Monday, January 2, 2012

So You Wanna Be a Contender . . .

Another year, another opportunity for making resolutions you’re really going to keep this time around, right? You know the ones I’m talking about: losing weight, exercising, learning a new language, reading a book every week, that kind of thing. But, like so many other good intentions, most people drop them, forget them, let them die a quiet death.

Take exercising, for example. At the gym I frequent, it’s never more packed than New Year’s Day. Most us regulars and the staff give the newcomers a couple weeks, tops. Only the truly dedicated make it through that first month, or three. (It was the same when I was in practice, by the way. I always told people new to treatment that they had to stick with and give themselves an opportunity to get their fingernails under what bugged them. Three months was good. Some stuck with it; others didn’t.)

Why are resolutions so hard to keep? Well, that depends on a number of things. How badly you want something is certainly key. But how reasonable your goals are is another. It’s one thing to say that you want to lose weight, but how much and how fast is just as important as an exercise regimen or diet.

Writing—and getting yourself published—is no different. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who say they’ve thought about being writers. Talk to a roomful of doctors, and about half have thought about writing; started a story; been working on the same novel for the last ten years; are midway through a novel but are stuck and have put the book away; have thought about sending out a story but haven’t because it’s not quite right . . . You know the drill. They sound a little bit, in fact, like Marlon Brando.

Resolving to write is little like going on a diet or starting an exercise regimen. The rules for how to write and keep writing aren’t necessarily as clear as, say, a calorie count, a diet, or exercise regimen, but they do exist. Think of writing—and, by extension, getting published—as a series of steps and rules. Like all resolutions, you need to stick with and by them, and maybe for a very long time because writing a story and becoming a published author is like eating an elephant. It may take awhile. If you follow these six simple rules, though, I guarantee that, eventually, you will become a writer and your work will be published. Cross my heart and hope to die.

Now, I wish I could take credit for these, but I can’t. Robert Heinlein came up with these five simple rules which apply just as much today as they did when he first set them down in 1947.

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order. 

4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Robert Sawyer famously added a sixth:

6. Start working on something else.

Simple, right? Okay, then: let’s break them down a bit.

1. You must write.

Well, hello, obvious. You wanna be a contender? Well, that’s never gonna happen if you don’t get in the ring. Writers write. But you’d be amazed how many people say they can’t find or make the time. Know what I say to that?

Oh, fiddle-dee-dee.

I got news for you, bub: making time is just a synonym for making something a priority. We all have the same twenty-four hours. Writing time doesn’t magically appear. It’s time you have to carve out. It could be a little or a lot, depending, but if churning out words is not a priority, you won’t do it.

So I’d amend Heinlein’s first rule a tad. You must make writing a priority and just as important as something else to which you allocate your time.

Now, how you go about this is another post for another day. Let’s just stick with the rules for the time being, okay?

2. You must finish what you write.

Believe it or not, this is a real toughie and a problem for all writers, almost without exception, I’ll bet. Me, I have trouble right around the middle third of a story or novel where all the “stuff” happens. Why is a little unclear; I work from an outline (yet another post for another day) and you’d think that would help, but it never does. In fact, the middle third is usually where most folks stop writing because, all of a sudden, that idea you thought was so cool seems really stupid, or your characters are misbehaving, or a million other things. But the reality is that, like that scarf you began but never quite got around to after the first couple of weeks, if you do not finish what you write, you will never be a writer.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

Oh, that is so hard. You really want that story or novel to be perfect, just this beautiful piece of craftsmanship, the best piece anyone’s ever read. So you write a paragraph or a page or whatever, and then you come back to it the next day and re-read and it’s not quite right. So you spend time moving periods or commas or adding words or taking them away or . . . well, take your pick. But I know people who write and rewrite and rewrite and absolutely kill that story because they’ve robbed it of all its vitality.

Is there a place for editing and rewriting? Oh, sure. I always edit and rewrite—but I only do that if a) I see such a glaring error in my execution that I know I absolutely must go back and rework the earlier sections of a manuscript so I can move on or b) I’m done with the first draft. Revisions and/or edits before I send something out is part of my process. I do know many writers, though, who write and send and write and send and wash-rinse-repeat without going back, and good for them. When they do re-write anything, it's usually to editorial demand, something with which I agree. Most editors are very good at what they do. In fact, I know that my work has benefited from my editors’ careful eyes. Not every word I’ve written deserves to live. But that doesn’t mean I always agree with them. When I don’t, then I don’t change what I’ve written. I am respectful about it; we’re all pros here; but you do need to know when—and how—to say no. (Gosh, and is that a post for another day, too.)

So let’s amend that third rule to this: You must not rewrite except to editor demand and only if you agree.

4 & 5. You must put your work on the market and you must keep your work on the market until it is sold.

I’ve conflated these because they kind of go together. On its face, putting something out there is both easy and takes guts. You're sending your baby into the world, where it will likely be battered and abused and sent back a couple times. You can improve the odds against that, of course. Figuring out where to send your work is just as important as putting it in the mail or hitting *send*.

What’s harder is keeping your work in the mail after it’s rejected—because it will be. Trust me on this. Your work will be rejected and probably more than once. My God, I’ve got enough rejection slips to pad a mattress. Maybe two.

Regardless, it is absolutely imperative that you put your work on the market—and a paying market at that. Never give away your work, or in Galaxy Quest-speak:

In other words, send your work to an editor who will pay you money for all the time you’ve put into that story or novel, and then keep that work out there. Do your research first and know where to send, but there really is a market for just about anything. So send to the first place and then the second and then the third and just keep at it until one of three things happens:

a) your work is accepted;
b) you are far enough along in the process of writing that you realize why that story or book hasn’t been found a market, and either take it off the market or kill it and write the story a different way (or not at all);
c) you publish it yourself.

That last option is one that writers nowadays have which I didn’t when I first started writing way back in 1996. Self-publishing has never been easier and it is definitely something to consider. Do I think all writers ought to take that route first? No, and for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s very hard to rise above the noise as it is. Getting your story into a venue where readers might actually lay eyes on your work is the point, after all. Achieving that is much harder if you go it alone right off the bat. I’m not saying it’s impossible. We’ve all read about the people who have made it big starting on their own and online. But my personal opinion is not to go that route first. Whether it’s your path is up to you. Remember: it’s your career.

6. Start working on something else--IMMEDIATELY!

Picture this: you've finished your story or novel. YAY! You've just done what a lot of people say they want to do but never can, only you just did. So, go, you! Give yourself a pat on the back, pop the bubbly, take a day off, buy yourself a little treat . . . but then, get back to work. Really. If you don't, you might find something like this will happen:

You better believe MAYDAY and here's why.

Nine times out ten, that one story or book won’t sell for a long time, and maybe never. You don't want to sink before you even get started, right? So, you must produce and keep on producing.

Remember our very first rule, you must write? Well, amend that to read this: you must keep on writing, which means that you must generate more work for editors to see. Don’t pin all your hopes and dreams on that one brilliant story. Ten months from now you’ll look at that thing and see a million things wrong. I guarantee it. You might even wonder how the heck you could have put something like that out there to begin with.

Stories are like popcorn. Put enough out there, generate enough heat, and pretty soon, they’ll start popping because you will have more experience under your belt. Trust me on this.

So there you are: six easy, bite-sized resolutions for the New Year. Follow these, and your work will see the light of day.

Now,hop on that treadmill and get cracking.


Jordan Dane said...

OMG!! Those videos...cracked me up. I especially...loved your revised versions... & rule #6. (Sorry. Panting...on a treadmill. text)


Ilsa said...

LOL! Yeah, I kinda wondered where that smell of gym socks was coming from . . . ;-)

Anita Grace Howard said...

Haha! I LOVE visual aids. Insightful post, Ilsa. I think the most important lesson up there is to KEEP writing and don't put all your creative eggs into one story basket. That's awfully tempting to do, but once you realize you have more than one story inside, it becomes easier to sit down and write them out.

Thanks for these great resolutions!

Jordan Dane said...

Ilsa--Don't worry about that smell. By the end of the week, I'll be done with resolutions.

Hey Anita--Can't wait for your first release this year. So exciting!!!


Jennifer Archer said...

Great post, Ilsa. And entertaining, too! Some really good reminders in there for me.

Michelle said...

Great stuff, Ilsa. And great videos from some of my all-time favorites.
I actually make the same (non-writing related) NY resolution every year: to learn something new. One year I learned to ride a motorcycle, the next I took up knitting. This year, my daughter and I are going to learn to juggle together.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Ilsa, Great take on the Roberts' Rules. Loved the video interludes!