Last time, I began suggesting some ways in which the holiday habits of that seasonally-ubiquitous jolly fellow, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver, might be turned via gentle hints toward the consideration of items and services of genuine long-term use to the committed writer. Admittedly, I began by shooting high: what’s wrong, I asked innocently, with giving a writer time and space to write? Happy the writer whose kith and kin understand her well enough to gather behind her back whilst she’s baking cookies to say, “You know what Gertrude would REALLY like this year? A week without any obligations, so she could finally finish her novel/memoir/definitive history of drainage in 17th-century Ireland!”
I suspect that I don’t have to elaborate for any working writer about precisely how and why Gertrude would be cryingly grateful for such a present. After all, “(l)ife together,” as George Sand wrote, “is the ideal of happiness for those who love each other; but each thinking soul also needs time for solitude and contemplation.”
So true, George, so true — but I’d be willing to bet this handful of change in my pocket that 95% of the writers reading this have never even discussed the possibility of a retreat with even their nearest and dearest. There’s good reason for that, of course, at least amongst those of us who were not raised by wolves. Let’s face it, it’s just not considered polite to answer the perennial (and rather uncreative, I’ve always thought) question, “What do you want for Christmas?” with a heartfelt howl of, “Are you kidding? Leave me alone so I may get some writing done!”
Even if that is, in fact, what you would like to receive for Christmas. Or any other time, really.
Next week, as promised, I’m going to talk a bit more about how to clear time and space for one’s writing. (Just in time for New Year’s resolution-making, you point out? Why, what a remarkable coincidence!) For today, I’m going to content myself with brainstorming about a few less pricey ways writers’ FNDGGs may bring joy and practical assistance to them throughout the year.
I’m tempted to go all prosaic here and suggest asking for bookshelves — because, honestly, have you ever known a serious writer who didn’t possess more volumes than shelves to house them? As Jean-Paul Sartre was known to observe, “In reality, people read because they want to write. Anyway, reading is a sort of rewriting.”
At least for the many submitters who continue to work on their manuscripts after they’ve already sent them off to an agent or editor, J-P. I can’t even begin to estimate the number of times I’ve heard agents complain over the years about clients who keep sending them a revised page 147 or 236 every few weeks to insert into an already-circulating manuscript. (In case you’re curious about how to pass along subsequent revisions to your agent after you sign, the accepted method is — brace yourselves — to send a whole new copy of the manuscript.)
To return to my larger point, we tend to be hard-core readers, bless our collective heart, which is in and of itself something to consider during present-buying binges. If you’ve been paying attention to even a fraction of the news coming out of the publishing industry lately, you’ll have heard that major publishers across the English-speaking world have been announcing that they’re laying off staff.
“The profession of book-writing,” John Steinbeck once wrote, “makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business.” Can’t imagine why that little snippet should come to mind right now.
Unless anyone out there reading this happens to be a billionaire with a weakness for literature, literally the only thing most of us who write can do to help ameliorate this appalling situation is to get out there and buy some books. Ideally, books by still-living authors who write in our respective book categories.
Why? Well, if you want to live in a world where publishers are eager to buy books like yours, it only makes sense to convey that preference through buying them yourself, right? Perhaps I am intolerant because I come from a family of writers, but I have no patience with aspiring writers who don’t support the market for the kinds of books they write themselves. If aspiring writers won’t buy books in the genres in which they hope eventually to publish, who will?
Well, possibly their FNDGGs, if those writers sit them down and explain clearly and carefully that the only means of convincing bigwigs at publishing houses that it’s profitable to publish a particular type of book is for lots and lots of people to buy that type of book. Not to mention the obvious benefits to the aspiring if buyers go out of their way to purchase books by first-time authors in that category.
Seriously, wouldn’t you be more pleased to receive a good book in your category by a new author than one of those ubiquitous gift books containing quotations about writing that FNDGGs always seem to be stuffing into aspiring writers’ stockings? Because, as Groucho Marx once observed, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
(In the unlikely event that you hadn’t already noticed, on the off chance that anyone reading this one of those perennially epigraph-hunters who can’t get enough of that kind of collection, I’ve been cramming as many inspiring quotes into this post as humanly possible. No charge.)
There are many other excellent reasons to buy recently-released books in the category in which you have chosen to write, of course. Learning who your competition will be, for one, and what they are offering your target audience. Finding out what the agents and editors who habitually work with authors in that category think is good writing, as well as building up a list of who those agents and editors are.
And last but certainly not least, keeping up with what is being published right now, as opposed to five or ten years ago. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard agents and editors complain about aspiring writers’ not being familiar with the current market, as opposed to what was hot ten years ago. Contrary to popular belief, the species or even quality of writing that may have caused your all-time favorite author to ricochet to fame and fortune fifteen or twenty years ago will not necessarily turn heads at agencies and publishing houses today if it did not have an already-established author’s name attached to it.
And the tighter the book market gets, the more likely that is to be true, because an established author already has name recognition with the target market for her next book.
Because the market is ever-changing (and will probably be mutating even more rapidly than usual over the next year or two), it’s vital to keep refreshing one’s understanding of what is in fact current. What attracts an agent or editor today will not necessarily garner praise a year from now — again, unless an author with a proven track record happens to have produced it.
Which is precisely why it’s in your interest to keep abreast of what kind of writing, storyline, structure, etc. has been helping first-time authors in your selected category break into the biz over the last couple of years, not just what the big names have been producing. It’s just too easy for an aspiring writer who doesn’t keep up with his genre’s internal trends to forget whilst hiking the querying-and-submission trail that it honestly does take more courage on the part of an agent to sign a previously unpublished writer than a published one, just as it requires more bravery for an editor to take a chance on a brand-new writer than upon the 17th work by a well-recognized name.
Why? Because “courage,” as playwright Ruth Gordon informed us all, “is like a muscle, it is strengthened by use.”
This is why, in case you were wondering, those of us who have been in the biz for a while cringe when we hear an aspiring writer say, “Well, my book is at least as good as the rest of the junk out there.” The standard against which a new writer’s work is held is not that of the current market for established writers, but considerably above it.
Don’t believe me? Try this little experiment: read five books by first-time authors in your chosen book category that have come out within the last year. (Better yet, buy them, or get your FNDGG to buy them for you.) Then go and take a gander at what the time-honored leaders of the genre have put out lately.
Ask yourself: do they honestly seem to be edited, let alone written, to the same standard?
Another reason to keep an eye on publications by authors new to your chosen category is to gather information for approaching their agents. The logic is a trifle convoluted, but stick with me here.
As I’m sure you’re already aware (I’m fairly certain that I’ve mentioned it within the last few months), the vast majority of books sold to publishers each year in this country are written by the already-published. Why? Well, they have a verifiable history of selling books.
Before you take offense at that, be honest: in the last five years, how often have you bought a book by first-time authors? Not only in your chosen book category, but at all?
Okay, what about ones you don’t know personally, or who haven’t won major awards?
Readers tend to gravitate toward names they know — and bookstores encourage the practice. Unless the author is a celebrity in another medium or a politician, books by new authors are substantially less likely to be placed in a prominent position in a chain bookstore. Certainly, they are less likely to be place face-out on the bookshelf, a placement which increases that probability of being browsed considerably).
Naturally, this results in sales statistics that show very plainly that overall, established authors sell far, far better than new ones.
So — don’t worry; the payoff is coming — your chances of getting picked up by an agent are higher if you already know that particular agent has been successful selling a first-timer like yourself. You know, at any rate, that the agent has been exceptionally brave at least once.
As Helen Keller was apparently wont to say, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” Are you listening, agents?
Because the agent who compulsively sells first novels is something of a rarity, let me once again urge you to draw a firm distinction in your mind between agents whose listings in the standard agents’ guides SAY they are open to queries from previously unpublished writers, and those who have a successful RECENT HISTORY of selling first books. In this market, that takes not only courage, but commitment and talent.
As Abigail Adams seems to have written to her troublemaking husband in 1774, “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” Amen, Abby!
To be fair, agents — the successful ones, anyway — only take on what they’re pretty sure they can sell. As anyone in the industry will tell you at great length after he’s had a few drinks (oh, like it’s accidental that writers’ conferences almost always take place in hotels with bars in them…As Agnes Repplier was prone to say, and even wrote in 1891’s POINTS OF VIEW, “If a man be discreet enough to take to hard drinking in his youth, before his general emptiness is ascertained, his friends invariable credit him with a host of shining qualities which, we are given to understand, lie balked and frustrated by his one unfortunate weakness.”), a first book, unless it is written by a celebrity, is quite a bit harder for an agent to pitch to an editor than a second or third. On average, less than 4% of the fiction published in any given year is by first-time authors.
Sorry to be the one to break it to you. But as the already-quoted George Sand apparently wrote to some friend of hers in 1863, “Let us accept truth, even when it surprises us and alters our views.’” Or, if you prefer Thomas Jefferson, “We must not be afraid to follow the truth, wherever it may lead.”
I’m sure I could find a dozen more quotes on the subject if I really took a spade to the Bartlett’s, but I’m sure you catch my drift.
Speaking of which, I seem to have drifted away from the subject of great gifts for writers, haven’t I ? Here’s one that might help add impetus to your writing career: wouldn’t it be nice if your FNDGG sprung for some really nice (say, 20-pound or heavier) paper for your next spate of submissions?
High-quality paper is worth the investment: pages that don’t wilt as it gets passed from Millicent to Millicent tends to get taken more seriously, believe it or not; it’s not even unheard-of for agents to resubmit manuscripts that they’ve already circulated to other editors.
Or what about a lovely box of those Manilla envelopes we writers are always using to send out short stories and partial manuscripts, not to mention tucking into other Manilla envelopes as SASEs? They’re not very expensive, but I know a lot of writers who would feel that such a gift was awfully darned supportive. Especially if it happened to arrive wrapped up with a roll of stamps.
Oh, you expected me to come up with a quote appropriate for that? Okay, try this one on for size: as Gertrude Stein wrote, “Considering how dangerous everything is, nothing is frightening.”
I think that’s a terrific motto for anyone who has anything to do with the current literary market — aspiring writers, established writers, agents, Millicents, editors, marketers, you name it. Trying to sell a book at any level is absurdly difficult for everyone concerned these days, but hasn’t that always been true, to a certain extent? After all, the vast majority of writers who have landed agents and publishing contracts have had their work rejected dozens upon dozens — if not hundreds upon hundreds — of times over their professional lifetimes. Including yours truly and, in all likelihood, that well-established bigwig who broke into the market twenty years ago. We kept ploughing ahead until the NYC publishing types started to take us seriously.
Maya Angelou wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” And Tallulah Bankhead claimed, “If I had to live my life again, I’d make all the same mistakes — only sooner.”
What on earth do I mean to demonstrate by throwing those two quite unrelated quotes into close proximity? Either that (a) all of the work required to get recognized as a writer is genuinely soul-trying for pretty much everyone who makes it, but you can learn a lot along the way, (b) practically without exception, everyone who already has an agent is deeply, deeply grateful not to have to go through THAT ongoing trauma again, and/or (c) tearing a whole lot of quotes out of context and presenting them to the hapless reader may not be all that useful an exercise, but it doesn’t seem to stop anybody else from doing it, so why should I forbear?
More importantly, what do any of those possibilities have to do with what you might want your FNDGG to give you? Well, for most ultimately commercially successful writers, the road to recognition is long. If that gift-giver wants to find a means to show that s/he believes that you are talented enough that you definitely should keep ploughing ahead, wrapping up some practical aids for you to use along the way is a marvelous mean to express that.
I just mention, FNDGG.
Keep moving forward — and keep up the good work!
PS: any FNDGG intrigued by the Cave Shelf above may find it here.