Saturday, January 23, 2010

Things I've Learned This Year

The other evening my beloved was talking to a friend he hadn't seen in fifteen years, doing the “This is how my life has been...” thing. During it, he mentioned to her that I was a writer, have been writing seriously for the last few years, and have been working on getting a book sold for the last year. And I thought, “What? Really? For a whole year?”

I didn't argue with him because I almost instantly decided he was right, but my first instinct was to contradict him. It's not like I've been phoning up editors trying to get them to buy my book for the last year. I haven't even been phoning agents. Or anyone else, I don't like phones. Not their voice-chat apps anyway... Um... Sorry, ADD. As I was saying, I haven't been waking up every morning and pestering people to buy my book. Last summer, I sent out a few agent queries, yes. Then I stopped bothering people so I could do more revision. If Shadow were a house, you could say I had a few agents glance over it but none of them thought they could sell it as is so I decided to do some renovating before talking to anyone else. If I were telling someone about it I wouldn't say, “I've been trying to sell my house for the last year,” but something like, “I've been trying to get the house ready to sell.” I haven't been actively knocking on doors trying to sell my novel for a year, but I have been working on selling it because I've been working on making it salable.

I've learned a lot over the last year about the publishing industry and about how a book goes from sitting on a laptop to being in store. The technicals I was mostly aware of, but there are a lot of details that I never though about much before.

Some of what I've learned has been things people outside the industry have no way of learning without being told. For example, did you know books opening with people waking up will almost undoubtedly be tossed after the first sentence? I didn't. How could that be clichéd when I can't think of any books that start that way? Some movies and a few TV shows, yeah, but books... Oh, wait... Arthur Dent started The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy waking up, didn't he? Hang-over, bulldozers, aliens... Yeah, alright, there's a book that started that way. And I've likely read others, but not many, at least not compared to the number of books I've read that start out with a woman dressed as a slut in order to get some bad guy to drool over her long enough for her to stab him in the back. As far as I can tell as a reader, chicks who consider tight leather and miniskirts to be assault weapons would be much more clichéd than people whose stories start in the morning. But then I started looked at agent blogs and they assure me it's way overdone. How overdone? Well, last week I saw an agent tweet that she'd gone through 25 queries that morning and 23 of the samples featured someone waking up. It seemed like she was commenting on that being a lot rather than trying to say it was standard, but she didn't sound shocked. Things can clearly be clichéd in slush submissions without being clichéd in published works.

I've learned that agents want authors to have domain names before querying. I learned that after querying, of course... In all honesty, I'd assumed that it was presumptuous and as annoying as people querying for fiction with marketing plans. Apparently I was wrong. Industry types also don't seem to consider it an attempt at buying attention, which was my other fear. And they like blogs and use of social media too, if you're curious.

I've learned to Tweet. And, yes, that's part of the quest for publication. No, not just because of what I said a second ago about agents liking to see authors use social media. On one level, I follow a long list of agents, editors, and published authors who all give me valuable insight into the industry. But more importantly to me, I've found a collection of fellow writers who function as an awesome support network. They encourage me when I'm having trouble bothering with opening my word processing window. They commiserate when things go wrong. They cheer when things go right. I wasn't on Twitter when I queried before, but when I'm ready for it again my Twitter friends will be there to cheer me up when the head shakes come in and will be there to shriek with me when I finally make it to a nod. The impact of not feeling alone should never be underestimated.

I've learned to use the word “that” less. Like hundreds, maybe thousands, of times per manuscript less. I've learned to use fewer dialog tags and to simplify them. I've learned there are alternatives to adverbs. I've learned I use too many commas. I've learned my characters blink too often. And sigh too much... Yes, they're teens and that means a lot of sighing is natural, but it also means readers will be able to assume a lot of them without the words being there. I've learned a lot about saying too much and some about saying too little.

I've learned the Open Office word count feature is useless for novels because it counts quote marks as words. It might not be too far off for a novel with little dialog, but it shifts my word count by over ten thousand words.

I've learned I need to enjoy rough drafts. I've learned it's possible to enjoy revising, but that I don't have to. I'm learning when I can be forced to work and when I can't.

I've learned that I'm not going to give up on this writing professionally idea because it's hard and painful and frustrating, that I'm strong enough to keep at it even when it feels like it's killing me.

And I've learned that I'm not going to stop learning anytime soon.

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