When I went to my 1:30 class this afternoon, it was bright and sunny and about 34 degrees, a slight breeze, and just a smattering of puffy clouds low on the horizon. When I got out about an hour and a half later, it was gray with the wind picking up, a snowflake here and there appearing. Fifteen minutes later a snow squall hit with blinding force, the visibility virtually zero, the temperature dropping fourteen degrees in five minutes. Another fifteen minutes later it was all but over, and now, two hours later, with the sun setting, the thermometer is expected to drop like a rock. The forecast in my part of New Jersey is for five above. Which makes me happy as if I were in Wisconsin, that’d be a day at the beach. The temps there when you apply the windchill factor rival the Arctic. In fact, I think it was warmer in Antarctica today.
Can you think of a better time to stay inside and write? Of course not!
One thing that you should know if you’re just starting out in this business is that no one will ever tell you how much they got for a publishing advance. This was one thing that startled me, because I thought I wouldn’t have to ask. That it would just be out there listed as an expected range, like looking up salaries on Glass Door. (Of course, you can’t really go by them either. I went to Glass Door and looked the average base pay for Adjunct Professor and got $42,451 and almost fell off my chair laughing.) Like Penguin/RH paid the best, followed by HarperCollins, etc., but that was ridiculous because no one ever advertised this stuff. The closest I got to real figures was a survey author Brenda Hiatt used to compile called “Show Me the Money,” but I don’t think she’s updated it in a long time. So where do you go to find if this writing life is even worth it?
Er…in case you haven’t found it out yet, it’s like that old saying: if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. In other words, if you’re looking to make a mint out of writing fiction, well here’s a piece of advice–don’t quit you’re day job. On the other hand, if you’re willing to occasionally starve, absorb a lot of criticism, and spend hour after hour behind a keyboard, you may have a future in the literary life. If you do that, you may eventually sell, and when you do, you’re likely to get an advance with your book contract. (If you don’t, that means you’re may be getting on a higher percentage royalty-only contract, but that’s a whole other post.) And when you do sell, your agent will post the sale on Publisher’s Marketplace, using only these vague descriptors to outline compensation:
“Nice” – $1.00 – 49.00
“Very Nice” – $50.00 – 99k
“Good” – $100k – 250k
“Significant” – $251k – 499k
“Major” – $500k and up
So there you go, publishers’ advances decoded! Don’t you feel much better now?
Read a quick but great article in the New York Times by Tina Jordan yesterday, “Some Dos and Don’ts From Famous Writers.” There were tips by Delia Owens and J. K. Rowling, from John Grisham and William Faulkner, the latter who spouted the line that really got to me: “You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader.” This should come as no surprise to anyone that thinks of themselves as a writer, because truly, where would you get the inspiration to write without the very prose (or poetry or play or lyric) that drove you to it? I’ve always had a lust for reading, starting from that very day in first grade when the nun easeled an oversized, laminated book in front of the class. (Yes, I am the product of a Catholic elementary school education. Don’t start with me.) LOOK — was the only dialogue on the page, but when I sounded out the L-O-O-K with my rudimentary phonics knowledge and my agile young brain connected the synapses to form look–well, it was a discovery so profound, I jumped out of my desk to cry I CAN READ THAT! And I’ve been doing it ever since.
As I look around my office I see four tall bookcases, a basket of magazines containing academic and trade periodicals, a couple of New Yorkers on my desk with another journal underneath, and atop the table next to my favorite reading chair, Becoming, by Michelle Obama, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (this month’s Book Discussion pick), a book on back pain (from sitting on my ass at this desk too much), and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. At the top of my TBR pile is Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, and just below it, Something Wonderful, by Todd S. Purdum. If you know anything about these books, you can tell what an eclectic reader I am. Does that say anything about my writing? Maybe it does.
One thing’s for certain. If I don’t read, it definitely affects my writing. It plods along, my characters lose their edge, the dialogue becomes stilted. There are certain schools of thought that say you shouldn’t read and write at the same time, because if you do, you’ll unconsciously steal the style of whomever you’re reading. I don’t happen to buy into that. For me, reading breaks loose my inner competitor, and I find myself wanting to outdo them. If anything, I get inspired–if they can do it, I can do it better, and the more I read, the more I want to write. I remember a time when I was deep into deadlines, that I didn’t even come near a screen outside my laptop for a month. But every day I found the time to read, over breakfast, over lunch, after a writing session, before bed. Now, I must admit I do a fair amount of reading from my laptop and my phone. But there’s still nothing like the visceral touch of the printed page, the pure joy of row upon row of embedded ink slowly unfolding a story. And no such thrill as when that story’s your own.
But enough about reading. Writers got to write, too. Best get back to work. Unless, of course, you’ll be reading.
I gave a workshop this past weekend on pitching your work, and there was some interest in writing a synopsis. Here’s a post from a couple of years back on that very same thing I thought I’d rerun, because, you know, why have a new original thought…
It’s a sad, sad fact of the writing life that every book needs a synopsis if you want to sell it. I’m sorry, but synopses to me are like carbuncles on top of boils, about as compatible to my literary mojo as coconuts are to refrigerators. When I know I have to write one, it’s like I have creative mono I’m so not able to start. Fact is I hate hate hate the little bastards, as after all these years, my brain still fights writing one. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, then welcome to Writer Hell, sweetheart. Your angsty little life is about to get so much worse.
A synopsis is your book boiled down almost to its skivvies. At the most it’s about five pages, but lately the going length seems to be around two. With such a tight page count, you might think it makes the writing easier, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Actually, it makes it so much harder. How hard? Let me search for a difficult enough analogy. Have you ever tried to gather a bunch of peeled grapes with one hand? That’s kind of what it’s like. (Actually, the literal version of that would be easier, but don’t let me disillusion you). You need to encapsulate all those slippery plot points from start to finish, naming your major characters, their conflicts and motivations, holding nothing back. Don’t want to divulge everything? Then just include something like, Intrigued? Then request the full manuscript to find out what happens next! and you’ll win the race to the ‘delete’ button. (Please, just–no.) Do include a hook at the beginning and a satisfying ending, and no being cagey or overly creative, either. It’s just the facts, ma’am, and do remember to keep it in the present tense, and state your word count and genre under the title at the top. Also, it should go without saying to make sure it’s proofread, spell-checked, grammar-checked and formatted until it’s pink and screaming.
A synopsis, above all, is a selling tool. You need one to get an agent as after you do, she’ll need it to sell your fabulousness to an editor. A synopsis not only spells out your book, it tells an editor you’re capable of finishing one, as very rarely will she have your whole manuscript in front of her at the first pass. Because of their brevity, synopses, at least when they’re written well, can be succinct little works of art. With a well-written synopsis, you’re straddling the fence between novelist and journalist, as it’s a sign of polish and skill to write eye-catching florid-free prose when you’re concentrating strictly on the main points. When it’s done effectively and efficiently, it can make all the difference between rejection and acceptance.
Oh, and if you’re looking for some actual people to send that fabulous synopsis, to, try…
- Literary Market Place (LMP) – Online or in print. Subscription. In Libraries.
- Publishers Marketplace – Subscription, limited “Publishers Lunch” is free.
- Agent Query – Large database, sorted by genre, free.
- Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents – Book and Website.
- Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents – Book.
- Publishing…and Other Forms of Insanity – Website, free.
- Manuscript Wish List – Website, free.
Now go get ’em, tiger. I hate suffering alone.
I’m not kidding. 2018 was a bitch. Seriously, I’m still working on things I should have finished a long time ago, but the sheer volume of those “things” haven’t let me. So here I said, two days into 2019, and I’m still working on closing out 2018. Ah well. I’ve been told 2019 will be much better. Mainly, I think because 2018 offers such a contrast. But I’m looking forward. They say not to make New Year’s Resolutions. Make goals instead. So that’s what I’m going to do. As soon as I get two minutes to rub together. Okay–gotta go.
HAPPY NEW YEAR! and keep writing!
Late last night I graded my last essay and sent in my final grades, a Herculean task that just about burnt my brain to a crisp. And even though I’m finished now, I kind of feel like Santa does up there, needing a stiff drink and a good long sit to recover. So I’m taking one until after the New Year, where I’ll again have to prepare for the new semester, and for two presentations I’m making, one at an MFA residency, and another at a writer’s conference. I won’t mention the interim semester class I’m teaching, or the book I’m just pages away from finishing. Well anyway, don’t we all suffer for our art?
Happy Holidays to everyone and here’s to a gleamingly prosperous New Year. It’s got to be better than the last one!
The following is a reboot of a post from a couple of years ago, but I happen to like it and I’ve been so busy grading end-of-semester essays, my brain’s too mushed to think up anything original. So consider it a Christmas gift–from me to you and visa-versa. (You may thank me now.)
With Hanukkah now behind us, another holiday fest starts imminently, but you would think that it already has, as much as gets done in December. As for me, I simply let the ‘daze rumble past like a runaway train, and if something happens to fall out of the caboose for me, so be it. But if you believe the concept driving the season is peace and not what piece is for you, then here’s a few hints to let you know just how far behind you are:
1. The Great Work Stoppage – As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey comes out of the oven, it’s as if everyone forgets they have a job. Suddenly all meetings become holiday parties, and if you’re expecting that report to get finished, you might as well call back next year. In my particular milieu, I nearly have to hit my students over the head with their final essays to get them to even remember my name.
2. Vanishing Editors – If you were hoping to get your manuscript sold before the end of the year–ha ha, good one! From now until after New Year’s, editors, as well as a fair amount of agents, take a breather and make the rounds of Gotham’s holiday celebrations, where I imagine a fair amount of deal making takes place over the babaganoush. If you’re the writer, think of it as a temporary reprieve from submission angst.
3. Everything’s on Sale – Back in the day, you used to have to wait until after Christmas to get a price cut, but thanks to retail giants like Target and Macy’s, the discounts only get deeper the closer you get to the big day. Which is fine, because if you’re like me, the shopping starts the day before, and I’m all about half-off.
4. The Dread Christmas Sweater – Think about it: if it wasn’t the holidays, would you ever wear that sweater in public? Do you actually like rick-rack, glitter, Rudolph’s battery-operated flashing nose, or cable-knitted Thomas Kinkade reproductions on your chest? So much better to wear the DCS’s less offensive cousins, The Christmas Socks. At least we only have to endure them when you cross your legs.
5. “Oh go ahead – it’s the Holidays.” – Which means, go ahead and eat that brandy cheesecake as big as your head. What the hell – you’re on Lipitor anyway, and your blood test isn’t until January. Which also means you can eat half that Hickory Farm’s beef stick, which is my personal holiday no-denial favorite. No fooling, I’m stocking up!
Only thirteen days left. Get crackin’!
I’ve reached the point in writing my latest book where I have to make a decision: do I kill a character or not? He’s not a particularly nice person, really a kind of a dick, and there may be a point where people would probably cheer if he finally gets his due. But if I leave him in, he really won’t have much to do in the subsequent books I plan on writing after this, as he’s pretty much served his purpose. I could probably just write him out of the action instead of offing him, but that would leave open whether he’d return or not, but I really don’t like that. (See, I’m old enough to still be kind of jaded by Bobby walking out of the shower.) So I’ve been thinking about what to do for a couple days now, and I’d really like to move forward. So after a hard think I believe I’ve made my decision. I’m gonna whack the guy. Now I just have to figure out how to do it, which presents a whole other set of issues.
The first one being, how to do it? Which of the characters has a big enough beef with him that may want to accomplish the job for me. He is a bad guy, so will another bad guy do it? Will he get in a struggle and a gun goes off? Maybe someone runs him over with a car? With murder being so messy, my perhaps it’s better I let the guy off himself. Would that fit into the plot? Is there reason enough for him to do it? I think so. He really is at the end of his rope. So with that decision behind me, then how to accomplish it? There’s all kinds of ways to do it–gun, overdose, train tracks, drowning–you name it, the possibilities are endless. But again, you also have to consider the plot and characters. Is this a well-thought out action? An act of desperation? Would he be suicidal? Is he truly at the end of his rope? Would it be a spur of the moment action? Would he resist all attempts to save him? Would it be believable that he’d attempt it at all? And people as not as fragile as they appear sometimes, so would the attempt at offing himself actually work? That’s when the research come in.
When you’ve been writing for awhile, you tend to accumulate experts who you can tap for information, and they become invaluable. The internet is a handy go-to, but if you’re serious about your craft, to need to find primary sources, real live human beings that can give you first hand information. I’ve gotten to know a former homicide detective and a forensic chemists who’ve I’ve sourced now and then. And when I have, I’ve researched my questions, taken notes, and asked them for the best places to go if I need to know more. These people are invaluable, as they lend a realism to your writing that’s unmatched by a Google search. Only after I’m certain will I proceed, as trust me, there’s always someone out there who will challenge you on what you write, always someone who thinks they know more, and you want to be read for them.
As I think I am now. Welp, Mr. Man, it looks like your days are numbered. Enjoy all that sliminess while you can.