harm, they can then learn that what you’re doing is important, because one day you will be Rich and Famous (it’s crucial to say this with a straight face) and you have a very long memory.
A. Depends on how long/complex it is, whether or not the Muse is being a pain in the butt and what my contract says. Anywhere from three to nine months, at present. This is never enough time, by the way. Which makes absolutely no sense because when I started out and basically had no clue what I was doing, I wrote like the wind. Now that I supposedly do know what I’m doing (although I use the term advisedly), instead of happily typing away, I find myself spending long stretches of time staring blankly into space. In other words, I’ve turned into a cat. Without the ability to sleep fifty hours a day.
A. Uh, well, see. . . Okay, I actually sold my first novel-length submission. So sue me. Although I should clarify that – I had lots of rejections for short stories written when my first two kids were little. Still have those suckers around somewhere. (The stories, not the kids. They don’t live here anymore, praise be.) Couldn’t sell a damn thing. So I took roughly a decade off to regroup, during which time I accumulated three more kids and a computer, wrote a couple of books, thought maybe I should send them in, what the heck, and one of them sold. The other one, however, never did. It, along with several also unsold compadres written after that first sale, sits on a floppy somewhere in my office, never to see the light of day. So, see, you can’t hate me too much, because I certainly have had my share of rejections, I just went about it backwards. Which is the story of my life, but let’s not go there.
A. Actually, what I’d like to know is how the hell do I stop the ideas? It’s a curse, I swear – I can’t watch TV, read anything (including cereal boxes, sheesh), hear a conversation or sit anywhere where there are people for more than thirty seconds without the a little “Hmmm. . .” going off in my brain. Fortunately, most of the “Hmmms” go pffft within a few seconds (the trick is to get to “pfft” before I start hearing The Voices, because once The Voices start, I’m screwed), but enough stay with me that I usually have a nice little crop to choose from when it comes time to write a new proposal.
A. Uh-boy. Sit down and start writing? I mean, yeah, I could tell you to go read every How To book you can get your hands on, but to perfectly honest, storytelling is a complete mystery as far as I can tell. Like God. And aerodynamics. I don’t know “how” any of us do it (I sure as shootin’ don’t know how I do it). I think often it’s more a matter of letting the story out rather than making it up. (As opposed to those times when your editor’s breathing down your neck so you have to yank the story out kicking and screaming, but that’s something else again.)
A. Didn’t say that. Every writer needs at least a fair handle on technique, if for no other reason than there will be those times when you’re going to need to know how to find your way out of that meandering plot, or heighten conflict, or perk up those blah characters before they bore you to tears. But in my opinion the time for the How To’s is after you’ve been writing for a while. The most important thing at the beginning is to simply enjoy the journey, reveling in the rush of seeing words accumulate on the page. Cramming your head with too much theory too soon is hell on the creative process. Get something down first, then look for ways to make it better. Also, don’t feel compelled to accept everything you read as gospel. If it doesn’t make you go “aha!”, fuggedabout it and move on to something else.
A. In no particular order:
TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER – Dwight Swain
WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL – Donald Maass (definitely not for beginners, though)
MAKING A GOOD SCRIPT GREAT – Linda Seger
CREATING UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTERS – Linda Seger
SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS – Browne and King (I highly recommend this one for every writer’s library, whether it makes you go “aha!” or not)
The following are great reads for peeks into the writer’s psyche, even if not technically “technique” books:
BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott
WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT by Lawrence Block
ON WRITING by Stephen King
And of course, every writer should have a really good dictionary and thesaurus (I adore my Rodale SYNONYM FINDER, but I just realized the other day that my dictionary is more than twenty years old. I really need to do something about that.).
Q. I keep having all these great ideas, but I always run out of steam after a few chapters.
So then I start something new. Why does this keep happening? How can I get motivated to actually finish a book? And how do I turn the ideas off so I can finish?
A. Simple. You remind yourself that 90 percent of people who start a book never finish it and that you do not want to be one of those people. Newsflash time, people: Writing is HARD. And frequently NOT FUN. Coming up with the idea is fun; figuring out how to turn that idea into something another human being will actually want to read is something else entirely. But if you want to get published, you really do have to finish a book, because readers are kinda weird about wanting to know how the story turns out.
And you don’t turn off the fifty other ideas clamoring for attention as much as you put them off. Scribbling a story idea down in a notebook or in a WP file you keep just for that purpose often clears your brain so you can refocus on the project at hand. You will probably find that many, if not most, of these ideas will look like crap later. This is called literary natural selection and should not be feared. Our brains would like us to think that every idea we have is brilliant and deserving of months of lavish attention. Remember the dope head in high school you thought was so hot? Yeah, it’s like that.
A. You make sure your book is has a compelling, fresh plot, characters that leap off the page, a conflict that will keep readers glued to the page, and prose that is lively, grammatically correct, and cliché-free. Then you write a pithy, extraordinarily clever (but not cutesy) query letter guaranteed to knock an editor’s or agent’s socks off, which you send out only after you’ve spent plenty of quality time with your Writer’s Market (see Q&A below). Then you get in line with the roughly five million other people who are also trying to get their books published. And in the intervening decade or so while you’re waiting to hear back, you start thinking of ways to redecorate your bathroom in a rejection slip motif.
In other words, welcome to the crap shoot that is publishing.
A. If “everyone” you’ve shown it to includes any of the following – your mother, your best friend or your husband – it’s highly likely they a) have no clue what they’re looking at and/or b) don’t want to hurt your feelings. Most first attempts at novel writing are. . .how shall I put this? Dreck. Priceless learning tools, yes, but dreck all the same. (Yeah, I know, says the woman who sold her first submission. However, notice I did not say that was my first attempt at a novel. My first attempt at a novel would make an editor cry, and not in a good way.) Most agents and editors are too kind (and too busy) to tell you your book sucks toads, so they send out a form rejection that says “Not suitable for our needs/lists at this time.” Sometimes that really does mean it’s not right for their needs – because they just bought three books with the same premise, or you sent a horror publisher your torrid 1850’s romance (Folks? Really, the guidelines are there for a reason.), but often it means, “You’re kidding, right?” Even writers who do get their first books published would often rather eat Fear Factor leftovers than see those staggering works of genius reprinted.
However, dreck is not fatal, nor is it a harbinger of your future prospects. Really. Think of the first time you had sex. And you kept working at that, didn’t you?
A. By writing, by reading, by writing, by finding a critique partner and/or looking for contests that give feedback, by writing. There are no guarantees, but the writer serious about improving her craft has a far better chance of eventually seeing her name in print than one who assumes that she came out of the box ready for publication. Repeat after me: Ideas take a few seconds, craft takes a lifetime.
A. No. Remember what I said about ideas being the easy part? I’ll let you in on a secret – publishers know this, too. And by the time you actually do turn that idea into a book, the editor is probably going to have gone to another house or had a baby or become a forest ranger. Write the book first, then query. If they want to see more, you’ve got more and can strike while there’s a still chance the editor will remember your name. If the book sells, all the better. If it doesn’t, you will have invaluable hours of practice time under your belt and the next book will be better. Remember the sex analogy?
A. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to do individual critiques. And my opinion alone means nothing (hard as that might be to admit). Talent is subjective – I might think you’re brilliant, but if you then don’t sell the book, you’ll think I’m stupid, and my ego’s shaky enough as it is.
A. First off, the whole idea-stealing thing is basically a myth. Yeah, I’m sure it happens occasionally, but not enough to lie awake at night worrying about. In fact, you might find it reassuring to know that plagiarizers usually steal from Big Names, not from other aspiring writers. One of those good news/bad news kinda things.
Not only that, but it’s fact of life that if you want to get published, at some point you’re going to have to show your work to somebody besides your mother, best friend or husband. It is also a fact of life that at least some of these other people are going to find aspects of your work that need improvement. And that some of them were raised by hyenas. On the up side, this will prepare you for reviews (If you think having someone trash your work privately is fun, just wait until it’s out there for God and everybody to see. My advice? Start stockpiling the chocolate now.). But letting others read your work is the only way you’re going to grow. Are all judges’ comments equally valid? Nope. Sometimes they really don’t “get it.” (Which is a kind way of saying they should stripped naked, slathered in honey and taken on a picnic.) But if you enter several contests and four out of six judges point out the same problem area, perhaps you should seriously consider their suggestions. (And by the way? Contrary to popular belief, most criticism is not PMS-driven.) Do you have to enter contests to sell? Of course not. Yes, a number of writers have sold directly as a result of placing in or winning a contest, but plenty have sold the old-fashioned way as well – by querying the publisher with a story that’s so hot, the editor falls all over herself for the chance to read the whole book. And queries are cheaper.
A. Local chapters of Romance Writers of America sponsor several contests throughout the year. If you’re writing romance, chick lit or women’s fiction, I would seriously consider joining RWA. For networking, market information and just plain old fashioned support, it can’t be beat. And as part of your membership fee, you’ll get the Romance Writers Report every month, filled with articles on craft, the biz, the writing life and, yes, exhaustive listings of contests for both published and unpublished writers.
A. If you’re targeting Harlequin/Silhouette, you don’t need an agent to sell to any of their lines/imprints except for Mira, their mainstream women’s fiction imprint. I’ve sold more than twenty books to Har/Sil without one, and more than fifty percent of their authors are unagented, in large part because their contracts are pretty much ironclad – very little wiggle room as far as royalty rates, etc. go. You also don’t need one for the smaller print publisher or e-publishers, as a rule. Most “big” houses, however, will only review material submitted to them through an agent. If you’re writing single title romance or mainstream, you’re probably going to need an agent to not only submit to more than one house at a time (problematic to do on your own), but to, well, act as your agent to ensure you get the best possible deal, since those contracts are far more flexible and hence trickier to navigate.
To begin the agent search (and it has been said, and not without cause, that it’s harder to get an agent than interest an editor), get a copy of Writer’s Market from Writer’s Digest (many local libraries have a copy so you don’t have to fork over the big bucks to buy it, although with the big bucks comes the privilege of writing rude things in the margins next to the editors and agents who malign – or worse, completely ignore – your precious babies). Anyway. . .WD has lists galore of editors and agents looking to buy/represent the kinds of books you write. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT: Hard as this might be to believe, no matter how stunningly brilliant your medieval vampire secret baby space drama might be, if the agent says she doesn’t rep medieval vampire secret baby space dramas, she’s really means it. So don’t send it to her. Unless you actually like getting rejections, in which case, knock yourself out. You can also find agent listings on the RWA website, as well as their periodic agent listings in RWR, you can go to conferences and meet agents in person, and/or just ask around. Be forewarned, however – finding an agent is not unlike finding a spouse. And, in just the same way that not all marriages work out, neither do all agent/client relationships. So take your time, ask lots of questions, and don’t feel obligated to sign with the first person who says she likes your work (tempting though that might be). You’re entrusting this person with your career, after all, so make sure the two of you are sharing the same vision for that career.
A. That rumbling you hear in the background is the sound of hundreds of published writers laughing their heads off. Yes, of course some authors earn a living wage (or even better) from their writing, but it doesn’t happen for all writers, it rarely happens within the first five to ten years, and as fickle as this business is, you can find yourself unemployed at the drop of a sales figure. If you’re partial to things like, oh, health insurance and regular paychecks, you might want to consider keeping your regular job and writing on the side. There are 9000 members of RWA, about 1200 of whom are published; the romance industry publishes some 2000 titles every year. If you want a serious reality check, go to the bookstore and count how many names you consistently see on the bestselling racks. Not to be overly pessimistic or anything, but odds are you will never be one of them.
A. Only when nobody’s looking.