Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
December 2014

What You'll Hear

I've been publishing since 2002, have been querying since 1986, and have been hearing book business stories since 1982. I probably haven't heard everything that people say, but it may be useful to think about what to say to some of the following comments at different stages of your career. I think I've heard just about every one of these personally.

When You're Starting Out:

1. Are you going to be the new JK Rowling?

2. Does anyone make money at that? Why don't you get a real job?

3. Do you want me to give you some ideas?

4. Are you published yet?

5. You should make sure no one steals your ideas.

6. Everyone wants to write a novel. What makes you special?

7. I bet you could write a computer program to churn out novels.

8. Does anyone actually read books anymore? Maybe you should try to write for movies, TV, youtube.

There are a lot of people who are going to discourage you. That's OK because a lot of people probably should be discouraged from writing. It's a hard business. If you're easily discouraged, it's probably not for you anyway. You will get people who either think you're going to make a million dollars or people who think you're lazy and should get a real job. I would recommend just sort of shrugging and smiling at both of them. It's going to take a while. You should expect that and so should the people around you, no matter how many stories of x author they tell you who wrote a book in three weeks and had it published two months later to wide acclaim and a movie deal.

As for people stealing your ideas, yeah, that happens now and again, but it is so rare that you shouldn't spend much time on it. Honestly, if you get crazy about copyright notices and such, it just makes you look more like an amateur. Are you or your novel ideas special? Well, maybe they aren't to start with. That's what takes a long time. You're trying to build something completely different and new and wonderful.

Do people read still? Well, actually, more people read now than ever before. We have a very literature populace. Do more people watch TV or movies or play games, well, probably. Books have always been a niche market. So are hand-knit sweaters. But if you love them, you can make a career out of that. Will you make a living? Who knows, really. Maybe don't quit your day job, but that doesn't mean you can't make a difference in the world by writing a great book that is truly yours.

When You Sign Your First Contract:

1. Is it going to be made into a movie? Will you get to say who you want to be in the cast?

2. Are you going to move to LA or New York now?

3. Can you lend me money?

4. Can you help me get my book published?

5. Do you know JK Rowling now?

6. I bet all those trunk novels will get published now.

7. Are you going to fire your agent and get a better one?

People get pretty excited when you move from the querying stage to the contract stage. And yet, for you as an author, life may not change very much. No matter how much money the publicity department says you get for your first book, you are going to see it in bits and pieces. You may have a bunch of debt to pay off. You are not likely to be immediately rich or powerful. A lot of people will come to you to ask for advice. Some of them really want to hear what you have to say. Some just want to use you as a stepping stone to their own publication.

One of the best things about becoming an author for me has been the great community of authors who have kindly welcomed me into their ranks. That doesn't mean I know JK Rowling. And even if I did, it doesn't mean I will give out her contact information or ask her for a favor for someone else.

Just because you get one book published doesn't mean all of your books will now be published. I have heard this myth a lot, that once you break in, you're set for life. It's completely untrue. Many authors will write a whole bunch of second books. Some authors will only ever publish one book. Debut books sometimes get a lot of attention that second books don't get, so it can be harder to get a second book published than a first one. It can also be extremely hard to corral your creative instinct into writing a second book that is a good follow-up commercially to the first one.

Firing your agent just because you have a deal now is like throwing away a recipe after you make a great cake. No, don't do that. There are times when you might need a more experienced agent, but beware of throwing away friends in a never-ending search for the "more important" people. You are sure to find that the more important people are the ones you left behind, who no longer allow you to use them now that they see how you really are.

When Your First Book is Published and Reviewed:

1. Wow, you have some really bad reviews.

2. What are you going to do about all the free pirate sites giving away your ebooks for free?

3. Are you working on a sequel?

4. Are you going to hire an assistant/housekeeper/ghostwriter now?

5. I bet you're on TV a lot.

6. Are you going on tour?

7. Can you come speak to my book group/school class for free?

Getting your first book reviews can be rough. Some people handle them well. Most people don't and tend to avoid reading bad ones. In any case, you should probably avoid responding to bad reviews. It just makes you look a little crazy and needy. Pirated ebooks are the bane of an author's life, but it's a mistake to think that every downloaded book is a sale that should have netted you money. Honestly, I'd just ignore them. If you really feel obliged to, you can send links to your publisher and then just stop worrying about it.

To me, the bigger problem of being published is the expectation that now you are "rich" and you can do a lot of things for other people. If you try to explain to people in plain math what you got for an advance, I'm afraid many will not believe you. Or if you try to explain what your cut is of the price they pay for a book. I don't know where people think authors get money. I guess it falls out of heaven as soon as they are "real" authors and are published. It's also impossible to go around and speak to every little group that asks you to do it for free, even if they promise to buy books. If you don't have a day job and you're not working hard at the next book, you might be able to do it, but I don't feel like you're under any obligation to do it. You don't even have to explain it. Just say you're not able to do it, and that's all.

Very few authors go on tour on a publisher's dime. Some authors try to do some promotion in their own area. Of course, all the authors people know off the top of their heads go on tours. Or do they? It really depends on the publisher and the author's capacity. Being on TV is pretty rare for authors, but to be honest, this really shouldn't be a mark of success. TV is TV. Books are books.

When You're Facing a Gap in Books:

1. I can give you a new idea if you need one.

2. Why can't you just sit down and write a book?

3. Are you ever going to publish anything again?

4. Just the one idea, huh?

5. You should self-publish. Traditional publishing has gone to the dogs.

6. Maybe you were never meant to be a writer.

7. My kids love those funky socks. You could start an etsy business and sell them instead.

I used to think it was an exception that authors who had sold a series or several books in a row went through a dry spell. There are a lot of reasons for the dry spells. Sometime it's purely a publisher problem. Publishers go bankrupt and fold and authors' careers can be put on hold for years because of copyright issues. Editors move from house to house, sometimes taking books with them, sometimes leaving them behind. Editors can go on maternity leave and not come back. There are a lot of things that aren't dependent on whether or not an author is continuing to write, no matter what it looks like from the outside.

And there are a lot of reasons that authors aren't able to keep writing a book a year or more. Health problems, family problems, and yes, writing problems. I haven't had any typical writer's block in my career so far (knock on wood), but that doesn't mean I don't think it's real. I tend to call it "Life Block" instead, but that's just quibbling over definitions. But I've still had gaps in my career, even though I keep writing several books a year. Not every book you write is a good one. Not every book you write is the right one to publish at that time.

Whatever the reason for your gap, try to block out the depressing comments from people who don't know what they're talking about. If you want to start a funky sock business because you love funky socks, go ahead. But otherwise, stick with what you love and have had success with already. Keep to the writing, and the reading, and the living.

When You Switch Genres:

1. I don't see why you couldn't keep writing those other books forever. Everyone liked them.

2. Are you just trying to make a bunch of money?

3. Are you trying to prove you're not a hack?

4. Do you just want to write for grownups now?

5. No one ever wrote a classic that was in a genre.

6. Are you going to use a pseudonym?

7. Are you sure you want to take a risk like this?

Many, many authors get tired writing the same genre. Not all, but I would go so far as to say most. Sometimes all it takes is to write one book in a different genre, and they go back to the original genre refreshed. For other authors, the departure is a long one or even a permanent one. This can feel like betrayal to loyal fans of the original genre/series/characters. But the reality is that it can't be avoided. Authors grow and change and they need to be allowed the freedom to do that in order to have the creative room to stretch and mature. It's not usually about money at all. It's not usually about writing for a different audience. It is usually just about needing to try new things.

I think about it sometimes like a marriage. Marriages begin with a certain contract (usually assumed but not written down formally) and a lot of marriages begin to have problems when the old rules of marriage stop working for one or both partners. A healthy marriage is one where the partners are able to examine themselves and the changes they have undergone and figure out new ways to make a contract work. In the same way, authors have to work out a new contract with their readers to keep going.

The blackmail that people sometimes use against authors to tell them what they're writing isn't "classic" is just a fancy way of trying to manipulate you into writing what they want. It's not new when you change genres, although it may feel that way. Authors do need readers. In that sense, writing isn't wholly selfish and solipsistic, but I can't tell you how many authors I know who finally discover that if they're not writing the thing that they absolutely love, that is totally unique to them, even if it seems like it's uncommercial, they're not successful. Writing is an art, so take it from your heart and soul, not from your brain where financial transactions are counted. I applaud authors who take risks, even if they're not my cup of tea.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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