Monday, February 16, 2015

Going to the Dogs

by H. Linn Murphy

My son wants a dog. He has wanted one for years--before he could even spell puppy correctly, in fact. Every time he sees a corgi or pug or any puppy, he makes the same 'aaahhhhh' sound people make for adorable babies. It's so cute.

When he gets just rabid to have a dog, we trot out the pluses and minuses, heavy on the minuses. And there are many. We want him to go into his future dog ownership with his eyes wide open. No way do we want to be saddled with a pet the kids won't take care of.

Being a writer is similar. Lots of people think they want to be a writer. They have a book idea and someone has told them they can make piles of ready cash, so they plop down to write their bestseller with very little planning or preparation and towering expectations.

What they don't understand is that there are all kinds of things one needs to do to become a competent writer:

Pay for your pet:
It's difficult to write your bestseller on your off-time between job and family. You're going to have to allot a certain amount of time to write. And you aren't going to jam out a top-priced book the very first go-around. You'll need to spend some time and maybe money getting an editor to go through your book. It's very, very rare that a book goes to print without lots of editing. If you decide to self-publish, you'll need an editor and a cover designer. Without those two things, your book is going to suffer. Believe me. People won't even look at a book with a lousy cover. I've done reviews for bookstores on perfectly good books that weren't selling because their covers rotted. I've also read atrocious books which were in such need of editing that I couldn't bear to read more than the first page.

Obedience school:
You need discipline. Someone said you'll need to write at least 10,000 words before you can ever be called a writer. I think it's many more than that. You need to sit down and write something every day. Make it a habit. Write a book. Write a short story. Write a blog post. Write a laundry list. Just write. And don't let anyone or anything stop you. Make it a habit. Call yourself a writer. Learn how to do a slamming query. Learn how to do an elevator speech. Learn great grammar. Fall in love with beautiful language. Learn to spell.

Care and feeding:
You need to feed your brain. Read books in your genre. Read LOTS of books in your genre. De-construct them and figure out what worked and what didn't. Pay attention to what the market is doing. What kinds of books are people reading? If you're writing a sparkly vampire book, are fairy-like bloodsuckers on the cusp of the market, or are they old and worn out and needing to be chopped up in little pieces and burned? I once heard a panel of publishers and agents plead, "Please, no more dead girls."

When he barks:It's doubtful you have the world's number one book and thus are untouchable. Your editor is going to want you to change things. Count on it. Do so with as much grace as you can muster. Publishers don't want to mess around with a writer who won't work with them. Just remember you get to keep your first run if you want to. But your editor is there to help you clean up your manuscript and make it palatable for your reader.

Scooping the poop:
I like to keep a separate file for things I cut from my stories. I call it my slag pile. For whatever reason a phrase just didn't read well in that spot. Into the slag pile it goes. At least twice, I've cut half a book off and tossed it out. Using this file means I don't have to bemoan the fact that that particular piece is gone. Think of it as the stuff a director cuts from the movie that often ends up on the blooper reel. I have occasionally gone back to the slag heap and unearthed something to use later or in another book. It makes the whole editing process much less painful.

Room to run:
Give yourself a chance to get good. Don't compare yourself to Shakespeare right out of the gate. It's not going to help. Improve. Learn your craft. Take classes at conventions. Take college courses. Read books on writing. Take on-line classes. Find a critique group. Find a set of Beta readers you trust. Enter competitions. Talk to people about your craft. Study.

Share your toys:
Teaching someone else is almost always going to make you better at it yourself. Share what you've learned. Sure, you're competing for a slot (publishers have only a certain number of slots to fill each year. The odds of getting your book into one of those slots are slightly better than getting run down by a rhinoceros), but better books make better readers. We want an audience for our books because we have something to say. Educate your audience. Share your expertise.

Plenty of exercise:
You are going to actually need more exercise so you don't develop a rear end the size of Texas. Hours of sitting will not only give you a large gluteous maximus (or however you spell the dang thing), but can cause heart problems and poor circulation. Exercise will also give your mind fuel and blow away the cobwebs.

You also need mental exercise. Lots. Read abundantly. Go to conventions and retreats and book clubs. Use a critique group. Friend authors on media sites. Pay attention to successful writers and how they got that way.

Going to the dog park:
In this age of competition and falling book sales, it's a very good bet that you're going to have to help sell your book. You're going to need some marketing skills. It's rare these days for a writer to sit down, write his/her book, turn it in, and everything is done. You have to help. Get educated about the best ways to help sell your book, whether it's using media sites, signings, tours, or selling it on the corner in your child's lemonade stand.

Know your breeds:
Rarefied, archaic language might interest you greatly. (I personally love ponderous verbiage.) But you need to tailor your words to the audience for whom you are writing. A three year old speaks much differently than a Harvard professor. Fit your language and content to your audience.

Keeping shot records:
You need to keep records of every transaction. Good rapport with a publisher can go very wrong if you fail to keep exact records. For your peace of mind and that of your tax preparer, document every sale and every time you purchase a box of books. Competent records make happy friendships. Keep track of your contracts. If you need to, have someone look over your contract to make sure it's what you want.

When the dog bites:
Notice I didn't say if the dog bites. You need to continue to write through the set-backs that will come. L. Frank Baum, the writer of the Wizard of Oz, got 36 rejections before a publisher finally believed in his book. There are major writers who have had even more rejection slips. You will get them, whether it's because it's the wrong time, it's not the book for them, it's poorly written, you have a sub par query, you didn't follow instructions, or the planets just weren't aligned. Learn to roll with the punches. If your book is wrong for one publisher, it might do for another one. Or perhaps your hook is wrong or your story needs tightening or maybe you need to put it away for a bit and write something else. Ask someone you trust (who isn't your mom) to give you an opinion.

Another thing. If you write, you're a writer. Don't let your family or friends or other naysayers treat you like a dilettante. If you've payed your dues and you write, you're a writer. Should I say it again? Don't let them drag you down to wannabe status. Keep at it. If they say you're a hack, write better. Most writers have early works that make them want to toss the book off the Empire State building. Write something different.

Putting him down (sob):
 Occasionally there comes a day when you must face the facts. Your book is a dead dog. There is nothing you can do to revive it. You've tried rewriting. You've edited the heck out of it. You've run it past all your Beta readers, your relations, and your mom. You've trotted it out to any and everybody who will sit still long enough to listen, and nobody wants it. It's tired, hacked, and you can't find a way to revive it. It's hogging all your time without possibility of making a go. It's time, my friend, to put the thing down and move on to writing something else. Learn to know when this time comes. Luckily, this is a rare occurrence.
This one just made me laugh

Enjoy your dog:
Writing is a fabulous job. Where else do you get paid to make stuff up? You get to be the pilot of your own space ship. You get to climb to the top of Everest or pilot your own bathyscaphe to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. You can plunge into the sun before lunch and kiss Mr. Darcy before bedtime. You are the architect of a million far-flung worlds. The horizon is wide open, limited only by the scope of your imagination.

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