Thursday, April 03, 2008

Responses to Comments for Trust Issue #3--Yourself

The comments we’ve gotten in response to our last post bring up some very important points, and we want to make some clarifications here. First, there’s a difference between practice novels and failed novels. Practice novels are those the writer intends as practice to improve his/her ability to craft a better book, with publication not even considered. Failed novels are those the writer couldn’t sell, so he/she wrote another book to try to see if that one would sell. The main difference is in writer motivation and intent. Remember, we're dealing with intangibles here, so hang in there.

We never said you have to mention the practice novels when you query an agent, but they can be included in your query with workshops, classes, degrees, and other preparation for writing for publication. Practice novels are for your education, not credits to persuade someone to represent you, and it’s all in how you present the information.

I’ve heard other agents make comments about getting queries with information about the six other novels the writer has written and how that makes a bad impression. And it does. If we get queries with descriptions of other novels because the writer is trying to sound prolific (based on an article that said agents don’t like representing writers with only one book) or trying to see if we’d like to see any other works in a variety of genres because they can write anything, then we consider that writer an amateur. However, if we get something wherein the writer states he/she wrote three practice novels and had them professionally edited and then re-wrote them for the experience of learning how to write a novel correctly, that’s different. This is one way a writer can learn the craft. The other might be to take workshops, take classes, get a degree, etc. The problem is most writers just sit down and write whatever comes out, and maybe they learn from the experience, but it isn’t really guided learning and in the end the motivation for writing those novels was usually to get them published, not learn from them.

We know, we know. Here we are, telling writers that they should plan to write at least—at least—a whole book to learn to write. Do we know how long that will take? Yep. Do we know how much work that is? Yep. But do you realize that most professions require some kind of certificate or degree or something that shows the person has engaged in learning and practicing the skills involved in that profession? Writing doesn’t require anything except that someone turn on a computer and start tippy-tap-tapping away. The strange thing about publishing is that you have people who have gone to school to be in the business, but yet if someone with no experience can produce a readable book during a time that genre is hot, he is automatically accepted into the fold. That’s not fair, is it? But it happens. Of course, those kinds of writers usually don’t last long because they have no idea what they’ve written and can’t reproduce it, or if they can, they don’t do it very well. And the worst thing is that their readers are cheated because the writer is learning as he goes.

What this all goes back to, and always will go back to, is what kind of writer do you want to be? We know—published! But that’s not what we mean. What are you willing to do to get there? Writing is hard, hard work. You might write ten novels before you get one that’s publishable. A hundred short stories. Five hundred poems. It is the journey that makes the writer, not whether he/she gets published. Ultimately, it is the journey that sells the work—maturity and skill gleaned from hard work and crafted into a fine story captivates a reader's subconscious.

A quote from Hemingway sums this all up: "Will work again on the novel today. Writing is a hard business Max but nothing makes you feel better." ...from Selections from Ernest Hemingway on Writing

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Trust Issue #3--Yourself

A very interesting topic was discussed on Writers Net the other day. It posed the question about agents’ sales rates to publishers, and answering this got me to thinking about why this question should come up in the first place. It’s a legitimate question, of course, but it also hints at this lack of trust issue that keeps cropping up—a testing of credentials to find out who’s the toughest kid on the block.

There seems to be a trend here, a kind of new millennium skepticism and testing of everyone’s credibility. You see this continually on CNN where someone states that he or she is an expert in an area and the talking heads seat a panel of pundits specifically designed to tear down what someone has spent years to build. I can understand the general public’s cynicism because there’s been a long-term trend of authority testing that has found many of those who are challenged lacking. But does that mean that everyone has low or non-existent moral character or ability because a few have been found guilty? Has anyone considered how they were found guilty? Was it in the court of public opinion, was it just a slow news day, or was it something that threatened the general security and well-being of our citizenry in general?

But I digress. In an industry that’s built on the strange marriage of flights of the imagination and the need for information at best, do writers want exact numbers so they can make better choices? Possibly. Okay, I’ll give you that. So let’s parallel this exactness and place some of it on the other side of the chart. As agents, we’d like some exactness too. If I rephrase the question, it comes down to what is the writer’s sales percentage rate?

As a writer, what’s your success rate? How many books have you written versus how many have you sold? Wouldn’t that level the scale? Wouldn’t that make an agent’s choices easier? So you’ve written one book but sold none—would your success rate be zero? Would an agent want to take a chance on you? These are things to think about, but really, it’s not that dismal.

I feel that if a writer has written more than one book, he or she has learned quite a bit in the process and probably is a better writer. I actually have more of a problem with writers who have penned one novel and very possibly won’t ever write another. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ve written ten novels and say that nine of them were practice, I want to talk to you because I feel that you’re at a point were I can do something with your work. First novels usually don’t sell unless you have that natural talent that appears once in every million or so writers. Writing is what makes a good writer out of a beginner. Of course, a little failure for humility never hurts either.

Cynicism breeds a lack of trust, and that’s why I think many writers try to make tangible a business that is, on a good day, nothing but complete nonsense. It would be great to be able to say I sold a certain percentage of books I took on, just as it would be great for a writer to say he’s written a certain amount of novels and a certain percentage have been published. We realize, though, that publishing credits represent a fluid and odd business, and so we don’t ask for percentages of books sold. Strangely, though, agents feel they have to provide this information when asked. I don’t. If someone asks me what percentage of client projects I’ve placed, I will tell them that at any given moment, I don’t know. There are too many different factors to be able adequately answer that question—are you talking foreign rights, 2nd novels, reprints, etc.?

So it boils down to trusting your own judgment, not some percentage rate. Once you figure out what you consider success and whether you trust yourself to make decisions about your writing, your career—or the attempt at building one—life will be much less stressful.