SELLING MANUSCRIPTS WITHOUT AN AGENT: SMART RESEARCH [Reading Between the Lines]

Tags

,

With most publishers closed to authors without agents, and agents almost as elusive, self-marketing your manuscript seems like a daunting job. The market has changed drastically over the years, and certainly not for the better.

Only a limited number of publishers maintain open doors. The slush pile seems headed for the same fate as the Dodo bird. Among publishers that continue to read unsolicited manuscripts, the trend is not to respond unless they are interested. They would have you twiddle your thumbs for six months when they may or may not have rejected your manuscript the moment it came through the door. Impatience and frustration continue to drive many to self-publishing. That’s fine if you are into writing more for fun than profit. But those of us who prefer traditional publishing, we have two options: For one, we can hand over the business of selling to a third party. Agents are supposed to be experts at that. They know the secret knock on those closed doors, right? The Let them catch those annoying rejections and call us when they have an offer. I’ll save the pros and cons of that are for another day.

The alternative is to be your own advocate. I don’t know if it makes you feel better at the idea, but of the more than a hundred sold titles I sold over the last decades, only was by an agent. To the contrary, I nearly lost the sale I had already made when a different agent offended my editor with too many [unreasonable?] demands. The long drought put my confidence at an all-time low until we parted ways. It took a few years, but I sold five more books on my own. The moral of the anecdote is that selling without an agent happens.

My mantra is Writing is a Pleasure; Selling is a Business. We would rather be writing. Ideas stack up like planes during the holiday season. Life makes demands, and studying the market is time-consuming. However, it could be well worth your time. You budget your time to write, so why not set aside a portion of that time to market? It could be a day out of your week or an hour out of your day. By making it a routine time, you are more likely not to blow it off.

You might already own the annual market books that list publishers, addresses, submission requirements, and the percentage of un-agented manuscripts they publish. They list the genre and for children’s publishers, the ages for whom they publish. There is a drawback. By the time the book is available, some information is obsolete. Editors move. requirements change, and houses are absorbed by bigger companies or vanish. You need to update the information.

The industry magazines, The Writer and The Writer’s Digest, help. However, the information might be at least a month old. Your best source for requirements is the publishers’ websites. Publisher’s Weekly gives the best industry news about changing personnel. I made my first book sale when I saw an interview with a new editor. In the photo, she was holding a cat. Although I had submitted the manuscript to that house a year before, a new editor meant a different taste. Since the main character of the story was a cat, I figured that she’d be more receptive and popped it into the mail the same day. I got the call four days later. She bought it. Publisher’s Weekly is expensive, but libraries usually subscribe.

It is tempting to submit to the publishers who buy the most unsolicited manuscripts since the odds seem better. That’s not necessarily so. Your manuscript might be the perfect fit for the publisher releasing only one or two titles a year. That’s where smart research comes in. The market blurb is not the whole story. Show Don’t Tell works as well with marketing as with writing.

Years ago, I sent for the catalogs from every publisher that I could. Now you can find them online. Your local library may have the hard copies. You’ll have to ask and maybe trade your first born for a peek, but it’s cheaper. The Spring and Fall catalogs with their backlists tell you a complete story about the publisher. Let’s say you have written an anthropomorphic picture book. Perhaps the publisher’s market blurb says they publish ten picture books a season and the second publisher publishes only two a year. A look at the catalogs shows that the ten picture books and those in the backlist are all realistic, and the smaller publisher lists both stories with animals living as people. Which one will be more receptive?
My earliest sales were picture books and a novella. In my catalog perusals, I fell in love with the choices of illustrations. I could visualize my story with that artist. The next step was to take a trip to the library and read some of their books. I saw that their books were the minimalist style that I used and that my story would be a good fit. The editor bought the manuscript and asked for more. He eventually bought four before I moved on to a different style and genre more suitable for other houses.

Look at the catalog index. Most publishers list titles by genre. There you can see categories they didn’t mention in their short market blurbs. Pay special attention to the books that they say are by first-time authors. It takes a real commitment of resources to invest in an unknown and unproven author. They are counting on that beginner to write many more for them. Read that book. Analyze what it is that made them take a chance. Is your manuscript ready to compete with that?
Read titles by that publisher. Do you feel that in a line-up, your story will stand out? It should be a good fit because it just might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Good luck!

Advertisements

SUCCESSFUL WRITER: How Do You Define It?

Featured

An aspiring writer, when asked what her goals were, replied, “I want to write a bestseller so that I can live on the beach and donate millions to the less privileged.” Ambitious and benevolent—you have to admire that combination. She was about three planets away from the real world, though. About two weeks into the class, she presented me with three typewritten pages and said that she had finished her novel. Stunned when I asked where the rest of it was, she said that was the entirety. I told her that she was about 375 pages short. She tossed the pages in the trash can on her way out of the class, and I never saw her again. As with a few aspiring writers, her goals were beyond her willingness to put in the time and work.

Most novices have a more grounded notion about what it takes to be a seller, let alone a “best” seller. None of us start out saying, “I want to write a mediocre manuscript that no one will read.” We want to feel successful. Defining success is more elusive. To one it may be to salvage three strong pages from the ten produced that day. To those who wish more than they work, you are impressive if you received a complimentary rejection.

A sure way to sabotage your idea of success is to compare yourself to someone else without realizing that there were many rungs on the ladder to get there. Only imaginary superheroes can leap to the top in one mighty bound. It helped me to set small goals, plateaus of minor successes, little rungs on the ladder to feel the least bit successful:

  • To study the best writing examples and learn from professionals
  • To stop apologizing for being an unpublished writer
  • To write the best manuscript possible
  • To research the best potential publishers still open to submissions
  • To list at least five potential publishers and to submit to the firsts on the list
  • To get a favorable comment, even buried in a rejection, by an editor
  • To revise a manuscript according to an editor’s suggestion
  • To sell a manuscript
  • To have my title featured on the catalog cover
  • To be reviewed by a major magazine or newspaper
  • To be invited to speak locally
  • To be invited to speak elsewhere
  • To sign books at a national conference
  • To receive fan letter [that is not a class assignment]
  • To be reprinted in paperback and foreign language or short film
  • To achieve name recognition

My list of baby steps follows one title. Think of it as a round-robin song. The best plan is to continue to write the best manuscripts possible and to follow all of the steps with each one. The moment you send out one manuscript, you begin another.

You’ll notice that there is no mention of winning awards, bestsellers, or dictating that next novel beneath the shade of a cabana on the beach. They came, but I was surprised at how short-lived the feeling of success was. My thoughts were always on the current manuscript. “Success” is addictive. One taste and it becomes the white whale in your life.

Ask any writer that you consider the epitome of success, and you will find that they have traits in common:

  • They strive daily to improve
  • They are not easily discouraged but see failures as a learning experience
  • They find their own voice instead of following what’s currently “hot”
  • They accept constructive criticism as a tool to better their writing
  • Although they have long-term goals, they have mini-interim goals

There might be a few success stories that make you want to skip some steps. I doubt seriously that more than a handful of authors were ever an “overnight success.” Rowling had 13 rejections before she sold her first Harry Potter. But if you make that first goal to write the best you are capable, good things can happen. Good luck!

 

ONCE MORE WITH FEELING: Check Points Before You Send Your Manuscript

Featured

Before you submit your manuscript, here are some points you can check for yourself:

Title: Is the title provocative? Aside from your cover letter, the title is the first thing about your manuscript that the editor will see. A dull, unprovocative title doesn’t bode well for your style. The editor that bought my non-fiction book, Hats Are for Watering Horses, told me that she fell in love with the title immediately. “Only a poor manuscript would have prevented me from my instant decision to buy it based on the title alone.”
Put as much thought into your title as you do in your plot. List the possibilities, and wait until you are satisfied with your manuscript before you make your final selection. It should give us the essence without telescoping the story, i.e. “Suzie Goes Shopping.” Perhaps something like “A Bag of Surprises” would tempt the reader better.

Introduction: Is the opening sentence a strong one? Do the first few sentences or paragraphs let the reader know who, what, when, where, and why of the story? Does the story begin too far back? Start with the moment the situation changes. We don’t need to get up, bathe, brush teeth, dress, eat breakfast, pack, etc. to go to Grandma’s. Start with the arrival, or better yet, start with the first time the protagonist stomps off angrily.

Character: Is your main character [protagonist] the most important one in the story? Is he/she interesting, likable and well-rounded [believable]? Is he/she the correct age for your readers? Can your readers visualize the protagonist through his/her actions, description and dialogue? Would the story be the same even if he/she were not in it? You need to rethink your cast of characters.]
Does the protagonist have a real problem that is appropriate for his/her age? Is it one the readers can recognize? Can he/she solve the problem without help? Have you kept to a single viewpoint? Review the manuscript to be sure that ONLY your protagonist’s thoughts and senses are overt. Show all other characters objectively, i.e., what you observe within your main character’s sight and earshot. Verbs like “thought, heard, saw, etc.” are for your main character only.

Style: Have you used strong action verbs? People don’t just walk. They amble, pace, totter, or stomp, according to their mood. Are the tone, style, and general feeling, portrayed in keeping with the time and setting? Does it move quickly toward the climax? Is the ending satisfactory with no loose ends, pat endings or coincidence? Did you omit obvious and extraneous explanations? Do the last several sentences wrap up logically? Does it leave you with a feeling that “justice” or that there is at least hope, if not a happy ending? Is it clear in unhappy endings that it was the character’s choice?
Is your dialogue natural? Does it move the plot forward? Does the story flow smoothly between scenes? [A simple “Back home,” or “Later” moves the protagonist from school to home. We don’t need the bus ride.] Have you kept the moral from hanging out there in plain sight? [SHOW the change in your character; don’t just tell us.]
Did you find weak spots that need to be deleted or strengthening? Are there gaps that need transitions or explanations? Is there variety in sentence structure? Do you have passive sentences [“started to,” “began to,” “was walking.” Did you eliminate verbatim greetings: “Hello. How are you? I am fine,” etc.]

Length: Editors reject beautifully written stories because they are longer than the magazines stated length allowance. Even books have limits for financial reasons. Check out the magazine markets for limits. No story truly suffers from cutting, and I’ve yet to see one bleed. Go through your story. Are there whole scenes that can be cut and the story still make sense? Is it still too long? Check for whole paragraphs, and then for sentences within the saved paragraphs. Look for unnecessary words within the saved sentences [So, well, really, very, just, even, at all, certainly, definitely, exactly, anyway, some, all of a sudden, there is, it is, forms of to be.]

There is a time to let go. When you have done the best you can at that moment, follow the publisher’s guidelines for submissions. Not many publishers have the courtesy of saying “no thanks” anymore. Mark your calendar for when you should move on to the next. Put it out of your mind and start a new story. If the recipient publisher lacks the foresight to purchase your baby, take the opportunity to reread your manuscript with a fresh eye. Chances are, you’ll find a few things you want to change before sending it to the next. That’s a good indication that you are growing as a writer. Celebrate!

SERIES WRITING: GETTING YOUR FOOT IN THE DOOR Part II: Do-it-Yourself Presentation Kit

Tags

, ,

It’s probably time for a disclaimer here. I don’t have the key every editor’s heart. If I did, I doubt that I’d have a chance to write this, because I have many more ideas than willing publishers. What I can tell you is how I presented what became become series.
Series take a commitment from everyone involved: editor, illustrator/cover designer, advertising department, sales representatives, and you the writer. The only one you have any control over is you. To convince the publisher that you have what it takes to sustain a series is your first job. That calls for consistent style, content, and fresh ideas.

For that, you will probably need one completed manuscript, and at least a detailed chapter outline for the second book plus a brief summary of the third idea. I have found that summarizing as many situations as you can think of gives the editor some choices for what she believes are the stronger ideas. More than that, you need to create a series concept or legend. It is not only a selling point but also functions as a guide for consistency throughout the series life. You’d be surprised how many details slip from memory from book to book.

A series concept includes:
• A statement about the series intent, the theme, the intended audience, estimated length and background. You need a short, snappy sales pitch. Think about those paragraph teases on the back cover to peak a reader’s interest in the story. It is a general roundup with the main character, problem, and climax. Notice that I did not say denouement. I made that mistake only once. When I sent the full manuscript, the editor told me the ending was no surprise so that it didn’t work for her. After that, I use a question: Will Makenna win the race against the clock and find the killer before he finds her?

• State whether you see this as a limited series or open-ended. Perhaps you want to cover only the rookie year of a cop, follow an entire career to retirement, or keep going as long as the fans are faithful. Will you start with retirement and look back on a long and productive career or will you present the stories chronologically?• What is the recurring theme?
• Will it be a single viewpoint or will it alternate between characters, and will you use first person or third person?

A legend includes:
• A backstory for your main character with details about how he/she came to be who he/she is: the turning point and major personality-forming events. They aren’t born on page one. You may only vaguely refer to that in the story but knowing this will help you to know how your main character will react in situations. We may moderate our behavior to be acceptable, but people do not change all that much. Series main characters change little, although most readers prefer the essence of a real person with real everyday problems to a super hero that
cannot be challenged emotionally as well as physically. Readers don’t want a character which is shy and cautious in one book and sticking her head in a lion’s mouth in the next. Know your character well before you begin and stick with him or her.
• A directory of recurring characters with their physical descriptions, including tics, chronic gestures, and posture; personality traits; weaknesses, strengths, education background, family, hobbies, skills, and anything that will make your character unique. Once you have your permanent characters, add the other characters that are unique to the first book. You may want to bring them on later for a reason you have yet to consider. As you write subsequent stories, add new ones to the directory and the book in which they appear. You’ll thank me later when you need that chatty waitress from book two to tell your hero entered the diner at closing time in book five
• Location, location, location. It is common for writers to set their stories in real cities. Check out Edie Clare’s Pittsburg in her Leigh Kostow Mysteries or Lisa Scottolini’s ethnic neighborhoods in Philadelphia in her Rosato & DiNunzio mysteries. I most often use imaginary towns since I don’t want to have a murder in a real establishment. I draw a rudimentary map. Characters do not operate in limbo. They have dwellings, cities or villages, places of work, or in the case of children’s stories, schools, playgrounds, and sports fields. You don’t have to be an architect to draw a layout of the neighborhood or town or a floor plan of the house or apartment. When the sun comes up will it shine through his bedroom window? As she walks out the door to go to work or catch the school bus, does she face the sun? What sort of flora and fauna are there? Does fall come early? Do trees shed leaves or are there evergreens? Is it hurricane-prone or drought-prone? Establish these details need to be in your legend. Look around the main character’s home. Is it furnished in contemporary, traditional, garage sale cast-offs? Is it newly built (think fresh paint smells and hollow echoes) or an old fixer upper (creaky floors and settling foundations and tons of old paint to scrape?

Keep in mind that your readers might not read your first story first. Even series books should be stand-alone stories that make sense when you read them out of order. Your characters may be familiar to you, but the third or fourth book may be the first time your readers have met them. Introduce them as if this is their first appearance. You always wrap up the current mystery, and it is a good idea not to refer to other books in the series in the text. The publisher will take care of other titles on a separate page. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a secondary story that runs through the series. Sebastian’s human John [in the Sebastian (Super Sleuth) series] started out with no girlfriend and worked his way through awkward dates to being engaged by the time the circumstances cancel the series. Poor guy never got to tie the knot before the series ended. Few of us get a warning that our gravy train is pulling into the station for the final time so that we can tie up loose ends in the last. Lin Hill in the Thumbprint series started as a single mother, met the dreamy hunk coroner in the second book, and became engaged in the third one. Alas, no wedding bells for Lin, although I bounce around an idea of a sleuth couple series on occasion.

Another suggestion is to keep the books about the same length. It is a good idea to go back and read your previously published book in the series. That helps you to stay grounded with your sustaining characters. Your personal style changes as you grow as a writer, but you don’t want the shock to be too drastic for your fans.
Most of all, love your character. You’ll hopefully be with him or her a long time. No matter how many other books you want to write, you can’t abandon the deadlines. Nor can you pass off an inferior story because you are bored. Starting a series is like a marriage. Be sure that you are ready to produce a manuscript every year, six months or even two months in some cases.

Get busy with those ideas. To present them, summarize in 100 words or less. Make them snappy. Choose your words wisely as if you are paying a fortune per word. Rewrite until they are the best you can make them, because selling the idea may depend on them. Titles can make or break the chances of being read, so spend some time, think of every alternative you can. A few ideas I have sold based on the title alone: The Purloined Sirloin and The Mysterious Case Case, for instance. Browse the book lists on-line and in-store, and you will see that many are a play on puns.

Part III: Not all series are self-generated, but we’ll leave house-generated series to another time because they have their challenges as well as perks.

Series by Mary Blount Christian

THE DETERMINED DETECTIVES [Dutton; Troll]
MERGER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESSWAY
THE MALTESE FELINE
THE MYSTERIOUS CASE CASE
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERETTA

THUMBPRINT SERIES [Contemporary/McGraw-Hill]
GORY ALLELUIA
MURDER ON THE MENU
FATAL FICTION

THE UNDERCOVER DETECTIVES [Albert Whitman]
THE GREEN THUMB THIEF
THE MUSEUM MYSTERY
THE TWO-TON THIEF

SEBASTIAN [SUPER SLEUTH] [Macmillan]
SEBASTIAN (SUPER SLEUTH) AND …
THE BAFFLING BIGFOOT
THE BONE TO PICK MYSTERY
THE CLUMSY COWBOY
THE COPY CAT CRIME
THE CRUMMY YUMMIES CAPER
THE FLYING ELEPHANT MYSTERY
THE HAIR OF THE DOG MYSTERY
THE TIME CAPSULE CAPER
THE PURLOINED SIRLOIN
THE SANTA CLAUS CAPER
THE SECRET OF THE SKEWERED SKIER
THE MYSTERY PATIENT
THE EGYPTIAN CONNECTION
THE STARS IN HIS EYES MYSTERY

THE SHERLOCK STREET DETECTIVES [Milliken]
THE NORTH POLE MYSTERY
THE MESSAGE THAT FELL FROM THE SKY
THE MISSING SCARF MYSTERY
THE MYSTERY OF THE FALLEN TREE
THE MYSTERY OF THE MIDNIGHT RAIDER
THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING RED WAGON
THE MYSTERY OF THE POLLUTED STREAM
THE PET DAY MYSTERY
THE UFO MYSTERY
THE VALENTINE MYSTERY

THE GOOSEHILL GANG [Concordia]

THE C.B. CONVOY CAPER
THE CHOCOLATE CAKE CAPER
THE CHRISTMAS SHOE THIEF
THE MAY BASKET MYSTERY
THE POCKET PARK PROBLEM
THE RUNAWAY HOUSE MYSTERY
THE SHADOW ON THE SHADE
THE STITCH IN TIME SOLUTION
THE TEST PAPER THIEF
THE VANISHING SANDWICH
THE GOOSEHILL GANG COOKBOOK
THE GOOSEHILL GANG CRAFTBOOK

PENROD & GRISWOLD [Macmillan]
PENROD AGAIN
PENROD’S PANTS
PENROD’S PARTY
PENROD’S PICTURE

SERIES WRITING EQUALS SECURITY [SORT OF]

Writing your series seems like real security to many writers. And it is if only for the limited time it is profitable for the publisher. It is like steady employment with a more or less reliable income that is a rarity in this extremely iffy chicken or feathers world. No better examples of the (rare) extreme high end of that than J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and James Patterson’s steady stream of books as himself and as little Jimmy Patterson. On the (extremely) modest end, my own Sebastian (Super Sleuth) series during its fourteen-book run for children financed college, cars and home renovations that my family would otherwise not have.
 Series are popular with writers because their sales are predictable. You grow a built-in base of loyal fans that are as attached to your characters as you are. As their creator, you view the characters as old friends. You know just how they’d react in any situation. Instead of starting from scratch creating the characters and setting, you have only the adventure and “guest” characters to figure out.
If we create characters that are unique yet universal and understandable yet complicated enough to appeal to readers we often are not ready to let go of them just because they had one experience. We imagine them in various other situations and start thinking series. If we are lucky, our readers feel that way too. Some even write asking what they are doing now as if they are real people. I just completed reading a series of twelve generational books on three families and how they interact, and I feel like asking, “What? Is that it?”
You’ll find series in non-fiction or fiction for children, teens, and adults in nearly all genres. Some are house-generated and have many different authors. But for this article, we’ll stick to self-created series fiction. The market books I’ve looked at do not have specific listings for publishers who take series ideas. We must assume that they do consider them unless they state that they do not. That is why we use queries! Browse on-line booksellers and your area libraries, and you’ll find a plethora of romance, mystery and suspense, and science fiction series among others. Mysteries—cozies, romantic thrillers and cold-blooded—flood the market, but if they weren’t popular with readers, there wouldn’t be so many coming out weekly.
Romance and combination mystery/romance series are equally abundant. They vary from waiting for the first kiss on the last page through subtle suggestion in Sarah Graves’ Jacobia Tiptree mysteries to the overt and frequent scenes in the Arcane Society books written by Jayne Anne Krentz using her pseudonyms Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle depending on the era.
Coming up with a unique character and situation may seem like a daunting assignment, but you are limited only by your imagination. Domestic crafts are popular backdrops for women’s mysteries, especially the cozies, where any romance is a la ‘50’s or altogether absent. There is certainly more than one female character baking cupcakes or working in a flower shop and sleuthing on the side.
You’ll find needlecraft and kitchen skills are popular and oft-used occupations. There are so many it’s a wonder they don’t bump into each other and join forces to fight crime. What is your special interest? Just because Tolle painting or macramé is old hat to you doesn’t mean it won’t be interesting to the rest of us. These help round out a character and offer breaks between snooping. Could making little houses from Popsicle sticks or creating celebrity portraits from dryer lint be the next craze? If you discover that you have selected the main character with an oft-used occupation you can always create something unique about him or her, perhaps she is wheelchair-bound or hang-glider or can read lips—you decide.
Teasing a publisher into committing to multiple contracts may be a hard sell before the first book proves that it is a success. It is especially difficult if you don’t already have some trade credits establishing you as a steady producer. My editor told me that it may take three books before they know for sure that a series could be a successful series. They must see that the second and third books sell better each time and also cause the new fans to purchase back copies. You will need to have a complete first manuscript and a detailed chapter outline for the second book plus at least a third summary for your third. Having at least short summaries of other ideas will demonstrate that you are thinking ahead, and one of those may appeal more to your editor who is familiar with the tastes of those who frequent their books. Every publisher has an individual identity, or as they are fond of saying these days, a platform.
You may need to convince the publisher that yours is similar enough to be a good fit for their list but different enough to stand out. And fair or not, being “as good as” won’t be enough to break in. Yours must be better. Furthermore, once you have the first one out you will be competing not only with other authors but with yourself.
You may get a first book contract with an option clause to buy future books featuring the same character. It’s a buyer’s market. Like any gamble, the odds are always in the house’s favor. Your original editor may leave, and her replacement is less than enthusiastic about continuing, or the house has new owners who decide to go in a different direction. It has happened to me. It has happened to others. Don’t despair. Soft drink cans aren’t the only thing recyclable.
With a few adjustments J. J. Leggett for first readers became Deke in the “Determined Detectives” for skilled readers early readers, and then became a slightly older Fenton P. Smith in “Undercover Detectives” for middle readers with different houses. The Goosehill Gang after a fourteen book run recycled into the Sherlock Street Detectives with the same editor at a different house and no one was the wiser. As for ideas I simply consulted my original list of ideas and decided how a slightly different personality would handle them. Who knows? Someday Sebastian might morph into a cat that can solve all those unused ideas when Simon & Schuster swallowed Macmillan. But first, we have to convince a publisher that 1) the series is right for them, and 2) you are capable of generating at least two a year.
Series characters of yesteryears were less dimensional than other main characters. Even now you’ll find a few throwbacks where the woman solves mysteries just because she enjoys it—no training, no responsibility, just curiosity. She gets in the way of the official police investigation and risks her life to assuage her curiosity. But you’re a better writer than that. Figure out a reason, a vested interest in finding the solution—love of someone wrongly accused, the need to prove one’s worth, something that makes it understandable to keep snooping when logic says to dial 911.
With so many amateur sleuths prowling the bookshelves, especially with similar occupations and lifestyles, it’s a good idea to add some reality to create a unique character that will stand out from the hundreds of series already published. Everyone has personal problems, whether it is a child with dyslexia or an ex-spouse who is behind on child support or can’t accept that it’s over. Real people have bad hair days and hangnails. Their vehicles break down, and their cell phones die. The need to read about characters that remind us of ourselves holds true even in our unsinkable series heroes and heroines, too.
                              NEXT: Part 2/Build-a-Kit to [Maybe] Convince a Publisher

WHY DO WE CONTINUE TO WRITE

WHEN LOGIC SAYS TAKE UP MACRAME’?

 

I can quit writing anytime. I know that, because I quit every day about the same time. At least my fingers cease to hover over the keyboard and I stop arguing with the curser flashing as if to say, “Well? Is that all you have to say, really?” I know that sounds like an addict explaining his habit, but that’s because there are a lot of us who are addicted to writing and to its flip side, reading. [Contrary to some beginners’ beliefs, you can’t do one without the other. The idea that reading others’ works will somehow taint or influence their own “style” is nonsense. I have often thought—if only!]

  A friend gave me a plaque that says, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” That pretty much says it all. I look about my home, and I realize that I have given “soul” to every room, even the tiny alcove. Books are everywhere, in places lovingly alphabetized and in other places haphazardly stacked, some read and reread and others waiting to be read. It was the love of books and the escape from shyness that hooked me on reading as a child, and in some cases rereading a familiar old friend. It was acknowledging how the stories made me feel that gave me the need to give some of that back. I have been blessed with an abundance of words—average ones like hurdle and yell and exotic ones like serendipity and Izztacihuatl. Yes, I said NEED. I need to write as I need to breathe. I need to take the chaos that is life and turn it upside down and inside out and figure out myself and others.

There are those who are under the illusion that authors are wealthy, and some few are. The old one-percent theory holds true here, too. Perhaps ten percent that pursue writing as a career support themselves. Most supplement the royalties with side jobs, and if they are lucky these are jobs that relate to writing. The need to write and to share it with others drives those who stick with it day after day, year after year when we understand that the odds are against us. We must go through a maze of agents, editors, editorial committees, and even when we actually get published there are critics, booksellers, and library selection committees. We never really know what will spark the readers’ attentions and actually earn big bucks. I’ve asked editors of such books what the secret is and none have the answer, admitting surprise that one of theirs actually made it. Of the thousands of books published every year many are out of print within six months, only a handful makes it to the bookstores. So why do we do it?

People write for individual and personal reasons. They quit writing for individual and personal reasons. As a mentor and teacher for many years I encouraged them to keep writing no matter how many rejections they got. I realize now that I was wrong. Those who are able to quit and move on to paint, bake or sew their creativity should. The born-to-write people will continue to write in the face of adversity without my nudging. Those who write for fame and fortune generally are disappointed and turn to some other activity that answers their need for creativity. Some few who have the financial means and the energy to sell to friends, relatives and a few strangers get tired of the pursuit and self-publish, which has its own problems. The rest are driven to write continue, even with no promise of an audience. Until someone holds a telethon to eradicate the writing bug we are doomed to continue whether we call it a blessing or a curse. We are aboard our own version of The Flying Dutchman, whether or not we ever manage to touch that port/publisher. So be it.

I’m glad that I tried to stop again because it made me take the time to reevaluate why I write. It was an eye opener. I realized that it was not the contracts, not the nice reviews, not another volume on the shelf. I write because it is WHO I am, not WHAT I am. How about you? Why do YOU write?

IN MYSTERY WRITING, INVESTIGATOR, SIDEKICK OR PERP–IT’S MOTIVATION!

If characters are the engine that drives the story, motivation is fuel. It is especially true when plotting a mystery, suspense/thriller. We concentrate on the motivation of the justice-seeker, whether s/he is in law enforcement or an ordinary everyday person [child, teen or adult]. As the reader we are concentrating on the investigator. As the writer we must keep the motivation of every one of our characters.

The perpetrator’s motives are just as important to understand as those of the main character. Whether it is a thief who does it for the money, out of boredom, etc., or a murderer who kills for hire or to avoid exposure or any number of reasons that are unfathomable to people considered “normal,” as writer we must realize that to them their motivations seem reasonable.

The side kick has an important role, even if it is so the main character doesn’t have to internalize everything or appear to be talking to himself. They often bring out alternatives to the action of the main character: “Let’s get out of here!” Their motivations will be shown only on the surface, but they are there. Are they tagging along because they need love, approval, validation? Why do they stick around when things get dangerous? Fear of rejection? Even if they are there to be a sounding board or a mirror for the main character we the writer should understand them. Their motivations will be revealed through their actions and dialogue.

Characters have lived everyday life up to the time when we “tune in.” They come to the story already motivated. For the primary child, the motives will be age appropriate and probably more self-orientated. For adolescents, they will have more mature motivations. The teens will adult. And for adult fiction there have been more ambitions and eye-openers and probably disappointments. All of these go into creating the motivations and personalities. As mystery writers we definitely need a backstory on our characters. Why does our main character try to find the culprit herself instead of calling the police? It’s the consequences of failure plus the sum total of her life’s experiences—motivation.

  Let’s take a plot idea and see what might happen. The situation is an extremely valuable one of a kind book has is missing from the rare books collection in the library.  It’s a signed copy of Mark Twain’s first book with marginal notes by the author himself [don’t we always wish we’d said something a bit better after the books is published?]. Since we want this to be an ordinary person doing the investigating, we create a special collections librarian, one who isn’t exactly up on her people skills [create a suitable backstory that makes it seem reasonable]. Why wouldn’t she call the police?

If she did you can still keep her involved because with violent crimes rampant they will not put a non-violent crime first in priority [unless you want someone to have been killed during the robbery].  You could complicate it with a time limit—the library is having a gala fund raiser on the occasion of Twain’s birthday [a month away] and the volume will be displayed for the first time since its acquisition. You could bring in a detective in the robbery division [looking to get a promotion]. If you want it to be a romantic suspense, he’s eligible [a really good backstory!] or if not, maybe bring in an older guy who was forced to retire but wasn’t ready.

Before the story is over you need some physical threat [both the librarian and the thief will need strong motives to bring that about. And the librarian, our heroine, will need a stronger motivation to take that risk. Is keeping her job a strong enough motive? There are only so many special collections jobs in the world, but there are other things she could do using her special skills

It’s got to be a stronger motive, otherwise call the insurance agent and collect and move on. It must be stronger still. It needs to be something that would shake her very foundation if she fails. It’s personal. If she is to walk into the lion’s den it will have to be unique to her. I have read far too many mystery books where the heroine tromps up to the killer armed with nothing but a few nasty words and for no reason other than she likes to solve mysteries. It just makes her look stupid and the author look lazy. Her wellbeing, her life as she knows it, must be the consequence of failure. Motive, Opportunity and Method aren’t exclusively the clues to solving a mystery. They are the keys to characters we will care and root for.

Curiosity is a good immediate motivator to get the ball rolling in mysteries and suspense, but when the main character or someone they love is under threat it is not enough motivation to keep digging. Then it becomes a case of self-preservation. It must seem reasonable to the reader that they don’t call the authorities. Perhaps it will put them, a loved one or something greater than themselves in jeopardy.

Duty to a cause or country, although commendable, usually needs you to dig deeper into the protagonist’s backstory to discover why the protagonist is so duty-bound, even in the face of real danger. Even philanthropists and benevolent people are motivated by some inner drive like seeking love or validation. Dig deep enough and your character will reveal vulnerability in self-esteem, regardless of his station in life.

We readers like to see the antagonist get his comeuppance from his own doing, but we don’t do revenge by individuals. We seek justice instead. Usually the main character has a hand in that, although he or she leaves the punishment to law enforcement or witnesses the perpetrator in a “biter bitten” situation. Perhaps he is snared in his own trap. Lonely revengers are big in some circles, but a good psychologically solid story with motivated characters will keep me turning the pages. When these motivations lead the character to the crossroads where life or death is the consequences of their decision, I’m in for the chill of it.

Mary Blount Christian has had mysteries published for beginning readers, teens, and adults. She teaches on-line and still writes.

AMATEUR or PROFESSIONAL: Which One Are You?

Tags

, , ,

A woman [who was yet to put fingers to the keyboard] told me that her ambition was to write bestsellers while sitting on the beach—that is when she could find the time in her busy life. She didn’t say whether she intended to commit her prose directly onto a laptop or dictate her story to her assistant, who no doubt was a George Clooney lookalike. I enjoy a good fantasy now and then, too, but when it comes to the business of writing—and it IS a business, despite the feeling that we are compelled to do so by some unseen force—those of us under its spell know that there is a good deal more to the process than deciding that we’ll be fantastic and famous.

At least everyone else involved in the process considers it a business—the publisher who watches the bottom line the way a cat watches a mouse, the paper manufacturer, the printer, the binder, the editor, the bookseller, etc. But none of those just mentioned would be in the business if it were not for the writer. In other words, it is not a casual decision to become a writer, and for most of us it isn’t appearing on interview shows, giving readings to hordes, or rushing between book signings in limos. Nor is it, as television stories are fond of depicting, having your editor and/or agent spending the summer with you in the Hamptons to keep you on track. It is writing—sitting at your desk and writing and rewriting and rewriting some more.

The truth for most writers who are lucky enough to actually make a living at it is that they consistently put in more than forty-hour weeks and write through the flu, stomach viruses and broken arms. We have the most demanding, disciplined boss—ourselves. A friend who had the misfortune to break her arm requested the doctor cast it at an ergonomic angle so she could still type on her keyboard. And I once insisted on going home the morning after major surgery to write the final three chapters on a deadline. The point is, you must decide if you want to write as a hobby “when I get the time,” and perhaps be occasionally surprised by the serendipity of a sale, or consider it a profession and be prepared to work like you’ve never worked before.

If it is the former consider yourself a lucky duck. I wouldn’t for the world shame you for throwing away your talent. It is a tough, often times discouraging profession and one to avoid unless you are so dedicated that you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else. Enjoy those occasional moments of creative energy and use the rest of your time to enjoy life. But if you are one of us who are drawn to it as a moth to flame there are some realities to make note of. I already mentioned one of them—much longer hours. Not to say that those hours and work habits can’t be flexible. If a friend invites you to have coffee or lunch and a movie, plan on making up the time. But there is nothing wrong with learning to say no to afternoon movies, Saturday pink teas and neighborhood coffee klatches. A simple, “I’ve still have four hours work to do” may not win you any friends, but you can always send them an autographed copy when [note: not if] you sell. Chances are they won’t read it, but your conscience should be clear as crystal.

Let’s look at the difference between an amateur and a professional:
A professional is a self-starter and makes inspiration, creates ideas
An amateur waits for inspiration.
A professional keeps ahead of the current market needs and looks to future needs.
An amateur figures that there is always room for one more like what’s his name’s successful book. Caution: That newly published book could have been sold up to two years ago. It’s old hat to the editors.
A professional even if she doesn’t do a complete outline knows exactly what the climax will be before beginning.
An amateur rushes to the keyboard and starts writing [and often goes astray soon after].
A profession accepts that the manuscript he first writes is just that—a first draft, and is prepared to revise.
An amateur writes and sends it out, figuring the editor can make sense of it, or as an alternative refuses to change anything as it was “inspired.”

If you have read this far then send me your email with the heading “Book Drawing” and come August 22 I’ll draw one and send that one a signed copy of Arsenic and Old Silk, a cozy mystery that came out earlier this year.

#Writing, #AmateurWriter, #ProfessionalWriter, #FreeBook, #BookDraw, #WorkingWriter

IN 2016 I RESOLVE THAT …

1. I WILL SET ASIDE A BLOCK OF TIME FOR MY WRITING CRAFT EVERY DAY. [CROCK POT MEALS WILL GIVE ME THAT TIME]
2. I WILL LEARN TO SAY NO TO THOSE WHO WOULD DISTRACT ME FROM MY WRITING TIME. FRIENDS DON’T LET FRIENDS STOP WRITING.
3. I WILL USE TO MY ADVANTAGE ALL THE FREE HELP ON THE INTERNET THAT INCLUDES PUBLISHER UPDATES AND ARTICLES FROM MANY SOURCES
4. I WILL CHECK MY MANUSCRIPTS FOR OVER-USED WORDS AND FIND BETTER SUBSTITUTES. I WILL NOT FALL IN LOVE WITH MY WORDS BUT CUT TO THE TRUE MEANING.
5. I WILL OMIT CLICHÉ’S AND SUBSTITUTE ORIGINAL SIMILES AND METAPHORS APPROPRIATE TO THE SUBJECT.
6. I WILL DO AT LEAST ONE POSITIVE THING FOR MY WRITING CAREER EACH DAY. THE LIBRARY IS A GOOD PLACE TO START.
7. I WILL BEGIN OR ADD TO MY WRITER’S NOTEBOOK EVERY DAY [A CHARACTER SKETCH, A REMEMBERED SETTING, AN IMAGINED SETTING, OR A POTENTIAL IDEA TO DEVELOP AS ALL THINGS ARE FODDER FOR STORIES EVENTUALLY.]
8. I WILL RESEARCH MARKETS AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK AS INDUSTRY REQUIREMENTS CHANGE RAPIDLY.
9. I WILL NOT LET REJECTED MANUSCRIPTS LINGER IN THE DESK DRAWER. NO MANUSCRIPT HAS EVER SOLD THERE. I WILL TAKE REJECTION AS A CHALLENGE TO WRITE BETTER.
10. I WILL STOP THINKING OF MYSELF AS A [HOUSEWIFE, SECRETARY, DRAFTSMAN, REPAIRMAN, ETC.] WHO WRITES. I WILL THINK OF MYSELF AS A WRITER WHO HAPPENS TO DO OTHER THINGS.

ADD TO THE LIST AND HAVE YOURSELF A GREAT 2016 FILLED WITH SUCCESS AND SATISFACTION.