Thursday, September 03, 2009

Dumb Things Said In Query Letters

Here, severely paraphrased, are some things I've encountered recently in query letters.

"No one has ever written about recovering from sexual abuse before."

"After sending the first 3 chapters when requested and getting universally rejected, I've decided to send two later chapters unrequested in hopes that they will make a better impression."

"Frankly, this book is exactly what the world needs right now."

Think before you speak.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Art of Craft

As I've said before, the frequency with which I update this blog always falls short of the mark, though there's not really a mark for these things. I prefer meaningful posts or touches of humor, or avoid posting altogether. I'm not holding back so much as I have other things to do. In the past month my health has been poor in a particular way that I've had trouble concentrating, a particularly problematic ailment for someone who does a lot of reading and writing. My scheduled projects have fallen behind, except for the ones that simply were due to the publisher's, and had to be finished on time.

I dedicated a book to a former teacher, and I met with her on Friday. She mentioned to me that if I did marry (as I've come to the age where older women start dropping hints about marriage prospects on any occasion) a rich person, I could sit at home and practice my craft without the financial worries that being a starving writer/artist comes with. If you think there isn't a woman artist or writer out there who hasn't had the stray thought, "G-d, if I just married a rich guy, I could focus on my art," I'd like to inform you that you're wrong. In the end our feminist ideals usually win out, but the idea pops up from time to time.

I answered her not that I was against marriage but that being free from financial worries would not necessarily improve my craft. Very much the opposite; rather than spending years obsessing over a single manuscript, trying to make it a perfect work of literature, I have to produce. It used to be that an established author could produce about a book a year and earn a $30,000 advance, and provided they could keep that pace they could pay their bills. Now advances are lower and bills are higher. You have to already be thinking about the next idea while you're writing your current book. You take pay-to-work jobs to write tie-in books to TV shows, novelization of crappy movies, or young adult series crap because there's a check involved - and it stretches you. While this is not true of everyone, I've met many, many writers who are obviously hyperfocused on getting that one perfect novel just right. While publishing is famously littered with examples of famous one-book authors (or authors where only one book became a classic), there's no way of counting the number of wannabes who, having spent a decade perfecting a novel only to discover their writing has changed so much that they can't look at it, should abandon the project and write something new but don't know it. Sitting on my C drive are about 6 novels I wrote in the last 8 years that came close to publication, but were not 100% there, and weren't accepted. Now that I have an agent, she tells me to revise, but some of them I can never seem to get right. One novel she did send out and it didn't sell. We were hoping there was enough there, but the metaphors were too obscure and I understand I was asking the reader to handle too much. In other words, it wasn't good enough to be published. I dropped it and moved on. Since then I've written four novels in a series, the first of which might be good enough to publish with enough revision.

In short: When you have to pay the bills with your writing, you have to write. The constant pressure to perform results in more writing than you might have done in a stress-free environment. This isn't true for everyone, but it's true for a lot of working writers, and it's definitely true for me.

As I was driving home from the chat with my old teacher, I realized how many times in the conversation I had mentioned money - how much I had received for some book or what the work-for-pay offer was and such and such, while she was talking about craft. There's a saying in the publishing world that I heard for the first time at Worldcon: "Wannabes talk about craft. Writers talk about money." This is not meant to imply corruption. Very few people go into writing strictly to make money because there isn't a lot of money to be made. It's something you have the talent and patience and passion for, but when it becomes your main source of income, it is your source of income. You have to produce. And to quote Dilbert's boss, "Pressure makes diamonds." I can't remember Dilbert's witty follow-up to that (Scott Adams loves bad analogies), but in this case, it can actually be true.