Friday, January 30, 2015

No guarantees in book publishing

You may remember that a while back I wrote about a book I was working on, a historical novel about twin highwaymen and a young maid who falls in with them and what happens to poor outlaws in a world ruled by the rich. I finished the book, turned it into my agent and--was told that there wasn't a strong market for it right now. So it went back into the (metaphorical) drawer, keeping a few other manuscripts company.

Like most authors, I get asked a lot about the book business and people are often surprised to hear that not everything I write gets snapped up by a publisher. Maybe that happens with very, very successful commercial authors--James Patterson, say, Stephen King or JK Rowling, people who could write a grocery list on a napkin and get a million dollar advance--but for most authors (and that includes NY Times bestsellers) just because you wrote a book doesn't mean anyone is interested in putting the money and effort into printing and marketing it. Somehow the idea got out there that once you get published, you're on easy street. If that ever was the case, it certainly isn't true now.

There are lots of reasons why a book doesn't sell to a publisher. It could be the wrong time: the reading public's tastes have changed, or too many books like it have come out and done poorly. Or the market is saturated. (Generally, if a book is salable but has some flaws, you and your agent will work on correcting those flaws to try to sell the book.) It could be too radical a departure from your normal sort of book. Or it could be not radical enough. In other words, there are hundreds of reasons why a book won't sell and only one reason why it will: because an editor loved it and believed he or she could sell it to readers.

What that means is that writing a book is a crapshoot for the author. You can sink a year (or more!) of time into something that isn't going to pan out. You don't know until you try and the circumstances may have changed completely by the time you're done (vampires are out! contemporaries are in! psycho chicks a-la-Gone-Girl are in! and so on). Them's the breaks.

This is why you must love writing to be in the business, because the writing is often the only reward. By "love" I don't mean hearing bells in your head, giddy happy all the time love. I have said on Twitter that some days writing feels like you're pulling barbed wire out of your ear. Every word is agony. You'd rather be anywhere than chained to your laptop. But you must love the challenge of putting a story together, or making the words you put down today better than the ones you put down yesterday, of honing your craft, because without that there's often no reward at all.

Yes, that's what it means to be a writer.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Where does character come from?

I have a friend who has recently begun trying his hand at writing fiction. He wants to write character-driven fiction. He believes--and I agree--that the best fiction has deep, round, believable characters. The trick for the writer is knowing how to create characters like this.

Authors get asked a lot where their characters come from. Surely we must know someone just like this character or that one, and we patterned the character after him. This might be true for some writers but it's never been the case for me. As a matter of fact, that's the death of a character for me: I can't just fictionalize someone I know. They always come out boring and wooden. Ironically, the character has to come completely out of my imagination to develop the qualities of a real person.

I told him that the way to develop your character is to put him or her in a situation and see what they do. Then do it again and again and again. At a certain point, the character 'clicks': he is suddenly real to me and I know what he will do or say in any situation. At that point, he or she is like a real person to me.

There was a time when Lanny, Jonathan, and Adair were as real to me as my brother and sisters. I'd spent so much time with them--ten years for the first book, another three for the next two, every day spent following them around and chronicling every single thing they did. As I wound down the books, I started to miss them. I started to panic, too, wondering who I would hang out with. Maybe not every writer is like this, but I spend so much time by myself that I don't have much time to spend with real flesh-and-blood friends. I liked Lanny, Jonathan, and Adair. They were interesting, they were fun. I wondered who was going to take their place.

Back to writing advice. Some people believe you should interview your main characters to get to know them better. That you should ask them all sorts of questions that will reveal their true natures to you. It doesn't all end up in the book of course, but some of it might. Some of it might lead you to find out really interesting things about your character that could deepen your story--for instance, an aversion to heights that gets woven into the plot. Just don't be too hokey or transparent about it. 

Here's an example of such a questionnaire: this one is a list of questions that Marcel Proust was asked about himself. And if that seems too precious, here's a list from the Gotham Writers Group


Friday, January 16, 2015

So You Want to Be An Author

The last event I did was a talk for National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, as you may know it) at Gum Springs Library in Virginia, and it quickly went from a session on creating and sustaining conflict in your story to what book publishing is really like. I'd say this is true of almost all of my book events and it's understandable: that's certainly what I was interested in when I was trying my hardest to be published.

So I thought I'd post some links to some of the most sober and honest thoughts I've seen recently on the book publishing business. Now don't get me wrong: the writing comes first, the writing should always come first (meaning you should be writing for the joy--painful as it is sometimes!--of writing) but often in the process we let our minds wander from the keyboards to wonder what it would be like to sign a contract and have a book put out by a major publisher. The truth is that it's a business and you'll be a much better business partner for a publisher if you are clear about what you're getting into.

Best-selling author of "Prep" Curtis Sittenfeld gives the real low-down at BuzzFeed in "24 Things No One Tells You About Book Publishing". Among her nuggets of wisdom: "Unless you're Stephen King or you're standing inside your own publishing house, assume that nobody has heard of you or your books. If they have, you can be pleasantly surprised" and "The goal is not to be a media darling; the goal is to have a career."

The awful truth: This post, "The Ten Awful Truths--and the Ten Wonderful Truths--About Book Publishing" was written in 2012 but a lot of it is still true, if not even worse. If you want to get a book deal with a major house, you have to be able to accept a fact like "A book has less than a 1 percent chance of being stocked in an average bookstore" and know what you're going to do to overcome such odds. Because the author is the major reason for a book's sales success or failure.

Chuck Wendig is known for giving clear-eyed advice about writing and publishing, and his post "25 Hard Truths About Writing and Publishing" is no exception. 

Matt Haig (author of "The Radleys") is both clever and insightful in his "30 Things That Every Writer Should Know" such as: "Authors shouldn't go to book fairs any more than chickens should go to Nando's" and "Being published doesn't make you happy. It just swaps your old neuroses for new ones."