June 14th, 2007 | Questions from Beginners | 3 Comments
A cornucopia of questions on writing and publishing today…
1. Amy writes to say, "I’m working on a novel (aren’t we all?), and wondering if it makes more sense to classify it as a ‘romance’ or a ‘fantasy.’"
I suppose I could tell you that you need to be true to your artistic vision, or suggest you reflect on which genre best reflects your overall story…but from a practical perspective, let me give you some facts: Last year romances outsold fantasy novels more than 200 to 1. There are a bunch of publishers producing and selling romance novels. There are a few doing fantasy novels. While it’s true that both genres have their diehard fans, there’s not any question which group is larger and buys more books. (And, to be completely fair, I should mention that there are a couple imprints that combine romance and fantasy, but that’s an even smaller niche.) So it depends on what you want to accomplish, Amy. If you’re looking to simply tell the best tale possible, then consider your story and determine the best direction to go. But if you’re thinking of the business side, then unless you have some strong connection to fantasy publishers you’ll find considerably better odds of getting published on the romance side.
2. Sandy wrote to say, "I juggle more projects than I know what to do with. How do you decide what to tackle next? And how do you allocate time to simultaneous projects?"
I’ve noticed that, when it comes to projects, writers come in two basic types: "Size One" and "Extra-Large." Some writers (and I’m one of them) can only focus on ONE writing project at a time. If, for example, I’m working on this blog, I can’t write pieces of it, then leave to go write a letter, then leave that to go help an author create a proposal, then come back to my blog. I’m a "Size One" writer. I start ONE project, work it all the way through, then move on to something else. I may let my one project sit for a while so that I can stew on it a bit, or to calm down and make sure I haven’t libeled anyone, or set it aside for a few days because I can’t get to it. But by and large I’m working on ONE project at a time.
Other writers favor the "Extra Large" approach. I represent an author who is currently working on two adult novels, a YA novel, a nonfiction book, and a study guide. And when I say she is "working" on them, I mean she is literally working on them — writing pieces, picking up one, then setting it aside and picking up another. I don’t see how she does it. That sort of piecemeal writing would drive me mad…but it all stays together in her head somehow, and I’ve discovered there are a lot of professional writers who approach their work this way. They would no doubt argue it’s the only method that allows them to make a living at this business, since a "Size One" approach wouldn’t produce enough income to survive.
So you may want to figure out which type of writer you are, Sandy. When I was making my living as a full-time writer, I created a writing calendar. I simply took a regular wall calendar and marked off the days I was allowing myself for each project. So, for example, I’d mark off four days for the editing of someone’s book, one day to catch up on letters and phone calls, three weeks for the creation of the next study guide I was writing, followed by two days for a magazine article I needed to create. That kept me working on ONE project at a time, and it gave me an overall vision for what I’d be doing over the course of the month. I also broke each big project down into daily goals or tasks — so that one day my goal was to edit 3 chapters, and the next day the goal was to edit 2 more. That helped me set a pace. As Ted Engstrom once said, "Most of us overestimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can do in five." You’ll be amazed at how much you can get accomplished as a writer if you have a writing calendar and daily goals.
3. Dana wrote to ask, "Is it realistic to think I can make a living doing this?"
I should note that there is a corollary to my previous answer, since I also have found that there are two types of professional writers: the "Specialist" and the "Generalist."
The Generalist is the writer who takes whatever comes her way. She may do a travel article today, a copyedit tomorrow, a nonficiton book next week, followed by a romance novel and a suspense. If she’s good enough, and can write both clean and fast, she’ll make a living. But she’ll probably never hit the big time. Still, it’s possible to make a good living at writing and books, which is the goal.
The Specialist focuses all his attention on one genre. Maybe he writes suspense novels, so he studies the genre, works on his craft, and tries to create the best suspense novels he can. He’ll work on building his readership, and try to get well known in his genre. He goes deep into one area. He’ll find it tougher to make a living, since it takes time to write a novel, and for most writers it’s tough to earn enough on one novel to pay the bills. On the other hand, these are the folks who have a much better possibility of breaking out and hitting the big time. Either way, it’s a struggle. But compare writing to painting or music or dance or acting… Who ever told you making a living at art was going to be easy?
Think of it this way: I can dance. Really. I’ve taken ballroom dance lessons for years, and I love getting out on the floor. Love to tango, do a good rhumba, but absolutely love to do an east-coast swing. I’m pretty good at it, and can certainly hold my own at any publisher’s ball or birthday party. But…well, it’s a big step from impressing the boys at the golf club Christmas party to asking somebody to pay $26 to come watch me dance on stage. I’m okay…but there’s a gulf between myself and a professional dancer. I can sing, too. Was always in the musicals in school, love to join the Christmas choir at church, and can even locate the bass notes on my own. But there’s a major difference between singing at my local church and expecting people to pay $18.99 for a CD of my singing. There’s just a huge gap between being "pretty good" and being "a professional that people will pay to see." And it’s the same with writing. You may be pretty funny. Or able to tell a good story. You might be able to string together some verbs and nouns. But there’s a significant difference between being able to write competently for your church newsletter and asking readers to plunk down $21.99 for a hardcover novel. Not everybody has the talent (or the time, or the training, or the temperment, for that matter).
I don’t hear many people at writing conferences talk about it, but the reason most people aren’t published is because they simply aren’t good enough. "Talent" is an essential ingredient in making a living writing.
4. Angie wrote to ask, "How can I best prepare for a writing conference?"
Great question. If you’re going to a conference, be ready to talk about your writing. Have what’s called an "elevator speech" — a twenty-second, simple, non-technical answer to the question, "So what are you writing?" If the conference accepts works for critique, by all means participate — where else can you find professionals who will evaluate your work for such little money? Also, I’ll encourage you to read widely before attending, so that you know what’s hot in publishing; what people are talking about. And speaking of people, tell yourself that you’re going to smile, introduce yourself to others, and make friends — even if you’re an introvert. These people are all writers like you, so they share your passion for books and words. Just tell yourself that you’re going to connect with them (here’s a trick: learn to say the magic words, "So what are you writing?"). Listen to people’s answers — one of the most boring things in life is being cornered by a wannabe writer at a conference who insists on giving you his life story or who can’t shut up about his own book idea. This is a time to engage others so you can learn from them. Be polite with editors, be truthful with writers, and be optimistic with everyone. If you go in with the attitude that you want to learn (rather than the attitude of "I have to get a book contract or I’ll die!"), you’ll have a better time of it.
5. Steve wrote to ask, "When a magazine or literary journal tells you under their Submission Guidelines that they don’t accept ‘previously published works,’ are they referring to e-stories and e-books as well as to printed works?"
It depends on the magazine, but often it’s a matter of selling. If you’ve "sold" your story somewhere, they’ll consider it previously published. Many magazines will accept stories that have appeared elsewhere as e-stories, but most consider an e-book to constitute "previously published." That’s because there’s a sense that an e-book has made your story available for sale to the market, so it’s not new any more.
Hey, I’m off to Scotland for my 25th wedding anniversary. If you need good writing advice over the next couple of weeks…go back and read my archives!