Came across an interesting article where a variety of writers came up with their own list of ten rules they follow. It’s called Ten Rules For Writing Fiction. There’s about two dozen writers, most of which each have ten points. Almost all of them made good sense but there were a few I had to pick out that had special meaning to me. Then there were a few I had to pick out because I just thought they were damn funny.
- You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
- Don’t drink and write at the same time.
- You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
- In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.
- If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great autocorrect files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: “Niet” becomes “Nietzsche”, “phoy” becomes ”photography” and so on. Genius!
- Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.
- Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this “10-weeks-to-live self” is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.
- Don’t take any shit if you can possibly help it.
- When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
- Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.
- Never complain of being misunderstood. You can choose to be understood, or you can choose not to.
- Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
- Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.
- Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.
- If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane.
- Stop reading fiction – it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t know already (assuming, that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven’t you have no business whatsoever being a writer of fiction).
- Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
- Remember how much time people spend watching TV. If you’re writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching: “Later, George watched Grand Designs while eating HobNobs. Later still he watched the shopping channel for a while . . .”
- Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
- Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.
- Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story; it is worth thinking about what your minor characters’ stories are, even though they may intersect only slightly with your protagonist’s.
- Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect.
I had a friend point out to me that I’ve been spending a lot of time on agent research and queries, and not a lot of time on writing anything new. Yes, it’s true but there is a method to my madness in this.
- I’m a bit of a uni-tasker – the opposite of a multi-tasker. Maybe it’s a reflection on the training I’ve had in the IT world or maybe it’s just the way my brain works. I like to pick one task at a time, focus all my efforts on it and when it’s as complete as it can possibly be, move on to the next one. By investing a whole bunch of time and effort on agent research I’m compiling a list of quality, respectable agents that are interested in the genre I write and it’s a list I will always have. Sure there will be updates that need to be made, as sometimes agents change houses or break off and start their own, but by putting in all this effort now I can save myself the effort in the future. If this novel doesn’t happen to pan out then when it comes time to market the next one, I’ve already done all the work. I will already know which agents are good and will have eliminated all the bad ones already. I may just have to do a bit of spot research to find out which house they’re currently working at.
- In a lot of ways, it’s also a time management issue. Agents generally take a long time to get through the flood of queries that ends up on their desks. This is understandable as the influx of queries can sometimes be thousands per month for some agents. By putting in all the effort I can now on agent research and getting queries out the door, I can spend the next few months writing new stuff while waiting for agents to get back to me on the queries I’ve already submitted.
- Last but not least, I really want to get this book published and the only way to make that happen is to query agents. Sure I can write fifty manuscripts but if I’m not sending queries out the door then they’ll all just be collecting dust on a shelf somewhere. Or taking up space in my hard drive in this case. It’s like anything else in life – I can’t guarantee success but by not making the effort I can certainly guarantee failure. By getting my short story and novel queries into the hands of people that might possibly be interested in my work and want to publish it, I’m moving forward down my chosen career path.
I expect I’ll be at this for another month or so. There are still hundreds of agents out there I need to investigate and that takes a lot more time and effort than most people understand. In the meantime, the ideas are still piling up in my brain. Once I get all this administrative work done I’ll be back to pouring it all on the page again.
I’ve figured out that most rejections a writer receives aren’t a rejection of the novel, they’re a rejection of the query letter. Most of the remaining rejections aren’t a rejection of the novel either, they’re a rejection of the synopsis. If both the query letter and synopsis are works of art in of themselves then perhaps an agent will look at the novel enough to decide to reject that too.
It’s all about making the marketing material (query and synopsis) compelling enough to hook the agent into wanting to read the actual novel, or at least a partial of the actual novel, without misrepresenting what the novel is about. Marketing the idea a little differently doesn’t make the chance of the novel being accepted any better but it does help the agent get to the point where she wants to take a look at it.
I’ve rewritten my query letter three times over the last week and I finally think I’ve come across a method of baiting the hook the right way. By adjusting the focus slightly, I think my query will be far more compelling than the queries that have come before and hopefully with the next batch of submissions I’ll be able to generate more interest in reading the work itself.
Of course I have had a request for a partial already based on one of my older queries (that I am now not so pleased with), so it just goes to show that you never know how something will be received. There are so many different factors at play that the only real thing that’s guaranteed to help my chances of success are continuing to put in the greatest effort I can.
All right, enough procrastinating. Back to the coal mine for me.
People who’ve never read my work can have their doubts about whether I’m any good. People who have read my work are free to dislike it. These opinions don’t bother me; they’re relatively infrequent compared to the number of people that support me and really enjoy my stories.
What annoys me are those that think this is a passing phase or that I’m not serious in my quest to have my stories see print. So here’s a little breakdown of all the time and effort I’ve put in so far, aside from the time it took to actually write and re-write the book itself.
- Dozens of hours researching how to write a query letter.
- A couple hundred hours actually writing and rewriting my query letter. It is currently in draft seven, which I have spent at least 10 hours on and I have a lot more to go.
- Many dozens of hours researching how to write a synopsis.
- Countless days writing and re-writing the synopsis. I had to actually create three different versions in order to meet the requirements of individual agencies. The most common one I use is a two page single spaced but others want only one, and a rare few want a 3-10 page double spaced synopsis.
- Probably 100 hours on agent and publishing house research. Diligently scouring books and the internet for names of agents that handle my genre, searching them out and doing background checks to be sure they’re reputable, and taking time to read their individual websites in order to target the most appropriate agent and be sure I can meet their submission requirements. Much of this time was spent looking into agents that turned out not to handle my genre.
- I have no idea how much time I spent on researching the publishing business in general. Reading agent blogs and agent Q&A’s, how-to’s, sites about common mistakes writers make, researching standard manuscript formats and other generally accepted rules in the publishing world. This is an ongoing process; I’ll never stop learning.
- Dozens of hours tailoring my completed query letters to meet the requirements of each individual agent. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, other times it takes an hour or so.
- Dozens upon dozens of hours printing queries, synopsis’s and sample chapters for submission packages, plus stamping and addressing envelopes and putting it all into a professional package to send out the door.
- At least a few hours driving around town, shopping for supplies and standing in line at the post office.
- Well over $600 in envelopes, return stamps, paper and postage. An envelope containing a query, synopsis and an SASE probably costs me about $3 all together, whereas one with sample chapters will run me about $7-$9, depending on how many chapters were requested.
That should give people a bit more of an understanding of what’s involved. People can have their expectations (or hopes) that I’m going to fail but nobody can fairly say that I’m not putting in the effort. I have a hate filled glare all lined up for the next person to do so.
As I may have said in a previous post, I’ve recently posted my query letter up on Absolute Write in a forum appropriately called “Query Letter Hell”. Everybody there absolutely tore it to shreds but that’s okay, it’s exactly what I needed.
Writing a query letter is a vastly different undertaking from writing a story or even a synopsis. Telling a story in ninety thousand words is easy. Condensing it down into two pages of interesting detail, while difficult, didn’t take all that much effort comparatively speaking. Condensing it all further into under 200 words, filling it full of interesting plot hooks, eliminating any redundancy and putting it all in a format that makes the agent want to read the book without misrepresenting the plotline is an absolute nightmare.
One forum member had some good insight into the process:
I think Query letters are like boot camp. They break you down to the point that you don’t think you can continue on and then some invisible drill sergeant blows his horn in your ear, emasculates you and before you know you it you’ve found this hidden strength.
Yep. That’s exactly what it’s been like. In the end though I’ll have a better query and I’ll be a better writer as a result.
I’ve noticed the posts in my Writing Rants section really aren’t all that ranty. Maybe I should rename the section to Writing Annoyances or Writing Inconveniences. Or I should figure out something to be mad about. So far, nothing writing related has really gotten me too far past mildly irritated, which I suppose is a good thing. Means I take rejection well. That’s a good thing too because there’s a lot more of it coming for sure.
Since I’ve started to tell the people I know that I’ve taken up writing again, and let a few people see some of my finished works, I’ve been seeing some interesting reactions.
Doubtful – In the beginning, long before anyone ever saw a single word of my writing in print, I would notice that in situations where I’m passionately discussing my work a lot of people were biting their tongue. I could tell from the look on their face that they were skeptical of my ability and had serious doubts that anything I write will ever see print. It’s obvious they don’t want to hurt my feelings by stating their opinion openly but they also don’t want me to set myself up for an embarrassing failure either so are not very forthcoming with words of encouragement. I can at least appreciate that they have what they think are my best interests at heart.
Supportive – I expected almost everyone I knew to be happy that I’d rediscovered my passion and be encouraging of my efforts to pursue it. I was shocked at how few did. I can literally count on one hand the number of people who have shown me any support at all and most of those were converted over from the doubters only after reading a few samples of my work. That makes me a little sad. I would have thought more people would at least be happy I found something I enjoy doing if not stand behind me in my efforts to get published. I do have one friend though that’s been behind me from day one and what makes his support so much better is the fact that he backs me even though he doesn’t like what I write. He’s not a fiction reader, instead concentrating a lot on non-fiction and the news, and he isn’t that much of a vampire fan. He does however understand my passion for it and backs me 100%. That’s the best kind of support I could ever ask for.
Wiggy – Yeah, it’s a weird term but it’s for a weird reaction. I had a few people just plain go strange on me. It’s a weird book full of weird situations and those that know me personally are looking for parallels between the fictional characters and my own life. Sure there are a few, it can’t be helped, but because there’s one or two similarities they assume the characters are carbon copies of me or that I’ve poured my deepest, darkest secrets and desires onto the page. So when they read about one character that’s an undead bloodthirsty sadist, another who’s a street girl that has a history of abuse at the hands of her parents and about a couple situations that are sexually intimate in kind of a bizarre way, it puts them off because they think I’ve experienced it or am into that kind of thing. I’ve got one former buddy who was so weirded out that he won’t talk to me anymore. He’s probably under some strange misunderstandings but because he’s in avoidance mode I’ll never get the chance to tell him different. That’s the nice thing about strangers reading my work; they’re not using it as an excuse to psychoanalyze me because they have no pre-drawn conclusions to jump to.
Discouraging – This is the one that pisses me off. Far too many people have begun the process of attempting to subtly undermine my confidence, as if the very fact that I am attempting to create and achieve something is a threat to them. It’s never anything direct like telling me to my face that they think I’ll fail but I’ve sure noticed they’ve begun to pepper conversations with discouragement and negativity. All I hear out of them is how difficult it is to get published, how I couldn’t have picked a more difficult genre to write, how the vast majority of new writers fail, etc. Even when I was half way through my second draft, long before the idea of getting published even entered my mind, I had people trying to talk me out of it.
So what to do about all this? The only real strategy is to just continue to do what I’m doing. I will ignore the doubters and cut loose the actively discouraging. I’m going to write as much as I can, as well as I can, and just try my best to achieve my goals. Things are coming together and I’m not going to let the negative reactions stand in my way of success.
Nobody does heavy metal like the Swede’s. I’m not kidding. Well maybe the Dutch come close bit Sweden’s where it’s at. Hammerfall is pretty close to the top of the list of my current favorites. Basically it’s heavy metal with a lot of medieval fantasy themes to it. Wizards, warriors, dragons and waging epic battles against evil are a few common themes.
When I start talking to people about Hammerfall, the first reaction I usually get is “Oh, they’re kind of like Manowar then?” Hmm… kind of. Manowar’s a little more well-known on this side of the ocean, and there are certainly similarities in the base theme, but there’s a real crucial difference in the execution. Hammerfall sings a lot about honor, valor, glory and triumph while Manowar seems to sing more about death and destruction with the occasional “look at how awesome we are” song. Not only is Hammerfall’s music much more noble sounding but I can honestly say that a good portion of it can be classified as inspirational. I actually feel good after hearing it. Songs like Glory to the Brave, On the Edge of Honor, The Dragon Lies Bleeding and A Legend Reborn are all very powerful songs about virtue and success in a medieval world.
Of course they’ve got their darker songs too. Shadow Empire’s one of my favorites. It doesn’t quite fit the theme of the rest of their work (seems to be about technically getting out of control and humanity being wiped out by machines) but it’s an amazing song. Unforgiving Blade and Let the Hammer Fall are favorites of mine as well. They sound a bit more on the vendetta side to me but they could just as easily be about exacting justice upon evildoers. Who knows?
Picking a favorite song is an impossibility for me but I think I can pick a favorite album. Threshold from 2006 is likely it. It’s a nice wide variety of the different styles they do plus it has a few of their, in my opinion, best successes.
Check out their home page: http://www.hammerfall.net/
They’re a worthy addition to any Heavy Metal collection.
So after posting my query letter up on Absolute Write I realize it needs yet another overhaul. It’s already been through probably about six revisions, all vastly different, but that’s the nature of the business. Like the book that’s never really done until the day it sees print, the query letter is always going to be a work in progress until I sign a contract with an agent.
This doesn’t necessarily mean my previous query was bad or wrong, in fact it was good enough to generate some interest from one agent that I’m waiting to hear back from (fingers crossed!), but it can certainly always be better. After half a dozen solid responses on AW I now have a lot to think about in terms of how I’m going to approach the next revision.
So for the next little while I’m not going to be sending out any more novel submission packets. I dropped a bunch out the door yesterday and I still have a few floating around out there awaiting response. The next week is going to be spent overhauling my query and sending out batches of short stories. I’m still waiting on a response to my first short story but I have others ready to go that I should start shopping around as well.
Somewhere in the midst of all this research, market investigation, overhauling my marketing material and updating this blog I should also maybe think about writing something new as well. I’ve been so busy trying to figure out how to properly sell the projects I’ve completed that there hasn’t been a lot of time left over to come up with any new ones. I’m kind of a uni-tasker though; I don’t like to move on to something else until I feel like I’ve properly finished up my previous tasks. Spending another week or so to really give these projects the attention they deserve will free me up later to be more creative. I still have other stories to tell but I want to give my completed works the best chance they have of seeing print before I move on to something new.
So after spending all that time in heavy research mode, I followed it up by spending all weekend preparing submission packages. I now have six envelopes containing a query and two page synopsis, and another eight larger envelopes that also contain 1, 3 or 5 sample chapters. All varying depending on what the agents had listed on their individual pages of course. I’m now off to the post office with my biggest mail drop yet. I’m expecting it’ll be around $50, easy.
As a semi-side note: I’ve read that only about 48% of authors included in their query what the submission guidelines told them to. I’ve spent a lot of time in painstaking research and double checking my submissions to be sure they’re within the guidelines. I know I can still be rejected for 100′s of other reasons but at the very least I’m one foot forward over 52% of the competition who can’t be bothered to put in the effort.
I’m really beginning to hate sending submissions by e-mail. Sure it’s cheaper, better for the environment and more convenient for the recipient but no matter how careful I am, there’s this ten percent chance that something gets screwed up in the transmission. Here’s some examples:
Other times I type out my message in a specific font then after the message has been sent, half the fonts in the message have been randomized. This paragraph is Courier New 10, the next is Times New Roman 12, and the paragraph after that is a mixture of Veranda and Calibri.
The strangest one was for a short story submission. It added a bunch of HTML formatting into the body of the e-mail.
/* Font Definitions */
panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4;
mso-font-signature:-1610611985 1107304683 0 0 159 0;}
panose-1:2 15 5 2 2 2 4 3 2 4;
mso-font-signature:-1610611985 1073750139 0 0 159 0;}
Why it did this, I have no idea. There’s about forty lines of it at the beginning of the message followed by the main body of my e-mail, then another thirty or so lines of html ending with my signature and contact information.
So it may cost me a few bucks as well as the senseless, brutal, painful and undoubtedly terrifying deaths of a few trees (take that, hippies!) but I’m really starting to prefer snail mail submissions. I know many agents have a preference for electronic submissions but if given a choice, I think I like the method where I can guarantee my submissions appear the way I want them to.
It may sound weird but I’m really getting a sense that all my IT background is really helping out with my writing. I don’t mean the technical skills portion though; I mean all the related administration. At one company I worked for I was the process guy. I was in charge of memorizing all the little rules and procedures for how things get done – what version of software is applicable to which project, who can approve the installation of certain programs or grant access to secure directories, how to detail and document those procedures and of course all the hundreds of exceptions to the rules. Not only did I have to learn hundreds upon hundreds of rules and exceptions but I had to learn them fast and I had to keep updating my internal database when things changed, as they so frequently did.
Because of all this experience, I think I’m grasping the rules of the publishing world much quicker than I would have without it. It fast tracked my learning process. Even before I really knew what a lot of the rules and procedures were there for I had the subconscious understanding that they must be there for a reason and that I should follow them to the letter. Now that I am gaining a greater insight into why the rules are there, I’m glad I did.
On that note, all my customer service and help desk experience probably isn’t hurting either. It helps me write polite and formal query letters and deal with people in a professional manner. The actual specific job description of all my previous day jobs may be useless to me in the writing world but all the other skills I picked up along the way are absolutely priceless.
Spent the last four days diligently researching agents. Heavy duty research. Seriously, I made my Internet Explorer cry. Two sites I stumbled across that were a big help in my “background checks” were Preditors and Editors, and Absolute Write.
- Preditors and Editors – An alphabetical listing of pretty much every agent out there and has a few neat little point form notes about each agent and agency. Things like what groups and associates they’re a member of, whether they’ve made any verified sales to legitimate royalty paying publishers and a few miscellaneous notes, usually based on feedback from other writers. The notes are the key. Agents that charge a fee, promote in house editing and other conflicts of interest, or have other dubious business practices have a great big “Not recommended” typed in red font next to them. I was performing searches for agents that handled horror novels and cross checking them against P&E helped me avoid a number of submissions to places that were fraud agents. The notes on the ones I have left were greatly encouraging.
- Absolute Write Discussion Boards (The Water Cooler) – I couldn’t believe the information available here. I’ve had an account for a few months now and I’m still reading and learning new things. There’s a whole section of the forums called “Bewares and Background Check” where members would share their experiences with specific agents. There’s even feedback from some of the authors they represent, so not only do I get feedback from people trying to attract the attention of a particular agent but I also get the insiders look from authors already represented by some of them. It’s a goldmine of information. The members all seem like great people too. I suppose I should get around to posting some time. I think I’d fit in well there.
So now that my dozens of hours of painstaking research are complete I now have a minor case of carpel tunnel and whatever the computer version of tennis elbow is. It was however time well spent. I now have a good list of professional agents, any of which I’d be happy to do business with, that I’d like to submit my manuscript to; enough to keep me busy for a while. Now it’s time to see if any of them bite. One day I’ll hit upon that 1%.