That’s right, campers: after six and a half years of keyboard-pounding, this is my 1,500th time sharing my thoughts on the rigors of the life literary in this forum. Even I’m kind of impressed. All the more so, because, let’s face it, my average post is about six times the length of most writing advice posts.
Hey, you know me. I hate to leave an argument in the middle.
I tremble to think how many of thousands of pages — configured as standard format for book manuscripts, of course — currently lie virtually nestled in my archives; as even the briefest glance down the category list located at the lower right-hand side of this page will demonstrate, we’ve covered a tremendous amount of conceptual territory together. (And thanks again, Dave McChesney — who, coincidentally, posted the first comment ever on my blog — for suggesting so many years ago that I break the categories down by probable readers’ questions. I think we’ve all been pretty happy with the results.) Kudos to those of you who have provided so many excellent questions over the years; as I like to say early and often, many of my best posts and series have sprung directly from individual readers’ thoughtful questions.
Before I begin to rhapsodize about what I have learned throughout the course of all of that mulling over the challenges of trying to break into the writing biz, though, I would like to pause for a moment to recognize the recent achievements of three members of the Author! Author! community. The road to publication can be a long and arduous one; if you’ll pardon my resuscitating yet another of my habitual tropes, I’m a firm believer in the value of writers’ celebrating one another’s triumphs along the way.
First, congratulations to Michael Stutz on the release of the second volume of Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age trilogy from Confiteor Media. And such a gracious author, too: as you may have gathered from the snapshot above, my mailbox was gladdened recently by the unexpected appearance of Volume I, which Michael, a long-time member of the Author! Author! community, was kind enough to send me.
A practice I highly encourage, by the way. There are few aspects of blogging I enjoy more than announcing that one of my readers has a new book out. Especially a writer like Michael, who has been hanging out here in our little community for years.
It just goes to show you: it can be done, people. As proof, here’s a composite of the publisher’s blurbs for the first two books of Michael’s trilogy:
The Internet is everywhere now, but Ray Valentine saw it first explode.
CIRCUITS OF THE WIND is the story of Ray’s quest to find himself as he grows up wandering the computer undergroundâ€”the wild, global outback that existed before the net went mainstream. How else does an end-of-century slacker reach out to the world from Sohola, that northern state that’s a little more Midwest than it is New England? The net holds the key to what he’s afterâ€”but even as he pioneers this virtual world, the veneer of his real life begins to crack.
VOLUME ONE of the CIRCUITS OF THE WIND trilogy follows a young Raymond from his ’70s childhoodâ€”and first gropings with the telephoneâ€”to the home computers and bulletin boards of the ’80s, where he leads a double life as a wanderer of the wires. But when even his virtual best friend unplugs, Raymond might have to leave it, tooâ€”because isn’t real life supposed to be offline?
In VOLUME TWO of the CIRCUITS OF THE WIND trilogy, the net arrives all glimmering when Ray is starting college: it’s brighter, quicker, better than he ever knew. It’s the early 1990sâ€”a time of golden youth and of joyriding on the growing Internet, where he rises as a leader of the global generation, the ones who saw it as the gilded portal to a fabulous new age everyone was about to enter. But he’s coasting aimlesslyâ€”and when his college friends move on and fashions change he sees how real life actually might not be working out.
Sounds like hoot, eh? Well done, Michael. I’m looking forward to announcing your continued successes!
In other good news, please join me in a big round of applause for Wendy Russo, whose first novel, JANUARY BLACK, has recently been acquired by Crescent Moon Press. I couldn’t be more delighted for you, Wendy!
If Wendy’s title sounds familiar, it may be because she was brave and generous enough to have shared her ultimately extraordinarily successful query letter with us back in, appropriately enough, January. I can’t resist sharing the book description for this genuinely yummy-sounding YA science fiction novel:
Sixteen-year-old Mars resident Matty Ducayn is a disappointment to everyone who knows him. As the son of The Hillâ€™s commandant, he is expected to conform to a strict, unspoken code of conduct. Small acts of defiance over years — like playing in the dirt and walking on the grass — have earned him a reputation for being unruly, but itâ€™s his sarcastic test answers that finally get him expelled from school. Instead of punishing him, though, King Hadrian offers him a diploma with a catch: before he can graduate, he must solve the mystery of the vanished Januaries.
With the help of Iris, a gardener on his fatherâ€™s staff, Matty takes his search beyond The Hill’s walls — and tightly controlled media — into a world rife with contention, greed, and crime. But trying to crack the code sets him on a collision course with the Janus Law, a royal decree that mandates death to those who enter a forbidden garden. Has Hadrian set him up from the beginning to fail?
I’m really looking forward to announcing the book’s release, Wendy. Best of luck with the publication process!
While we’re lighting the bonfire for one another’s achievement, I’d also like to clash a few cymbals on behalf of frequent guest blogger, hilarious author, and all-around great guy DIE LIKE A GIRL, has recently been released for Kindle. Kudos, Jonathan!
Jonathan is, for my money, one of the funniest writers of his generation, and I don’t care who hears me say it. His first novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE, made me laugh so hard on an airplane that two flight attendants came running down the aisle, convinced I was having a seizure. My subsequent dramatic reading of the scene in question caused fliers in first class to wonder if a riot had broken out in coach.
I’m just saying: the guy’s funny; there’s a reason I keep blandishing him to give us all advice on the art of writing comedy. (As he did, say, here, here, and here.) Here’s the publisher’s blurb for his most recent opus:
Fiona Blacklock sells drugs. Not the hard stuff, but a rare hybrid strain of thousand-dollar-an-ounce marijuana called Biodiesel. Given that she lives in the left-wing Mecca of Portland, Oregon, the cops mostly just look the other wayâ€”if they’re not looking to score a little herb themselves.
Sure, she’s fifty grand in debt to a psychopathic loan shark named Barry the Hippie, but other than that, it’s really not a bad gigâ€¦that is, until she agrees to take emo pop star Finn “The Well-Coiffed Penis” Jameson along on a drug deal so that he can research a new indie film role. A drug deal that goes very very wrong.
Now Fiona has to figure out who set her up, who’s blackmailing who, where to environmentally dispose of a disemboweled corpse, how to seduce the single most attractive man in Hollywoodâ€¦and, most importantly, whom to kill next.
I’m bringing up these three talented writers’ recent triumphs not only to cheer for them — although, naturally, that too — but as a springboard to talking about some of the things I enjoy most about writing this blog. I get to teach writers like Wendy how to refine their queries, to help get their writing in front of the people who can take it to publication: I quite like that. I get to encourage writers like Michael to keep pressing forward until they see their work in print: I’m very fond of that. And, perhaps most gratifying of all, I get to bring gifted writers like Jonathan Selwood to the attention of a fine group of people who, I have it on the best authority, really like to read.
That’s all been pretty fabulous, I must say. But if I’m honest about it — and now that I’ve launched headlong into this sentence, I suppose I shall have to be — none of these things were what I had anticipated doing when I started blogging six and a half years ago. And certainly not at such great length.
Actually, I had to be talked into starting a blog at all. When I was initially approached by the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association, at the time the nation’s largest group aimed at furthering the ambitions and fostering the skills of previously-unpublished writers, to be the Resident Writer on its website, I was a bit nonplused. Yes, I had been editing books for decades at that juncture; yes, I had started proofing galleys in middle school; yes, I did regularly teach writing and marketing classes for writers; yes, a chapter of my dissertation was about the potential for fictional accounts to change political discourse.
But coming up with practical advice for writers on a several-times-per-week basis? I was positive that the inspiration well would run dry in a month.
Yes, yes, I know: these days, I often spend a month of posts on a sub-sub-topic of querying. My will to communicate turned out to be pretty strong.
It also turned out that an astonishingly high percentage of what I had learned by osmosis through the simple expedient of growing up in a literary family — forebears on both sides have been publishing pretty regularly since the 1920s; I learned to type on Henry Miller’s hand-me-down typewriter — was, to put it mildly, a big, ugly, and frequently frightening mystery to hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers out there. And since many of those murky matters were — and remain — self-evident to those who handle book manuscripts for a living, not only did it not seem to occur to many pros to blog on those subjects; when I began blogging, it was relatively rare even to hear the practicalities to which I have devoted most of my posts here discussed at writers’ conferences.
You should have heard what my mother said when I first broke that last bit of news to her. Her gasp could be heard on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
To be perfectly frank, I was pretty flabbergasted, too. The first time a reader wrote in to ask whether the slug line went in the header or on the first line of every page, I must admit that I laughed for about fifteen minutes straight. Yet it’s not at all an unreasonable question; it simply is not a question that would ever arise amongst people who handled professional manuscripts for a living.
That’s right, campers: as incredible as it seems, before that valiant reader worked up the courage to ask that basic question, I hadn’t truly understood that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers out there had never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript. Or a book proposal. Or — and I can’t believe this was news to me — a query letter.
Had I mentioned that my learning experience on Uncle Henry’s typewriter sprung from my parents’ insistence that I write the first and only draft of my 5th-grade term paper on the Bonus March in standard manuscript format? “You’re going to be writing in that format for the rest of your life,” my father reasoned, “so you might as well get started now.”
History proved him right, of course, but at the time, it didn’t even occur to me to point out that it was in fact possible for a human being to glide throughout the entirety of the great path from birth to death without writing a book. I’d met so few adults who hadn’t.
“Oh, yes, you did,” my mother hastens to point out now. “We introduced you to a lot of painters and sculptors, too. We didn’t want to stifle any potential avenue of creativity.”
I’m bringing this up not only because I can’t possibly have been the only little girl in human history who thought the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up, honey?” actually meant “How do you plan to support yourself while you struggle through your first four or five novels’ sluggish sales?” — I can’t remember being so young that I didn’t know that literary fiction seldom makes serious money — but because in the course of my career as a writer, I’ve never met an agent or editor who was surprised by my strenuously literary upbringing.
Oh, their eyebrows may have twitches skyward when they found out that John Steinbeck wrote a book about my father, or that I had stopped writing science fiction because Philip K. Dick told me that there was no money in it. Mostly, though, the pros have just seemed to take it for granted that any serious novelist or memoirist would already have amassed my level of practical knowledge of how publishing works by the time her writing reached their doorsteps.
If writing this blog and interacting with my readers has taught me anything, though, it’s that nobody is born knowing this stuff. And that’s sad, because plenty of extremely talented writers’ work gets rejected every day simply because they don’t know the ropes. Or even that there are ropes to learn,
So I have devoted the last six and a half years to teaching those new to climbing those ropes how to tie a few sailors’ knots. Turns out that’s a pretty complex set of lessons.
It must be: after posting 1,500 times about them, I still feel that I have quite a bit to say. And I hope that quite a few more writers like Michael, Wendy, and Jonathan will continue to provide me with the impetus, inspiration, and darned good questions to help keep me going.
I could, I suppose, conclude here with my oft-repeated admonition to keep the aforementioned good questions coming — believe me, if you’ve been wondering about a writing, querying, or submission issue, thousands of other writers have been as well. You do them, and me, a favor by asking. (If you’re looking for instant answers, though, you might want to take a quick barefoot run through the list of topics on the archive list at right; since I have been at this for a while, it’s actually not all that uncommon for people to ask questions upon which I’ve written entire month-long series.)
I would like to close this festive post by thanking all of you for something else this blog has given me, a benefit I have seldom mentioned even in passing before. When I first started blogging, my interest was at least in part self-promotional: I had a memoir coming out six months later. Although these days, it’s standard for publishers to advise authors to establish blogs in anticipation of their books’ releases, it was rare back then; I had to talk both my agent and my editor out of actively protesting against my devoting writing time to it.
“What makes you think,” a source that shall remain nameless in my publisher’s marketing department asked, “that there’s any overlap at all between your book’s target audience and your blog’s?” It was news, apparently, that people who write are often people who read. Or that people who read online might conceivably ever read anything else.
Seems crazy now, doesn’t it? Today, one of the first sentences a first-time author hears after placing pen to contract is, “Okay, you know that you have to build up your web presence, right?”
Back in 2004, however, the concept of an author deliberately setting out to make a place for herself online was still a relatively new and daring one; people kept asking me how I could possibly build name recognition unless I was writing on my own website, as I began to do a year later. That’s a long story, though, and not a particularly interesting one.
To cut to the chase, as a good editor should: a couple of weeks after I began blogging, I learned that my publisher had been threatened by a lawsuit over my memoir. The figure mentioned, if memory serves, was $2 million. Not because it was factually inaccurate, mind you — as far as I know, the threateners never asked my publisher for any content changes — but because I had written it at all. And while such threats are far from unusual from the kith and kin of memoirists, the kith in question happened to have millions of dollars at their disposal.
The publication process, as you might imagine, came to a screeching halt. While it has lurched forward and backward a few times since, six and a half years later, the book still has not come out. (Which renders the used copy still offered on Amazon something of a mystery; as not even review copies were ever released, I can’t imagine of what it consists. It purports to be in very good condition, though.)
Again, I’m not bringing this up for the reasons you might think: I’m quite confident that eventually, both new and used copies of the book will be available. I was not brought up to give up on a manuscript, especially an important story that happens to be true. And, if I do say so myself, pretty funny.
I’m bringing it up because I owe a debt of gratitude to those of you who read and commented upon the blog during the early years, when writing it was practically the only respite I got from an ever-more-chaotic publishing experience. There were days when trying to make the curvy road to publication comprehensible to those new to it seemed like the only reasonable human exchange I had. I found it very soothing, being able to take my small, continual stand for making this a better world for everyone who has a story to tell.
And that, in case any of you had been wondering, is how I developed my blogging voice, admittedly an unusual one for a writing advice blog. Rather than present this sometimes depressing and opaque subject matter — hey, nobody ever said getting a book into print was easy, at least no one who had any practical experience in the matter — in the more common authoritarian or despairing tones, I decided to write about it in an upbeat, humorous manner. I felt I owed it to my readers not to let the horror of what was going on with my book creep into our discussions of how to help yours.
You have no idea how difficult that was sometimes in those first couple of years. At least, I hope you don’t, if I did my job well. And it’s become difficult again over the last couple of years, since my car crash. But as my grandmother used to say, “If you can’t be happy, try helping someone else. Or writing a book about it.”
So thank you, campers, for providing me with the impetus, inspiration, and, yes, unexpected questions, to keep showing up here to be upbeat about the often-mystifying ways of the publishing world. Especially to those of you who have been reading since the beginning. You have helped turn what started out as a column into a community — and for that, I am exceedingly grateful.
Next time, I shall wrap up Queryfest; I may be hardened by experience to being upbeat about the difficulties of the querying process, but hey, I’m only human. Keep up the good work!