Well, it’s been a long, hard road, everybody, but we’ve finally made it: this is my 1000th post. That’s almost four years of nearly non-stop yammering on topics both dear to writerly hearts and frustrating to writerly brains, a veritable cornucopia of advice on how to write a book, format it as the pros expect, approach an agent in writing or in person, work with an agent once you’ve signed with her, work with an editor once you’ve signed with him, promote your published book, and generally lead a happy existence as an author at every stage of success.
Boy, are my fingers tired.
As some of you may recall, my blogging life did not start out with such lofty goals. When I first began blogging, as the Organization That Shall Remain Nameless’ Resident Writer, I had thought this would be a weekly gig that went on for a year, at most. In fact, I’d originally been solicited to fill the position for only a couple of months, as my volunteer contribution to North America’s largest writers’ association. I thought it would be a great place to reach some good writers just learning the ropes.
Before my year there was out (for those who are interested, you may find those posts in the archives here), I was fielding questions from writers all over the world. It turned out that a whole lot of writers were curious about practicalities.
I can’t really claim that as a blogging success, because, truth be told, the space on the OTSRN’s site is not now and has never been an actual blog: technically, it was (and is) an online column.
What’s the difference, you ask? Well, instead readers being able to post comments, questions, and outright challenges directly as they may here at Author! Author! — part of the fundamental definition of a blog, right? — they had to e-mail their comments to me. Although I, all three volunteer webmasters who maintained the site, and quite a few readers protested that this limited give-and-take was not a true blog, the OTSRN overruled us all. A column it was, and a column it remains to this day. (Although the last time I checked, there had not been a fresh post since May, 2007.)
Why did all of us object? If I so chose, I could post reader input on the site. Or I could not. Essentially, I held the power to create the illusion that nobody ever disagreed with so much as a syllable I’d ever written there.
Ah, the power! The pageantry! The insufficiency as a learning tool!
And how fundamentally undemocratic. I don’t ask that my readers take every syllable that falls off my fingertips as revealed Gospel — in fact, I discourage it. While there are certain undeniable rules about constructing a manuscript or approaching an agent (conveniently grouped by category on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page, for your reading pleasure), I don’t want aspiring writers to do things my way just because I say so; I want to give all of you enough explanation about, for instance, why writing tends to be better received if presented a certain way. so each of you may consider all of the arguments out there and decide for yourselves.
When I first started blogging, I didn’t understand that this was a radical concept.
Oh, but it was, if the reactions of the higher-ups at the OTSRN were any indication. I was told quite firmly that my posts were too long — a critique also proffered by my mother, incidentally — that I over-explained, that there were already many, many books and websites on the planet explaining the fundamentals. Why didn’t I just plug the most recent books published by members of the organization?
Not my style — or my mission. When I suggested, for example, that agents’ and editors’ blurbs in conference guides do not always contain all of the information that someone brand-new to the biz might need in order to select which one to approach, and endeavored to remedy that by researching all of the sales the fine folks scheduled to attend the OTSRN’s annual conference (a bouquet of posts that may be read under the AGENTS/EDITORS WHO USED TO ATTEND THE CTSRN — Conference That Shall Remain Nameless — category at right), you should have heard the uproar. Although everything I posted was already a matter of public record, the OTSRN’s board told me that it was insulting to agents for writers thinking about querying them to do any advance research at all.
Of course, they didn’t tell me this until a year after they’d summarily tossed me off their website.
The official reason my tenure as Resident Writer ended was because I refused to allow them to charge full conference fees to five already-agented volunteers scheduled to staff the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace at the CTSRN, generous, stalwart souls willing to put in four 12-hour days helping those new to pitching refine what they were going to say to agents. Oh, the OSTRN allowed us to provide the service (on condition that we not use the restrooms or drink any of the coffee provided to conference attendees), but on the following Monday, I found my password to the OSTRN’s website blocked.
I wouldn’t have minded so much, except at least some of my readers who had attended the conference presumably had received requests to send materials to agents and editors. Call me zany, but I’m guessing that some of them might have been looking to their usual source of information at that stressful juncture.
All this is water under the proverbial bridge, of course, and I wouldn’t be bringing it up again except for one thing: in the summer of 2006, when I suddenly had to construct my own website (or, more accurately, throw myself on the mercy of two sympathetic computer geeks of my acquaintance, who had Author! Author! operational by the end of the week, bless their rapidly-typing fingers), I had not yet realized that there are two fundamental schools of thought amongst those who give advice to aspiring writers. Since so many of you have written in to ask why sources on the web — or in classes, or at conferences — don’t all give identical advice, familiarizing yourself with the underlying philosophies can help clarify the advice-taking process.
The first school, at which yours truly holds lifetime tenure, is devoted to the proposition that nobody, but nobody, is born knowing the ropes of the publishing industry, and that consequently, it is good and kind of those of us who’ve been swinging on them for a long while to show the talented newcomers where the toeholds are. Not only do we not believe that extending a helping hand to those lower on the ladder does not just add to our own competition — good authors breed more readers, right? — but we hold this truth to be self-evident: that the literary world, that literature itself, will always be better off welcoming new voices than turning its collective back on them.
So if any of you have been wondering why I’ve devoted so many of this spring’s posts to censorship, subtle and otherwise, you have your answer.
The second school of thought appears in many forms at all levels of the writers’ world, but may be summed up as this: the cream will inevitably rise to the top. That being the case, and since the vast majority of aspiring writers will never land an agent or see their work published, why bother to share the secret handshakes? Any TRULY talented writer will land an agent, right?
Although simple observation over the course of many annual writers’ conferences demonstrates this to be untrue — plenty of genuinely gifted writers spend years, even decades, searching for the agent who will get their work, or for the editor who will understand its market appeal — advocates of this school exhibit everything ranging from mild pity to outright hostility to those of us who try to help aspiring writers speed up the necessary learning curve by not making them guess, for instance, why Millicent the agency screener might react worse to an emdash than to two dashes with a space at either end in a submitted manuscript.
And you can’t really blame them, I suppose, since proponents of this school tend to believe that the best way to help writers in general is to promote the work of the already-established author. Because good authors breed more readers, right?
So if you’ve ever been at a writers’ conference and thought, “Gee, this session isn’t providing me with all that much concrete guidance in how to refine or market my manuscript — in fact, all that it’s really achieved is to allow the speaker to promote his own published books,” well, that’s probably not an accident.
It’s philosophy in action.
Why am I dredging all this up today, on the occasion of my 1000th blog post? Well, for several reasons — and I’ll cop to it: some of them are self-congratulatory.
First, in my humble opinion, the first 1000 posts of Author! Author! have proven magnificently that good writers everywhere are longing to learn the ropes — and that those ropes are genuinely hard to figure out, let alone climb, even for the most gifted of writers. A lot of the rules are counter-intuitive; there’s a ton of conflicting information out there. Hardly a week goes by without my hearing from a reader who says, “I had no idea what I was doing wrong.”
So to those who said that a nuts-and-bolts blog like this couldn’t possibly build and sustain a readership, I have only four words for you: nyah nyah nyah nyah.
Second — and brace yourself, because I’m going to be patting myself on the back in this one, too — aspiring writers who do put their shoulders to the proverbial wheel and take the time to learn the ropes do succeed. Author! Author!’s readers land agents; they get books published; they self-publish happily; they win and place in literary contests. Perhaps most importantly, they gain the knowledge they need to treat their talent with the respect it deserves, rather than guessing what Millicent wants to see.
Those are HUGE accomplishments for any writer — and as anyone who has played this game for a lifetime could tell you, surviving the writing life happily means celebrating not just the big achievements, the book launches and Pulitzer Prizes, but the smaller victories along the way. If this blog has played any small role in helping any good writer earn such a celebration, I think that’s cause for public rejoicing.
Or, to put it another way: nyah nyah nyah nyah, naysayers.
Third, I think that sharing not only knowledge and the fruits of experience, but our hopes and fears, helps build a writerly community beneficial to all. This is a hard road, especially now; the more we can cheer one another along the way, the better.
So my deep, heartfelt thanks to all of you who have contributed to making this little corner of the writers’ world such a warm and supportive place. And for asking all of those great questions.
Finally, when it comes right down to it, I don’t believe that book sales or even publication are the only — or the best — tests of a writer’s talent. Let’s face it, we’ve all read bestsellers and wondered, “How on earth did this make it into print?”; we’ve all been mystified by why this manuscript and not that one got picked up by an agent or publishing house. Even when the publishing industry was in relatively good shape — and it’s going to the gym like crazy now, trying to squeeze into a wedding dress four sizes too small — books by first-time authors never exceeded about 4% of the releases in North America in any given year.
Those are tough odds, irrespective of the talent involved. So as much respect as we all harbor for the printed word — and I’ve never met a writer worth her salt who didn’t practically worship it — those of us in the game for the long haul need to consider the possibility that courting the muse well means more than just getting a manuscript into print. Or perhaps something different.
Doesn’t it? I’m honestly asking.
I don’t have to ask whether there are marvelous writers out there whose work ought to be published; I’ve seen evidence with my very own eyes. You don’t have to take my word for it, either — I’m going to be devoting part of the week to come to sharing the winning entries in the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. (That’s what the explosive E above is for, by the way: excellence.)
But don’t worry — as much as I enjoy bringing you guest posts and award winners, Author! Author! is not going to mutate into merely a celebration of authors who are already, let’s face it, doing pretty well for themselves. Nor am I going to join the legions of vocal mourners for a publishing industry that’s regularly been pronounced dead at least once every fifteen years since the American Revolution.
That’s not my philosophy. I’m here to help talented newcomers learn the ropes.
Which means that this summer, you’re going to be seeing more of what I believe this blog does best. We’re going to be talking about craft — not just the basic truisms we’ve all had flung at us in writing classes, but discussions of the nuts and bolts that add up to style. We’re going to be talking about ways to squeeze more out of the scant writing hours you’ve fought so hard to carve out of your busy schedules — and yes, Virginia, that is going to include those tips on tracking down and winning fellowships to writing retreats that I’ve promised to share with you, but have been just too exhausted since I returned from my last (very productive) retreat to share. And we’re also going to be talking about, you guessed it, how to query and pitch your work to agents.
Yes, we’ve talked about it before in this forum; we’ve discussed these matters often. But as long as writers want to see their work in print, I’m not going to leave them guessing how to get past the gatekeepers of the printing press.
A zany, quixotic endeavor, as the board of the OTSRN sneered at me on my way out the door? Maybe. Will it make the world a better place for writers? I hope so.
You know what else will contribute toward that laudable goal? All of you continuing to pursue your dream of expressing yourself via the written word, engaging in what I feel is one of the highest pursuits of which the human mind is capable. Telling your story is what it’s ultimately all about, right, not just winning a game that we’re all aware is set up to place new players at a competitive disadvantage?
As Maya Angelou put it so well, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Keep striving to tell those stories well, everyone — and, as always, keep up the good work!