Missed One

As I was doing a quick bit of “research” on my personal writing history – to make sure I got some of the details right on my right on my recent posts of the same topic – I made a discovery in my notebook.  When I wrote up my entry about my various novel and story projects, I’d missed a potential “back-burner” item for a novel concept I came up with following some of my personal set-backs.  I’ve amended the “Note on Novel Nomenclature” entry with the missing project, called “Book of C”.

“Book of C”, like most of the other back-burner projects, currently exists only as an entry of approximately 500 to 1000 words or so in my notebook.  That’s the same state that you’ll find “Book of J” in.  “Book of M” differentiates itself by having about a half-dozen such entries at this point (which is barely anything at all compared to more than a hundred entries in my journal about “Project SOA”).

I describe “Book of C” as a genre mash-up, in a sense.  Part of the idea behind it is to combine tropes and conventions from multiple genres.  Unlike “Book of M” and “Book of J”, which are conceptually stand-alones (at least for now), “Book of C” is conceptually the first in a trilogy.  It centers on three  characters who are brought together in unlikely circumstances in spite of their “differences”, and find they must rely on each other if they’re to escape the powers that hunt them.  In all honesty, though, I’ve not fleshed this one out significantly, even as compared to “Book of J” (which had the benefit of having most of its major plot points laid out for me in a dream).

Still, the initial idea seemed fun, so I’ll definitely be giving it thought in the future to see if I can put some meat on its bones, someday.

From the Dark Days to the Light at the End of the Tunnel Part 1

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while… it’s been sitting in the back of my head for several weeks.  It was actually this post I had in mind when I posted about the titles to my novel projects a couple weeks ago: I knew I was going to write a post updating my “novel history” series of posts from just over a year ago… and I was going to need more convenient names for my novel projects to keep the post straight.

The “Novel History” posts were a series of three posts I did in January/February last year (here, here, and here) that effectively told the story of how I first conceived of “Project SOA #1”, i.e. the novel that I’ve been writing since forever.  If you’re interested in the general history of that novel (and/or interested into some clues as to what that novel is, or was, about – in those older incarnations – I think those posts are an entertainingly written personal history that divulges all of that). 

But I wanted to write a little more about my “dark days” – the days when I did very little writing at all, and the personal disasters that precipitated that productivity decline – and my eventual arrival at a better place.

I mentioned the personal disasters in the third of those three “novel history” links.  What happened was this: five years ago, in the summer of 2006, I had already decided to make my exit from the smallish town where I then lived.  In those days I was also more active than I now am at Church (I’m still active, but I was single and not in school back then, so my free time was significantly greater than it is now), and I was one of the heads of the committee that planned events and activities for the young single adult members of my church.  The big conference of the summer of 2006 was to be my “last hurrah” as I was soon to retire from the business of organizing such activities.  We expected between fifty and a hundred-and-fifty young people from across our rural region to descend on our hub-of-a-small-town for fun, activities, mingling, and, of course, dancing.  Of course, we couldn’t charge much to attend our conference if we wanted to generate a large attendance, so we had to cut cost corners wherever we could.  One big cost target: the music. Continue reading

A Note on Novel Nomenclature

So, I’ve written in the past about “the novel that I’ve been working on since forever” (and also often used the term “blather” when referring to it) and I’ve mentioned the new novel that I intend to start writing (just as soon as I have time to write).

I’ve come to find these long descriptive phrases to be unwieldy.  And, from the perspective of you, the reader, they’re not entirely useful or meaningful.  Because those long, unwieldy descriptions don’t tell you anything about the book itself but instead tell you about my temporal relationship with the book.

This ends now.  Inasmuch as I may continue to refer to either or both of these books – or even inasmuch as I might refer to any of my writing projects – I intend to start referring to those works and projects either by their titles (in the fullness of time) or by code-titles (in the beginning).  Eventually, therefore, I may be able to add word count meters and write in blog posts about my various projects and what I’m doing in them, and it will be easier to you, the reader, to understand what I mean rather than having to parse some long-and-not-altogether-useful-phrase like “that novel that I’ve been working on since forever”.

So, let’s get started. Continue reading

First Hint of a Novel

I was a bit excited about this, so I wanted to share it with you all.

I’d been struggling for some time with the notion that maybe I”m not quite ready to write that novel I’ve been working on since forever.  Anyway, I’m focusing on short stories for now, because that’s all I can fit in the little slices of time I currently have.  But what I really want to write is  novels.

And when it comes to writing novels, there’s that epic novel I’ve been working on since forever, as previously alluded to.

But I love the idea of that novel too much to leave it in the hands of the unskilled self that I am now.  I want that novel to be something great.  But I cannot write great fiction, as yet.  I need to know first that I can even write very good fiction.  But I can write something else.

So, at some point in the recent past (and I may have mentioned here) I decided to shift gears.  I decided that when I get into writing a novel, I will not start by writing this epic behemoth of a thing.  I will write something else instead.  After all, I had three or four different ideas for very different, other novels to write.  So I thought about the ideas, and I felt out which one I felt I could actually start to develop.  And one of them I kept coming back to as the idea that just felt right.

I’ll admit, though, I was afraid.  What if I could only do that one novel idea, the one I’d been working on since forever already?  What if I didn’t have what it takes to even attempt to write something else?  What if I couldn’t think of enough good ideas – to flesh out characters and world and plot – to make this other idea work?

I don’t know why I worried so much.  All I had to do was think about it for a while.  And I did.  And as I did, ideas started popping up in my head.  Oh, well, this is what happens in the first chapter.  But then this happens in the second.  This is the inciting incident, the thing that gets the main character started on her journey.

I only have the barest of details yet figured out.  Some of the first bases of the world-building that I sketched out a few years ago when the idea first came to me.  The first sketches of a few characters.  And now the first sketches of how the story opens.  I’m still working on the plot – as in, what is the overarching plot, and what does the main character want, and what is the course of the overall journey?  But I was delighted to find myself adding a couple new handwritten entries in my little notebook (I call it my Book of Ideas), and that these new entries, their not just for the same old book I’ve been working on since forever.  They’re for a new book idea.

The former book, I’ll still be working on it.  I can’t abandon it.  I’ll still write ideas for it down.  I’ll build up my little project file on my computer with notes and articles and ideas and worldbuilding and characters. But my overall focus, slowly, is going to shift in this new direction.

Happy writing.

Go Big or Go Home?

On Blockbuster Books, Pseudonyms, and Platforms

A couple weeks ago, in David Farland’s Daily Kick, he suggested something that I thought was provocative, with regards to the careers of new writers. He basically suggests that, unless a new writer can launch their first novel in a big way, his or her career will not last.

As a result of [a lot of changes to the book industry], it has become imperative that an author “launch big.” You need to sell your first book in hardcover. You need to write a book that is aimed at the market, that takes current tastes in literature into account, and that more than satisfies your publisher’s expectations. Indeed, we’re seeing more and more publishers launching first-time authors as best-sellers.
~David Farland

My reaction was: really? Really, that’s the only way? I’ll concede that we’ve reach a post “long-tail” reality. But to suggest that our only hope is to go big or go home, to my mind, is not so much encouragement as, well, the opposite of encouragement. (It’s called discouragement.) Because most of us who write, as it is, are unlikely to win a publishing contract for our books. Few enough of those will ever succeed at the “go big or go home” strategy.

He goes on to say something more that makes me a little suspicious, though:

Typically, the publisher will pay anywhere from $100,000 to $400,000 for a novel that they intend to launch big, and they’ll offer to launch it in hardcover.

I don’t know about the offer to launch in hardcover, but those advances are way out of whack with statistical evidence on the issue of first advances.  Author Tobias Buckell’s survey may not precisely be scientific, but it does show that the frequency of very high (6-digit) advances is very rare with respect to the population of writers as a whole (out of 108 speculative fiction authors who took his survey, he doesn’t find a single 6-figure advance for first-time novels, suggesting that the real likelihood of that eventuality is significantly less than 1%).

So, I’m not so sure about the validity of Farland’s claims on this question. Certainly, many of us dream of striking it big, just so, but, at least at present, there still seems to be plenty of room on the “midlists”.

Farland later suggests that if we fail to achieve this blockbuster opener on our first novel, that all is not lost:

So your only option is to take your money and—quite probably—start over. Write another potential blockbuster under another name. Do it enough, and eventually you’ll get the push that you deserve.

This got me thinking about the topic of pseudonyms. It sounds like Farland is suggesting an ever-revolving door of pseudonyms until we find a novel that sticks in the blockbuster status. This made me reflect back to an interview author Jim C. Hines did with a writer who’s basically doing just that.  This made me wonder about the role of pseudonyms in an author’s career, especially as concerns myself, personally.  I write this blog under my real name, and I’ve commented before that I have a rather common name.  And I’ve wondered whether that will present a challenge for me in the future, when I try in earnest to break in.  So, I’ve considered the possibility of a pseudonym… And I’ve come full circle.

Several years ago, I was already considering this issue, and had picked out for myself a pseudonym.  But I was struggling with the issue.  Then, one friend asked why, rather than agonize over what to use as a pseudonym, why don’t I just use my real name.  That question rekindled in me the pride I had in my name.  Since then, I’d planned to use my real name as my writing name… and so that’s what you see here on this blog.

But when I consider the challenges inherent in trying to brand myself while using so common a name, I am forced to consider that a pseudonym might be a necessary tool in my writing arsenal.  (Though, in a bit of irony, the pseudonym I had picked out for myself turns out to be uncomfortably close to the name of another, established science fiction author.  So, back to the drawing board, as it were.)  And now I’m back to considering: if I must have a pseudonym, what will it be?

And if I do have a pseudonym, can I keep it open?  By that, I mean, must I necessarily keep it a secret (as the writer Benjamin Tate, the one interviewed by Jim Hines, is doing)?  Or can it be a known fact that “Mr. Nom-de-plume” is, in fact, me.  I wonder about this because, it seems to me, building an audience – and a platform – is no easy feat.  And to have to start from scratch every time I have to take a “new” name seems to me to be a terrible waste of the potential resource of an existing fan-base.  If you have a few fans, wouldn’t it be better to transfer that fandom to your new name?  And wouldn’t the easiest and cleanest way to do that be to say to them: “Hey, if you like my stuff, you might want to check out the stuff written as ‘Author X’ – my new nom-de-plume!”

Then, related to this, is another article I read, recently, on the subject of self-promotion, on the Writer’s Beware blog, which asks the question: can you start self-promoting and building your “platform” too soon?  That particular article suggests that, perhaps, starting to build your network and platform several years before the launch of your novel is, just maybe, too soon.  Which gave me pause.  At this time in my “career” I’m intending on focusing on short stories, because I know I don’t have time to devote to novel writing.  Consequently, I know it will be several years before I even finish writing a full novel draft.  Then, shopping it around, waiting for responses, and doing all the rest will mean years more before I’ll be a published novelist.

Have I started this blog too soon?  Do I stand something to lose by blogging now, when all I have to show for myself are a handful of mediocre-quality short stories?  Will potential readers happen upon me and, finding nothing exciting, give a collective “meh“, and move on with their lives?  It’s a legitimate question, and one that has me thinking.

Ultimately, though, I feel alright about this.  I’ve started this journey.  Heck, I started this journey years ago, long before the idea for this blog, or any other blog, entered into my mind.  And now that I’m here, I’m here.  And I’m going to keep going, trudging onward in the direction of my dream.

Happy writing.

Writing Quote: Demanding to Be Written

Time is short these days, and I don’t get much time for writing, except here on my blog (and it looks like I’ll be cutting back on that for a little while).  But for almost as long as I’ve thought of myself as a writer, I’ve been working on, to some degree or another, the same book.  While I started the book when I was a kid, it’s grown and evolved with me, becoming more complex, more mature, and to my mind more entertaining.

For the past couple years, due to various circumstances, I haven’t really worked on my book in any significant way.  Sure, I’ve made notes here and there about ideas and plot points and characters, and historical background.  I’ve got a notebook where I make those notes, and sometimes I type them up into my computer.  But I make a new note on average once every two or three weeks, and then its usually only a few short thoughts.

In the meantime, I’ve come up with a few new novel ideas for books that I think I may need to write before returning with full attention to that book that’s been with me since forever, if for no other reason than to test and grow my skill as a writer before trying my hand at rewriting my defining saga.

It’s sometimes a melancholy thought, to be apart from this book for so long, to have made no progress in it.  I long to write it.  I yearn to write it.

And for this reason, today’s quote caught my eye, by esteemed African American author Toni Morrison:

If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. 

~Toni Morrison

You see, that book of mine: it’s like the fantasy novel version of me.  It’s not a dramatization of my life’s history, or anything so dull as that.  But the book is as though the character of who I am, and of all the little bits of my life, are transformed into this little world, and these characters, and their lives.  It’s a reflection of myself.  And, all the while, I think it’s just a good old-fashioned adventure tale of the good-versus-evil and coming-of-age and finding-yourself and boy-meets-girl and love-conquers-all variety (it’s not a romance by any means – far too much violence in it for that – but like all good stories, there’s a bit of romance on the side).

You know, I think it’s the kind of book I’d like to read.

Addenda to “From Whence Greatness?”

Yesterday, I told the story in which I developed my theory of the key ingredient in a great story: that of “relationships” between characters.  But there are a few clarifying points that I’d like to make.

First, a definition.  When I refer to “relationships” as being key, I don’t mean the word in the colloquial sense of a “romantic relationship”.  Heck, it doesn’t even have to be a friendship, or any other positive relationship, for that matter.  When I talk about “relationships” between characters, I mean that there has been a level of personal interaction between characters which is the genesis of an emotional response between characters.  In other words, stuff happened between two characters, and because of that stuff the two characters may have come to like each other, love each other, hate each other, bore each other, become jealous, and so on.  The feelings needn’t be mutual, either.  In fact, relationship dynamics can be so much more interesting when they aren’t perfectly congruous.

The second addendum is this: the relationship is not divorceable from the characters involved.  In other words, having “characters” with “relationships” will not save a story if the “characters” are not interesting, engaging, or otherwise worthy of our rooting interest.  For the past couple of years, I’ve been using The Redemption of Althalus as my touchstone on this point, because it’s the only fantasy novel I’ve ever put down unfinished – a dubious honor, I’m sure.  The reason I couldn’t finish that book?  While it had a relatively interesting premise, the entire cast of characters were card-board cut-outs of standard fantasy tropes with little or no variation from each other.  (One review on Amazon I read described the book as having exactly 3 characters who have been cloned multiple times and given different names and dress:  good guy, good girl, and bad guy.  I’d concur, except I’d say there’s really only one character who is cloned, and who’s name, gender, and assigned allegiance are the only variables.)  Althalus is my touchstone because the characters were so dull and unengaging.  Though there were several relationships between the various characters, they had absolutely no depth.  And however shallow the good guys, the bad guys were even thinner, such that throughout the book, we have virtually no concern whatever whether the good guys or the bad guys win, because there are no real consequences.  For the “relationships” ingredient to work, therefore, these relationships need to be between fully realized and engageable characters.

That said, this element alone may not be sufficient to propel a story to greatness.  But I still maintain that it is the one element that must be executed on well in order for a story to be great.  Other elements will still be necessary, but the specifics of those elements are not, in my mind, as iron-clad as that of interesting relationships between interesting characters.  To greater or lesser degrees, genre conventions may dictate a lot more about what needs to go on in a story: whether you need an exciting, never-before-been-seen new idea, or deeply intricate plots, or explosive dialog.  Some of these you almost certainly will need.  But you ignore characters and their relationships at your own peril.

Happy writing.

From Whence Greatness?

A post on the blog of T.S. Bazelli the other day made me think back to some thoughts I had a year or two ago about what makes a novel or a book great.  I thought this would be a great place and time to go back to those thoughts, re-examine them, and share them.

The question of greatness in books is one that can cause a good deal of contention among those who are well-read.  The erudite and scholarly may have the ability to pontificate on the relative merits and flaws of the great classics, from Tolstoy to Nabokov, from Shakespeare to Dickens and from Joyce to Fitzgerald and beyond.  (You’ll note how each of these is readily identified merely by their last names, as though nothing else is needed for their introduction.)  Well, I haven’t read a word of Tolstoy nor much of Nabokov.  I’ve read smatterings of Shakespeare and Dickens, nothing of Joyce, and only what they made me read in school by Fitzgerald.  The same could be said for any number of other “great” writers.  But, frankly, I’m not interested in scholarly or academic discussions of greatness.  I’m a young man who yearns to be a writer, himself.  So, what I’m interested in is the kind of greatness that churns out best-sellers.  The Stephen King kind of greatness.  The Dan Brown kind.  Or the J. K. Rowling kind.

And it was a consideration of Rolwing’s “masterpiece”, as it were – the Harry Potter novels, as though they need any introduction either – that originally got me thinking about this subject a few years ago.  I haven’t read King or Brown (though I’ve seen many of their movies), but I’ve read the entire Harry Potter series.  Now, this reading is but one datum to consider, but when I think back over the stories I’ve loved throughout my life – over nearly all of the books I’ve found most compelling – the key learning I gleaned from this consideration holds constant and true.  Let me take you back to the beginning, to where my thoughts on the topic began.

I had just finished one of the Harry Potter books, whether the fifth, sixth, or seventh I no longer remember.  By this point, Harry Potter was past being a phenomenon and had become the touchstone of a cultural moment.  By 2007 the New York Times felt forced to create a whole new category of best seller to which it could shuck the quarter-dozen Harry Potter titles that were clogging up its normal best seller list.  And as a writer, I wondered.  What made these Harry Potter books so great?  Why were they such a huge bestseller?  Why did so many people love these books?  And were there any lessons I could glean from them that I could apply in my own work?

I approached these questions from the point of view of one who would also write heroic fantasy stories of wizards and dragons and the fate of the world in balance.  And right away, I was able to rule all of that out as a factor in Harry Potter’s success.  Certainly, other tales have done spectacularly well relying on just those very themes: the Lord of the Rings comes as one clear example, and there are other great bestsellers (though none quite so best selling as Harry Potter) in the fantasy genre that rely still on these same themes.  Harry Potter is something of a bildungsroman, but so are many other fantasy tales.  There is a young boy destined to defeat the evil wizard.  He has a wise old mentor who is destined to die before the young boy can fulfill his own destiny.  Sound familiar?  Lots of great fantasy stories have been told with the same motifs.  So have lots of truly awful dreck.  My own fantasy novel rested on these same themes, and yet I knew in my heart of hearts by this point that my novel was practically unpublishable.

No, I reasoned, these themes were not a reason for success.  Neither, it was clear to me, were they a hindrance, no matter that you always hear that we, as writers, have to avoid such clichés “like the plague”.  The success of Harry Potter proved for certain that the old saw about fantasy clichés was no true path to greatness in fantasy literature.  Many stories have been new and unique and inspired.  Many of them have been consigned to the dustbins of history.  No, there is no formula for greatness in the way that we approach these fantasy clichés.

What about Rowling’s prose, and her style?  Certainly, one can count points in her favor here.  Yet it cannot escape notice that though these were books written for and to a young adult and juvenile audience, they nevertheless had an appeal to a much broader audience.  Adults and people of all stripes and ages were completely caught up in the Potter-mania.  Should we all strive to write YA-fiction with broad market appeal?  How would one do that?  No, that line of reasoning is silly.  Stephen King churns out a never-ending stream of best-sellers, and his books are decidedly not YA in appeal.  Still, there is something to be said for writing style: for finding an authorial voice that has general and broad appeal.  But this is not a lesson that can easily be applied, in principle.  Each writer must find his or her own authorial voice, and it’s something I’ve yet to see a standard or formula that could replicate success in this regard.

So, my thoughts continued.  It was not Rowling world-building.  While her world was interesting and at time immersive, there were nonetheless numerous inconsistencies that would crop up from time to time.  But they were not central to the plot, nor to our enjoyment of the book, so as readers they were easily forgotten or missed entirely.  It was not her meticulous plotting.  While engaging, the plots were almost entirely self-contained from book to book, with only a handful of threads continuing across the entire series.  But… we’re getting closer.

And that’s when it hit me. The characters.  The relationships.  This became clear to me, especially, while reading the last book of the series.  All throughout the series we’d been introduced to a wide array of characters with interesting backstories and, more importantly, a complex web of relationships between them.  And, as the stories progress, we see the consequences of the interactions of the characters – both those that take place within the timeline of  the books and those that took place in the past – play out in the climaxes of each book.  What the villains do – whether Severus Snape or Draco Malfoy or even Lord Voldemort – is influenced by their pasts and the relationships they had with the people around them.  And the same is true of the heroes. 

As I realized this, I knew I was onto a profound discovery.  We human beings: we’re social creatures, even the most introverted of us.  We crave human interaction.  We crave relationships.  It’s woven into the fiber of our beings.  And stories?  Stories are about people.  People who have relationships.  The more interesting and dynamic those relationships, the more interesting and compelling the story.

A quick survey of my fantasy favorites confirmed my budding theory.  The Lord of the Rings?  You’ve got the powerful friendship between Sam and Frodo.  Boromir’s betrayal, fueled in part by his (offscreen) relationship with his father, and strained relationship between Boromir’s brother, Faramir, and their father.  You have the growing friendship of Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn, and the (mostly offscreen) love between Aragorn and Arwen and the attendant angst related to it.  You have the friendship of Pippin and Merry.  And so on.  Whilst writ large, at mythic scope, the story is nonetheless fraught with relationship complexities. 

Or the Prydain books of my youth?  Here, you have the conflict in Taran between who he was – a question of his relationship with his unknown parents and with his mentor, Dallben – and who he has become, in light of his new relationships with the princess Eilonwy, the bard Flewddur Fflam, the creature Gurgi, the dwarf Doli and the prince Gwydion.  Or how about “The Wheel of Time”?  There are so many characters and complex relationships that it becomes rather easy to lose track, and you need a half-dozen online encyclopedias to keep track.  (If anything, “The Wheel of Time” sometimes seems to suffer from relationship overload.)

Yes, my friends, I did and do believe that I discovered the secret of greatness in writing.  Which is not to say I’ve discovered a magic formula for best-sellerdom.  What I have found is the secret ingredient.  There are a lot of ingredients that will make the stew of a great novel a savory and steamy affair.  You need an interesting plot, and an immersive world.  You need attention to detail, and an eye for the setting details that bring your story to life.  You need clean prose and a style with wide appeal.  You need some new idea or some new take on the conventions of your genre.  But if you fail to deliver a perfect tale in any of those regards, you may, I believe, still have a perfectly fine and publishable book.  But what you cannot do without, I have come to believe, is a caste of interesting characters caught in a web of relationships.  It is these relationships that will drive your story.  Without these, your story will ultimately be forgettable.

At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe.

Happy writing.

Writing Quote: When to Plan

The author of today’s writing quote needs no introduction.  She wrote nearly a hundred books in her lifetime and has sold more books than any other author in contemporary times, with a large number of those featuring the famed literary detective Hercule Poirot.  I speak, of course, of Agatha Christie.  So now, I’ll turn it over to Agatha to reveal the secret of when to work on planning that novel you’re working on:

The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.

~Agatha Christie

I find this to be an interesting quote, especially at a time when I’ve been bogged down with so much busy work, trying to finish up projects, work on final exams, and be supportive of my Dear Wife – all while doing the old day job thing.  It’s pretty busy.

And, as I’ve mentioned, I have several novel project ideas dancing around in the back of my head.  There’s that long-gestating novel, plus several other novel ideas ready to be planted.  I’d really like to start fleshing one of those other ideas out into something that looks more like a book.  But when will I ever have time for that?

Well… whenever!  If I’m busy doing something else that is occupying my hands but not my mind, that’s the time to engage my mind on coming up with interesting characters, fantastic worlds, and engaging plots.

Ideally, to get writing done, you need to follow the BICHOK rule: “Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard”.  In other words, you need to spend some time in a place where you can write.  But we don’t always have that luxury.  That’s when Agatha’s advice comes into play.

Happy Writing.

Breaking In (Part 4): What’s in a Name?

Over the past few days I’ve been sharing my observations on what it takes to break into the world of writing and get your work published.  I’ve been especially focused on writing novels, and I’m also more squarely focused on the fantasy and science fiction genre markets.  All of these observations are those of an outsider: someone who has yet to really be published.  Some would call me a wannabe, an appellation which is technically true as I do, indeed, want to be a writer.  More specifically, I want to be a professionally published writer, and I want to be able to make a living off of doing that.

But there’s a wide gap between where I am and where I want to be.  So, I’m trying to learn everything I can about the industry and gain some insight on how editors makes the decisions they make on who and what to publish.  So, let’s think about things from the editor’s point of view for a minute.  An editor’s job is a hard one.  There is no shortage of people like me: wannabes.  We love writing, have what we think are great ideas, and want desperately to do this professionally.  Most of us, quite frankly, are awful at it.  Some of us have latent talent, but not the skill and experience to make things work.  From the editor’s perspective, there is a potentially infinite source of manuscripts.  The editor has to tackle that infinity of manuscripts, wade through a sea of crap (remember, if we need to write a “million words of crap” before we’ll start producing anything of quality, if there were only a few thousand wannabe writers that would be billions of words worth of crap; the estimation of only a few thousand wannabe writers is probably, in my experience, unrealistically low), and find the work of true quality that can be polished until presentable and published.  It seems a daunting, even impossible task.  How does an editor do it?

Lesson 3: Editors don’t want to read crap.

The only answer I can see to the question above: an editor needs heuristics, rules-of-thumb, to help him or her quickly eliminate the vast majority of the crap.  If you’ve seen one crap manuscript, you’ve pretty much seen them all.  Many crappy stories and half-baked novels, at least from the editor’s perspective, share certain traits and qualities in common.  So, I believe editors start from the lowest-common-denominator and work their way up, applying new filtering heuristics to each set of manuscripts that passed the last test.  They may start with simple things: manuscripts that don’t follow their manuscript format guidelines are summarily discarded without further ado.  Then they’ll get into the details: does the opening paragraph grab the editor’s attention?  No?  Discard it without reading further.  Does the story provide some new or interesting perspective on the genre?  No?  Discard it.  Each editor will have his or her own tastes and specifics on what she is looking for. 

Mostly, at least, that’s what I surmise about how things work in the short story market.  It is not a real leap of logic to suggest that things are similar in the novel market.  An acquiring editor at a novel publisher may give you more than a single paragraph to catch his interest, but only just so.  The idea, I imagine, is the same.

One of those filtering heuristics, based on some things I’ve read, may be one which the wannabe writer would least expect: the prominence of the wannabe’s name in the industry.  In other words, has the editor heard of you?  One answer to that question can be addressed in part in my previous “Breaking In” post on developing a “Writing Community”.  If there are a lot of editors in your “network” of people you know and interact with, chances are better that an editor you want to do business with will have heard of you.

In the novel-publishing market, there is one other potential source of “name recognition”: the short story market.  At least, this seems to be true in the speculative fiction world.  If you get a half-dozen short stories published in the magazines or short-story compilations that the acquisition editors are reading regularly, they’ll start to notice your name cropping up.  When your novel manuscript ends up on one of their desks, the editor is more apt to think to herself: “now where have I seen this name before?”  If your story was one he or she liked, more the better for your chances of holding that editor’s eyes long enough to give your manuscript a fair read.

Ideally, of course, you would be able to use both of these tools in tandem: growing your network to include editors and gaining some name recognition in the short story markets.  However, one or the other of these may be just entirely infeasible to one writer or another.  The drawbacks of the networking were mentioned last time.  For short story writing,  however, the drawbacks are different.  A writer who is great at long-form writing (such as novels) might be terrible at short stories.  And the reverse can also be true: a great short story writer may be a sub-par novelist.

Ultimately, the lesson for wannabe writers comes back to this simple rule: to be successful at writing as a career, you need to be exceptional at the craft of writing.  That one factor, more than any other, will do the most to improve your chances of launching  a career.  However, it’s really not enough.  Success also takes marketing savvy, developing a rapport and name-recognition in the industry.  You’ll need to find some way to get past an editor’s crap-meter and get your beautifully polished prose in front of his or her eyes.

The sad part about the crap-filtering heuristics is that, inevitably, they are imperfect.  The vast majority of what will be rejected by these filters will, certainly, be crap.  But they will also filter out gems that, on first pass, look like crap.  By the same token, there will be some crap that manages to pass through all these filters without setting off alarm bells.  The bad news for writers-to-be: there really isn’t any better or more reliable system imminently available to editors that will allow your gems to rise to the top (unpolished or otherwise).  For us, it stands only to learn the ropes of the business and do our best to improve our craft.

On Friday I’ll tie these “lessons” together and summarize my plan for developing my writing career.

Happy writing.

Back to  Part 3: Writing Community

Continue to Part 5: My Plan