Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
February 2012

Twelve "Rules" About Publishing To Break

1. Be "nice." (Or don't be a jerk.)

I've heard this advice a lot, and in general, I have no trouble following it. I am a nice person naturally. My parents spent a good deal of time trying to teach all their children humility. But there is a time and a place for humility. When you are in a social situation or at church, those are great places for humility. When you are in a business situation, don't be humble. Be realistic. Be calm. Be reasonable. But don't be humble.

If you are being taken advantage of, if you feel uncomfortable with what your editor or publisher is asking you to do, go to your agent. Make a fuss about it. You are the author. Your opinion of how the book should be written matters. In fact, it is the only thing that matters. Without you, there is no book. You do not want to publish a book you are not 100% satisfied with. If you don't have an agent, get one. Your agent's job is to help you be more proactive in protecting your career. Do not sell your rights to a publisher to be "nice." Do not make compromises in your writing.

You can't be "nice" about negotiating your contract. If you have a tendency to be nice and just tell people that whatever they've offered will be fine, this is another reason you need an agent. The reality is that the publisher will give more attention to your book the bigger your advance is. The publisher will be invested in it and that investment means that your book will get more of the promotional dollars the publisher has, in addition to more care from the marketing department. It's just a good idea to get as big an advance as possible. Don't be worried about paying earning out at this stage.

2. Meet your deadlines

I have had a phobia about not meeting deadlines since elementary school, I think. In college, I was one of those annoying students who would start writing the final paper of the semester the second week in class. And that was a great strategy for college. But publishing is not college. I cannot tell you how many times I have read the sequel to a book I loved and finished the last page shaking my head, saying -- the publisher made the author finish this book too soon. There is this idea in the publishing world that you should have a book out a year, or less. There are lots of authors who naturally do this. There are more authors who do not. The more pressure that is on the author, the more time the author needs. Two years, three years.

Some of you fans out there are angry at George R. R. Martin or other authors for not finishing the books in their series at what you think of as a reasonable pace. Please go and read some of the books that have been rushed and remember that is what you would get if Martin and others did not care so much about the quality of their work and about the satisfaction of their fans. They care more about the book than about making money. If they cared about making money, they would crank out books while the demand was hot. In YA, it's particularly bad because there is this perception that somehow your targeted age group will grow out of the books you are writing. I don't think this is true because YA has become a label that adults now flock to without any embarrassment. But the publishing houses still press this. It makes me sad.

Work hard on your books, yes. Take seriously your commitment to your fans. But also take the time you need to finish the book on your own terms. I know a writing friend who builds into her deadlines a four month period where the book lies fallow. Then she has a chance to go back to it with a clear head and decide for herself if the book is really finished. This is a great idea. Don't let publishers pressure you into making deadlines while the book suffers. Sure, they will like you more in the short term. But not in the long term.

3. Treat writing like a business

I think this is advice that makes sense if you writing is your main source of income and your family is depending on your income for food. It makes sense also if you are someone who has trouble prioritizing writing because you think of it as a hobby. It doesn't make sense if you are a writer who has lost touch with the joy of writing or if you are a writer who prizes craft.

Now, you will have to file taxes. You need to keep receipts. I'm not going to say that's bad advice. But do you need to write every day? For some writers, this is important. For others, it isn't. Do you need to spend time promoting your book? It depends on who you are and what your circumstances are. You may not be using your time effectively if you sit in bookstores and sell your books one by one to random strangers.

4. Go to conferences

I used to hear this advice all the time and it made me crazy when I had three kids under three at home. I couldn't afford babysitters and my kids weren't kids who would have taken to babysitters anyway. My financial situation was such that I had about $200 a month for food for three kids and two adults. I didn't have the money for any extras, let alone for conferences.

And guess what? It took me a little longer to sell my first book. But I did sell it. And I'm not unhappy, looking back, that I didn't sell something earlier. I think my writing improved in those couple of extra years it took me and I'm proud of that. I did it the hard way, selling to an editor at a small press I had never met, through the slush pile. I think this can still be done. Or you can go through agents who still read slush.

5. Make contacts

I was told in my early years that I needed to make contacts with other authors, editors, and agents in the business. Why? Because contacts would help get me places. Maybe that is actually true. You might land a contract that way or you might not. Having contacts can be fun and it can help you see the publishing world as a small pond and not be as intimidated by it. It is not a necessity. See number 4.

If you want to make contacts, you can do it on-line without moving from your chair. Lots of authors are on-line. Don't approach them trying to make a "contact," however. Approach authors whose books you genuinely love. Tell them. Some authors will respond. Others either won't have time or are private people. Something more might happen or not. You are building friendships, not contacts. This is not about having the most number of cards in your rolodex. This isn't high school, where you want to be in the popular crowd. No one has time for that sort of posturing. Find people you want to meet and meet them politely. See where it goes, no pressure on either side.

6. Your Name is Your "Brand"

I hear authors talking about how your name is your brand and you need to be careful that you are always building it. Whether you are at a conference, at the grocery store, or on-line, it seems, you must always put on your author face. I don't believe this. I'm not interested in always being "author Mette Ivie Harrison." Sometimes I'm just out shopping. Sometimes I'm mad at my kids' school. Sometimes I am worried about taxes. I don't talk politics on line much, but that's because I don't do it in person, either. I don't find it fun. It's too stressful for me. But everything I write isn't some brand I am building. I have diverse interests, and I think that's OK.

I get a lot of interviewers asking why I write so many books about princesses and it makes me laugh. I don't write only books about princesses. I write two or three books a year and a publisher will maybe publish one of those. Sometimes it is about princesses. Sometimes it isn't and the publisher pretends it is anyway. My novel The Princess and the Bear I often sign with "There is no princess in this book." Because there isn't. It's a book about a bear and a hound, but the publisher thought that the sequel to The Princess and the Hound should have a princess on the cover and in the title, so they chose that. I don't care much, but it makes me laugh a bit. Even the princess in the first book in that series isn't very princessly.

Do I sometimes write books because I think that the market wants them? I suppose in a way I do. I have books I want to write and if I can tweak them just a little one way or another to add something a publisher encourages, maybe I do that now and again. But most of the time, I just write what I want to write and let the publisher sort out what they're going to do with it, if anything at all. This may not necessarily be the best way to have a lucrative career, but it sure helps with my sanity and my love of my work.

7. Get a Critique Group

I had a critique group for about five years before I got published. I learned lots of things from that critique group. I don't believe that critique groups are the only way to learn those things. There are a lot of things about the business that can be learned on-line through blogs. The other thing critique groups can teach you is an objectivity about your writing. Some writers have this. Most don't. But a critique group can be very harmful to your writing, as well. If you are in a critique group that belittles you, doesn't like your genre of writing, or has stopped making useful comments and only praises you, it's time to move on. You may need to move to a looser style of critiquing, just ad hoc on-line with friends. Be sure to give back. You don't want to be someone who always takes. But it doesn't have to be a critique group.

8. Focus on Your Query

Look, queries are important. But they are not all important. I fear that some writers today spend so much time on their queries that they forget that the query is just about selling the book. If the book doesn't have the same attention by the page that the query gets, it isn't going to sell. It's like those funny ads on TV where you remember the ad but not what the ad is supposed to sell.

9. Do What Your Editor Asks

Editors are sometimes wrong. Even great editors are sometimes wrong. How could they not be? I love my editor, Ruth Katcher at Egmont. I have worked with a number of editors and at this point I think that great editors are few and far between. I'd rather not publish a book than work with an editor I don't think is brilliant. That said, Ruth and I frequently disagree. We sometimes have yearlong arguments about a small point in a book. Ruth wanted me desperately to put the bear/Chala in The Princess and the Bear into a nice wedding dress with fancy shoes at the end of the story. I compromised a little, and then stuck to my guns. She's wearing boots as I thought was true to the character. I think Ruth may still disagree with me on that point. She and I are having a similar disagreement in my current novel about whether the main character can have very short-cropped hair and still be romantic.

An editorial letter is still just one reader's response to your work. A really smart, really experienced reader. But the book is still yours. Sometimes the editor will be right on. Sometimes the editor will be dead wrong, but will be pointing in the right direction. Sometimes you will just shake your head and keep it the way you want it. Other times you will just have a chance to rethink your work and reshape it the way that you think is right. You don't have to do what your editor asks to make your editor happy. Editors do not want you to be robots. They want you to have your own vision, your own conviction. They want you to disagree with them on occasion. Not for no reason, of course. But even if you can't articulate the reason, you may still have a good instinct for not changing something.

10. Give Away "Free" Stuff

Oh, I get so sick of this. Free book giveaways on-line. Free giveaways at book signings. Bookmarks. Buttons. M&M's with your book title on them. Cookies. Yes, giving something away for free can make someone feel indebted to you. It may sell your book. It may also lead to someone feeling unhappy with you for manipulating him/her. I don't like high pressure sales techniques. I'm not saying they don't work on me. They do. I have elaborate schemes for avoiding salespeople to protect myself from this. It's one reason I like to shop on-line. Give away things if you want to, but don't believe that it will make or break your career

11. Write to the Market

Writing to the market makes sense, right? If vampires are hot, you want to sell vampires. And I'm not saying that you write in a vacuum. One of the first pieces of advice I give writers is to stop writing and spend the next year reading a book a day in the genre you intend to publish in, books written in the last 5 years. It gives you an education in publishing that no amount of going to conferences or getting contacts can give you. But that said, you must also be able to put away what the market is saying to write what gives you pleasure to write. This also has the advantage of allowing you the chance to make the trends rather than following them. I don't guarantee that you will make a million dollars, but I do think you will be a better and a saner writer.

12. Stay Off the Internet

There are some writers who are easily distracted by the internet. If you are one of them, then stay away from it. If you find yourself spending hours on youtube or playing on-line games, you know you need to sometimes turn off your internet connection. But there are other people, like me, who are naturally very shy and unsocial. For me, an on-line community can be a great way to motivate me. I spend a five minute intense period writing 500 words (Yes, I can type that fast if I know what to write) and then I let myself have 5-10 minutes off, to play around on the internet. It's a little carrot. I don't have a problem staying on too long because I'm too OCD about getting work done and I tend to be very solitary. Again, this is one of those that works differently for different people. That should hardly surprise you, though, because a successful process for one writer is not the same for another.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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