After years of personal experience in the self-publishing
and traditional publishing worlds, and after hearing about other authors’
experiences, I’ve now officially reached that conclusion—don’t query literary
agents. It’ll almost certainly be a negative return on your investment.
In my last article, I discussed how authors often fall into
the trap of obsessing over irrelevant character details at the expense of info
that matters. You don’t need to know everything about a character, only certain
critical details: desires, strengths, and weaknesses. The same holds true for
starting a story: you don’t need to know everything, only certain things…but
you NEED to know those key things.
Maybe I’ve been cursed by the book gods and need to
sacrifice another virgin at the secret blood altar they keep in my local
library’s basement (all the best libraries have one), but I’ve had crap luck
with books lately. I’ve DNF’d the last four out of five books I’ve read,
primarily for story mechanics issues. They’ve either dragged or didn’t
establish a solid foundation before jumping into the action, or just weren’t
very compelling stories. I’m a slow-as-shit reader, so slogging through a book
I’m not that into can take weeks to reach the payoff of a “meh” experience. If
a book doesn’t hook me within the first ~30%, I peace out and move on.
don’t tell me you’ve got a binder or notebook stuffed with pictures you found
on the Internet of what your main characters look like, along with facts about
them like their favorite color, the first song they danced to, their ideal
vacation spot, etc. I mean, you can do that if you’re bored…okay I did that on
my website as part of a promotion for
my book Reckoning. But
don’t mistake this for character development, because it’s not.
Characters in your head are not real people, no matter what a platitude typed
in Corsiva font scrolled across a picture of a quill tells you. They are not
people, and they don’t do anything you don’t make them do. To think otherwise
is to have a fundamental break with reality, and please see your doctor to
adjust your medication dosage accordingly.
Everybody who’s ever attempted to bake a delicious loaf of bread from scratch knows firsthand the endeavor is part art, part science. The delicate balance of flavors and textures—that’s art. Ensuring the loaf doesn’t dissolve into a puddle of goo—that’s science. There are an infinite number of different kinds of bread you can bake—banana, zucchini, raisin nut, marble wheat, etc.—but they all have certain ingredients in common—flour, yeast, baking soda, salt, water—and require a certain order of preparation—mix ingredients, bake, let cool. Without the right ingredients in specific quantities and in the proper order, you end up with the aforementioned inedible goo.
Say you’ve finished writing a book—congrats! You’ve made a few editing passes through it, roped a few of your friends and relatives into reading it, gotten their feedback, and tweaked it into what you think is an acceptable form to show to the world at large. Maybe you’ve even queried a handful of literary agents and received either “Thanks but no thanks” rejections or (more likely) radio silence.
Someone asked me recently why I haven’t blogged in a while, to which I replied, “You read my blog???”
…Which is why I don’t blog more.
A few years ago, while I was investigating other author’s websites to emulate, I was surprised to see very few regularly blogged, and most only did so in conjunction with a new release or event promo. I remember thinking this was lame.
But now I know why. You see, there are only so many hours in the day. When you work a full-time job, are contractually obligated to stay ingood shape, need to spend time with the kids/spouse so they don’t leave you cats-in-the-cradle-style, plus friends, plus eating/sleeping/hygiene, etc. …you get the picture…then you need to be ruthless about how you spend that tiny sliver of writing time. So every day I ask myself—what’s value-added? What’s a positive return-on-investment of my time, and what’s not?
Writers are always giving out advice on how to write, assuming for some reason that people care. I mean, you don’t see doctors prattling on to whoever will listen about the best ways to reset a bone or writing blog posts about identifying infectious diseases.
Maybe writing is unique in the sense it seems like something everyone should be capable of doing. With some sad exceptions, everybody is literate, everybody’s got “What if…?” story ideas, and everybody can
tell a good story from a bad one. And yet only a tiny handful of people can sit down and complete a coherent story; even fewer a GOOD coherent story. So there’s a certain mystique around writing, as if people capable of doing it have some kind of magical power that transcends schooling and is divinely revealed ala God’s proclamation of the ten commandments. Continue reading Good Books To Read If You Wanna Be A (Better) Writer→
I used to wonder what was more important—wordsmithing or storytelling. This was when I was on my O. Henry Prize kick, reading dozens of beautifully written short stories that received high praise despite lacking plots or any deep meaning (to me, anyway). As a result, for a while I believed wordsmithing was more important and focused a lot on improving my prose. Then I realized short stories were a career dead end and began focusing on novels, where I came to the opposite conclusion, and the one I believe today: ideally you want to be good at both wordsmithing and storytelling, but storytelling should always take precedence. Beautifully constructed sentences and imagery are great and all, but if they don’t coalesce into anything meaningful it becomes tiresome after a while, like the O. Henry stories did for me; it’s the literary equivalent of navel-gazing.