A Few Disjointed Thoughts About The Writing Life

I’m deep in deadline mode now, so you’ll likely not see the most fascinating posts from me for a bit. Meanwhile, here are some blogs that have made me think hard recently:

Tess Gerritsen agreed to look at a new book for blurbing purposes and was treated incredibly rudely. You know what, I get it that sometimes, they don’t do print galleys. I’ve agreed to read books in the past and gotten, instead of a bound galley, a manuscript that’s been printed and bound like a English project at Kinkos. Fine by me. But to be told “authors such as yourself ask for books and then sell them on eBay as compensation” (epmphasis mine) — I’m sorry, that’s the height of rudeness! I have never sold a galley I’ve received and would never dream of it, either. And the idea of giving blurbs for compensation — ugh! I don’t know what this publisher was thinking!

Justine Larbalestier talks about rhythms of work and deadlines if you’re a freelance (read: full time) writer. It’s something I’m still working on. I tend to cut things pretty close to the deadline, personally. I’m working on it.

The fabulous Lauren Baratz-Logsted discusses her fascinating new book, CRAZY BEAUTIFUL, and its unusual journey to publication. Seriously, go read this article now. It’s fascinating to learn that even an author as seasoned as Lauren still goes through a discovery process with her manuscripts and can hit a few snags on its journey to publication. In this case, Lauren wrote a book about a boy with hooks for hands. It was originally envisioned as a MG novel, but the MG editor she’d conracted with wasn’t such a fan. Which actually worked out brilliantly as Lauren realized that this book really needed to be YA, recast it as such, and sold it at auction. And that element “boy with hooks for hands” is such an incredibly high-concept hook that Crazy Beautiful has received a ton of pre-pub buzz! I’m dying for it, personally.

(And, as someone who lives down the street from Walter Reed and sees many of our service men and women — many of them teenagers — wearing prostheses, I can tell you right now that hooks are not as far-fetched as that editor thought.)

Reading a story like Lauren’s reminds me that often, what one thinks of as “marketable” can be incredibly subjective. From house to house, certainly, and also, perhaps unfortunately, in the rumor mill of the authors in the trenches. So let Lauren’s story be a lesson to you. Had Lauren listened to the editor who told her that it was “unrealistic” to have a teenage boy with hooks for hands, we might not be able to get our hands on CRAZY BEAUTIFUL in September.

In 2004, I was an unpublished author with four manuscripts under my belt. When I entered those manuscripts in contests, I got results that were all over the map. The same entry in the same contest would net a published author giving me her email address on the scoresheet and encouraging me to let her contact her editor on my behalf, and an unpublished writer telling me that my writing is choppy and awkward. I’d win a Molly Award and a Maggie Award (two of the more prestigious regional RWA contests) and then my Golden Heart scores would be in the toilet.

Anyway, at the same time, I was also administrating an RWA contest, and I was shocked at the number of entries that came back from my judges citing “rules.” You can’t have a prologue, you can’t have a flashback, your heroine must be meek and mild and not sleep around and good to her parents and little puppy dogs…

Stupid contests, was what I decided, and I set about to write a book that broke all those contest “rules” which didn’t, I firmly believed and wanted to prove, have any real bearing on whether or not the resulting manuscript was any good. That book was Secret Society Girl, and it sold on proposal a few months later in a six-way auction. It had prologues and flashbacks and a girl who recounts all the guys she’s slept with (including a highly regrettable one-night stand) in the first few chapters.

That was five books ago, and given the experience, it’s little wonder that it’s been a long time since i’ve thought about the silly and arbitrary “rules.” I believe that anything that makes the story better is fair game, and all those things you’re not supposed to use (“was” verbs, adverbs, prologues, flashbacks, rock stars) are absolutely fair game when employed correctly and in the service of your book.

Which is why I was initially taken aback by this post of Courtney Milan’s in which she discusses making her “unmarketable book more unmarketable” and then selling it at auction. The things she describes doing to her manuscript to make it more “unmarketable” seemed to me to be making it more powerful, more interesting, deeper (in a word, more marketable).

“My heroine had once been a fairly simple girl, a little unlikable because she waffled between her own happiness and what her parents wanted. I made her less likeable. In fact, I turned her into a con-artist who made a living pretending to tell the future.”

Hmmm, fairly simple girl with no real goals or hardship or motivation to make her own dreams come to life, or a girl who is forced by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to become a con artist. Who would YOU rather read about?

Then I realized that she wasn’t making her book more unmarketable. Not really. What she was doing was what I’d been doing — she was sticking it to the uptight contest judges.

“I knew I’d made the manuscript less marketable, because I entered it in contests and got back a smattering of low, low scores complaining about my hero and my heroine. In one of the few contests where I finaled, an editor gave me a “one” for marketability. (To be fair, I also had my share of successes—but the low scores still smarted.)”

I’m beginning to think that wildly veering contest scores are a good sign. It means your book is provoking a strong reaction. But don’t think this stops. My books provoke the same kind of love-it-or-hate-it reaction in the readership, too. I’ll get a review praising my novel, and then one that’s essentially “WTF?”

Courtney Milan goes on to add:

“But I think I understand it now. In the first version of my manuscript, thoughts of the omnipresent “market” lead me to tone down my hero until he was bland instead of different. They’d made me imbue my heroine with mouse when she needed to be full of fire. I needed to stop pulling my punches. The very things that made it “unmarketable”—the long journey my heroine faced to redemption and the amount of sheer social rehabilitation my hero needed—gave the book a power and an emotional complexity that I wouldn’t have been able to tap with characters who were more closely aligned with the market.”

And that, my friends, is the crux of the issue. Don’t pull your punches. Whatever you need to make your story more powerful is okay — more powerful stories are more marketable. Period.

Pulling punches is somethign I find I struggle with with every manuscript I write. I’m afriad of doing the really, really bad thing. Fortunately, I’m also pretty good at catching myself in the act, and forcing myself to go through with it — to make it even worse, perhaps, then originally intended. If I discover I’ve been pulling that punch, I not only go through witht he punch, I add a kick for good measure. I wa actually just having a conversation with my editor about this earlier this week, as I discovered that one of my punches was landing too softly. So instead, I’m making it a knockout blow.

Posted in other writers, writing advice, writing industry, writing life

13 Responses to A Few Disjointed Thoughts About The Writing Life

  1. Celeste says:

    Needed to hear that this week as I’m revising my next big unmarketable mess 🙂 Commentary from pre-readers has been all over the place. Everywhere from this sucks/change it to publishable. Hard to trust yourself when the feedback is so variegated, but in the end, I agree it’s best to trust ME!

  2. Jen says:

    I thought about entering one of my novels into the Golden Hearts, but then realized how poorly it would do. I break a whole heck of a lot of “rules” in it. Prologue, flashbacks, no HEA, and my MC is not mild.

    Back when I was writing it, I worried about the marketability, especially because of the non-HEA aspect. But I’m so glad I didn’t hold back. I love that book, and the fact it breaks “rules” makes it much more interesting than if it didn’t.

  3. Tiff says:

    Just wanted to say that any publisher that does not at least print manuscripts for blurbing is not worth their salt. That’s what publishers are for, for God’s sake.

    By the way, Authors Who Hate Printed Kinkos-Like English Project Manuscripts (I don’t mean you, Diana, just anyone who thinks that those printed manuscripts are crap), as the person who was making those manuscrips and sending them out, I have to at least defend them a bit. They take forever to make, and when you’re making 45 of them for people who just toss them in a pile…well, that’s a whole boring day of work for some people. And yeah, it doesn’t look as pretty as a galley. But please, give them a little love, okay? That’s a poor, sad intern’s job.

  4. Lell says:

    Believe it or not, this entry answered a question I’ve been idly thinking about for years whenever I pick through bookstores. I’ll glance at a book cover and see a little snippet like “fantastic read – Acclaimed Author.” I’ve always wondered how that process works, like do they call that author up and get a review, like a reporter? Does the author just randomly read a book one day, call the publisher and tell them, ‘This is a fantastic read, tell the world I say so?’ Like I said, idle wondering. Also, before today I thought a galley was only part of a ship. I’m apparently learning lots.

    Something interesting for you: I looked it up and if you pre-order Rampant from Amazon.com, it’ll cost you 2 galleons, 9 sickles and 4 knuts. CNN has the best stuff.
    http://cgi.money.cnn.com/apps/hpcurrconv

  5. Diana says:

    Actually, Lell, it can happen that way. I know authors whose books have just been randomly read by other (famous) authors. A recent example of this:

    http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2009-03-25-book-buzz_N.htm

    Other times, the author’s publisher, agent, or even the author themselves might ask another author to take a sneak peek. On very, very rare occasions, the promise of a blurb by a famous author might even sweeten the pot during the acquisition process.

  6. Diana says:

    Tiff, I don’t know if anyone thinks those printed manuscripts are crap. Or maybe they do, but they aren’t sharing that opinion — that I know of! We all know what book budgets can be like, and the effort made (i.e., I’ll print something out for you and bind it at the local kinkos if you don’t want to read an electronic version) is certainly appreciated! I don’t think people need anything fancy. don’t think fewer people are going to be interested to read my ARC because it has a plain paper cover on it instead of a mock-up of the final cover. The book inside is the same!

  7. Hey, that’s interesting–because I’d never thought about it that way, but you’re exactly right. When I was thinking “market” I was thinking of a particular person I’d had a conversation with back when I first started writing, who had given me some advice about what the “market” would bear–which, in retrospect, was really a list of ways to play it safe, which is rarely the same thing as writing a good book.

    It’s funny how, in my head, that initial conversation has always stood out as what I thought of as “the market”–apparently even after the market smacked me on the side of the head. I had just heard so many times that your heroine had to be likable and martyr-like that I’ve continued to believe that–even after all evidence to the contrary was in.

    I like what you say. Because it means that writing “to market” does not mean writing vampires because vampires are selling, but writing something that pushes your boundaries.

  8. Patrick says:

    You know, I don’t think the sending out of PDFs is so bad(especially now that there is a Kindle2 in my house), but that accompanying email was brutally stupid.

  9. Diana says:

    Patrick, I don’t think anyone is saying PDF galleys are inherently bad. I read ’em sometimes myself. But Tess doesn’t have a kindle and she doesn’t want to read a book at her computer. That’s her prerogative. Listen, if Tess Gerritsen said she’d consider giving me a blurb but I had to deliver the manuscript on pink, unicorn-festooned parchment paper, you’d find me down at the stationery store, know what I’m saying?

    To me, it’s no different than listening when an agent wants an equery or a snail mail query. It’s not really YOUR choice, is it. If you want this very important industry person to read your book, you have to provide it in the format that they want to read it in.

    Alternately, I have emailed manuscripts to people for download onto their kindle, because they didn’t want an ARC, they wanted it on their kindles. (Hi, Julie.)

    As an example, my father wanted to read RAMPANT last summer, but I wasn’t getting ARCs until October, so I went down to Kinkos and made him a fake ARC, all bound up kinkos style, because my dad would NEVER read something on the computer. He even prints out emails.

  10. Patrick says:

    Oh, I wasn’t saying Tess was bad in anyway.

    I meant I don’t think it is bad if the publisher were to decide that they wanted to only use electronic formats for reviews. Of course, this will limit them from some desirable reviewers.

    But that email was offensive.

    And if I was the author of the book and Tess had already told me she would try to read my book, but wouldn’t read it in PDF, I would be begging my publisher or doing the kinkos thing myself, as well.

    We’re in agreement here. For some reason, I felt my agreement was necessary. 🙂

  11. Diana says:

    That’s really interesting, Courtney. I always joke with my pal CL Wilson that when we first exchanged our work with each other (category romances, nothing like what we ended up selling!) she thought my heroine was a slut and I thought her hero was a stalker. And then when we sent each other our next books, my heroine was way more of a slut (she is coming home from a one night stand whose name she doesn’t remember in the opening pages) and her hero is way more of a stalker (well, the Taren has his reasons for watching Ellie while she sleeps) and yet we never actually made those comments, because their characters were so well motivated in those instances.

    So I think you can pretty much make someone anyone you want if it WORKS. And yeah, people might love it or hate it, but I think I’d rather have some people love my work — really love it — than everyone just go, eh, it’s okay.

    Then again, my mortgage company may feel differently.

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